By the middle of the thirteenth century the Mongols had conquered most of Asia and had twice entered Europe. With his newfound wealth, Kublai Khan (a grandson of Ghengis Khan) had begun a full scale attack on the Southern Song dynasty. Even before the Song were thoroughly defeated, Khan established the first non-Chinese dynasty, called the Yuan.
The Mongols tried to govern without changing much of the Chinese traditions. Their plan did not work: the Han Chinese were discriminated against, and were not given public service jobs. The Mongols preferred to hire other people from different parts of their Empire. If a suitable Mongol could not be found for a post, a Chinese person was hired.
A rich array of cultures developed in China at this time. The forced interaction with the West due to Mongol rule mixed Chinese culture with that of western nations. Western musical instruments enriched the performing arts such as theater, and novel (fiction) writing. At this time many Chinese converted to Islam. Oman Catholicism was also tolerated, Tibetan Buddhism became popular and native Chinese Taoism survived in spite of of Mongol persecution.
The test used to choose public servants based on Confucian ideology remained intact. The Yuan advanced in the fields of travel, cartography, and scientific education. Chinese inventions such as the block print, porcelain, playing cards, and medical literature first reached Europe, while the Chinese adopted European art of glass blowing.
The first European expeditions to China date from this time. The most famous of these travelers was the Venetian Marco Polo. He wrote of his trip to "Cambaluc", the Khan's capital (now called Beijing) and about the life of the Chinese people. His stories amazed and inspired Europe and consequently in Europe all that was of Chinese style became fashionable.
To improve the Empire the Mongols funded many public projects. Roads and irrigation as well as plumbing were reorganized and rebuilt. Granaries were built to prevent famine. The Imperial city was improved, along with the construction of the new Palace, complete with artificial lakes and mountains. The Grand Canal was extended to terminate at Beijing and was completely renewed. These improvements were meant to encourage commerce and trade. Trade relations were established with western Asia and Europe. Much knowledge was exchanged to benefit both civilization. The Chinese learned of hydraulic engineering (indoor plumbing) and gained an important new crop, sorghum, along with other crops and cooking techniques, while the Europeans learned of Chinese scientific discoveries and architecture.