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Students of Chinese history often memorize the “parade of dynasties” — Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing (sometimes with a preamble of Xia, Shang, Zhou) — using cram sessions and mnemonic jingles. But though the effort has resulted in a lot of A’s, the dynastic hit parade is poison when it comes to understanding history. With that in mind, this week we look back to December 18, 1271, when the Great Khan of the Mongols — Kublai Khan — proclaimed the new Yuan dynasty and fashioned himself a Chinese emperor.

Kublai’s empire, a successor to one of the Khanates that comprised the vast Mongol empire that traversed Asia in the 13th century, would reign over much of what is now China, as well as Mongolia and other territory in Central and Eastern Asia. The following year, he moved his capital from Shangdu — the Xanadu of Coleridge’s dreams — to the former capital city of the Jin dynasty. Renamed Dàdū 大都, the city would be better known by the name it assumed in the Ming dynasty: Beijing. Himself a Mongol, Kublai Khan established what would be (usually) the capital of China for nearly a millennium.

The fact that Kublai took a Chinese dynastic and reign name, and its new capital at the site of what is China’s capital today, contributes to our sense that this was a new Chinese dynasty. The Yuan dynasty’s subjects were not exclusively Han Chinese, but by claiming the Mandate of Heaven — the mythic, supernatural credential that legitimated Chinese rulers — the Mongols were joining a lineage that has defined Chinese statecraft and Chinese civilization.

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