Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan
Mongol Emperor of China
In Power May 5, 1260 – Feb. 18, 1294
Born Sept. 23, 1215
Died Feb. 18, 1294 (at age 78)
Dadu (Khanbaliq)
Nationality Mongolian
Dynasty Yuan

Kublai Khan (1215-1294) was the Mongol emperor under whom the Mongol Empire reached its greatest extent, becoming at its height one of the largest the world had ever seen. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan and continued his grandfather’s policy of military expansionism and conquest. Despite this, he displayed altruism by encouraging the development of science and arts. Kublai was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty and proclaimed himself the Chinese emperor.

Early Life and Upbringing

Kublai Khan’s childhood is not well documented; only the bare facts are known. He was born on September 23, 1215, the fourth son of Genghis Khan’s youngest son, Tolui, and a Nestorian princess named Sorkhotani. Because of Tolui’s alcoholism, it was Kublai’s politically influential mother who set him on the path to leadership and encouraged him to compete with his cousins and uncles for rule over the Mongol Empire.

The young Kublai excelled at traditional Mongol activities and sports from an early age. He was particularly proficient at hunting, having killed an antelope when he was only nine years old. He never lost his love of the hunt, which he used to great effect when he was engaged in war and conquest in his adult life.

Rise to Greatness

Yuan Dynasty 1294
Photo by: Ian Kiu Creative Commons

Kublai’s first taste of power came in 1236, when he was granted a fiefdom of 10,000 households by an uncle. The young man gave his agents freedom in terms of day-to-day administration. However, he was forced to intervene after those agents imposed exorbitant taxes on the peasants. After amending the situation, Kublai became viceroy of Northern China in 1251. In 1253, he launched a three-year offensive to the southwest.

Kublai was enamored and highly influenced by Chinese culture. He told his advisors to use “feng shui” to decide on a site for his new capital city. The chosen site, which lay at a strategic point between the Mongolian steppes and the more fertile Chinese plains, was called Shang-tu (or known as “Xanadu” to European chroniclers). In 1259, Kublai’s brother passed away, and his younger brother, Arik Boke, was named Great Khan. Kublai objected to the decision, and a civil war ensued.

Winning Ultimate Power

In the climactic battle of the war, Arik Boke’s armies were attacked by Kublai’s at Karakhoram, the capital of the Mongol empire, and suffered a crushing defeat at Kublai’s hands. Nevertheless, the younger man’s forces refused to surrender at first, and it was only in late August of 1264 that Arik Boke was forced to admit that he had been defeated, surrendering in the city of Shang-tu.

Kublai was now the undisputed Great Khan, ruling not only Mongolia and Mongol-occupied China but also a wider, somewhat looser empire. This encompassed the Ilkhanates of the Middle and the Russian Golden Horde, among others. Despite the vastness of his domain, Kublai could still not be sure that his hold on Song China was secure, so he turned his attention southward.

Peace Comes to China

Kublai decided that the best way of consolidating Mongol control over China was with a hearts-and-minds campaign. This proved extremely controversial, especially when he moved the imperial capital to Dadu (present-day Beijing) and converted to Buddhism, but he refused to back down even when rioting broke out in some of his major cities.

By 1276, the Song family who headed China had accepted their defeat and had surrendered to Kublai. Despite this, active resistance continued for another three years, only finally ending with the Battle of Yamen in 1279. The eight-year-old Chinese emperor was killed when he and an imperial official jumped into the moat of the besieged royal castle. Both drowned.

Yuan Emperor

Another part of Kublai’s successful attempt to win over Chinese opinion was his adoption of a Chinese dynastic name: Yuan. Despite his violent conquest of the region, he generally ruled it rather pragmatically. He made good use of the efficient administration and bureaucracy that was already in place in China, although it was partially reorganized along Mongol lines. Large numbers of Chinese officials were employed.

In his reign, Kublai Khan encouraged artistic expression as well as scientific development. He supported to astronomers and the makers of clocks as well as sponsoring the introduction of a written language for tribes which did not already have one. It was during this period that Marco Polo made his famous visit. He was to remain at the Mongol court for several years, at Kublai’s insistence.

A Return to Conquest

By now, Kublai Khan was unchallenged as the ruler of the richest and largest empire in the world. However, his warlike nature could not be suppressed indefinitely. Growing restless, he decided to look east for further lands to conquer. He managed to incorporate much of Southeast Asia, including Burma and most of Vietnam, into his domain. The conquests cost so much that even with the tributes they acquired, the Mongols lost money on the ventures.

Perhaps Kublai’s most remarkable military ventures came by sea. Between 1274 and 1293, he attempted to invade Japan and conquer Java. These brought the Great Khan a new and unwelcome experience: military failure. In the case of the Japanese expeditions, his fleet was routed by storms, which were known to the Japanese as “kamikaze,” meaning “divine wind.”

Decline and Death

In the empire itself, some people took the failure of these seaborne expeditions as a signal that Kublai no longer possessed the “Mandate of Heaven” by which his rule was said to be assured by a divine power. In the span of four years in the 1280s, both the Khan’s wife and his eldest son and heir passed away. He took to gorging on food and alcohol, suffering from gout in his late years as a result of his over-indulgence.

Kublai Khan died on February 18, 1294 and was buried in a secret place reserved for Mongol rulers. His grandson, Temur, succeeded him, but did not possess the same charisma and military genius as Kublai Khan. The enormous empire that Kublai had built up gradually shrank back to its natural borders. China remained united even after the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368.

One response to “Kublai Khan”

  1. Chan Kong Loon says:

    Kublai should have appointed his other sons to succeed him basing upon their capabilities. Passing on the reigns of power to someone of lesser capabilities only ensured the ruin of his vast empire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *