Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in 13th-century China. He was the first Mongol to rule over China when he conquered the Song Dynasty of southern China in 1279. Kublai (also spelled Kubla or Khubilai) relegated his Chinese subjects to the lowest class of society and even appointed foreigners, such as Venetian explorer Marco Polo, to important positions over Chinese officials. After failed expeditions against Japan and Java, his Mongol dynasty declined toward the end of his reign, and was completely overthrown by the Chinese after his death.
Kublai Khan’s Early Life
The Mongols were a nomadic clan from the regions around present-day Mongolia. After uniting the individual nomadic tribes on the Mongolian plateau, Genghis Khan went on to conquer large portions of central Asia and China.
By the time Genghis’ grandson Kublai was born in 1215, the Mongol empire stretched from the Caspian Sea east to the Pacific Ocean. That same year, the Mongols had captured the northern China capital city of Yen-ching (modern-day Beijing), forcing the royal family to flee south.
Kublai was the fourth and youngest son of Genghis’ son Tolui and a woman named Sorkhotani Beki, who was a Nestorian Christian princess of the Kereyid Confederacy. Kublai and his brothers were largely raised by their mother, an intelligent and tolerant woman who dedicated herself to her sons’ careers.
Little is known about Kublai’s childhood, but he and brothers were taught the art of warfare at a young age. Kublai was reportedly adept in Mongolian traditions, having successfully brought down an antelope by the age of nine.
Kublai was also exposed to Chinese philosophy and culture early on thanks to his mother, who also ensured that he learned to read and write Mongol (though he wasn’t taught Chinese).
When Kublai was 17 years old, his father died. At that time, Kublai’s uncle, Ogodei Khan (third son of Genghis Khan) was the Great Khan and ruler of the Mongol Empire.
In 1236, Ogodei granted Kublai a fiefdom of some 10,000 households in the Hopei (Hebei) province. Initially, Kublai did not rule the area directly and instead left his Mongol agents in charge, but they imposed such high taxes that many farmers abandoned their homes to settle in areas not under Mongol rule.
When Kublai found out what was occurring in his lands, he replaced his Mongol retainers and tax merchants with Chinese officials, who helped restore the economy. (By the late 1240s, those who had fled were returning and the region became stable.)
By the early 1240s, Kublai had amassed numerous advisors from a range of philosophies and ethnic groups, including Turkish officials, Nestorian Christian Shiban, Mongol military men and Central Asian Muslims.
He relied heavily on Chinese advisors, and in 1242 had learned about Chinese Buddhism from the monk Hai-yun, who would become a close friend of his. Other counselors taught him Confucianism, though Kublai’s rudimentary understanding of Chinese language and reading was a huge limitation for him.
Kublali Conquers Yunnan
Ogodei Khan died in 1241. The title of Great Khan eventually passed on to his son Guyug in 1246, and then to Kublai’s eldest brother Mongke in 1251.
Great Khan Mongke declared Kublai the viceroy of Northern China. He sent their brother Hulegu west to pacify the Islamic states and lands and focused his attention on conquering Southern China.
In 1252, Mongke ordered Kublai to attack Yunnan and conquer the Dali Kingdom. Kublai spent more than a year preparing for his first military campaign, which lasted three years, and by the end of 1256 he had conquered Yunnan.
The successful campaign had greatly expanded Kublai’s domain and it was time for him to initiate a large-scale project that would demonstrate his growing attachment to and concern for his Chinese subjects: the establishment of a new capital.
Kublai ordered his advisors to select a site based on the principles of feng shui, and they chose an area on the frontier between China’s agricultural lands and the Mongolian steppe.
His new northern capital would later be named Shang-tu (Upper Capital, in contrast to Chung-tu, or Central Capital, the contemporary name for Beijing). Europeans would later interpret the city’s name as Xanadu.
