Kublai Khan (1215-94) was the greatest Mongol ruler after his grandfather Genghis Khan. An enigmatic man, he was the first emperor of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty as well as the Great Khan of the Mongolian Empire. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Kublai Khan was an important transitional figure in Mongol history, in particular because he sought to rule — and not merely conquer — the vast domains that the Mongols had subjugated. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]
With the resources of his vast empire, Kublai Khan, the supreme leader of all Mongol tribes, began his drive against the Southern Song. Even before the extinction of the Song dynasty, Kublai Khan had established the first alien dynasty to rule all China— the Yuan (1279-1368). [Source: The Library of Congress]
Kublai Khan ruled China and the eastern portion of the Mongol Empire, which included Korea, Mongolia and Siberia while relatives oversaw the three other main khanates---in Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia. By the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongols had subjugated north China, Korea, and the Muslim kingdoms of Central Asia and had twice penetrated Europe. By 1287, the Mongols had conquered half of the known world, with the Mongol kingdom stretching as far north as Moscow, as far west as Warsaw, as far east as Korea and as far south as Baghdad. It was the largest kingdom the world has ever seen.
In the book “The Ghosts of Birds”, Eliot Weinberger says Khubilai Khan was cruel and efficient during his early years as emperor, but later became grotesquely fat, suffering from gout and other ailments, and detached from governing. He held huge and endless banquets of meat and koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, and was in a near-continual state of inebriation. [At his hunting reserve] four elephants would carry him, lying on a couch, in a gold-plated palanquin decked with tiger skins, accompanied by five hundred falconers and leopards and lynxes trained to chase down bears and wild boars. [Source: “The Ghosts of Birds” by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, 2016) ; Perry Link, professor at Princeton University, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016]
Book: "Kublai Khan" by Morris Rossabi (1988).
Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia Yuan Dynasty Wikipedia ; Mongols in China afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Mongols afe.easia.columbia.edu Mongols Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Mongol Empire allempires.com ; Ghengis Khan, National Geographic National Geographic.com ; Wikipedia Kublai Khan Wikipedia ; Kublai Khan notablebiographies.com
Links in this Website: IMPERIAL CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES factsanddetails.com/china ; CHINESE DYNASTIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; COURT LIFE AND EMPERORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; MANDARINS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EUNUCHS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;TANG DYNASTY (A.D. 690-907) Factsanddetails.com/China ; SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) Factsanddetails.com/China ; YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) ;MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ; QING (MANCHU) DYNASTY (1644-1911) Factsanddetails.com/China ; THEMES IN CHINESE HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--GUNPOWDER, MACHINES, FOODS AND CHAIRS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--PAPER, MONEY, ASTRONOMY, CLOCKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT WALL OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; MARITIME SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CARAVANS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD HISTORY AND EXPLORERS factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; HORSEMEN AND SMALL MINORITIES IN XINJIANG Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 2) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 3) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; 4) Chinese Text Project chinese.dsturgeon.net ; 5) Minnesota State University site mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory ; 6) ChinaVoc.com ChinaVoc.com ; 7) Early Medieval China Journal languages.ufl.edu/EMC ; 8) History of China history-of-china.com ; 9) U.S.C. Education usc.edu/libraries/archives Book: "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press)
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia
Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org ; Scythians iranicaonline.org ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia
Conquests and Areas Ruled by Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan extended the Mongol empire into Korea, southern China, Burma and Vietnam. He was unsuccessful in his bid to bring Japan and Java under Mongol control. With Kublai Khan's death in 1294, Mongol expansion ended. Over time the three other khanates become largely autonomous and free from the Great Khan's leadership, a process that had already begun when Kublai Khan came to power.
Kublai's real power was limited to China and Mongolia, though as Khagan he still had influence in the Ilkhanate and, to a significantly lesser degree, in the Golden Horde. If one counts the Mongol Empire at that time as a whole, his realm reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, from Siberia to what is now Afghanistan – one fifth of the world's inhabited land area. [Source: Wikipedia]
Kublai also devoted great resources to military expansionism. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the initial days of their rule in China, Kublai Khan and the Mongols had remarkable military successes, their greatest victory being the conquest of Southern Song China by 1279 C.E. This particular campaign, for which the Mongols had to organize a navy in order to cross the Yangtze River and move into southern China, entailed tremendous logistical efforts. But his three naval campaigns — two against Japan, in 1274 and 1281, and one against Java in 1292-3 — failed disastrously and led to the eventual collapse of Mongol power in China in 1368. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]
Yuan Dynasty (1215-1368)
The Mongols ruled China from 1215 to 1368. Their dynasty was called the Yuan dynasty. Yuan means "origin" or "primal." Genghis Khan united the Mongols in 1206. He made his first inroads into China in 1215 when he captured Yanjing (Beijing), then a relatively large city in northern China. The complete conquest of China was left to his grandson Kublai Khan, who reached Linan in 1276 and claimed China in 1279.
