kublai khan
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Kublai Khan is known and revered for his civilian and administrative, not his military achievements. Grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai sought to govern rather than to exploit and devastate the vast domains bequeathed to him by two generations of Mongol conquests. He made the transition from a nomadic conqueror from the steppes to effective ruler of a sedentary society. Ironically, however, his reign witnessed the Mongols’ most remarkable military success, the subjugation of the Southern Sung dynasty of China, and simultaneously their greatest military fiascos, the failed naval expeditions against Japan and Java.

Kublai’s civilian achievements are impressive. Assuming the titles of Khaghan (Great Khan) and emperor of China in 1260, he set about consolidating Mongol rule in China. Appreciating the need to ingratiate himself to the Chinese if he was to rule a stable society, he restored central and local government institutions and agencies familiar to the Chinese and reinstated Confucian rituals and ceremonies at court. He shifted his capital from Karakorum, in Mongolia, to Tai-tu (near modern Peking), a signal that he recognized the importance of China to his empire. His attempt to accommodate Chinese culture persuaded many Chinese to act as counselors or to serve in his government.

His peaceful achievements have sometimes overshadowed Kublai’s military expeditions, the most successful of which was the conquest of the Sung dynasty of China. Ever since his accession to the throne, Kublai had recognized that subjugation of the Sung would be invaluable both for Mongol reunification of China after more than three centuries of fragmentation and for access to the great wealth of South China. Yet such an expedition was far more demanding than other earlier Mongol campaigns. The Mongols’ greatest strength, their cavalry, was not suited to South China’s forested and agricultural lands. Horses could uncover little forage, could not traverse the dense underbrush, and found the heat oppressive. Moreover, crossing the Yangtze River to the south and attacking China’s southeast coast required either the development or enlistment of a navy, and the huge and highly populated Chinese cities necessitated advances in siege warfare. Kublai’s forces gradually built ships, recruited Chinese sailors, and lured Chinese naval defectors; they finally laid siege to the important crossroads at Hsiang-yang from 1268 to 1273. The Mongol troops eventually needed to import two Muslim engineers to build mangonels and catapults, which hurled huge boulders on the inhabitants, to overcome resistance. The fall of Hsiang-yang enabled the Mongols to move inexorably toward the Sung capital of Lin-an, which they occupied in 1276. Significantly, the final battle occurred at sea, off the island of Yai-chou, where the last Sung emperor drowned during the engagement (1279).

Other Mongol naval engagements were less successful. In 1274 and 1281, responding to Japan’s unwillingness to accept even a pro forma tributary status, Kublai dispatched two expeditions overseas to pacify the Japanese. In the second expedition, a sizable flotilla transported about 40,000 troops from North China and 100,000 troops from South China. The two detachments converged off the island of Kyushu, but a disastrous typhoon (which the Japanese believed to be a kamikaze or “divine wind”) hit the coast. Many of the Mongol vessels sank, and about one-half of the troops perished or were captured. The survivors fled back to China. In 1292, another ill-conceived overseas expedition set forth to subjugate Java. Within a year, Kublai’s forces withdrew, as the semitropical heat, the jungles, and the parasitic and infectious diseases overwhelmed the Mongols, who were accustomed to a cooler climate and the spaciousness of the steppes. Kublai himself died the following year, with the disastrous Java campaign contributing a sour note to the end of his reign.

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.