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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 3, 2021

In the almost 40 years from the death of Khubilai Khan in February 1294, to the ascension of Toghon Temur Khan in July 1333, nine Khans of the Yuan Dynasty had been enthroned, with only Temur Oljeitu Khan reigning over a decade. It was a period of treachery, political infighting, civil wars, fraticide, economic mismanagement and inflation and environmental crises upon environmental crises. It was for Toghon Temur, the final Yuan ruler in China, to have the longest reign, sitting for 35 years in the two capitals of Dadu and Shangdu. His long, passive reign saw the disintegration of Mongol rule in China and the expulsion of the Yuan court in 1368- despite some energetic efforts to save the dynasty. Today, we present to you the final years of the Yuan Dynasty, and the last, but doomed, efforts to save it from  total ruin by a series of energetic chancellors, none more famous than Toghto of the Merkit. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Toghon Temur was only 13 years old when he became Khan of Khans in July of 1333. A great-great-grandson of Khubilai Khan, Toghon Temur was a son of Qoshila, who had briefly reigned as Khan in 1329 before being murdered by his brother, Tuq Temur. The young Toghon Temur had been exiled from the Yuan court by Tuq Temur Khan and his chancellor, El-Temur, first to Korea, then to Guangxi province in China’s far south. It was unlikely he’d ever see the throne, and aside from some time with a Buddhist teacher in his exile, he received no training for governance. But when Tuq Temur Khan’s designated heir died in 1331, the reigning Khan had a crisis of conscience, evidently from his guilt in the murder of his brother Qoshila. On his deathbed, Tuq Temur indicated he wanted the throne to go to the line of  Qoshila; not to Toghon Temur, but his younger half brother, the six year old Irinjibal. There was a major obstacle to this, in the form of El-Temur, the real power in the Yuan Dynasty. It was El-Temur who had engineered the coup which placed Tuq Temur on the throne in 1328, and Tuq Temur Khan had been a puppet for El-Temur throughout his reign. Of Qipchaq descent, El-Temur was from the fourth generation of a celebrated family of Qipchap servants to the Khans. His great-grandfather and grandfather had both served Khubilai Khan in his campaign against the Dali Kingdom in the early 1250s, and since then the family had been among the most prominent in the Yuan realm, controlling one of the empire’s key military units, the Qipchaq Guard. El-Temur and his father had loyally served Qaishan Khan, but after his death in 1311 had lost wealth and prestige. The coup El-Temur orchestrated in 1328 was not just to restore the line of Qaishan and place Tuq Temur on the throne, but restore his family’s power.


Alongside another non-Chinggisid powerbroker named Bayan of the Merkit, El-Temur controlled the Yuan court and married into the imperial family. Before his death, Tuq Temur Khan had entrusted his youngest son El-Tegus into Chancellor El-Temur’s  care, and El-Temur wanted the young boy to succeed his father. But Tuq Temur’s widow Budashiri rallied the court into supporting her husband’s final wish, and the aging and ill El-Temur reluctantly agreed to make Qoshila’s six year old son Irinjibal Khan… until Irinjibal died of illness not even two months later. Once again El-Temur wanted El-Tegus to become Khan of Khans, but resistance from the court was too great; they wanted the throne to go to Qoshila’s 13 year old son Toghon Temur. Even  El-Temur’s number 2, Bayan, was convinced of it by Empress Budashiri, and after several months of argument over early 1333, a declining El-Temur acquiesced, in part due to agreement to marry his daughter Danashirin, to Toghon Temur. With that, El-Temur died soon after.


In July 1333, a little over a century since the death of Chinggis Khan, Toghon Temur was enthroned as the Khan of Khans. The boy was, as to be expected, a puppet. This time, for Bayan of the Merkit, who after serving as second fiddle to El-Temur, wanted to implement his own designs. Part of this was by securing power. In 1335 he unleashed a bloody coup which killed the members of El-Temur’s family and loyalists still in government. Even the daughter married to Khan Toghon Temur was killed. That year, Bayan made himself the sole chancellor of the Yuan Dynasty, the maximum power and authority he could ever hope to attain. 


