Kublai Khan (1215-1294) was the greatest of the Mongol emperors after Genghis Khan and founder of the Yüan dynasty in China. Though basically a nomad, he was able to rule a vast empire of different nations by adapting their traditions to his own government.
Genghis Khan was succeeded by his third son Ögödei (1229-1241); after Ögödei's death his widow, Töregene, ruled until 1246, when his eldest son, Güyük, was elected khan. Güyük died 2 years later, and from 1248 to 1252 his widow, Oghul Khaimish, was regent of the empire. The election of Möngkë (or Mangu), the eldest son of Tulë (or Tolui, 1192-1232, the youngest son of Genghis), in 1251 restored the khanship to Tulë's line, but not without strong opposition from Ö gödei's descendants, who regarded themselves the legitimate successors to Genghis's empire.
Kublai Khan was the fourth son of Tulë, one of the four sons of Genghis by his favorite wife, Bourtai. Strong, brave, and intelligent, Kublai was Genghis's favorite grandson; when he was only a lad, he had accompanied his father, Tulë, in campaigns. Kublai was 17 when his father died. In tribute to his younger brother's service, Ö gödei assigned the Chen-ting principality (modern Hopei) to Tulë's widow, Soryagtani-bäki. The widow was an ambitious woman who had a natural liking for Chinese culture and had recruited Chinese scholars to administer her domain.
First Contact with the Chinese
In his early years, through frequent contacts with the Chinese, Kublai became aware of the potential of the Chinese literati as his future political allies. As early as 1242, he had begun to summon men of culture to his quarters in Karakorum in the Gobi Desert to offer counsel on political affairs, including the famous Buddho-Taoist Liu Ping-chung, who advised him on the Confucian principles of government and the application of Chinese methods for administrative and economic reforms. The opinions of these cultured people became dominant in Kublai's thinking as he began to ascend in national politics.
When Möngkë succeeded to the khanship in 1251, Kublai was entrusted with the administration of the Chinese territories in modern Chahar in the eastern part of the empire. In this and the following year Kublai invited Liu Ping-chung to organize a corps of Chinese advisers and to introduce administrative and economic reforms in his territories. The success of the reforms subsèquently introduced in Hsing-chou in 1252, largely based on the Chinese model, further convinced Kublai of the feasibility of restoring the indigenous institutions in the consolidation of his domain. In 1253 he received the district of Ch'ang-an (Sian) in the Wei River valley (in modern Shensi) as a personal fief and began to establish a permanent territorial administration. Many of the Chinese advisers became his key administrators.
Kublai was also entrusted by Möngkë to take command of expeditions aiming at the unification of China under the Mongol emperor. The primary target was the subjugation of the Southern Sung dynasty, whose capital was at Lin-an (modern Hangchow); however, Kublai delayed action against South China until after he became emperor. Meanwhile, he waged a campaign against the western province of Szechwan and took the provincial city Chengtu in 1252. From there his armies marched south and without much difficulty conquered the Thai kingdom of Nanchao in modern Yunnan Province. Kublai returned north in 1254, leaving the war to his trusted lieutenant Uriyangqadai, whose forces subsequently penetrated into Tonkin and subdued the kingdom of Annam.
In 1257, displeased with the progress of the war against Sung China, Möngkë led an expeditionary force in person into western China but succumbed to the Chinese defense when he tried to capture Ho-chou in Szechwan in August 1259. Möngkë's unexpected death not only brought the war to a complete halt but precipitated a crisis of succession. In June 1260, supported by the pro-Chinese faction, Kublai was elected by the Mongol assembly as Möngkë's successor, but his younger brother, Ariq Böge (died 1266), bolstered by the conservative faction, disputed the election and proclaimed himself khan at Karakorum. In the following years Kublai fought his rebellious brother, defeating him in 1264. Meanwhile another pretender, Kai-du, a grandson of Ö gödei, revolted in 1268 and retained his independence in parts of Turkistan until his death in 1301.
