The finally victory of the Mongols over the Song Dynasty in 1279 meant alien invaders now controlled the Middle Kingdom. Their Yuan Dynasty commenced with a semblance of good government under Khubilai Khan but his rule had deteriorated alarmingly by the time of his death. Economic ruin set in, due to over-taxation by foreign tax collectors, inflation caused by printing worthless paper money and the extravagance of the Mongol nobility. Oppression and exploitation of native Chinese, who were fourth-class citizens in their own land, contributed to the people’s misery. Divisions between Chinese Daoists and Tibetan Buddhists imported by the invaders stirred religious discord. Khubilai Khan’s successors as Emperor proved increasingly inept and corrupt, provoking numerous rebellions of the kind led by Hsiung and his Yueh Fei Rebels.
A Red Turban rebel kicks back!
Deng Nan-shi and his son Teng represent a class of Chinese particularly affected by Mongol rule. (See Taming Poison Dragons Historical Background: ‘Poetry, Examinations and Power’). Scholar-officials found themselves ejected from the upper strata of society, ranked lower than prostitutes. The Imperial Examinations that once provided access to high office were abolished, replaced by rampant nepotism and patronage. Most scholars detested the Mongols and mocked them as unwashed barbarians unfit to rule. The majority chose not to collaborate with the new regime. As a result, many scholars were forced to gain a living as artists and teachers. Some, like Teng, wrote popular dramas for the theatre.
We first meet Yun Shu, Hsiung and Teng as children in the ruins of the once great city, Hou-ming. Due to the troubled times, they have greater freedom than children of previous generations. Nevertheless, all three have been schooled in the Confucian concept of xiao, or respect for their elders. This requires unquestioning obedience of one’s parents. Hence the outrage of Salt Minister Gui when his wayward daughter refuses to have her feet bound in line with the modern fashion for girls.