Khublai Khan, who Administered the Chinese portion of the Mongol empire, was fortunate to have good advisers and smart enough to listen to them. One of his advisers was his mother, Sorghaghtani Beki (c 1190–1252), of whom a Syriac scholar remarked that should he encounter just one other woman like her, he’d happily pronounce women superior to men. From 1232, she had been in charge of governing parts of northern China, gleaning valuable insights on how to rule a non-nomadic, agricultural people, which she shared with her son.

In 1271, Khublai Khan formally established the Yuán dynasty, using a character (元) that indicated “ultimate origin” in the I Ching. It was the first major dynasty not to be called after its founder’s birthplace. No other non-Han dynasty, including the Jin, had ever ruled over so much territory. The Yuan built its white-walled capital, Khanbalik, near the ruins of the Jin (and former Liao) capital. Apart from a few brief interludes, the site – that of present-day Beijing – would serve as China’s capital ever after.

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree”, he was referring to Khublai Khan’s “upper capital” Shàngdū, in today’s Inner Mongolia. Liu Bingzhong, who had designed Shangdu, was entrusted with the plan for Khanbalik.

The palace complex, dubbed the Forbidden City, was situated on the city’s central north–south axis so that the emperor on his throne could be the pole star to his court and domain. The throne itself sat within three concentric sets of walls – those of the Forbidden City, the Imperial City (encompassing parklands, workshops supplying the palace with its material needs and noble residences) and the palace with its material needs, and noble residences) and the city itself – symbolic of Heaven, Earth, and Humankind.

The streets of Khanbalik, from grand avenues wide enough for nine chariots to run side by side down to the narrow hutong (a Mongolian word apparently signifying a lane with a drinking well), ran parallel and perpendicular to the central axis in a gridded design intended to guarantee peace, stability and prosperity.

The Han capital of Luoyang and the Tang capital of Chang’an had been laid out according to similar principles, but Khanbalik saw their finest expression. Like the Tang, the Yuan was a time of bustling international commerce and exchange. Around 1274 or 1275, the young Venetian Marco Polo, barely out of his teens, arrived in Khanbalik with his merchant father. At the time, Europeans knew China as “Cathay’, from the word “Khitan”. The Venetian marvelled at the city and the Khan’s palace, which he described as “the greatest palace that ever was”, with its marble stairways, gold- and-silver-covered walls and a hall for feasting that could accommodate 6000 guests. He thought it “altogether so vast, so rich, and so beautiful,that no man on earth could design anything superior to it”. He admired Khublai Khan so much that he learned Mongolian and stayed on to serve in the court.

Khublai’s mother was a Nestorian Christian. His wife, Chabi, another astute political adviser (and a fashionista whose hat and robe designs would influence Mongolian costume for centuries), was a devout Buddhist of the Tibetan school. She prompted him to restore some of the area’s ancient Buddhist temples and dagobas (dome-shaped shrines). Under the guidance of his mother and wife, Khublai welcomed to his realm people of all religions and races. His grandson and successor, Temür Khan, would even host a papal envoy, the Franciscan friar John of Montecorvino, who built two churches in the Yuan capital and claimed to have baptised more than 10,000 Mongols during his time in China.

Khublai founded the Confucian Temple and the Imperial College, which still stand today, adding a state library to the complex in 1313. He diligently performed Confucianist state rituals at altars to the Sun, Moon, Heaven and Earth, and planted sesame, beans, melon, and rice in symbolic offering to the God of Land and Grain at the altar just west of his palace.

He was also well aware that his grandfather’s conquest of China had been brutal, and that the Han had long considered Mongolian and other nomads to be crude barbarians. With a few exceptions, such as Yelü Chucai, he didn’t feel able to count on the loyalty of scholar-officials who’d served the Song or the Jin, including Sinicised Khitans, Jurchens and Koreans.

He froze them out of the highest ranks of the civil service, including financial administration and tax collection. Top appointments were made hereditary and went to Mongols. Other prestigious and powerful positions went to Sogdians, Persians, Arabs and Europeans like Marco Polo. Northern Chinese were favoured over Southerners. These policies effectively demolished the exam-based civil service system established in the Han and refined over centuries to select officials for posts across the empire and promote them to the court according to merit. It rankled with many educated Han Chinese to see the Yuan court dominated by barely literate Mongolians.