Administration of the Khanate
Kublai preoccupied himself with the reorganization of government, aiming at greater political control and effective economic exploitation of the country. In the following decade the Mongol administration adopted a Sinicized bureaucracy. The new central administration of the Chinese territory consisted of the secretarait, the privy council, and the censorate in charge of state, military, and censorial affairs. Local administration was subdivided into four different levels of responsibility: the province, prefecture, secondary prefecture, and district. A system of recruitment of civil servants was introduced, while government officials, civil and military alike, were recruited through regular channels and received a fixed salary. The traditional Chinese features of government, such as Confucian rites, music, and calendar, were also restored.
Following this reorganization, a new capital city was constructed at Yen-ching (present-day Peking) in 1267; first called Chung-tu, it was renamed Ta-tu (or Daidu, "great capital") in 1272. From then on, the Emperor spent his summer in Shang-tu (or Xangdu, "upper capital") in southern Mongolia and his winter in the new capital. Finally, a Chinese national title, Yüan, was adopted in 1271. In the context of the Book of Changes Yüan means "the primal force (of the Creative)," or "origin (or beginning) of the Universe."
In the eyes of Kublai, the restoration of Chinese institutions and customs was a tactical maneuver rather than a capitulation to the Chinese political style. In reality, outside the bureaucracy, much of the Mongol practice still prevailed. The Mongols, especially the military, were organized on their traditional patterns and preserved their nomadic identity. Even within the Chinese bureaucracy, where the Mongols were susceptible to Sinicization, Chinese influence was kept in check by the predominance of the Mongols and central Asians. The presence of an institutional duality under Kublai earmarks the complexity of the Mongol rule in China.
Campaigns toward Asian Hegemony
Meanwhile, Kublai proceeded with his operation against the Southern Sung which had been delayed by internal feuds. After 5 years of siege, Kublai captured the twin cities of Hsiang-yang and Fan-ch'eng on opposite sides of the Han River in 1273. Thereafter Kublai entrusted the command to Bayan, his most gifted general, who captured the Sung capital, Lin-an, in 1276. The young emperor of Sung, Kung-tsung, and his mother were taken captive and sent as prisoners to Kublai's court.
Sung resistance continued with two young princes successively proclaimed emperor by the loyalists of the throne. But their efforts were finally nullified by defection from their ranks, and in a heated naval encounter off the coast of Kwangtung in February 1278 the Sung forces were annihilated and the last emperor perished in the sea, thus ending the Sung dynasty. By this time Kublai had been acknowledged as the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire by his brother Hulagu in Persia and the Mongol dominion in southern Russia (Golden Horde), and Kublai's empire stretched from Korea to the Arabian Desert and eastern Poland, across 2 continents.
As emperor of China, Kublai conformed with the Chinese tradition by demanding allegiance and tributary gifts from its neighboring vassals. Some of these, such as Annam and Korea, had already submitted. To others, Kublai dispatched envoys asking for submission and launched campaigns if his demands were ignored. Many of these expeditions, however, ended in failure. Twice between 1274 and 1281 Kublai's armies against Japan were either destroyed by storm or annihilated by the Japanese because of the Mongols' inability to fight sea battles and the poor quality of their naval forces.
Kublai suffered another setback when he attempted to subdue the Malay kingdom of Champa in Indochina (1283-1287), securing, after a long war, only nominal allegiance from the Cham king. Three expeditions against Burma (1277, 1283, 1287) brought the Mongol forces to the Irrawaddy delta, but again Kublai had to be content with the acknowledgment of a formal suzerainty. The Khmer kingdom of Kambuja, however, submitted in 1294. During the last years of his reign Kublai launched a naval expedition against the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit (1293), but the Mongol forces were compelled to withdraw after considerable losses. Kublai also sent envoys to southern India but used no force as Chinese interests in these parts had always been purely commercial.
Consolidation of the Empire
Under Kublai, the Mongol ruling oligarchy adopted divide-and-rule tactics. The Mongols and central Asians remained unassimilated and separate from Chinese life; the social and economic fabric of the Chinese was left basically unchanged. The rule of the Mongol minority was assured by discriminating legislations. The whole population of China (about 58,000,000 in 1290) was divided into a hierarchy of four social classes: the Mongols; the central Asians; the northern Chinese, Koreans, and Jürchen; and the southern Chinese.