Bayan was not in the office simply for the sake of authority and killing his former coworkers. He actually had a dream. A rejuvenation of the Yuan Dynasty, desiring a restoration to the way things had been in Khubilai’s time; the good old days, when Mongols and Chinese were separated, the racial hierarchy and ensuing privileges clearly enforced. Bayan changed Toghon Temur’s reign title to Chih-yuan, which Khubilai had used from 1264 until his death, a clear symbolism, but there were  much more overt and practical methods to Bayan’s plan. Chinese were banned from a great number of government offices, forbidden from learning Mongolian and other west Asian languages, and the Chinese population was to be disarmed and their horses confiscated. The examination system to choose officials reinstated by Ayurburwada 20 years prior was to be again cancelled. Yet Bayan also wanted to make government more efficient by cutting court expenditures, and reduce stress on the empire’s population by decreasing the high fees on the salt monopoly, encouraging agriculture, and improving and speeding up the government relief system. The environmental crisis we spent so much of the last episode discussing had not abated by any  means, and Bayan saw it as governmental duty to provide for the people hurt by it. Of course, that couldn’t mean he wasn’t allowed to enrich himself with wealth, honorifics, titles and positions along the way.


A man who had cut his teeth in the wars of the steppes against Qaidu, Bayan had a tendency to overreact to threats violently. Toghon Temur was said to have complained how he spent his first years as Khan in fear for his life due to Bayan. His political enemies were violently persecuted, as seen when he eradicated the allies and family of his former partner El-Temur, and whenever plots were discovered against him. Bayan even had the gall to execute a Chinggisid prince outside the gates of Dadu. News of uprisings, and even the revolt of a city in 1339, led to Bayan believing in a wide conspiracy against him, seeing assassination plots around every corner. He responded with rounds of investigations, charges and violent purges to anyone he suspected involved. His enemies were convinced of the need to bring him down, and in spring 1340 a coup was launched against Bayan, with the support of Khan Toghon Temur and led by Bayan’s own nephew, the rising star Toghto. While Bayan was out hunting, the court stripped him of titles and positions and banished him. Returning from the hunt to find himself jobless and exiled, Bayan died less than a month later. With him died the last of those who tried to bring the court back to the ‘old ways,’  succeeded by those who recognized, and even celebrated, the sinicization of the Mongol dynasty.


The new generation of court leadership was symbolized by Toghto. Only 26 years old at the time of Bayan’s ouster, Toghto had been well educated and raised to prominence by his uncle. Unlike Bayan, Toghto had no misconceptions about restoring things to the time of Khubilai Khan. Raised in China, Chinese culture  and Confucianism was something to be appreciated. Believing all government problems could be solved with a steady hand and powerful government, Toghto wanted to centralize and strengthen the Dynasty, with a variety of reforms to tackle the empire’s problems. His first period as Chancellor saw removal of the last of Bayan’s allies, the restoration of the civil service examinations, greater incorporation of Confucian scholars into government than ever before, and actual visibility to Toghon Temur Khan. The Khan finally was able to give a decree denouncing his uncle Tuq Temur for murdering Qoshila, and banished many of the handlers Bayan had placed on him. His cousin El Tegus was almost certainly put to death on his order, removing this claimant to the throne. Toghon Temur’s own son Ayushiridara was entrusted to Toghto’s household to be raised, fed and educated, the boy’s welfare being some Toghto took very seriously.


 Luckily for the historians among us, one of Toghto’s most important tasks for posterity was providing the funding to finally complete the official  histories of the Liao, Jin and Song Dynasties by 1344. On his encouragement, the Liao and Jin Dynasties were recognized as legitimate, a debate which had in part  slowed the completion of these histories in the first place: the Confucian-Chinese editors had rather thoroughly argued against recognizing the Khitan ruled Liao or the Jurchen ruled Jin as proper dynasties, but Toghto, with an eye for the future representation of the Mongol ruled Yuan, pushed for it. So the Liaoshi, Jinshi and Songshi were finally completed and presented to the court, though the quality of the Liao Dynastic history in particular has been lamented by later scholars. As you can imagine, Toghto has always earned a warm reception from  historians for this effort, though it does not mean all his efforts in his first Chancellorship were successful. His expensive proposal to cut a new waterway to transport grain to Dadu was a spectacular failure, though it was a problem he would not stop in his efforts to resolve. 


