Analysis of Reasons why Han Chinese Officials were not given an Important Role in the Government of Kublai


In the reign of Kublai Khan from 1260A.D. to 1294A.D, favorable policies for China, including regular taxation system, population growth policy, and policy to promote agriculture, were widely imposed by the government of Mongol Empire in China. However, unlike Semu (people from Central Asia, Western Asia, and Europe) minsters, Han Chinese officials were not trusted by Kublai to hold important positions. In this article, I will use Persian and Chinese sources to attempt to find out why Kublai was conservative in appointing Han Chinese officials to organize his territory in China. I concluded three major reasons: the encouragement of commerce, Kublai’s fear of Han Chinese rebellion, and pressure from Mongol nobles.


Mongol empire; Yuan dynasty; ethnic policy; Kublai Khan; conquest dynasties; Confucianism; sinicization


Kublai Khan, governing the empire from 1260A.D. to 1294A.D., was the fifth Khan of Mongol Empire, as well as the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China. In his reign, Kublai promoted policies towards the Chinese including a regular taxation system, population growth policy, and a policy to promote agriculture. At the same time, Han Chinese people were dominant in the government at the early stage of Kublai’s reign. However, these officials were then not trusted by Kublai and were therefore unable to hold important positions in his government. Recent scholarship has failed to provide convincing explanations for why Han Chinese were not included in the Mongolian administration in the later years. Understanding this, nevertheless, is critical if we are to comprehend the long-term loss of legitimacy of the Yuan government and why the Yuan ultimately was not able to sustain power in China. I will argue that Kublai Khan was not able to promote Han Chinese to high positions because he failed to balance and control the competing demands of Han officials and those in the Mongol elite, and eventually he surrendered to the demands of the Mongol elites. This was because Mongol nobles added to pressure on Kublai to enforce him to alienate from Han Chinese officials; Kublai encouraged commerce, which was opposed by Han Chinese officials; Kublai was afraid of Han Chinese rebellions after giving their officials to much power.

Current scholarship on Mongolian studies has broadened cultural and ethnic understanding of Mongolia, in such works as Peter Jackson’s The Mongols and the Islamic World, but the literature in English has often failed to include ethnic policies towards the Han Chinese. Likewise, Morris Rossabi mentions social and economic policies that were beneficial for Han Chinese subjects, but he fails to make the distinction with political promotions.[1] Chinese scholars have offered an overly culture-based analysis, seeing ethnic discrimination as the motivation, which may be anachronistic. For instance, Liangxiao Zhou states that Mongol rulers had their instinctive ethnic bias and discrimination when ruling the empire.2 Even if such discrimination did emerge, it is not a satisfactorily explanatory factor. This essay, therefore, fits into recent scholarship on “racism” or “ethnic discrimination,” which looks for causal factors, often to do with competition for resources, that have led to discrimination emerging. I’m also working with the context of the wide-ranging scholarship that tries to understand why the Mongols were able to create great unities across Asia of varying durations. Timothy May3 and Peter Turchin4 were two scholars whose works were important to this research. The research of Qiqing Xiao is also recognized in this paper. He encouraged the study of the ethnic system in the Mongolian and Yuan Dynasties from the perspective of political interests.5 Although his research did not focus on Kublai Khan’s period, this paper is still inspired by his idea that political interests, instead of ethnic discrimination, are the key of studying ethnic policy of Mongol Empire.

  1. Pressure from Mongol nobles

Kublai Khan’s alienation from Han Chinese was also the outcome of Mongol nobles’ pressure on him. The behavior of the king in Mongol Empire was affected, or restricted, by nobles.6 Unfortunately, Mongol nobles wanted to suppress Han Chinese. Zhou Liangxiao said that “behind Kublai was a number of Mongol nobles who lived separately on the grassland, supported Mongol traditions, and opposed Confucianism.”7 Mongol nobles believed that their own traditions were superiors to the ones of subject people.