The first two classes enjoyed extensive administrative, economic, and judicial privileges; the third class held an intermediate position; whereas the fourth, the most numerous of all, was practically excluded from state offices. Separate systems of law were maintained for Chinese and for Mongols and also for the Moslem collaborators. The central Asians enjoyed exceptional political privileges because of their contribution as managers of finance for the ruling elite, and at times they were the chief rivals against the Chinese for top administrative positions.
Treatment of Chinese
For tactical and practical reasons, Kublai adopted a conciliatory policy toward the Chinese. He revived the state cult of Confucius, ordered the protection of the Confucian temples, and exempted the Confucian scholars from taxation. Though Kublai had a rather limited knowledge of Chinese and had to rely on interpreters, he had provided a literary education for his heir apparent, Jingim (1244-1286), and other Mongol princes, allowing gradual, though limited, Sinicization. On the other hand, Kublai was equally aware of the political potential of the Chinese literati, and though he had appointed their leading scholars to key administrative posts, he always treated them with caution.
The 1262 rebellion of Li T'an, the governor of Shantung, and the involvement of a high-ranking Chinese official marked the turning point in Kublai's relations with his Chinese ministers. In later years Kublai relied more on his central Asian administrators for support. As to the Chinese from the South who had resisted his rule, Kublai viewed them with apprehension from the very beginning. He did not seek out talents for government service from the South and deliberately suppressed their entry to official careers by enacting legislation making it much more difficult for them than for their northern counterparts. The alienation of the southern Chinese contributed much to the general resentment against the Mongol rule in the mid-14th century.
Kublai was well known for his toleration of foreign religions. The Mongol rulers had been reputed for their acceptance and patronage, embracing Islam in Persia and Nestorian Christianity in central Asia. Under Kublai, religious establishments of the Buddhist, Taoist, Nestorian, and Islamic orders were all exempted from taxation, and their clergy acquired local land rights and economic privileges. The Chinese indigenous religion, Neo-Taoism, was popular under Kublai, although it faced continuous challenge from the Buddhists.
The Mongols, however, ingratiated themselves with a debased form of Buddhism from Tibet called Lamaism. Kublai himself was a convert of Lamaist Buddhism. In 1260 he invited a young Tibetan lama, 'Phags-pa, to his court, honoring him with the title of Imperial Mentor and making him the high priest of the court. In 1269 Kublai entrusted him to devise a new alphabet for the Mongol language based on the Tibetan script but written vertically like Chinese. This new alphabet, known as 'Phags-pa script, however, never supplanted the modified Uighur alphabet for written Mongolian. Under Kublai's patronage, the number of Buddhist establishments rose to 42,000 with 213,000 monks and nuns, a great many of them being Lamaists.
Kublai also had some temporary success in fostering the economic life of China, although the extent of achievement is disputable. In contrast to North China, the landholding elements of the Southern Sung were not dispossessed and generally acquiesced in the change of authority. Trade between North and South China was stimulated by the development of the new capital in Peking. To provide food for the capital's swelling population, the government had to transport grain from the fertile rice-growing lower-Yangtze basin. Kublai inaugurated a system of sea transport around the hazardous Shantung coast and also developed the inland river and canal routes. The problem of transporting food to the capital was eventually solved by extending the Grand Canal system north to Peking from the Yellow River. This resulted in the construction of a new section in the Grand Canal known as "Connecting Canal"; when completed in 1289, it ran through western Shantung north of the modern course of the Yellow River.
Contact with the West
Under Kublai, the opening of direct contact between China and the West, made possible by the Mongol control of the central Asian trade routes and facilitated by the presence of efficient postal services, was another spectacular phenomenon in the Mongol Empire. In the beginning of the 13th century, large numbers of Europeans and central Asians—merchants, travelers, and missionaries of different orders—made their way to China. The presence of the Mongol power also enabled throngs of Chinese, bent on warfare or trade, to make their appearance everywhere in the Mongol Empire, all the way to Russia, Persia, and Mesopotamia.
There were several direct exchanges of missions between the Pope and the Great Khan, though each with a different motive. In 1266 Kublai entrusted the Venetian merchants, the Polo brothers, to carry a request to the Pope for a hundred Christian scholars and technicians. The Polos arrived in Rome in 1269, receiving an audience from Pope Gregory X, and they set out with his blessing but no scholars.
