The Mongol invasion and conquest of China was one of the most disruptive events of Chinese history, and came very close to ending in genocide when the Mongol ruler Mongke considered mass killings to break the resistance of the Chinese people. However, the Yuan dynasty founded by the Mongols lasted only about a hundred years, leaving Chinese culture largely intact.

The Mongol Conquest

Many different nomadic peoples lived north of the Great Wall in the steppes of Eurasia. Although it was not uncommon for a charismatic "khan" or tribal leader to put together temporary confederations of tribes that controlled huge territories in the steppe, the Mongol empire founded by Genghis Khan in 12ll was different. The Mongols under Genghis rapidly defeated and absorbed the Kin empire of northern China, the Persian Empire and large territories in what is now Russia. Mongol armies easily defeated all opposing forces, and offered besieged cities a simple choice. Cities that surrendered would be governed fairly and justly. Cities that resisted would be destroyed and their populations would be slaughtered. Southern China resisted for a time under the Song dynasty, but in 1271 the Mongols founded the Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan and conquered all of China.

Confucianism in Mongol China

Before the Mongol invasion, past conquerors of China had usually tried to adopt Chinese culture and retain the Chinese system of administration by Confucian scholar-bureaucrats. Although Kublai Khan did pattern his government on the Chinese concept of an imperial dynasty, he didn't trust the Confucian scholars or the Chinese population in general. The Confucian examination system was banned and Han Chinese were not allowed to hold top bureaucratic posts in Yuan China. Despite these restrictions, Kublai actually hired Confucian scholars to educate one of his sons and encouraged the use of Confucian rituals in his court. Because he never completely suppressed the Confucian system despite his distrust of it, the traditional Chinese intellectual elite survived the conquest and returned to power after the Mongols left.

Chinese Religion

The Mongols were usually tolerant of all the religions they encountered, so Islam and Tibetan Buddhism both flourished in China under the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan even sponsored debates between the top religious teachers of Buddhism and Daoism. When the Daoist teachers lost these debates, the Buddhists persuaded the Mongol rulers to suppress Daoist monasteries and turn them over for Buddhist use. However, the Mongols never banned Daoism outright, and it too survived the conquest. All the major religions found in China before the Mongol invasion were still doing well afterward.

Art and Culture

Chinese artistic and literary traditions not only survived the Mongol invasion but thrived under Mongol rule. Confucian literati, deprived of the opportunity to work in their traditional role as highly educated bureaucrats, turned their attentions to artistic pursuits such as landscape painting instead. Although the literati liked to portray themselves as standing aloof from the Mongol government, the Mongol emperors were actually patrons of the arts and gave financial support to important painters and artisans. Although the Mongols were every bit as ruthless as they are usually portrayed, they were not barbarians. All the major elements of Chinese traditional culture were either left intact or actively supported by the Mongol conquerors.