After the Song Dynasty had been destroyed, in 1279 Kublai declared himself emperor of a united China with its capital at Dadu, and he established the Yuan ("first," "beginning") Dynasty (1279-1368). Kublai, who took the Chinese-style reign title Zhiyuan ("the greatest of the Yuan"), proved himself to be one of the most able rulers of imperial China. [Source: Library of Congress *]
A rich cultural diversity evolved in China during the Yuan Dynasty, as it had in other periods of foreign dynastic rule. Major achievements included the development of drama and the novel and the increased use of the written vernacular. The Yuan was involved in a fair amount of cultural exchange because of its extensive West Asian and European contacts. The introduction of foreign musical instruments enriched the Chinese performing arts. The conversion to Islam of growing numbers of people in northwestern and southwestern China dates from this period. Nestorian Christianity and Roman Catholicism also enjoyed a period of toleration. Lamaism flourished, although native Daoism endured Mongol persecutions. Chinese governmental practices and examinations were reinstated by the Mongols in the hope of maintaining order within society. Advances were realized in the fields of travel literature, cartography, geography, and scientific education. Certain key Chinese innovations--such as printing techniques, porcelain playing cards, and medical literature--were introduced in Europe, while European skills, such as the production of thin glass and cloisonné, became popular in China.*
The Mongols undertook extensive public works. Land and water communications were reorganized and improved. To provide against possible famines, new granaries were ordered to be built throughout the empire. Dadu was rebuilt with new palace grounds that included artificial lakes, hills, and parks, and the capital became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. These commercially oriented improvements encouraged overland as well as maritime commerce throughout Asia and facilitated the first direct Chinese contacts with Europe. Chinese and Mongol travelers to the West were able to provide assistance in such areas as hydraulic engineering, and they brought back to China new scientific discoveries, agricultural crops, methods of food preparation, and architectural innovations.*
Early records of travel by Westerners to East Asia date from this time. Much that the Western world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries knew about the Mongols and Asia was the result of the famous missions of a Venetian trading family. The first mission was by two brothers, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, from 1260 to 1268. Another started in 1271, when they were joined by Niccolò's son, Marco. Marco Polo, who remained in Asia until 1295, was trusted by Kublai Khan and undertook a number of diplomatic missions and administrative assignments for him throughout the empire. The account of his travels, Il milione (or, The Million, known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo), appeared about the year 1299 and astounded the people of Europe, who knew little of the highly developed culture of East Asia. The works of John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck also provided early descriptions of the Mongols to the West.*
The Mongols sought, but failed, to govern China through its traditional institutions. At the outset, they discriminated against the Chinese socially and politically, monopolized the most important central and regional government posts, and developed an unprecedented and complex six-tier local-government administration. Mongols also preferred employing non-Chinese from other parts of the Mongol domain--Inner Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe--in those positions for which no Mongol could be found. Chinese, in turn, were more often employed in non-Chinese regions of the empire.*
Genghis Khan and the Mongols Invade China
After the Mongols under Genghis Khan took control of much of Mongolia they set their sights on the Jin, a rich empire in northern China with 20 million people. From intelligence sources such as merchants and defecting Jin civil servants, Genghis Khan learned that the Jin empire was racked with internal problems and vulnerable to attack and that its huge army of 600,000 troops was pinned down on the southern border where the Jins were engaged in a long-running war with the Chinese.
Before leaving on the 1211 campaign against the Jin with a force of 70,000 men, Genghis Khan told his people that "Heaven has promised me victory." The Mongols breached the Great Wall of China by advancing through a 15-mile-long gorge with the help of a turncoat Chinese general.
The Mongols had little trouble conquering the overmanned and inefficient Jin army. Using the feigned retreat tactic to great success, a Mongol general nicknamed "Arrow" defeated the Jin army in an important battle at Juyong Pass. Capturing the Jin capital of Zhongdu (near present-day Beijing) was more problematic. The 40-foot walls that surrounded the city initially proved to be too difficult to surmount as the Mongol army contented itself with pillaging the Jin subjects in countryside around Zhongdu.
In 1214, the Mongols surrounded Zhongdu and used catapults to bombard the city's walls. After a short siege, the Jin Emperor Xuanzong gave up and presented Genghis Khan with a tribute of gold, silver, other treasures and a Jin princess with 500 servants in return for sparing the city.
Fearing another Mongol offensive, the Jin emperor moved his capital from Zhonghu southward to Kaifeng in 1214. Suspecting that the Jin emperor might be trying to regroup for an attack, the Mongols laid siege to Zhongdu again and this time pulverized the city and made off with the imperial treasure. Years later when a traveler remarked about a white hill he was told it was composed of the bones of Zhongdu's victims.
Kublai Khan and China
In 1271, Kublai established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China, Korea, and some adjacent areas, and assumed the role of Emperor of China. By 1279, the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty was completed and Kublai became the first non-native emperor to conquer all of China.
Having spent much of his life in China, Kublai Khan was surrounded by Confucian scholars and seemed as interested in looking after the welfare of subjects as he did in conquering new lands. Kublai Khan's biographer Morris Rossabi wrote: "Kublai was like other Mongol rulers in that he was a conqueror. But he also was able to govern, and he governed very astutely."
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Among other things, Kublai Khan: 1) established an administration to govern China; 2) supported agriculture, trade, and crafts; 3) patronized painting, the decorative arts, and theater; 4) provided funds and support for Buddhist monasteries, Confucian scholarship, Islamic mosques, and Nestorian Christian churches [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]
“Notwithstanding the aspects of their rule that were certainly negative for China, the Mongols did initiate many policies — especially under the rule of Kublai Khan — that supported and helped the Chinese economy, as well as social and political life in China. In order to ingratiate himself with Confucian China, for example, Kublai restored the rituals at court — the music and dance rituals that were such an integral part of the Confucian ideology. He also founded ancestral temples for his predecessors — his father and Genghis (Genghis) Khan (his grandfather) — in order to carry out the practices of ancestor worship that were so critical for the Chinese.