The Great Khan
Kublai’s growing power did not go unnoticed by Mongke, who sent two of his trusted aides to Kublai’s new capital to investigate revenue collection. After a hasty audit, they uncovered what they claimed to be numerous breaches of the law and began to violently purge the administration of high-ranking Chinese officials.
Kublai’s Confucian and Buddhist advisors persuaded Kublai to appeal to his brother on a familial level in person. Monkge — facing both a religious conflict between Buddhist and Daoists and a need for allies in conquering the Song Dynasty in Southern China — made peace with Kublai.
Kublai held a debate in his new capital in 1258. He ultimately declared the Daoists the losers of the debate and punished their leaders by forcefully converting them and their temples to Buddhism and destroying texts.
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Mongke launched his campaign against the Song Dynasty and instructed his youngest brother Arik Boke to protect the Mongol capital of Karakorum. In 1259, Mongke died in battle and Kublai learned of his brother’s demise while fighting the Song in the Sichuan province.
Arik Boke gathered troops and held an assembly (called a kuriltai) in Karakorum, where he was named the Great Khan.
Kublai and Hulegu, who had returned from the Middle East upon hearing of Mongke’s death, held their own kurilta – Kublai was named Great Khan, sparking a civil war, which would eventually end with Arik Boke’s surrender in 1264.
Kublai Khan as Yuan Dynasty Emperor
As Great Khan, Kublai set his sight on unifying all of China. In 1271, he established his capital at modern-day Beijing and named his empire the Yuan Dynasty – one of several efforts to win over his Chinese subjects.
His efforts paid off, with much of the Song imperial family surrendering to Kublai in 1276, but the war continued for another three years. In 1279, Kublai became the first Mongol to rule all of China when he conquered the last of the Song loyalists.
Kublai held a relatively wise and benevolent reign, with his rule distinguished by grand infrastructure improvements (including an efficient Mongolian postal system and an extension of the Grand Canal), religious tolerance, scientific advancements (improvements to the Chinese calendar, accurate maps, and institutes of medicine, among other things), paper currency backed by gold reserves and trade expansions.
Despite adopting and improving on many Chinese systems and ideals, Kublai and his Mongols did not want to become Chinese – they kept many of their own customs and remained unassimilated to Chinese life.
In 1275, Marco Polo was presented at the court of Kublai Khan. The young Venetian so impressed the ruler that he appointed him to several diplomatic and administrative posts, which he held for about 16 years before his return to Venice.
Failed Military Campaigns
Kublai instituted a class system that placed Mongols on top, followed by Central Asians, Northern Chinese, and finally Southern Chinese. The latter two classes were more heavily taxed, especially to fund Kublai’s failed – and expensive – military campaigns.
These campaigns included attacks on Burma, Vietnam and Sakhalin, which successfully resulted in these regions becoming tributary states of the empire with tributes that were, unfortunately, dwarfed by the costs of the individual campaigns.
Kublai also launched two failed sea-borne invasions of Japan, in 1274 and 1281.
In the second, a vast armada of some 140,000 troops from China converged in ships off the island of Kyushu, but a powerful typhoon – which some Japanese believed to be a kamikaze or “divine wind” – struck the invading troops. Many of their vessels sank, and about half of the troops perished or were captured.
This was followed by a failed subjugation of Java (now Indonesia) in 1293. In less than a year, Kublai’s troops were forced to withdraw, overcome by tropical heat, terrain and diseases.
Kublai Khan’s Death and Legacy
Kublai began to withdraw from the day-to-day administration of his empire after his favorite wife Chabi died in 1281 and his oldest son died in 1285.
He drank and ate in excess, causing him to become obese; additionally, the gout that plagued him for many years worsened. He died on February 18, 1294, at the age of 79 and was buried in the khans’ secret burial site in Mongolia.
Uprisings against Mongol rule would begin in earnest some 30 years later, and by 1368 the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown.
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Kublai Khan; ThougtCo.
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The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker.