Until about 20 years ago, most scholars of Mongol-era China
emphasized the destructive influence of Mongol rule.
One major scholar of Chinese history even wrote: "The
Mongols brought violence and destruction to all aspects of
China's civilization. [They were] insensitive to Chinese cultural
values, distrustful of Chinese influences, and inept heads
of Chinese government." This assessment fits in with
the traditional evaluation of the Mongols as barbarians interested
primarily in maiming, plundering, destroying, and killing.
As a 13th-century Persian historian wrote of the Mongol campaigns:
"With one stroke a world which billowed with fertility
was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert,
and the greater part of the living, dead, and their skin and
bones crumbling dust, and the mighty were humbled and immersed
in the calamities of perdition."
It is true that the Mongols, in their conquest of both North
and South China, did considerable damage to these territories,
and that great loss of life certainly ensued. The population
of North China did decline somewhat, though earlier estimates
that there was a catastrophic decline in population have subsequently
It is also true that the Mongols eliminated one of the most
basic of Chinese institutions the civil service examinations.
The examinations remained banned until 1315, and even after
the ban was lifted, they were no longer the only means to
officialdom for the Yuan Dynasty, the dynasty that the Mongols
founded in 1271 C.E., as they had been in the past.
The Mongols perceived China as just one section of their
vast empire. And they classified the population of their domain
in China into a hierarchy of four groups with the native
Chinese at the bottom. The Mongols, of course, were at the
top; then came the non-Han, mostly Islamic population that
was brought to China by the Mongols to help them rule; third
were the northern Chinese; and at the very bottom of the rung
were the southern Chinese.
The Mongol rulers were somewhat distrustful of the Confucian
scholar-officials of China because they represented a different
path for China than that which they themselves had conceived.
These scholars, and other native Chinese, thus were not eligible
for some of the top positions in the ruling government.