Kublai Khan

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About Kublai Khan

Lifespan: 1215-1294 A.D

Reign Years: 1260 – 1294 A.D

Given Name: Borjigin Kublai

Reign Name: Shizu

Kublai Khan – Yuan Dynasty

Kublai Khan was the 5th great Khan of the Mongols and was sometimes referred to as Emperor Shizu of Yuan. He ruled from 1260 to 1294 and was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty. Hence, Kublai was the very first emperor of the Yuan Empire.

During his reign, he had numerous achievements, which include the Yuan Dynasty’s establishment. It ruled over today’s China, Mongolia, Korea, and a couple of adjacent locations. Interestingly, Kublai Khan even had great influence in Europe and the Middle East as a great Khan or Khagan.

Emperor Shizu of Yuan assumed the role of China’s emperor and completed the Mongol conquest of the Song by 1279. He then became the very first non-Han leader to unite the entirety of China.

A Quick Background of Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan was the youngest and fourth son of Tolui, Genghis Khan’s son. His mother was Sorkhotani Beki – a Nestorian-Christian princess from the Kereyid Confederacy.

Kublai and his siblings were mostly raised by their mother. She was a smart and tolerant lady who dedicated herself to the careers of her sons.

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Early Life of Kublai Khan

By 1215 when Kublai was born, the Mongol Empire had already expanded from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean. In the same year, the Mongols conquered Yen-ching, Northern China’s capital. This forced the royal family to escape and head south.

Generally, little is known about the childhood of Kublai Khan. However, it’s known that he and his siblings were taught about the art of war at a very young age.

Kublai was claimed to be knowledgeable in Mongolian traditions. By the age of nine, he was able to easily bring down an antelope.

Not only that, but Kublai Khan was exposed to Chinese culture and philosophy at an early age. This was all thanks to his mother, who made sure that he learned how to read and write Mongol. However, he wasn’t taught how to speak or write in Chinese.

Kublai Khan as a Young Leader

In 1236, Ogodei Khan granted Kublai a fiefdom in the Hopei Province of about 10,000 households. Kublai Khan initially didn’t rule the area, so he left his Mongol agents to handle this.

However, these agents imposed high taxes, causing the farmers there to leave their homes. They decided to settle in places that weren’t ruled by the Mongols.

When Kublai Khan learned of this, it angered him greatly. Thus, replaced his Mongol retainers, as well as tax merchants, with Chinese officials. From there, they helped the future great Khagan to restore and rebuild the economy.

By the late 1240s, the people who fled returned to these areas, making the region stable. In the same year, Kublai Khan assembled numerous advisors from different philosophies and ethnic groups. These include Nestorian Christian Shibans, Turkish officials, Central Asian Muslims, and Mongol military individuals.

He heavily relied on his Chinese advisors, so in 1242, Kublai eventually learned Chinese Buddhism from the monk, Hai-yun. As time passed, the two became close friends.

There were other counselors present, and they taught him about Confucianism. However, Kublai Khan’s understanding and knowledge of the Chinese readings and language limited him greatly.

The Conquest of Yunnan

When Ogedei Khan fell, the role of Great Khan was soon given to his son, Guyuk, in 1246. Then in 1251, the title was passed on to Kublai’s older brother, Mongke.

After taking the title of Great Khan, Mongke declared Kublai Khan as Northern China’s viceroy. He then sent Hulegu, their brother, west to control the lands and Islamic states. From there, Mongke focused on conquering the rest of South China.

In 1252, Mongke ordered Kublai Khan to invade Yunnan and overcome the Dali Kingdom. To achieve this, Kublai spent over a year preparing for this military campaign. It was his first campaign, which lasted for three years, and by 1256, he was able to conquer Yunnan.

Xanadu and Daidu

Because of the success of this campaign, it greatly and positively stretched out Kublai’s domains. Hence, it was the time for him to launch a large project. It was something that displayed his growing attachment and interest for his Chinese subjects: the formation of a new capital.