Nobles regarded Han Chinese and their culture, especially Confucianism, as threats. In other words, they did not want Han Chinese to become dominant in politics and culture. Hence, Yuan’s ethnic policy was not designed to achieve the harmony and unity between different ethnic groups. In fact, it aimed to suppress and separate subject people from a political and cultural perspective.8

Kublai tried to get rid of the control of Mongol nobles. In the first years of his reign, he showed obvious pro-Han tendencies. However, his pro-Han behaviors were utilized by Mongol nobles on the grassland to rebel against his government. Kaidu, the son of Ogodei, wanted to get the throne from Kublai. He told other nobles on the grassland that Kublai’s Chinese policies would threaten their privileges. In doing so, he earned the support of a number of nobles. Kaidu’s rebellion was a huge strike for Kublai. He knew that Kaidu’s major goal of rebellion was to gain the throne. However, he also realized the potential harm of trusting in Han Chinese officials.

The interference of Mongol nobles continued to influence Kublai’s policies toward Han officials after Kaidu’s rebellion in two ways. First, they attempted to pressure Kublai to provide imperial exams for Han Chinese because the imperial test gave Han Chinese a chance to gain positions in the government and therefore expand their political influence.9 Moreover, they required Kublai to support Semu officials who could increase the revenue of nobles through financial means and suppress Han Chinese officials who supported Confucianism that brought no benefit to nobles.10

Kublai first expected the imperial examinations to be held, because he was originally willing to integrate with the traditional Chinese ruling system According to the description in Yuan Shi, Kublai ordered accountable officials to hold the examination, but the plan was forced to stop.11 Yuan Shi did not point out the reason why the plan “was forced to stop,” but it was certain that nobles played a role in it. After this, Kublai tried three times for the examination but all failed.12Yelu Chucai, a supporter of the imperial examinations, wrote a poem to complain that if the imperial exam could not be carried out, the current flawed political situation can not be changed only by the existing policies. One of the sentences of his poem was “Outdated tradition is not able to solve new problems, and excessive faculties are not able to eliminate long-standing maladies.”13 However, Yelu Chucai’s dream was never realized until the governance of Ayurparibhadra, a khan who respected Chinese culture and policy more than Kublai.14 However, less than a thousand officials were provided for the government though examinations in his reign. It was a number that could be ignored.15 Because Han Chinese could not take the exam and enter the government, they were gradually marginalized by the government.

Mongol nobles also exerted pressure on Kublai Khan to force him to favor the Semu side in the competition between Han Chinese officials and Semu officials. In Kublai’s reign, these two groups of officials held different ideologies about administration. For Han Chinese, they regarded Confucianism as the best way to operate a country that was mainly composed of peasants. Oppositely, Semu officials asserted that the most effective way to run a massive empire was through continuously producing benefits through economical means. Kublai adopted the views of both sides and hoped that these two sides of officials would form a balance of power. However, only Semu officials’ policies could have a positive impact on them. Under the operation mode of the Mongol Emp[2]ire, the central government collected trade tax from all over the country and distributed the revenue to nobles everywhere.16 Therefore, nobles could increase their incomes by encouraging trade, and since Semu officials always made efforts to promote commerce, almost all the nobles supported them. Oppositely, Confucianism supported by Han Chinese officials could not bring any concrete benefit to nobles.17 What was more, Han Chinese officials tried to stop Semu officials from implementing financial management methods. Yelu Chucai, for example, once accused Abd al-Rahman, a Semu official, hat “his tricks were all imposed by treacherous ministers who lied to the emperor and suppresed common people. They[3]will cause disastrous harm to the nation, so I demand repealing these laws.”18  Yelu Chucai’s remark encouraged more Han Chinese officials to oppose to financial management methods. Seeing that Han Chinese officials were trying to stop them from gaining more profits, Mongol nobles forced Kublai to alienate Han Chinese officials in the government. Under the pressure from Mongol nobles, Kublai stopped his reliance on Han Chinese officials and appointed more Semu officials to fill the gap, which made it difficult for Han Chinese to compete with Semu people and hold important positions in the government.