Marco Polo, Niccolo's son, who accompanied his father on this trip, was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China. It is said that he spent the next 17 years (1275-1292) under Kublai Khan, including official service in the salt administration and trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. Although the flaws in his description of China have tempted modern historians to dispute his sojourn in the Middle Kingdom, the popularity of his journal, Description of the World, was such that it subsequently generated unprecedented enthusiasm in Europe for going east.
Marco Polo had his East Asian counterpart in Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk born in Peking. He crossed central Asia to the Il-Khan's court in Mesopotamia in 1278 and was one of those whom the Mongols sent to Europe to seek Christian help against Islam. There must have been countless numbers of unknown others who crossed the Continent, spreading information about their land and bringing with them artifacts of their culture. Under Kublai, the first direct contact and cultural interchange between China and the West, however limited in scope, had become a reality never before achieved.
After a glorious reign of 34 years, Kublai died in Ta-tu in February 1294. In conformity with the Chinese tradition, Temür, Kublai's grandson and successor, bestowed on Kublai the posthumous temple title Shih-tsu (regenerating progenitor) after Genghis Khan, who was known as T'ai-tsu (grand progenitor). Temür reigned until his death in 1307 and is known in Chinese history as Yüan Ch'eng-tsung.
Assessment of His Reign
Kublai must be regarded as one of the great rulers in history. He showed natural magnanimity and imagination, and he was able to transcend the narrow nomad mentality of his ancestors and to administer a huge state with an ancient civilization. He was a vigorous, shrewd, and pragmatic ruler and was close in spirit to Genghis Khan. While his achievement ranked him second to Genghis among the Mongol rulers, he was not unpopular among the Chinese, enjoying the esteem of even the Chinese orthodox historians. During his lifetime he was acknowledged as the Great Khan of the Mongol confederacy, though in effect his authority was confined to China and its peripheral territories.
Nevertheless, Kublai was not content to be a sage emperor in the Chinese fashion; rather, he aspired to be the all-embracing ruler of the entire Mongol Empire in the footsteps of his grandfather. His partial adoption of Chinese political traditions and his divide-and-rule tactics were ingenious devices in the administration of a complex, populous empire.
Unfortunately, Kublai's policy fell short of the anticipation of the conservative elements, who gradually became alienated from the predominately Sinicized Mongol court. As Kublai and his successors steeped themselves deeper in the Chinese tradition, there was a widening schism between the Mongol rulers of China and those of the other khanates within the Mongol confederacy. They preferred to maintain their nomad identity instead of looking toward China for leadership; this estrangement, while weakening the Mongol solidarity, ironically helped to uphold and perpetuate the Mongol heritage after the fall of the Yüan dynasty in 1368.
There is no satisfactory biography of Kublai Khan in English. Useful, though outdated, chapters on him are in general texts on Mongol history such as Sir Henry Hoyle Howorth, History of the Mongols (4 vols., 1876-1927), and Michael Prawdin, The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (1940). For other scholarly contributions to Kublai's period see Herbert Franz Schurmann, ed. and trans., Economic Structure of the Yüan Dynasty (1956); Leonardo Olschki, Marco Polo's Asia (1957; trans. 1960); Ch'ên Yüan, Western and Central Asians in China under the Mongols, translated by Luther Carrington Goodrich (1966); and Igor de Rachewiltz, Papal Envoys to the Great Khans (1970). Recommended for general historical background are René Grousset, The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire (1942; trans. 1952), and Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 1 (1960)
Mongol ruler of China
T hough he belonged to the Mongol nation, conquerors of half the known world, Kublai Khan is remembered more for his peacetime activities than for his record as a warrior. Grandson of the fierce Genghis Khan (see entry), Kublai himself subdued China and established that nation's first foreign-dominated dynasty, the Yüan (yee-WAHN). But he was also an enthusiastic supporter of the arts and sciences, and through his contact with Marco Polo (see entry), he became widely known in the Western world.
Genghis and Kublai
Khan is a term for a chieftain in Central Asia, home of the Mongol people. The Mongols were a nomadic, or wandering, nation that had little effect on world events until the time of Genghis Khan (JING-us; c. 1162–1227), Kublai's grandfather. Genghis led them on a series of conquests that would make the Mongols rulers over the largest empire in history.