“And in an even greater effort to ingratiate himself personally to the Chinese, Kublai insisted on giving his second son, Jin Chin, a Chinese-style education. Confucian scholars tutored the young boy, and he was introduced to the tenets of both Confucianism and Buddhism. Kublai also set up institutions to rule China that were very familiar to the Chinese, adapting or borrowing wholesale many of the traditional governmental institutions of China. For example, the Six Ministries that had been responsible for carrying out policy were retained by Kublai's government, as was the Secretariat, a decision-making body. And the provincial administrative structure that organized China into provinces, further divided into districts and counties and so on, was not changed. The Chinese, therefore, found much of the Yuan Dynasty's political structures to be familiar. And finally, Kublai's economic policies in China, at least initially, promoted the interests of China and were quite successful.”
Kublai Khan’s Early Life
Kublai Khan was the fourth son of Tuo Lei (his second son with Sorghaghtani Beki), grandson of Genghis Khan, and brother of Mongke Khan. He was born in 1215. When he was still a child, he joined in the western expedition of the Mongol troops with Genghis Khan. According to to the Chinese, “When he became a young man, he began to consider displaying his ability in the country. He made friends with many men of letters in the Central Plains, and got himself familiar with the circumstances of the Central Plains and the Confucianism in administer the state well and ensure the national security.” [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
As his grandfather Genghis Khan advised, Sorghaghtani chose a Buddhist Tangut woman as her son's nurse, whom Kublai later honored highly. On his way home after the Mongol conquest of Khwarezmia, Genghis Khan performed a ceremony on his grandsons Möngke and Kublai after their first hunt in 1224 near the Ili River. Kublai was nine years old and with his eldest brother killed a rabbit and an antelope. His grandfather smeared fat from killed animals onto Kublai's middle finger in accordance with a Mongol tradition.[Source: Wikipedia +]
After the Mongol conquest of the Jin dynasty, in 1236, Ögedei gave Hebei (attached with 80,000 households) to the family of Tolui, who died in 1232. Kublai received an estate of his own, which included 10,000 households. Because he was inexperienced, Kublai allowed local officials free rein. Corruption amongst his officials and aggressive taxation caused large numbers of Chinese peasants to flee, which led to a decline in tax revenues. Kublai quickly came to his appanage in Hebei and ordered reforms. Sorghaghtani sent new officials to help him and tax laws were revised. Thanks to those efforts, many of the people who fled returned. +
Two key figures closely related to Kublai Khan include Chabi, his second principal wife, and the Tibetan monk 'Phags-pa lama, who was his close friend and adviser. The most prominent, and arguably most influential, component of Kublai Khan's early life was his study and strong attraction to contemporary Chinese culture. Kublai invited Haiyun, the leading Buddhist monk in North China, to his ordo in Mongolia. When he met Haiyun in Karakorum in 1242, Kublai asked him about the philosophy of Buddhism. Haiyun named Kublai's son, who was born in 1243, Zhenjin (True Gold in English). Haiyun also introduced Kublai to the formerly Daoist and now Buddhist monk, Liu Bingzhong. Liu was a painter, calligrapher, poet, and mathematician, and he became Kublai's advisor when Haiyun returned to his temple in modern Beijing. Kublai soon added the Shanxi scholar Zhao Bi to his entourage. Kublai employed people of other nationalities as well, for he was keen to balance local and imperial interests, Mongol and Turk.
According to the Silk Road Foundation’s report of Marco Polo's account “Kublai Khan, though ruling with all the spender of an Emperor of China, never forgot where he had come from: it is said that he had had seeds of steppe grass sown in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace so that he could always be reminded of his Mongol homeland. During his long stay in Cathay and Marco had many conversations with Kublai, Marco must have come to appreciate the Great Khan's awareness of his Mongol origins, and the detail in which the Mongols are described in his book suggests that he was moved to make a close study of their ways. [Source: Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo]
Kublai Takes Power and Defeats His Brother
Kublai Khan succeeded his older brother Möngke as Khagan (Mongolian title equal to Emperor) in 1260. Kublai was the overwhelming choice of the kuriltai as Mongke's successor but Kublai's selection was opposed violently , however, by his younger brother, Ariq-Boke. Kublai had to defeat Ariq Böke in the Toluid Civil War lasting until 1264. This episode marked the beginning of disunity in the empire. After becoming khan, Kublai devoted his attention to administrative reforms of his vast empire.
Kublai was elected as the Great Khan in 1259 after Mongke Khan, another grandson of Genghis khan, died of dysentery while fighting in China. Mongke had turned his attention away from Europe and advanced on southern China, which had yet not been subjugated by the Mongols. The Mongols had fought off and on with the Southern Song Dynasty, starting in 1235. When Mongke died the Mongols were in the middle of attacking the Song city of Hechou using a bridge of boats across the Yangtze. Many died when rough waters overturned many of the boats.
After Mongke's death, Kublai Khan had to fend off a challenge from his brother Arik-Boko (Arigh Boke) for the throne. Kublai was planning attack an on the Yangtze at the time of Mongke's death but he called that off. Instead of returning to Karakoram, the Mongol capital, where Arik-Boko was maneuvering to prevent himself from being taken prisoner, Kublai Khan withdrew to Shangdu (Xanadu) in northern China, where he proclaimed himself Khan a month before his brother.
Arik-Boko led a group of Mongols who wanted to return to the traditional horse-bound Mongol way of life. Kublai realized that horses were useful in conquering and building an empire but not administering it and that an empire as large as the Mongol's had to be administered through the cities by a settled population.