  1. Encouragement of commerce

The Khans of Mongol Empire, especially Kublai, encouraged commerce as a main source of government revenue along with agriculture. The relative status between agriculture and commerce changed by time and reigns of different khans.19 In Kublai’s time, commerce was put in an extremely important position because commerce could provide income to support his wars and reconstructions.20 More importantly, commerce had been widely and deeply accepted among Mongol nobles and governors by the time they conquered sedentary nations in China. 21 As a result, no matter what social ranking they belonged to, Mongolians had formed a tradition of encouraging commerce and expecting commerce to thrive in their tribes and empires. Therefore, commerce, apart from agriculture, became the first option for Kublai.

That Han Chinese officials competing with pro-commerce Semu officials started from Ogodei. Yelu Chucai, a sinicized official, was once the chef tax collector of the empire. He made aregulated tax system and brought revenue to the government.22 However, Abd al-Rahman provided the same amount of income to Ogodei within one month. Ogodei thought that commerce would be more efficient so that he appointed Abd al-Rahman as the chef tax collector.23 After Ogodei, succeeding khans inherited this preference.2[4] Although Kublai was keen to depend on both Han Chinese and Semu people, he also encouraged commerce by promoting paper currency25 which improved the trading efficiency and increased government revenue by collecting a large amount of tax26

The prosperity derived from trade helped Semu merchants gain the reliance of Kublai and became important officials in Kublai’s government. However, Han officials opposed commerce and trade. Han people’s opposition to commerce was partly because of tradition. From the time of Liu Che, or Han Wu Di, Confucianism has been the dominant ideology of the Chinese government and officials. Therefore, Han Chinese officials took Confucius’ thoughts as the standard to manage the nation. In Confucius’ ideology, commerce was in a very low position. He once said that “a gentleman cares about moral principles, while a villain cares about profits.”27 Consequently, it was not a surprise for Kublai to see his Han Chinese officials strongly opposing to support trades. Admittedly, the Song Dynasty was a time when commerce was highly developed in China, However, Chinese merchants could not step into the government and Han Chinese officials did not favor commerce at all. In contrast, Semu officials came from territories near the Silk Road so that they had mastered the skill of making trades. Also, their religion, Islam encouraged that. The Koran said that “merchants are messengers of the world and reliable servants of Allah in the Earth.”28 Not surprisingly, divergence and conflict emerged between these two groups. As Juan Ma has argued“the conflict was due to traditional difference in essence, and Kublai had to rely on Semu officials more because had to encourage commerce.”29[5] Therefore, Kublai did not appoint Han people to important positions in his government due to their opposition to commerce and trade.30

  1. Kublai’s fear of Han Chinese rebellion

Besides Kublai’s desire to encourage commerce, his fear of Han Chinese rebellion was also an important reason to stop him from trusting Han Chinese officials.

In the early stages of Kublai’s reign, Han Chinese people were dominant in the government. In fact, 60% of all officials in the government were Han Chinese.31 Kublai also tried to win common Han Chinese people’s support by showing that he was willing to learn Chinese culture though he came from a nomadic tribe on the grassland. His imperial edict of inauguration read that he would “follow the orthodox origin made by Spring and Autumn Annuals and conform to the moral concerns described in Yi.”32 Spring and Autumn Annuals and Yi are both ancient books which had become cultural symbols by the time of Kublai. In saying that he would follow the ideologies of these books, he hoped to get the support of Han people. However, the support he got did not reach his expectation. Therefore, he started to worry about Han Chinese rebellions.33 That was the reason why Kublai became so conservative after Wentong Wang was accused of participating in the rebellion.