In the year of Kublai's birth, Genghis destroyed the city known today as Beijing (bay-ZHEENG). The Mongols, who began rebuilding it as their own headquarters in China, named it Khanbalik (kahn-bah-LEEK), and it was from there that Kublai would one day rule. Twelve years later, Genghis died, having divided his lands among his three sons. Kublai himself became ruler over a large area in northern China when he was sixteen years old.
Descendants of Genghis
Over the years that followed, leadership of the Mongols would pass from one to another of Genghis's descendants, and during this time the empire became more and more divided. Genghis's son Ogodai ruled from 1229 to 1241, during which time he expanded the Mongol conquests into Eastern Europe. Five years would pass between his death and the election of a new khan, Kuyuk, in 1246. Kuyuk lived only two more years, and it took the Mongols three additional years to choose another khan, his cousin (and Kublai's older brother) Mangu.
Mangu ruled from 1251 to 1259, during which time his cousin Hulagu invaded Persia and Mesopotamia (modernday Iran and Iraq). After Mangu died, Hulagu declared himself "Il-khan," and from then on, southwestern Asia would be a separate khanate (KAHN-et) under the rule of Hulagu and his descendants. By that time, Kublai was forty-four years old. Little is known about his life up to this point, but he was about to emerge onto center-stage.
Kublai becomes Great Khan
In the years after Genghis's death, four separate khanates emerged: the Il-Khanate in Southwest Asia; the Chagatai (chah-guh-TY) khanate in Central Asia; the Golden Horde in Russia; and the lands of the Great Khan. The latter was the most important part of the Mongol empire, comprising the Mongolian homeland and the Mongols' most prized possession, China. Whoever ruled this area was considered the true ruler of all the Mongols.
In 1260, Kublai was busy in southern China, fighting against the armies of the Sung dynasty. The latter, which had ruled the land since 960, still controlled the southern part of China, and the Mongols considered it essential to destroy this last holdout of Chinese resistance. It was while Kublai was leading armies against the Sung that he was proclaimed Great Khan, on May 5, 1260.
A month later, Kublai's younger brother Arigböge (urug-BOH-guh) declared himself Great Khan with the support of many Mongol leaders. The latter believed that Kublai had been too influenced by Chinese ways, and had become too soft to call himself a Mongol. Yet Kublai proved his strength as leader when he managed to surround Arigböge's forces and prevent supplies from reaching them. By 1264, Arigböge had surrendered.
Now as the undisputed Great Khan, Kublai turned his attention to eliminating the Sung Chinese. Since southern China, with its hills and marshes, was not suited to the Mongols' usual horsebound fighting force, Kublai had to build up a navy, something the Mongols had never possessed. They had their first significant victory over the Sung in 1265, and from 1268 to 1273, they concentrated on subduing two cities on the Han River that had so far resisted them. Victory over those strongholds gave them access to the river, and in 1275 they won a massive naval battle.
The emperor of China was a four-year-old boy, and his grandmother ruled in his place as a regent. She tried to arrange a compromise with Kublai Khan, but the Great Khan had no interest in compromising. By 1279, the Sung had surrendered, and Kublai's Yüan dynasty controlled all of China.
China under the rule of the Great Khan
Kublai proved a wise and capable leader: rather than crush the Chinese, he allowed their cities to remain standing, and sought their help in running the country. He put in place a number of agencies to ensure that all the people received equal treatment, and that corruption did not flourish within the government. The Mongols in general, and Kublai in particular, tended to be open-minded in matters of culture and religion, especially because they did not have a well-developed civilization that they intended to impose on others by force. Thus they allowed a number of religions to flourish, including Nestorian Christianity (see box).
It should be stressed, however, that the Mongols were conquerors, and some of the fiercest warriors in history. China's population dropped dramatically during the time of the Mongols' invasion and subsequent rule, and though this can partly be attributed to natural disasters, some of the blame has to rest with the Mongols themselves.
