In 1260, in the Land of the Blue Sky (Mongolia) and the Land of the Red Dragon (China), a new sort of Mongolian rose to power by the name of Shih-Tsu, later known as Qubilai Khan. Qubilai was a man of many faces, on the one hand, he seemed civilised despite descending from a people known for being barbaric. The most notable thing about Qubilai was his upbringing in the Nestorian church which promoted religious tolerance.
The notion of tolerance, he utilised magnificently by not only accepting Christian doctrine but also promoting Neo-Confucianist values.
One of the ground stones of Confucianism is that of unity and harmony which was things the peasants were searching desperately for during the chaotic rule of the Sung. Thus, the blossoming new ruler immediately surrounded himself with Tibetan monks, where the most notable was ‘Phags-pa. Some scholars estimate that the number of monks was at 500,000 and must have steadily increased during the end of Mongol rule. The reason, Qubilai did this was because these monks welcomed these neo-Confucianist beliefs plus he needed a reason for the commoners to rally behind him.
Soon after his take-over, he gained the title of ‘Son of Heaven,’ thus the true Emperor of China proper.
At first, the Mandarin class was critical of this supposed ‘barbarian,’ but in time they warmed up to him, while the peasants rallied behind him from the get-go. When it came to language, the Mongols insisted that Mongolian should be the lingua Franca while the Chinese themselves mad minimal effort to learn it.
On the contrary, Qubilai himself did not learn Chinese either. This refusal to learn each other’s language meant the Chinese scholarly work flourished with reasonably little influence from the Mongols.
When it came to shake-ups in governmental agencies, including agriculture, education, and redistribution of land, he kept most of the advisors within these fields since he had no idea of how the system worked. So, to utilise this system as best as possible, he felt he needed individuals who knew how it worked. Thus, the Mandarin administrators came to the rescue since the Mongols had no prior experience with bureaucracy. For them to trust him, he made them recreated their identity by reclaiming them as Mongolians and thus loyal to the new ruler. He may have proclaimed them as fellow Mongolians, but this did not mean that he trusted them. Some scholars argue that: “brought violence and destruction to all aspects of Chinese civilisation,” and that they were “insensitive to Chinese values, distrustful of Chinese influence and inept heads of Chinese government,”
This quote may suggest that the Mongols were barbarians and did not care for their subjects. However, here Qubilai himself challenges the stereotype while also playing a bit into it. First and foremost, he was indeed critical of his Chinese advisors so much so that he often sent ‘spies’ out to investigate whether or not the provinces governed by Chinese bureaucrats were up to standard. If not, his Mongol spies would act on behalf of the Emperor. On the contrary, the reign of Qubilai had for the first time since the Tang unified China which meant it strength China’s economy substantially.
By utilising the abundant resources of the Song which meant they had to promote internal trade before going global. Plus, they had to make the North and South fully integrated into their greater scheme. Therefore, they saw their chance to expand the Grand Canal so that they could transport grain from the South to the Capital. To secure, safe travel and free trade throughout the empire, they constructed the Silk Road. Another factor which encouraged internal trade was the standardisation of currency. Within China proper, the Song and Jin had secured the use of paper money in addition to the use of bronze coins. The standardisation of a money system also made it possible to make a state budget and made it easier to keep track of government finances. With the Silk Road, the Mongols established a network, which allowed international trade to flourish, especially regarding goods, technology, and ideas.
So, one may even liken it to the internet of today since it was their information highway. According to Yasmine McCafferty: ‘Trade, knowledge, and ideas flowed along the Silk Road.’ The flow of especially trade and knowledge can be traced as far back as the early 13th century where gunpowder became a commode on the Chinese Market. The buyers of gunpowder came all the way from the Middle East. The Silk Road helped with not only maintaining trade but also peace within the empire. If one should examine the Mongols at large, they: always favoured trade. Their nomadic way of life caused them to recognize the importance of trade for the very earliest time, unlike the Chinese, they had a positive attitude towards merchants and commerce.
As his fellow Mongols, Qubilai favoured traders, and this favouritism was especially prevalent in his foreign policy which invited merchants from all corners of the empire. In order to facilitate trade, he utilised not only the Grand Canal but also built a highway along the Canal, which later became known as the Silk Road. It was this famous road that brought Marco Polo to China. Additionally, his favouritism towards traders gave them certain privileges, including being part of his court and merchants were exempt from paying taxes as well.