Wang was an important official. He was appointed by Kublai as pingzhangzhengshi (a senior official responsible for political and military affairs).34 Wang also promoted Confucianism and made great contributions to the empire. As well as collecting and transporting a number of materials and weapons from the Central Plain, Wang effectively supporting Kublai in the battle against Ariq-Boke, Kublai’s rebellious younger brother. These contributions were significant to the establishment and solidification of Yuan government.35 Kublai was not able to receive the fact that such a loyal official rebelled against him. After this, Kublai Khan reduced his trust in high-ranking Han officials. After this year, Kublai did not allow Han Chinese to be appointed as pingzhangzhengshi as well as to positions that were in higher rankings, and this rule was followed by Kublai’s successors.36 Some depressed Han officials complained that “since the first year of Kublai’s governance, countless scholars and masters have been recognized and worked for the government! But from the fifth year, Kublai has been stupid not to trust these talents.”37 Obviously, the distrust of Kublai was a significant strike to Han Chinese scholars.

At the same time, Kublai promoted a“four scale hierarchy system” which emerged before his reign. Under this hierarchy system, people were divided into Mongols, Semu people, Hanren (northern Han Chinese and other ethnic groups such as Jurchen, Tangut, and Khitan), Nanren (southern Han Chinese). It is widely agreed by historians that the purpose of this hierarchy system was to emphasis the priority of Mongolians and suppress subject ethnic groups. Han Chinese, the most populous ethnic group under the governance of Kublai, were at the bottom of the hierarchy system. Basically, Kublai’s goal was to control Han Chinese and prevent them from forming rebellions.In Kublai’s government, the rule of positions that officials could be appointed as was not strict but still tightly depended on the hierarchy system. Mongols and Semu people could assume the office of prime minister, pingzhangzhengshi, and positions between these two. Han Chinese, according to the rule made by Kublai earlier, were exc[6]luded from these senior positions. Therefore, although the number of Han Chinese officials was not less than the one of Mongol and Semu officials, Han Chinese could only find jobs in low-level positions, and they were not qualified to hold positions related to policy making. Under the restriction of rule implemented by Kublai, Han Chinese hardly became important officials.


Although promoting pro-Chinese policies and building up Han government structure, Kublai remained conservative and skeptical in appointing Han Chinese officials in his reign. This research has filled the blank of research of Han Chinese officials in Kublai Khan’s period. However, there is still room for improvement in this paper. The most important thing to improve is that this paper mainly uses Chinese resources, but the perspective provided by scholars and historians in other countries is lacking. Therefore, further research is needed by scholars using the Yuan Shi and Persian sources, including Jami al-Tawarikh, to come up with a better analysis of Mongol ethnic policy.


1Rossabi, Morris. Kublai Khan, His Life and Times . Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.

2Zhou,Liangxiao.History of Yuan.Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020.

3 Timothy, May.The Mongol Conquests in World History.London:Reaktion Books. 2012.

4 Turchin, Peter. “A Theory for Formation”, Journal of Global History, no.4(2009): 191-217

5Xiao,Qiqing.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo .Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018.

6 Zhou,Liangxiao.History of Yuan.Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020.

7 ibid 4.

8 Xiao,Qiqing.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo .Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018.

9Xiao, Qiqing. Mid-Yuan Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University,2008.

10 ibid 491.

11Song,Lian.Yuan Shi .vol.81.

12 ibid 2017.

13 Three poems to Song Demao-the second, Series of Gentleman Zhanran, Vol.9.

14 Zhou,Liangxiao.History of Yuan.Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020.

15 Yao,Dali.Political Institutions and Culture in Yuan China .Beijing:Beijing University Press,2011.

16Xiao,Qiqing.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo .Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018.

17 Song,Lian.Yuan Shi .vol.18 382.

18 Su, Tianjue.Yuanwenlei, vol.57.

19 Xiao,Qiqing.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo .Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018.