After a four year struggle and a series of battles with Arik-Boko, Kublai finally emerged as the undisputed Great Khan in 1264 at the age of 48. Kublai Khan spared his Arik-Boko's life but ordered the execution of four of Arik-Boro's advisors.
Kublai Khan's Conquest of China
Mongol bombing attack
The Mongols had fought off and on with the Southern Song Dynasty, starting in 1235. When Mongke died the Mongols were in the middle of attacking the Song city of Hechou using a bridge of boats across the Yangtze. Many died when rough waters overturned many of the boats.
In 1268 Kublai was able to turn his full attention to the war in China. A series of campaigns, distinguished by the skill of Bayan (grandson of Subetei), culminated in 1276 in the capture of Hangzhou, the Song capital. It took three more years to subdue the outlying provinces. The last action of the war--a naval battle in Guangzhou Bay, in which the remnants of the Song fleet were destroyed by a Mongol fleet made up of defectors from the Song navy--took place in 1279. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Kublai did not share Mongke's fierce desire to conquer the world. He had warred against China with determination, but apparently he realized that there was a limit to the Mongol capabilities for consolidating and for controlling conquered territory. It is likely that he recognized that this limit was being approached because of an event that occurred during the interregnum between Mongke's death and his own accession.*
Kublai Khan and the Defeat of the Song Dynasty in China
Kublai Khan became the leader of the Mongol forces in the east in 1260. He established a capital in Beijing, and determined to conquer all China and rule their as emperor. In 1271, he proclaimed the establishment of a new dynasty, the Yuan, and began a campaign of conquest, aiming south. When Kublai Khan became ruler of northern China he tried to entice the Song dynasty into becoming one of his vassals. The Mongols had fought off and on with Southern Song Dynasty for more than four decades.
Kublai Khan sent an emissary to the Song offering them good terms if they submitted to Mongol rule. After the emissary was taken captive war broke out. For five years Kublai Khan's army besieged Xiangyang and Fancheng, two important Song cities on the Han River that guarded an important rice growing region in the Yangtze Basin. Using catapults capable of hurling 200-pound stones and a navy of Chinese- and Korean-built ships, the Mongols captured the two cities in 1273.
Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “Kublai was hugely outnumbered. The Song dynasty was a "a monumental culture" of 70 million people, says Man, and 10 to 100 times stronger in military terms. The Mongols had to be clever. One major battle took place at Xiangyang, a city with impenetrable walls dominating the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze. "This turned into a sort of a mini Troy," says Man. "The siege went on for five years. The Chinese could not break out, the Mongols could not break in. There were countless attempts to sneak in, to break in, to break out - all foiled. So there had to be some sort of a new initiative, and the initiative was suggested by the empire itself." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]
“The Mongol empire, that is. Kublai's relatives ruled all the way to Eastern Europe and he had heard of great catapults the Christians had used during the Crusades. He summoned two Persian engineers, who built the equivalent of heavy artillery - a catapult that could sling 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of rock over 200 meter-300 meter (650 feet - 1,000 feet). After a few shots to get the range, it brought down a mighty tower in a cloud of dust. The capture of the city allowed the Mongol fleets access to southern China which, for the first time, was taken by barbarians." ***
Hangzhzou was captured in 1276 by a Mongol army commanded by the Turkish general Bayan. In 1279, the last Song holdout were defeated. After capturing Hangzhou, Kublai Khan showed more restraint than other the Mongol leaders: the defeated Song army was not massacred; the city's inhabitants were not massacred; and the Song court was allowed to keep some of it wealth and privileges.
Chinese Take on Kublai Khan’s Conquest of China
According to the Chinese government: “In 1251, Mengge Khan succeeded the throne, and Kublai was in charge of the military affairs in southern desert area. He summoned men of worth, and gathered advice from all quarters. He also began to learn and accept Confucianism, and displayed his large-mindedness and bearing, which were different from other Mongolian rulers. In 1252, he was assigned to go on a punitive expedition to Song dynasty, and he fought his way from western Sichuan province to Yunnan province. After he destroyed Dali in 1253, he returned to the north with his troops. Wulianghatai remained to conquest other troops, and thus most of the areas in the southwest were under the rule of the Mongols. In the same year, he accepted his enfeoffment in Jingzhao, and in 1256, in Huaizhou. He built his mansion in the east of Hengzhou and Longgang, which is on the north of Huai River, and finally, the prefecture of Kaiping was built (today, it is in the east of Zhenglanqi). [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
“During this period, he devoted great effort to carry out the "law of the Chinese", reformed the old rules and established the new order. He also took a series of measures, for example, rash killing was forbidden, garrison troops were asked to open up wasteland for cultivation and store up the grains, and the financial systems were rectified, which won him the support of the Chinese landed class. But because of such policy, he was also opposed and envied by some of the Mongol noble class people. In 1258, he went to fight with Mengge Khan against Song dynasty, and besieged Ezhou (Wuchang, today) in the following year. But the news came that Mengge Khan died and his little brother Alibuge was after the throne, Kublai decided to make peace with Song and returned to the north. In 1206, with the support of Hedan, Azhiji, Tachaer, Yixiangge, Hulahuer and Zhaodu, Kublai succeeded the throne in Kaiping. He followed the example of the Central Plain dynasties, and used Zhongtong as the title of his reign. In 1264, he put down the turmoil caused by Alibuge, and moved the center of his reign from Kaiping to Yanjing (Beijing, today), and called it Zhongdu. In 1271, according to the custom of the Central Plain, he changed the title of his dynasty into "Dayuan". ~