Given the Mongol record of conquest and bloodshed, then, Kublai's embracing of civilization is all the more remarkable. Not only did he promote the arts and sciences, but he created a highly advanced legal code, or set of laws, and attempted unsuccessfully to impose an alphabet that would make translation between Chinese and other languages easier.
Kublai also encouraged trade with other lands, and in particular opened up paths between Europe and East Asia. Under his reign, a network of postal stations that doubled as travelers' inns dotted the route between East and West. As a result of Kublai's opening of trade routes, Marco Polo arrived along with his uncle and father.
The Italian journeyer would later write a record of his travels, in which he immortalized Kublai Khan as the greatest ruler on Earth. Marco Polo praised the Great Khan's brilliance as a leader, and celebrated the wealth of his kingdom. Yet during Polo's stay in China, which lasted from 1275 to 1292, Kublai Khan's reign reached its peak and then began a steady decline.
Perhaps because he was eager to prove himself as a conqueror, and thus to establish his reputation as a "true" Mongol, Kublai had been attempting to subdue Japan since 1266. In the meantime, he had won control of Korea in 1273. A year later, a force composed of some 29,000 Mongol, Chinese, and Korean soldiers crossed the Korean Strait to Japan, but a storm destroyed many of their boats, and the surviving troops headed back to China.
Rabban Bar Sauma
Many people know about visits to China by medieval European travelers, the most famous of whom was Marco Polo; much less well known were travelers from the East who went to Europe. Among these, perhaps the most notable example was Rabban Bar Sauma (ruh-BAHN BAR sah-OO-muh; c. 1220–1294).
Bar Sauma came from the Uighur (WEE-gur), a Turkic nation under the rule of the Mongols. He was born in Khanbalik, and embraced Nestorianism, a branch of Christianity that had split from the mainstream Christian church in a.d.. 431. Since that time, Nestorianism had flourished mainly in the East.
At the age of twenty, Bar Sauma became a Nestorian monk and began to preach the Christian message, attracting many followers. Among these was a young man named Mark. The latter accompanied Bar Sauma when, at about the age of fiftyfive, he made a pilgrimage or religious journey to Jerusalem.
They went with the blessing of Kublai Khan, and met with the catholicos, the leader of the Nestorian church, in what is now Iran. He in turn sent them as ambassadors to the Il-Khan, a relative of Kublai Khan who ruled Persia. Later Mark became a bishop, and when the catholicos died, he took his place.
A new leader of the Il-Khanate in 1284 wanted European help against the Muslim Arabs of the Middle East, and he sent Bar Sauma westward to seek their aid. Bar Sauma departed from what is now Iraq in 1287, and as he later wrote in the record of his travels, he visited the Byzantine Empire before arriving in Italy. There he hoped to meet with the pope, leader of the Catholic Church, but the old pope was dead and he had to wait for the election of a new one.
While he waited, Bar Sauma traveled throughout Western Europe, visiting parts of Italy and France. Back in Rome in 1288, he met the new pope, Nicholas IV, who expressed an interest in joining the Il-Khan in a war against the Muslims. This never happened, but Bar Sauma (who died in 1294 in Baghdad, now a city in Iraq) helped open the way for more travelers between East and West.
At the same time, Kublai faced a threat on his western border from his cousin Khaidu (KY-dü), ruler of the Chagatai khanate. Not only did Khaidu's rivalry force Kublai to devote troops to defending the western frontier of his empire, it also ended any illusions Kublai may have had concerning a great Mongol alliance. Clearly the realms won by his grandfather would never again be a single entity with a single ruler, and no doubt this fact made Kublai all the more determined to conquer Japan for himself.
After the Japanese murdered two of his ambassadors in 1279, Kublai sent some 150,000 troops to Japan. In August 1281, a typhoon—that is, a great storm on the Pacific Ocean—struck the Mongol ships and killed more than half of their fighting force. The Japanese praised the typhoon as a gift from the gods, and the loss was a devastating blow to the Mongols: clearly it was possible for them to lose, and indeed they would get considerably more experience at losing in coming years.
The 1280s saw a failed campaign in Annam and Champa, which constituted what is now Vietnam; and in 1290, Tibet revolted against Mongol rule. The Mongols put down the rebellion, but only at a great cost, and in 1293 they failed to conquer the island of Java in modern-day Indonesia.
