Mongols in World History | Asia for Educators

The Mongols in China

  Life in China under Mongol Rule: Culture  

Written Language

The Mongols were great cultural patrons. They conceived, for example, the idea of a new written language that could be used to transcribe a number of the languages within the Mongol domains. Khubilai Khan commissioned the Tibetan 'Phags-pa Lama to develop the new script, which came to be known as "the Square Script" or the 'Phags-pa script. Completed around 1269, the Square Script was a remarkable effort to devise a new written language (read more about the Square Script here). The Mongol rulers, however, did not foresee how difficult it would be to impose a written language on the population from the top down. Though they passed numerous edicts, regulations, and laws to persuade the public to use the new script, it never gained much popularity and was limited mainly to official uses — on paper money, official seals, a few porcelains, and the passports that were given by the Mongol rulers.


The Mongol rulers were ardent patrons of the theater, and the Yuan Dynasty witnessed a golden age of Chinese theater. The theater at this time was full of spectacles, including acrobats, mimes, and colorful costumes — all of which appealed greatly to the Mongols. The Mongol court set up a special theater within the palace compound in Daidu (Beijing) and supported a number of playwrights.


The art of painting also flourished under Mongol rule. One of the greatest painters of the Yuan Dynasty, Zhao Mengfu, received a court position from Khubilai Khan, and along with Zhao's wife Guan Daosheng, who was also a painter, Zhao received much support and encouragement from the Mongols. Khubilai was also a patron to many other Chinese painters (Liu Guandao was another), as well as artisans working in ceramics and fine textiles. In fact, the status of artisans in China was generally improved during the Mongols' reign. [Also see The Mongols' Mark on Global History: Artistic and Cultural Exchange]

Mongol Rituals

Though Chinese culture was valued and supported in many ways, as discussed above, this support was not at the expense of the Mongols' own native culture. That is, the Mongols did not abandon their own heritage, even as they adopted many of the values and political structures of the people they conquered and governed.

In fact, the Mongol rulers took many steps to preserve the rituals, ceremonies, and the "flavor" of traditional Mongol life. For example, the ritual scattering of mare's milk was still performed every year; and before battle, libations of koumiss (alcoholic drink made of mare's milk) were still poured and the assistance of Tenggeri (the Sky God) still invoked. In fact, traditional Mongol shamanism was well supported, and shamans had positions at Khubilai Khan's court in China.

In addition, many Mongols continued to wear their native costumes of fur and leather, extravagant feasts in the Mongol tradition were held on Khubilai Khan's birthday and the birthdays of other great Mongol leaders, and the sport of hunting, a quintessential Mongol activity originally designed as training for warfare, flourished. And when a Mongol princess entered her eighth or ninth month of pregnancy, she continued the custom of moving to a special ger (the traditional Mongol home) to give birth.

• See photographs from a traditional Mongol cultural festival as it is still celebrated today

• For more on traditional Mongol life and customs, see: The Mongols' Pastoral-Nomadic Life

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