Toghto’s bright plans were cut short in the emerging crisises of the 1340s. This was a decade of almost annual earthquakes, unseasonal snowstorms in Mongolia eradicating entire herds, severe flooding in central China, accompanied by widespread famine, drought and epidemic. There has been suggestion that bubonic plague began spreading in China in the 1340s, moving west with Mongol armies to reach Europe in 1347. However, from the beginning of the most severe phase of epidemic in 1344 to having reached the armies of the Golden Horde two years later is a rather tight schedule to cross all of Asia. There has not been enough evidence to identify the epidemics in China as the Black Death, and a great number of other viral epidemics remain likely culprits. After years and years of these environmental issues, the field of frustration finally began to bloom into violent uprisings in the 1340s. In 1341, there were more than 300 bandit uprisings across central China. And among these revolts was the emerging Red Turban Movement.


To quote Frederick Mote’s chapter “the Rise of the Ming Dynasty,” in part 1, Vol. 7 of the Cambridge History of China: The Ming Dynasty, page 18, the Red Turbans were “loosely Manichean within folk Buddhist religion and were millenarian in their impulses. They defied the normal sources of authority and displayed capacities for conspiratorial cohesiveness and for uncompromising relations with the government, thus making their behaviour more extreme than that of conventional rebels. All the important movements of this kind in this period have been loosely grouped under the designation of the Red Turban (Hung-chin) rebellions.” The Red Turbans, so called for their red headbands, were a large and loosely connected group which espoused a sectarian, millenarian Confucianism, calling for radical change of society through military means, returning to an older, ‘purer’ China. Having began in the late 1330s as a respeonse to the environmental and financial crisis blamed on the foreign barbarians ruling China, the movement steadily picked up steam with each year and with each successive trouble and crisis. The Yuan had greatly overlooked this social aspect of their rule and constant attempts to restrict Confucianism and Chinese rights. The Red Turbans were going to provide a framework for many looking for an excuse to fight back, or just to fight. We’ll return to them soon enough.


Toghto’s reaction to the country wide problems in 1344 was to resign his post. For the next five years, the chancellorship was largely dominated by a man named Berke Bukha. He was also genuinely reform minded, but in the other direction from Toghto. Having experienced firsthand the slowness of government relief, Berke sought to decentralize the government, and make each region more able to effectively respond to local problems, be they environmental or banditry. Corresponding and getting permissions with the Central Government in Dadu took too long, especially for the most distant provinces. By the time aid or relief arrived, it could have been much too late to do any good. Essentially, Berke Bukha wanted to cut government red tape, to use a modern parlance. It was a good idea, and one about two decades too late to avert the oncoming catastrophes. The problem of uprisings, economy and environment piled ever higher regardless of Berke Bukha’s efforts, and in 1349 Toghon Temur Khan recalled Toghto to the court to resume his post.


Toghto got back into the saddle with great energy. He was said to have wanted to dazzle his contemporaries and make his name immortal in the historical record, and immediately set about trying to do just that. One problem Toghto had been stumped by in his first chancellorship was  how to pay for his great schemes, and in 1350 finally stumbled on an absolutely fool-proof idea: why not just print more money? The fact it was entirely unbacked by the depleted silver reserves in no way would be a problem. With a firm central guiding hand, Toghto got to work on his grandest scheme yet: forcing the Yellow River back into its former course, in order to once more enter the sea south of the Shandong peninsula. This was not a mere vanity project. The annual flooding of the Yellow River had become disastrous, and in 1344, 20 days of nonstop rain had caused the River to rise to 6.7 metres, break its banks and flood 18 districts and 17 cities, cutting of the Grand Canal, and draining into the Huai River, which in turn caused it to rise and  threaten the salt fields in Shandong and Hebei provinces, before entering the ocean south of the Shandong peninsula, whereas before it had come out to the north. The threat to the salt fields was  a particular  concern for the court: as the salt trade and its associated taxes was worth six-tenths of Yuan yearly revenue, it was vitally important to ensure its protection. This was also necessary in order to restore the flow to the Grand Canal, the north-south canal which carried the rice and grain of south China northwards to feed the capital of Dadu every year. This had already been in trouble due to a pirate, Fang Guozhen, having taken control of a portion of the canal and blocking shipments of supplies to Dadu, refusing peace offers, titles and resisting a military operation by Toghto in 1350.