20 Zhu,Tingyao. On the Change of Kublais Policy. Beijing: Renmin Press, 2008.

21 ibid 91.

22Su, Tianjue.Yuanwenlei vol.57.

23 Song,Lian.Yuan Shi . Vol.2, p.36.

24 Song,Lian.Yuan Shi . vol.18, p382.

25 Polo,Marco. Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo. Beijing: Renmin Press, 2016.

26 Song,Lian.Yuan Shi . vol.94, p2398.

27 the Analects of Confucius, vol.Liren.

28 Koran, 11:85.

29 Ma, Juan. “The Conflicts between Islam and Confucianism during the Mongolian Empire and Yuan Dynasty.”Journal of Yuan History 32, no.3(2020):7-14.

30 Zhou,liangxiao.History of Yuan.Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020.

31Xiao,Qiqing.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo .Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018

32 Song,Lian.Yuan Shi . vol.4, p65.

33 Zhou,Liangxiao.History of Yuan.Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020.

34 Song,Lian.Yuan Shi . vol.4, p63.

35Ouyang, Chen. After the book of Yuan Shi. Wang Wentong. Shanghai: Shanghai Press, 2007.

36 Song,Lian.Yuan Shi .ZhongHua,Press ,vol.112, p2789-2832.

37 Xiao,Qiqing.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo .Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018.

[1] Morris, Rossabi. Kublai Khan, His Life and Times ( Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 233-319.

2 Liangxiao Zhou.History of Yuan.(Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020), 56.

3 May Timothy.The Mongol Conquests in World History (London:Reaktion Books. 2012) 12.

4 Peter Turchin. “A Theory for Formation”, Journal of Global History, no.4(2009): 191-217

5 Qiqing Xiao.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo (Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018) ,26.

6 Liangxiao Zhou.History of Yuan(Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020) 16.

7 ibid 4

8 Qiqing Xiao.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo (Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018) ,466.

9 Xiao, Qiqing. Mid-Yuan Politics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University,2008) 491.

10 ibid 491

11Yuan Shi vol.81 2017

12 ibid 2017

13 Three poems to Song Demao-the second, Series of Gentleman Zhanran, Vol.9

14 Liangxiao Zhou.History of Yuan(Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020) 632

15 Political Institutions and Culture in Yuan China 259

16 Qiqing Xiao.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo (Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018) ,45

17 Yuan Shi vol.18 382


18 Yuanwenlei, vol.57, Zhongshuling Yelugong shendaobei

19 Qiqing Xiao.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo (Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018) ,38.

20 Tingyao Zhu. On the Change of Kublais Policy.( Beijing: Renmin Press, 2008) 77.

21 ibid 91.

22 Yuanwenlei vol.57 Zhongshuling Yelugong shendaobei.

23Yuan Shi, Vol.2, p.36.

24 Yuan Shi, vol.18 p382.


25 Marco Polo. Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo. (Beijing: Renmin Press, 2016), 108.

26 Yuan Shi, vol.94, p2398.

27 the Analects of Confucius, vol.Liren.

28 Koran, 11:85.

29 Juan Ma. “The Conflicts between Islam and Confucianism during the Mongolian Empire and Yuan Dynasty,”Journal of Yuan History 32, no.3(2020):7-14.

30 Liangxiao Zhou.History of Yuan.(Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020), 124.

31 Qiqing Xiao.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo (Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018) ,493

32 Yuan Shi, vol.4, p65.

33 Liangxiao Zhou.History of Yuan.(Shanghai:Shanghai Renmin Press,2020), 294.

34Yuan Shi, vol.4, p63.

35 Chen Ouyang. After the book of Yuan Shi. Wang Wentong. (Shanghai: Shanghai Press, 2007), 36.

36Yuan Shi, vol.112, p2789-2832.

37 Qiqing Xiao.Nei Beiguo Er Wai Zhonguo (Beijing:Zhonghua Press,2018) ,169.


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