The Yuen Or Mongol Dynasty, 1280-1368
( Originally Published 1910 )
Kublai Khan First Intercourse of China with Europe —Marco Polo—The Grand Canal
PARTS of China had been frequently overrun by foreign conquerors; but the Mongols were the first to extend their sway over the whole country. The subjugation of China was the work of Kublai, grandson of Genghis, who came to the throne in 1260, inheriting an empire more extensive than Alexander or Caesar had dreamed of. In 1264 the new khan fixed his court at Peking and proceeded to reduce the provinces to subjection. Exhausted and disunited as they were the task was not difficult, though it took fifteen years to complete. Ambition alone would have been sufficient motive for the conquest, but his hostility was provoked by perfidy—especially by the murder of envoys sent to announce his accession. Without good faith, " says Confucius, "no nation can exist."
By the absorption of China the dominions of Kublai were made richer, if not greater in extent. than those of his grandfather, while the splendour of his court quite eclipsed that of Genghis Khan.
Unknown to the ancient Romans, China was revealed to their mediæval successors by the Mongol conquest. In 1261 two Venetian merchants, Nicolo and Matteo Polo, made their way to Bokhara, whence, joining an embassy from India, they proceeded to Kublai's capital at Xanadu (or Shangtu) near the site of Peking. They were the first white men the Grand Khan had ever seen, and he seems to have perceived at once that, if not of superior race, they were at least more advanced in civilisation than his own people; for, besides intrusting them with letters to the Pope, he gave them a commission to bring out a hundred Europeans to instruct the Mongols in the arts and sciences of the West.
In 1275 they returned to Peking without other Europeans, but accompanied by Marco Polo, the son of Nicolo. They were received with more honour than on their first visit, and the young man was appointed to several positions of trust in the service of the monarch. After a sojourn of seventeen years, the three Polos obtained permission to join the escort of a Mongol princess who was going to the court of Persia. In Persia they heard of the death of their illustrious patron, and, instead of returning to China, turned their faces homeward, arriving at Venice in 1295.
Having been captured by the Genoese, Marco Polo while in prison dictated his wonderful story. At first it was looked on as a romance and caused its author to receive the sobriquet of " Messer Millione"; but its general accuracy has been fully vindicated.
The chief effect of that narrative was to fire the imagination of another Italian and lead him by steering to the west to seek a short cut to the Eldorado.
How strange the occult connection of sublunary things! The Mongol Kublai must be invoked to account for the discovery of America! The same story kindled the fancy of Coleridge, in the following exquisite fragment, which he says came to him in a vision of the night:
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
— Kubla Khan:
Still another Italian claims mention as having made some impression on the court of Kublai. This was Corvino, a missionary sent by the Pope; but of his church, his schools, and his convents, there were left no more traces than of his predecessors, the Nestorians.
The glory of Kublai was not of long duration. The hardy tribes of the north became enervated by the luxury and ease of their rich patrimony. ` Capua captured Hannibal." Nine of the founder's descendants followed him, not one of whom displayed either vigour or statesmanship.
Their power ebbed more suddenly than it rose. Shun-ti, the last of the house, took refuge behind the Great Wall from the rising tide of Chinese patriotism; and after a tenure of ninety years, or of two centuries of fluctuating dominion, reckoning from the rise of Genghis Khan, the Yuen dynasty came to an untimely end.
The magnificent waterway, the Grand Canal, remains an imperishable monument of the Mongol sway. As an "alimentary canal" it was needed for the support of the armies that held the people in subjection; and the Mongols only completed a work which other dynasties had undertaken. A description of it from personal observation is given in Part I of this work (page 31). It remains to be said that the construction of the Canal, like that of the Great Wall, was a leading cause of the downfall of its builders. Forced labour and aggravated taxation gave birth to discontent; rebellion became rife, and the Mongols were too effeminate to take active measures for its suppression.