In 1272, he altered the name of Zhongdu to Dadu, and established the capital there. Then, he adopted the advices of the Chinese scholar-bureaucrat, "to set Jin and Song dynasty as the recent example, and also learn from the ancient dynasties like Han and Tang" and the organs of his nation were gradually consummated. He preserved the Mongol's original "Daluhuachi"(in charge of guarding), "Zaluhuachi" (in charge of lawsuit) and so on and in central government, he set up Zhongshu Ministry to deal with the political affairs, Supreme Military Council to hold the military leadership and Yushi Ministry to supervise the officials. He also set up 6 ministries under the rule of Z, which include Ministry of Civil Offices, Ministry of Revenue, Ministry of Rites, Ministry of War, Ministry of Punishment, and Ministry of Works. He also set up ten Xuanfu Ministry, and ten XingZhongshu Ministry, and Lu, Fu, Zhou Xian in succession, which played a positive role in Yuan dynasty's centralization of state power, and also had far-reaching influence on later generations. While he stabilized and solidified his state power, he restarted the war against Southern Song dynasty. ~
“In 1273, he broke through Fancheng and Xiangyang. In 1276, the royalty of Southern Song Dynasty surrendered to him. From 1278 to1279, he defeated Wen Tianxiang, Lu Xiufu, Zhang Shijie and other forces that were against Yuan's rule, and finally destroyed the Song dynasty and unified the whole country. His dynasty is the first one that is ruled by minority in the Chinese history.” ~
Kublai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty
Kublai Khan was the first emperor in the Yuan Dynasty in China. He ruled China for 34 years while the Yuan dynasty itself endured for 89 years. Kublai Khan finished conquering China in 1279. After that he established a new Mongol and Chinese capital in Daidu (Beijing). Daidu meant "great capital."
Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “Kublai ruled over all of present-day China. Yunnan in the south-west bordering Vietnam and Burma, Xinjiang stretching into central Asia, and of course Tibet. It is paradoxical that the country owes its enormous size to invaders with expansionist ambitions. Kublai's capital was Beijing. He gave his dynasty a Chinese name, Yuan, and he ruled through a Chinese civil service. Chinese history has returned the compliment by absorbing the Mongol dynasty into its own imperial story - and absorbing part of Mongolia itself into the Chinese state. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]
Under Kublai Khan, a few hundred thousand Mongols ruled more than 60 million Chinese. The Yuan dynasty evolved out of Mongol rule and used Mongols and Europeans in their administration. Chinese were relegated to third-class citizens after the Mongols and their northern allies.
The Yuan dynasty didn't last long. The Chinese population didn't like the idea of foreigners ruling their country and replacing China's powerful civil servants with Mongols and other foreigners. To maintain control the Mongols courted wealthy landowners, which further alienated ordinary Chinese.
During the Yuan dynasty, Nestorian Christianity was tolerated and Islam spread in the south and west of China. Other religions welcomed into the Mongol court were Taoism, Manichesim (followers of the Persian saint Mani, who merged Zoroastrian with Christianity). Kublai Khan himself was seduced by a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Phagpa, Why did Kublai Khan chose Tibetan Buddhism out of all the religions welcomed into the Mongol court? Perhaps, some have reasoned it was because Tibetan Buddhism was most like traditional Mongol shamanism.
Kublai Khan in Beijing
Mongol cavalry attack Kublai established in 1260 of a winter capital at what is now Beijing but was then called Dadu ("great capital," also called Khanbalik--Marco Polo's Cambaluc) which shifted the political center of the Mongol empire south into China and increased Chinese influence. Kublai maintained a summer residence north of the Great Wall at Shangdu (the Xanadu of Coleridge). [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989; Based on information from John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, Boston, 1978, 172-73; and Charles J. Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History, Bloomington, Indiana, 1985]
Major construction of Daidu began in 1267 next to the old Jin capital of Zhongdu (both cities today are within Beijing's city limits). The massive capital was surrounded by an 18 mile wall. Kublai Khan lived in a huge palace located near present-day Beihai Park with apartments for his huge family and a banquet hall able accommodate 6,000 people. Inspired by Persian astronomers Kublai Khan built an observatory in Daidu with a sphere that measured angles between celestial objects.
Describing 13th century Beijing, Marco Polo wrote: "The new city is a form perfectly square...each of its sides being six miles. It is enclosed with walls of earth...the wall of the city has twelve gates. The multitude of inhabitants, and the number of houses in the city of Kanbalu, as also in the suburbs outside the city, of which there are twelve, corresponding to the twelve gates, is greater than the mind can comprehend...
"Within these walls...stands the palace of the Great Khan, the most extensive that has ever been known. The sides of the great halls are adorned with dragons in carved wood and gold, figures of warriors, of birds and of beasts. On each of the sides of the palace are grand flights of marble steps." On the Mongol New Year, "great numbers of beautiful white horses are presented to the Great Khan...all his elephants, amounting to five thousand, are exhibited in the procession, covered with housing of cloth, richly worked with gold and silk."
Marco Polo described glazed roof tiles of "red and green and blue and yellow” in Daidu that “are bright like crystal, so that they shine very far." He said that he could estimate the city's population, based on the number of prostitutes — 20,000 — and said coal was so plentiful that people could take three hot baths a week.