The Great Khan's last days
By the time Marco Polo left China, Kublai Khan was nearing the end of his life. His last days were not happy ones, and in addition to military problems, he faced personal devastation when both his favorite wife and his son were killed. He suffered from gout, a disease that makes the body's joints stiff and inflamed, and heavy drinking only added to his health problems. A combination of alcoholism and depression, which probably caused him to overeat, made the Great Khan extremely overweight. He died on February 18, 1294, at the age of eighty.
The Chinese had never accustomed themselves to foreign rule, and without Kublai's strong influence, the Yüan dynasty soon lost power. In 1368 it was overthrown, and eventually the Mongols themselves faded into the shadows of history. By the twentieth century, Mongolia was one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth, and hardly seemed like a nation that had once ruled the world.
Yet thanks to Marco Polo and others, the memory of Kublai would live on. More than five hundred years after the Great Khan's death, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge immortalized him in the poem "Kubla Khan" (1816), which began with a reference to "Xanadu" (ZAN-uh-doo). The latter was Shang-tu, a great city built by Kublai, a city whose remains have long since all but disappeared.
For More Information
Dramer, Kim. Kublai Khan. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Ganeri, Anita. Marco Polo. Illustrated by Ross Watton. New York: Dillon Press, 1999.
Martell, Hazel. Imperial China, 221b.c.toa.d.1294. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1999.
Silverberg, Robert. Kublai Khan, Lord of Xanadu. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
"Ancient China: The Mongolian Empire: The Yuan Dynasty, 1279–1368." [Online] Available http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CHEMPIRE/YUAN.HTM (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Marko Polo—Million." [Online] Available http://www.korcula.net/mpolo/mpolo5.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Old World Contacts/Armies/Kublai Khan." University of Calgary. [Online] Available http://www.ucalgary.ca/HIST/tutor/oldwrld/armies/kublai.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Died: February 1294
Ta-tu (Peking), China
Kublai Khan was the greatest of the Mongol emperors after Genghis Khan and founder of the Yüan Dynasty in China. He was a wise ruler and was able to lead a vast empire of nations by adapting different traditions to his own government.
Kublai Khan was the fourth son of Tulë and the grandson of Genghis Khan (c. 1165–1227), the founder of the Mongol Empire. Strong, brave, and intelligent, Kublai was Genghis's favorite grandson; he had accompanied his father, Tulë, in battles as a child. By the age of twelve he was a skilled horseman, and his reputation as a warrior grew as he became older. Kublai was seventeen when his father died.
In 1251 Kublai was given control over Chinese territories in the eastern part of the empire after his brother, Möngkë, became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Kublai organized a group of Chinese advisers to introduce reforms in his territories. Kublai was also put in charge of expeditions with the goal of unifying China under the Mongol emperor. In 1257, unhappy with the progress of the war against the Chinese Sung Dynasty, Möngkë led an expedition into western China but was killed by the Chinese defense in August 1259. In 1260, supported by pro-Chinese groups, Kublai was elected as Möngkë 's successor, but his younger brother, Ariq Böge, disputed the election and proclaimed himself khan at Karakorum, Mongolia. In the following years Kublai fought his brother, defeating him in 1264.
Kublai Khan's administration
Under Kublai, the Mongols adopted divide-and-rule tactics. The Mongols and central Asians remained separate from Chinese life; in many ways life for the Chinese was left basically unchanged. Kublai was also well known for his acceptance of different religions. The rule of the Mongol minority was assured by dividing the population of China into four social classes: the Mongols; the central Asians; the northern Chinese and Koreans; and the southern Chinese. The first two classes enjoyed extensive privileges; the third class held an intermediate position; and the southern Chinese, the most numerous of all, were practically barred from state offices. Separate systems of law were maintained for Chinese and for Mongols. Kublai also reorganized the government, establishing three separate branches to deal with civilian (nonmilitary) affairs, to supervise the military, and to keep an eye on major officials.