The Arabs, Persians, Central Asians and Tibetan monks employed by the Yuan as tax collectors developed a reputation for corruption, rapaciousness, and brigandry – one Tibetan monk even looted the tombs of the Southern Song emperors. After a Chinese resident of Khanbalik used a bronze hammer to smash in the skull of the widely detested finance minister Ahmad Fanakati, the city exploded with jubilation. Although the assassin was executed, Khublai, on learning the facts, post- humously cleared his name.

Adding injury to insult, the Yuan legal system mandated more severe punishments for Han Chinese than for Mongols: execution for a Chinese who murdered a Mongol, fines for a Mongol who murdered a Chinese. Educated, underemployed Chinese channelled their discontent into the writing of plays and operas, some of which, like the tragedy The Injustice Done to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth by Guān Hànqīng, were barely disguised political allegories. The Yuan became known as a golden age of theatre, which evolved from an elite to a popular entertainment. Satirical songs and literature mocking the Mongols and their foreign retainers circulated widely.

Despite the declining fortunes of the scholar-officials, the South thrived. Hangzhou was now home to 500,000 people – one million counting the surrounding areas. Located at the terminus of the Grand Canal, and close to the East China Sea, it had grown to become a centre for both domestic and international commerce. Its merchants traded Chinese textiles, porcelain, tea and precious metals for perfumes, incense, spices, ivory, and crystals from places as far flung as India and Africa. There were streets devoted to gilding, tailoring, and candle-making, as well as shops offering every sort of product or produce.

In the Tang, the wealthy deposited their cash and silver with agents, who issued promissory notes that could be used to purchase goods, with sellers collecting the cash from the agent. The Yuan introduced chāo 鈔, paper currency. This was several hundred years before Europe’s first paper currency. (The contemporary unit of currency, the yuan, was originally written with a different character, 圓, meaning round, referring to the traditional coin shape. It has nothing to do with the Yuan or its currency.)

As the Yuan relied on the wealthy South for almost half of its tax revenue, Khublai Khan dispatched Marco Polo to Hangzhou (which, due to a linguistic misunderstanding, he referred to as “Quinsai”) to audit the city’s finances. The Venetian found its beauty and wealth breathtaking: he was struck by its elegant canals and bridges, beautiful lake, and the cleanliness, fine silk robes, civility, and hospitality of its people. He observed that the city’s streets were paved with stone or brick, making them passable even in wet weather, and admired the painted pleasure boats on the lake.

Medieval European towns could not compare to Hangzhou for sophistication or material splendour. According to the great cataloguer of Hangzhou life at the time, Wú Zìmù, shops sold “early rice, late rice, new-milled rice, winter-husked rice, first quality white rice, medium quality white rice, lotus-pink rice, yellow-eared rice, rice on the stalk, ordinary rice, glutinous rice, ordinary yellow rice, short-stalked rice, pink rice, yellow rice, and aged rice”. Fishmongers offered a great variety of fresh, salted and frozen fish, as well as shellfish and eels. Life revolved around the city’s wineshops, restaurants and noodle houses, which collectively served some 600 distinct dishes. These included stewed pork belly with aromatics, milk-steamed lamb, mock (vegetarian) duck, and honey-roasted quail.

Beggars and pedlars, scam artists, pickpockets, acrobats, jugglers, courtesans, and prostitutes jostled for the crumbs of prosperity. Many establishments employed women to provide conversation and formal entertainment. Men sought excitement and romance outside their arranged marriages among women who, as the saying goes, “sold their smiles”.

One plucky Southern woman, Huáng Dàopó (c 1245–1330), fleeing an unhappy marriage and cruel in-laws, boarded a boat to Hǎinán Island. There she learned from the indigenous Lí people how to gin, fluff, spin, weave, and dye cotton. When she returned to her home town in Jiāngsū decades later, she taught local women these skills, while inventing a better cotton gin, a three-treadle loom, and other machines for textile production. Thanks to Huang Daopo, the region is a centre for the textile industry to the present day. A temple in Shanghai honours her memory.

Responding to the needs of and opportunities offered by the greater Mongol empire, more Chinese than ever before travelled abroad, either privately or on official missions. By the 14th century, Han Chinese had established communities in such diverse places as Moscow, Japan, Vietnam, and the island that would become Singapore. Chinese hydraulic engineers worked on the irrigation of the Tigris and Euphrates basins. Persian miniatures, ceramics, and architecture from this time reveal Chinese influences, while methods of Chinese woodblock printing spread to parts of Europe. Firearms, which the Chinese used against the Mongols in the final battles of the Song, transformed warfare forever after the Mongols introduced them to Europe at the Battle of Mohi in Hungary in 1241.

Excerpted with permission from The Shortest History of China, Linda Jaivin, Pan Macmillan.