 There was intense opposition to the project to reroute the Yellow River, but Toghto had firmly taken control of government and forced the plan through. Printing 2 million ingots worth of the new currency to pay for it, from May to December 1351, 150,000 labourers, and 20,000 soldiers dug a 140 kilometre long channel to reroute the river; and it worked! Once more the Grand Canal was fed, the salt fields were protected and the Yellow River exited into the ocean north of the Shandong peninsula. 


Toghto’s genius engineering project was designed to protect the producers and economy of the Yuan Dynasty, but it accidentally became one of the events which sparked off the dynasty’s ultimate collapse. The large gathering of workers, hungry and weak from years of famine, being punished by cruel overseers trying to meet a strict timetable, and paid in a currency that was only a little above worthless, was fertile soil for the Red Turbans. Even as work continued on the canal, a massive revolt erupted in the Huai River valley, which spread rapidly. The Yuan were taken aback, the sheer size of the uprising causing cities to fall in quick succession- few city walls had been rebuilt after the initial Mongol conquests, after all. In the first engagements, the government forces were poorly prepared and beaten back, including an army commanded by Toghto’s brother Esen-Temur. This was not the highly mobile, horse archer forces of the conquest period, but generally local Chinese militias commanded by Mongols and Central Asians. The actual cavalry forces made up of Mongols and Turks were kept close to the capital.


But this was the time for Chancellor Toghto to shine. He seemed almost custom made for this crisis. He immediately organized the defense, raised new armies and conscripted militias. New training and command structures were implemented. He knew he had to tread carefully, lest mismanaged and underpaid troops join in the revolts. In a dizzying juggling effort, Toghto organized and reorganized the larger military units, transferred and reappointed commanders around the dynasty, all to stop this sudden mobilization of troops from creating an opportunity for individuals and regions to form alternate powerbases to resist the government. And it worked shockingly well. With his so-called Yellow Army, named for the colour of their uniforms, this newly raised force of mostly Chinese volunteers under Mongol and Turkic commanders became Toghto’s “nationwide apparatus of pacification,” as historian John Dardess termed it. Leading the most important campaigns himself, Toghto began to halt, then push back, and finally overrun the rebellion. By the end of 1352 Toghto had brought the Huai River valley back under government control. Methodically, they retook the cities which had fallen to the Red Turbans. By the end of 1354, Toghto was effectively about to crush the final major figure of a largely broken movement. 


At the city of Gao-Yu on the Grand Canal, in the closing months of 1354 Toghto had surrounded and was advancing on Zhang Shicheng, a former salt worker turned warlord who had declared himself an emperor in 1353. Zhang Shicheng’s control of the strategic city of Gao-yu cut off much of the grain shipment to Dadu and starved the capital, particularly dangerous when epidemics was swirling around the metropolitan region and killing thousands. Toghto had a two-fold plan to overcome Zhang and the liability of the Grand Canal. One was obviously for Toghto to advance with a large army and crush Zhang, but the second was to make the north, for the first time in Chinese history, a rice producing region. 2,000 dyke builders and paddy farmers were transported into central Hebei, Honan and even southern Manchuria to instruct them on how to cultivate rice, and make the north less reliant on southern producers. Given that for most Yuan rule, some of the most important grain and rice producing regions of the south had been depdendent on outside relief efforts due to excess typhoons, floods and droughts, it was a sensible, though expensive plan, one paid for by the unbacked paper currency  he continued to print huge quantities of. 


In the last days of 1354, Grand Chancellor Toghto had Zhang Shicheng’s city of Gao-yu isolated and on the edge of collapse. The starving Zhang Shicheng, the final figure of the rebellion of any power, was about to crushed beneath the boot of Toghto, and order restored through the Yuan, when Toghon Temur Khan made the spectacular, and by far the worst, single decision of any Yuan Emperor: he dismissed Toghto in January 1355, and Toghto, as  loyal servant, accepted. If any single decision could be pointed to as the moment the Yuan lost China, it was this one. The dismissal of Toghto was the dismissal of the last, and only figure, who could have held the dynasty together.


