The Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the Climate, 1260–1360

Li, Tana

Although climate science suggests that the Yuan era in China witnessed a number of natural disasters, historians have yet to consider such data in their accounts of the Yuan dynasty’s rapid fall. The dominant view largely blames their quick demise on extravagant grants to the Mongolian aristocracy and army and excessive expendi-tures on war, but even a perfunctory analysis of the data reveals these behaviors had effectively disappeared decades before the dynasty collapsed. This study highlights two neglected climate-related factors that played a much greater role in the dynasty’s demise than has been previously established.First, the sheer size of the Yuan Empire, which included the territories of modern central and southern China, along with the Mongolian steppe to its north and other territories to the northwest and northeast, made it vulnerable to many different sorts of climatic disasters. When a series of such catastrophes struck, the emperor Kublai extended the ancient Chinese Confucian policy of huang zheng (disaster relief) to all parts of the empire. The situation became so dire, however, that this official relief across such a vast area consumed as much as one-third of government revenue in bad years. Although well-intended, the policy ultimately undermined both the wider economy and the government finances.Second, serious flood damage to the Yangtze delta occurred at a critical moment when this rich granary was badly needed to support other stricken areas. Four-fifths of the Yuan population lived south of the Yangtze, and the area’s production of grain, cotton, silk, and salt were all crucial for government revenue and general wealth accumulation. Typhoons and floods here ultimately cost the court far more than its support for hard-pressed Mongolian refugees. These disasters drained increasingly scarce resources from other areas while negatively impacting the dynasty’s capacity to support the empire as a whole. In the end, it was the pressure of a major disaster here that sparked the revolt that overthrew the Yuan.

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