Discovery of Kublai Khan's Beijing Palace
In June 2016, Becca Stanek wrote in The Week: “Archaeologists may have finally solved the mystery of where Kublai Khan's legendary Yuan dynasty palace once stood. During underground renovations at the Palace Museum in Beijing, experts found "a 3-meter thick rammed earth and rubble foundation" that indicates part of the palace may have once stood where the museum is now located. [Source: Becca Stanek, The Week, June 9, 2016]
“The museum's site has also been found to be the one-time home of both the Ming and Qing dynasty palaces, meaning the Yuan dynasty palace could be just another layer in a long line of construction projects. "From a historical perspective, it gives us evidence that the architectural history runs uninterrupted from the Yuan, to the Ming and Qing dynasties," said Wang Guangyao, the museum's Institute of Archaeology deputy director.
“Prior to this discovery, some of the only clues archaeologists had about Khan's palace were from 13th-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo's writings, in which Polo described the imperial home as "the greatest palace there ever was." Polo claimed that the walls were "covered with silver and gold" and that the main hall was so massive it "could easily seat 6,000 people for dinner," South China Morning Post reports.
“However, after the Yuan dynasty, which lasted from 1279 to 1368, the palace seemingly disappeared — until, that is, right now. "As archaeologists, we can only define what we have found," Wang said, noting that it was too early to draw any conclusions about connections between the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties from the finding. "But it gives us a direction for future exploration."”
Achievements of Kublai Khan's Yuan Dynasty
Even though ordinary Chinese had little affection for him, Kublai Khan united China for the first time in 370 years and was a great supporter of Chinese culture. He put 3 million people to work extending the Grand Canal 135 miles to north so that rice could be transported from the fertile Yangtze Valley to Beijing. He also developed a fast, efficient, pony-express-like postal system that utilized thousands of horses; built roads between Beijing and the far reaches of the empire; reformed the Chinese bureaucracy; encouraged the arts and sciences; developed a famine relief program; and developed the world’s first extensively-used paper currency system.
Kublai Khan promoted trade throughout the Mongol Empire. To Daidu, Marco Polo wrote: "are brought articles of greater cost and rarity, and in greater abundance...than to any other city in the world." From India came spices and pearls, and "no day in the year passes that there do no enter the city 1,000 cart-loads of silk."
Kublai Khan established an agricultural ministry that encouraged farmers to organize communes and distribute seeds and animals. "Before Kublai, the Mongols thought of farmers as useless people, the Chinese historian Chen Gaohua told National Geographic, "But Kublai appreciated them. He knew how to rule a farming country."
Painting of Kublai Khan Hunting
National Palace Museum, Taipei description of “Kublai Khan Hunting” by Liu Kuan-tao (fl. 13th century), Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk (182.9 x 104.1 centimeters): Hunting was important in the lifestyle of steppe peoples, and the Great Khan in the Yuan dynasty held a large-scale fenced hunt every year. The grounds for the early spring hunt were set up in Liu-lin to the southeast of the capital Ta-tu (Peking). This work, done in 1280, is a representation of this important Mongol activity. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]
“Done by the court artist Liu Kuan-tao, he carefully described the clothes and accessories of Kublai Khan, his consort Chabi, and the figures attending them. This work thereby documents the high level refinement of objects used by the Mongols at court then. In addition to the meticulous and individual treatment of each figure, the features of hairstyle and skin color distinguish their ethnicity, providing a glimpse into the open multicultural atmosphere of the Yuan dynasty. \=/
“Liu Kuan-tao, a native of Hebei province, was a celebrated court painter of the early Yuan. His figure paintings were in the style of the early Chin and T'ang masters, while his landscapes followed the styles of Li Ch'eng and Kuo Hsi. His animal and bird-and-flower paintings combined the virtues of the old masters to become famous at the time. \=/
“Appearing against a backdrop of northern steppes and desert is a scene of figures on horseback. The one sitting on a dark horse and wearing a white coat is most likely the famous Mongol emperor Kublai Khan with his empress next to him. They are accompanied by a host of servants and officials; the one to the left is about to shoot an arrow at one of the geese in the sky above. The figure wearing blue has a hawk famous for its hunting skills, and a trained wild-cat sits on the back of the horse in front. The dark-skinned figure is perhaps from somewhere in the Near East or Central Asia. In the background, a camel train proceeds slowly behind a sandy slope, adding a touch of life to the barren scenery. \=/
“Every aspect of this work has been rendered with exceptional detail. Appearing quite realistic, even the representation of Kublai Khan in this painting corresponds quite closely to his imperial portrait in the Museum collection. Though few of Liu Kuan-tao's paintings have survived, this work serves as testimony to his fame in Yuan court art. The artist's signature and the date (1280) appear in the lower left.” \=/
Kublai Khan's Foreign Policy and Disastrous Military Campaigns
Kublai Khan employed thousands of foreigners, mostly Persians and Arabs, as envoys and administrators. Foreigners were called "colored eyes." Many small kingdoms and principalities along Mongol shipping routes submitted to the Mongols in the 1270s without resistance and paid tribute on demand to Mongols seafaring generals to avoid trouble.
Like Genghis, Kublai Khan was generally very tolerant of religions. Many members of his family were members of the Nestorian Christian faith. Kublai Khan sent a Turkish Nestorian Christian envoy named Rabban Sauma to Europe to enlist the help of the Christian monarchs in an offensive against the Muslims. Sauma wrote a diary of his adventures that revealed the wonders of medieval Europe to China as Marco Polo's accounts described the wonders of China for European readers.