Following this reorganization, a new capital city was constructed at present-day Peking, China, in 1267. First called Chungtu, the city was renamed Ta-tu (or Daidu, "great capital") in 1272. In the eyes of Kublai, leaving some Chinese institutions and customs in place was a political decision. Outside the administration, much of the Mongol way of life still prevailed. The Mongols, especially the military, preserved their tradition as nomads (wanderers). Even within the administration, Chinese influence was controlled by the large numbers of Mongols and central Asians. Kublai Khan named his rule the Yüan Dynasty in 1271. By February 1278 he had destroyed the Sung dynasty and was the unquestioned leader of an empire that stretched across two continents.
Kublai was a great supporter of trade, science, and the arts. He introduced the use of paper money for the entire empire and ordered the creation of a new alphabet for the Mongol language that closely resembled Chinese writing. Kublai also established a system of sea transport and developed inland river and canal routes to move grain from the fertile rice-growing Yangtze River basin to provide food for the growing population. The Grand Canal system was finally extended north to Peking from the Yellow River.
As emperor of China, Kublai demanded loyalty and gifts from other states within the empire. Some of these, such as Annam and Korea, cooperated. To others, Kublai sent messengers asking for payment and attacked if his demands were ignored. Many of these expeditions, however, ended in failure. Twice between 1274 and 1281 Kublai's armies against Japan were either destroyed by storm or crushed by the Japanese because of the Mongols' inability to fight sea battles and the poor quality of their naval forces. Kublai suffered a setback when he failed to conquer the Malay kingdom of Champa in Indochina after a long war (1283–87). Three expeditions to conquer Burma in 1277, 1283, and 1287 also failed. In 1293 near the end of his reign, Kublai launched a naval expedition against the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, but the Mongol forces had to withdraw after considerable losses.
Contact with the West
Under Kublai, the opening of direct contact between China and the West was made possible by Mongol control of central Asian trade routes and aided by the presence of efficient postal services. In the early thirteenth century, large numbers of Europeans and central Asians made their way to China. The presence of the Mongol power also enabled many Chinese to travel freely within the Mongol Empire, all the way to Russia, Persia, and Mesopotamia. There were several direct exchanges of missions between the pope and the Great Khan. In 1266 Kublai entrusted the Polo brothers, two Venetian merchants, to carry a request to the pope for one hundred Christian scholars and technicians. The Polos met with Pope Gregory X (c. 1210–1276) in 1269 and received his blessing but no scholars.
Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324), who accompanied his father on this trip, was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China. It is said that he spent the next seventeen years under Kublai Khan, including official service in the administration and trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. The accuracy of his descriptions of China was questioned, but the popularity of his journal generated great interest among Europeans for going east. Rabban Sauma, a monk born in Peking, crossed central Asia to the Il-Khan's court in Mesopotamia in 1278 and was one of those whom the Mongols sent to Europe to seek Christian help against Islam. Under Kublai, the first direct contact and cultural exchange between China and the West had occurred.
Kublai Khan's legacy
After a glorious reign of thirty-four years, Kublai Khan died in Ta-tu in February 1294. He is regarded as one of the great rulers in history. He was a shrewd and thoughtful ruler of a huge state. He was popular among the Chinese, and his achievements ranked him second to Genghis among the Mongol rulers. He showed great intelligence in using partial adoption of Chinese political traditions and divide-and-rule tactics to help in the administration of a large empire. The main problem with his reign was that as he and his successors became more involved in Chinese traditions, there was a growing conflict between the Mongol rulers of China and those of the other khanates within the Mongol confederacy. They preferred to maintain their own character instead of looking toward China for leadership.
For More Information
Dramer, Kim. Kublai Khan. New York:Chelsea House, 1990.
Rachewiltz, Igor de. Papal Envoys to the Great Khans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1970.
Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Silverberg, Robert. Kublai Khan, Lord of Xanadu. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
Mongolian general who conquered China and went on to rule its Yüan, or Mongol, dynasty. Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan, leader of the nomadic Mongols. Compared to his grandfather, who conquered with an iron fist, Kublai became known for his great humanity. Kublai succeeded his brother Mangu as leader of their grandfather's empire in 1260, and in 1279 conquered the Sung dynasty, thus gaining control of both North and South China. While continuing his rule of Mongol dominions in southern Russia, Persia and Mongolia, Kublai became the first emperor of China's Yüan dynasty. He established a magnificent capital city at Cambuluc, which is now Beijing.