The exact reasons for this short sighted decision are unclear. Toghto’s power had grown considerably from 1350 through 1354, and had developed a system granting him great control of government, finances and the military. It is feasible his enemies at court simply had enough of his might, and led by a former ally of Toghto named Hama of the Qangli, they wanted to act before Toghto had his final victory over the rebellion. They very reasonably asked where might his energies and intentions have gone once the crisis was over? Would all foes of Toghto be wiped away, and Toghto rule in total dictatorship? With the rebellion about to be crushed, they may have felt it safe to remove him and simply finish the work themselves. Toghon Temur Khan may have wanted Toghto’s removal due to the attention and power Toghto had been giving to the Khan’s  son and likely successor, Ayushiridara. Toghto had raised the boy in his household, grown close with him and saw to it that he was finely educated, trained for governance and prepared for rulership. Even in the midst of the rebellion, Toghto had given the lad his own palace in Dadu, his own staff, power to choose officials, an allowance and in late 1354, power to review all business conducted by his father the Khan. The young Ayushiridara was on his way to becoming a power within his own right, and Toghon Temur could have worried Toghto was going to replace him with his own son.


We should of course comment on this point on Toghon Temur Khan himself. Usually, Toghon Temur is presented as a Khan who specialized in debauchery and all sorts of sexual perversions, holding his own one-man saturnalias and all that. This isn’t what he spent his entire reign doing, to be sure. His first years as Khan when he was in his early teens were spent living in fear of Bayan, but after the 1335 coup, especially with Toghto’s encouragement, Toghon Temur actually began to take a bit of a role in government. But by the start of the 1350s, the Khan had started to grow tired of the work and  began to abandon even the small list of duties he was given. At this point he really started to enter this phase of “party-mode,” as it were, though  the level of debauchery is almost certainly overstated by largely hostile Ming Dynasty sources. “Semi-retirement,” as historian John Dardess described it, is probably better to imagine. Certainly, there was excessive eating, drinking and such. You can probably guess what his “participation” was in the “all-female dance ensembles and orchestras'' that he enjoyed. But he had other interests too, such as Buddhism, and sponsored a circumambulation of the imperial palace grounds of Dadu by 108 monks. He had engineering interests, designing his own pleasure barge for the lake in the imperial gardens, and taking part in the construction of a rather clever water clock. He enjoyed his yearly sojourns to the summer capital of Shangdu, spending almost two months of every year simply on the move between Dadu and Shangdu. Really, a lot of interests other than governance.


Toghon Temur was shortsighted, a poor governor, and absolutely not up to the task of stepping into the vacuum left by Toghto’s dismissal. The Khan and the Central Government assumed they could operate the carefully built apparatus Toghto had, somewhat precariously, balanced around his person. Of course, this was not the case in the slightest. With the loss of their leader, Toghto’s army deserted, joining the rebel movements which spread once more, while Zhang Shicheng saw this as divine intervention and expanded his realm onto the Yangzi River. Toghto had been the last credible leader of the Yuan, for no one else in Dadu had the foresight or ability to assuage the dynasty’s fall. In the months following Toghto’s dismissal rebellion reignited, and a lead member of Red Turbans in the north, Liu Futong, declared Han Lin-erh emperor of a restored Song Dynasty. The years of strengthening  the regional governments followed by mass mobilization of resources by Toghto resulted in the provincial commanders essentially becoming completely autonomous warlords in at best loose allegiance to the Yuan government. The Yuan Dynasty’s effective area of administration became limited to an area around Dadu in the north,  a regional power among a number of competing warlords. Some maintained a nominal adherence to the Yuan government, but were more concerned in fighting for survival against Red Turban and other upstart Chinese warlords than imperial unity. A number of Chinese warlords popped up in loose connection with the Red Turbans, using them as basis to build their own power networks and legitimacy- Zhang Shicheng, Chen Youliang, and of course, the former peasant from Anhwei, Zhu Yuanzhang. 

Toghto would not see the end of the dynasty- he was assassinated by  his enemies while in exile in Yunnan at the start of 1356. Neither did he live long enough to see that his excess printing of the currency and the ensuing hyperinflation resulted in it becoming totally worthless, ceasing to be circulated within months of Toghto’s death. Toghon Temur Khan would sit almost idly as the Chinese warlords fought amongst each other, eventually snowballing under  the authority of Zhu Yuanzhang- though you might know him better by his era name, the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. For the final decade of Yuan rule in China, the Yuan were practically bystanders to their final fate. Our next episode is not a fall of the Yuan, as much as it is the rise of the Ming- so be sure to subscribe to the King and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.