Kublai also devoted great resources to military expansionism.According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the initial days of their rule in China, Kublai Khan and the Mongols had remarkable military successes, their greatest victory being the conquest of Southern Song China by 1279 C.E. This particular campaign, for which the Mongols had to organize a navy in order to cross the Yangtze River and move into southern China, entailed tremendous logistical efforts. But his three naval campaigns — including two against Japan, in 1274 and 1281 — failed disastrously and led to the eventual collapse of Mongol power in China in 1368.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]
The Japanese expeditions “were extremely costly and weighed heavily upon the Mongol rulers in China. And a 1292 expedition against Java, also a disaster, only served to further weaken the Mongols' resources and resolve. Though this time the Mongols actually managed to land in Java, the heat, tropical environment, and parasitic and infectious diseases there led to their withdrawal from Java within a year.
“Similar problems afflicted the Mongols in all their attacks and invasions into mainland Southeast Asia — in Burma, Cambodia, and in particular, Vietnam. Though they initially succeeded in some of these campaigns, the Mongols were always forced to withdraw eventually because of adverse weather and diseases. It would seem that the Mongols simply were not proficient in naval warfare and did not have much luck in this part of the world. And with each failed campaign, vast sums were expended, and the empire was further weakened.”
Marco Polo and Kublai Khan
After a three-and-a-half year journey, Marco Polo, his father and uncle arrived in Shangdu (Xanadu), Kublai Khan's summer capital, not so far from Beijing, in 1275, when Marco was 21. Word of the Polos journey had been relayed to Kublai Khan by Pony-Express-style messengers. Envoys of the Great Khan reached the Polos in central China. They escorted the Polos for the last 40 days of their trip to Shangdu.
Marco Polo met Kublai Khan soon after arriving in Shangdu. He called the great Khan a "Lord of Lords" and "the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world" — and this was probably no exaggeration.
Marco Polo described great parties hosted by Kublai Khan with as many as 40,000 guests. He reported that the Khan once received "a gift of more than 100,000 whites horses very beautiful and fine" and employed 10,000 falconers and 20,000 dog handlers.
Marco Polo as Kublai Khan's Envoy
Kublai Khan welcomed the Polos like long lost friends. He used Marco Polo as an emissary and ambassador in China and in other Asian kingdoms. This was not that unusual. Kublai Khan employed thousands of foreigners, mostly Persians and Arabs. Scholars deduce that Marco Polo could speak Persian and Mongol but not much Chinese (he often used Persian names rather than Chinese ones for the places he described) and spent much of his time with foreigners. Marco Polo didn't mention what his father and uncle did. It seems probable that they worked as merchants.
In a third person account from his book, Marco Polo wrote: "Messer Marco was in the Khan's employment some seventeen years, continually going and coming, hither and thither, on the missions that were entrusted to him...And, as he knew all the sovereign's ways, like a sensible man he always took much pains to gather knowledge of anything that would be likely to interest him, and then on his return to Court he would relate everything in regular order, and thus the Emperor came to hold him in great love and favor."
As Kublai Khan’s special envoy, Marco Polo boasted he explored "more of those strange regions than any man who was ever born.” Marco Polo claimed that he was the governor of Yangzhou for three years. Some scholars think he was exaggerating. Others say he could have been telling the truth because Kublai Khan was in need of administrators.
Marco Polo and Xanadu
Xanadu (Shangdu) was established in present-day Inner Mongolia about 200 miles northeast of Beijing. Kublai Khan set up a capital with a pleasure palace there before he established Daidu. Xanadu was destroyed in 1368 and would likely have been forgotten were in not for Marco Polo's accounts of the palace and Samuel Tayler Coleridge's poem Kublai Khan.
Marco Polo estimated the length of Shangdu’s pleasure palace walls to be 16 miles around (Chinese archaeologists have estimated that the true figure is 5.5 miles) and described monasteries of Buddhist "idolaters" who supplied Kublai Khan's court with sorcerers and astrologers.
On Kublai Khan's pleasure palace at Xanadu, Marco Polo wrote: "There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment...Round this palace is a wall...and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of a ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gyrfalcons and hawks...The gyrfalcons alone amount to more than 200.
"At a spot in the park where there is a charming wood he has another Palace built of cane. It is gilt all over, most elaborately finished inside and decorated with beasts and birds of very skillful workmanship. It is reared on gilt and varnished pillars, on each of which stands a dragon entwining the pillar with tail and supporting the roof on outstretched limbs. The roof is also made of canes, so varnished that it is quite waterproof."
Kublai Khan and Xanadu
On Kublai Khan and his pleasure palace, Marco Polo wrote: “Once a week he comes in person to inspect [falcons and animals] in the mew. Often, too, he enters the park with a leopard on the crupper of his horse; when he feels inclined, he lets it go and thus catches a hare or stag or roebuck to give to the gyrfalcons that he keeps in the mew. And this he does for recreation and sport."
“The lord abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months, to wit, June, July and August, preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very hot place. When the 28th day of August arrives, he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces...the Great Khan had it so designed that it can be moved whenever he fancies... It is held in place by more than 200 chains of silk”.
The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote a weird, largely nonsensical poem about Kublai Khan and Xanadu called is "Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream”, which he conceived after falling asleep while reading and taking opium. Colerdige later wrote, "During three hours of profound sleep, he composes 300 lines of poetry. After he woke up he wrote down the 54 lines of Kubla Khan when he was interrupted by a visitor. When he returned to his desk he could no longer remember his dream poem."
Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream “begins:
In Xanadu die Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea “
And ends with
And all should cry Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise “
Later Life, Death and Successors of Kublai Khan
In January (lunar calendar), 1294, Kublai died of illness in Dadu, the capital of Yuan. After Yuan Chengzong Tiemuer succeeded the throne, Kublai was given the posthumous title of "Shengdeshengongwenwu Emperor", and posthumous title of honor "shizu".
Kublai Khan had four wives, numerous concubines and children. According to Marco Polo, he fathered 22 sons. After the death of his favorite wife and the son he chose to succeed him, Kublai Khan became a recluse. By the time he died in 1294 at the ripe old age of 79, he had lost even minimal control over the other khanates. He was buried in Mongolia and, as was true with his grandfather Genghis Khan, no one knows the location of his tomb.
On his later life, John Man, author of a biography of Kublai Khan, told the BBC."He became old, he became fat, he became ill. His only son and heir died, his wife died, and he himself died in 1294 and left this part of the empire to his heirs, and none of them matched him in competence. So 80 years later, they were chased out in a revolution and went back to the grassland from which they originally emerged." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]
In time, Kublai's successors became sinicized, and they then lost all influence on other Mongol lands across Asia. Gradually, they lost influence in China as well. The reigns of the later Yuan emperors were short and were marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated from both their Mongolian army and their Chinese subjects. China was torn by dissension and unrest; bandits ranged the country without interference from the weakening Yuan armies. [Source: Library of Congress]
Impact of Kublai Khan's Conquest of China
Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “When the mighty Genghis Khan died in 1227, he had already claimed an empire stretching from the Pacific to Europe. His grandson Kublai set out to finish the job, and started by moving south to attack China's Song dynasty. But China had been a united empire on and off for more than 1,000 years. So what did the Song dynasty rulers make of Kublai's ambition? "For the Song, it would been absolutely inconceivable that the Mongols could take over the whole of China,"says John Man, author of a biography of Kublai Khan. "It would have been like, I don't know, the Picts taking over the Roman Empire or the Sioux in North America taking over the whole of Canada and the United States - inconceivable. So when it actually happened, the shock was catastrophic." The child emperor committed suicide. So did many loyal officials and their families. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]
“Over centuries, the Chinese had got used to regarding themselves as THE world civilisation, and now this civilisation was at the mercy of people they viewed as barbarians. "Barbarians are these people who are not Chinese - savages, hovering between human and some kind of beast," says Xun Zhou, a historian at Hong Kong University. She points out that unease about the barbarian or foreign devil is embedded in Chinese writing. Part of the character used to refer to them is the one used for animals. "These people looked different. And that difference proposed a problem," says Xun Zhou. "For China, they don't really know how they should react to these people." ***
“Mongol pleasures included wrestling, fermented mare's milk and throat singing, where the singer sings chords instead of single notes. All very different from the southern Chinese elites who wore exquisite silks, admired each other's poetry and went to art exhibitions. They paid armies to do the fighting." ***
Galloping as they did from one end of Eurasia to the other, the Mongols had picked up plenty of useful novelties. "They introduced buttons," says Verity Wilson, an expert on Chinese clothes and textiles. "Prior to this time, men and women had always closed their robes with some sort of belt. But, the Yuan dynasty is credited with bringing to China the toggle-and-loop button, which now today we just call Chinese. It's a real marker of Chinese dress that they're closed with these toggle-and-loop buttons. But they didn't really come in until the Yuan dynasty." ***
Last Years of Mongol Empire in China
After the death of Kublai Khan, the Yuan dynasty became weaker and the Yuan dynasty leaders that followed him were increasingly aloof and paranoid. In the last years of Mongol rule, skittish Khans placed informers in the households of rich families, forbade people from gathering in groups and prohibited Chinese from carrying arms. Only one family in ten was allowed to possess a carving knife.
In the 14th century a series of epidemics and famines killed an estimated 35 million people — one in three Chinese. It is estimated that six million died of starvation during the Great Famine of 1333 and 1337 alone.
The last of the nine successors of Kublai was expelled from Dadu in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and died in Karakorum in 1370. Zhu Yuanzhang (Hung Wu), a "self-made man of great talents" and the son of a farm laborer who lost his entire family in an epidemic when he was only seventeen. After spending several years in a Buddhist monastery Zhu launched what became a thirteen year revolt against the Mongols as the head of a Chinese peasant insurgency called the Red Turbans, made up of Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists and Manichaeists.
Mongols cracked down ruthlessly on the Chinese but failed to suppress the Chinese custom of exchanging little round full moon cakes during the coming of the full moon. Like fortune cookies, the cakes carried a paper messages. The clever rebels used the innocent-looking moon cakes to give instructions to the Chinese to rise up and massacre the Mongols at the time of the full moon in August 1368.
The end of Yuan dynasty came in 1368 when the rebels surrounded Beijing and the Mongols were ousted. The last Yuan emperor, Toghon Temür Khan, didn't even attempt to defend his khanate. Instead he fled with his the Empress and his concubines — first to Shangtu (Xanadu), then to Karakoram, the original Mongol capital, where he was killed when Zhu Yuanzhang became the leader of the Ming Dynasty.
Although Zhu, who adopted Mongol military methods, drove the Mongols out of China, he did not destroy their power. A later Chinese army invaded Mongolia in 1380. In 1388 a decisive victory was won; about 70,000 Mongols were taken prisoner, and Karakorum was annihilated. [Source: Library of Congress]
Image Sources: Genghis and Kublai Khan, Ohio State University; Mongol cavalry attack, Washington University; Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated October 2021