There, Kublai had his advisors choose a site based on the principles and ethics of Feng Shui. Because of this, they ended up selecting an area between the Mongolian steppe and the agricultural lands of China.

Then, the northern capital of the area was named Shang-tu, the contemporary name for Beijing. At some point, the Europeans then interpreted the city’s name as Xanadu.


Xanadu was an area designed by Liu Bingzhong. It was a place styled with Earth-circuit walls and towers that created the standard Chinese square-plan for the entire city. Inside, a splendid palace complex was seen, which had hunting gardens in it.

The whole city measured a total of 25,000 hectares and was populated by 200,000 individuals at its peak.


In 1273, Xanadu was only considered as the Mongol Empire’s summer capital. As for Daidu, also known as Khanbaliq and today’s Beijing, was chosen as the primary capital of Daidu.

The construction of this area started back in 1266 and was completed in 1267. It eventually became an effective symbol of the Mongol’s takeover of China.

From then, Kublai Khan segregated his time between the two areas. Of course, he continued doing classic Mongol pastimes such as taking fermented mare’s milk and hunting.

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The Civil War and Succession of the Throne

The growing power and strength of Kublai Khan didn’t go unnoticed by Mongke. So, he sent two trusted aides to the new capital of Kublai Khan to inspect revenue collection.

After doing a quick audit, they discovered what seemed to be a number of law violations. It led them to violently purge the high-ranking Chinese officials’ administration.

The Confucian and Buddhist advisors of Kublai urged him to appeal to his brother. And because Mongke faced religious conflicts between Daoists & Buddhists and needed allies, they ended up making peace with Kublai.

In 1258, Kublai Khan held a debate in their new capital and declared the Daoists as the defeated party. Because of that, he punished their leaders by forcibly shifting them, as well as their temples, to Buddhism. He also destroyed their texts in the process.

Then, Mongke launched an attack against the Song Dynasty and ordered Arik Boke, his youngest brother, to protect the Karakorum.

In 1259, Mongke died on the battlefield while fighting against the Song army in the Sichuan province.

Enthronement of Kublai Khan

After Mongke’s death, the attacks against the Song Dynasty were quickly abandoned due to the growing issues between Mongol commanders. They argued non-stop about who would be the successor of Mongke.

With that, a civil war broke out between Kublai Khan and Ariq Boke. It’s because both of them declared themselves as the new Khan.

The situation between the two couldn’t be resolved. That’s even if a Kurultai between Mongol tribal chiefs proclaimed Kublai as the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. During that time, Ariq was popular due to his conservatism, whereas Kublai was considered a bit too Chinese-thinking.

They considered Ariq to be more at an advantage in managing the central area of the empire and Karakorum. Kublai Khan still won in the end, and that’s all thanks to the Central Asian princes’ support.

As the viceroy of China, he had control over the Mongol imperial bodyguard. Plus, he had a vast number of resources at his disposal as well.

Being the Great Khan was considered a prestigious title. However, the empire already split into different Khanates ruled by Genghis Khan’s descendants. If Kublai Khan didn’t prefer becoming a Chinese Emperor, he would have had the richest and biggest part of the Mongol Empire.

Reign of Kublai Khan

In 1268, Kublai focused his sights on the lands that were located on the south of the Yangtze River. This campaign was a long and difficult one, considering that the Song gathered an army of over a million men. They were even equipped with the latest catapults, gunpowder weapons, and siege machinery of that time.

During the battle, they also engaged in naval wars that involved the biggest ships seen in the history of warfare. The success of the Mongol army across Asia was due to their fast cavalry.

However, the Song army countered their attacks by adopting the strategies of a more static warfare. Plus, they built extensive fortification located in the key cities and river crossings.

For this reason, it took a lengthy eleven whole years for Kublai Khan to acquire his targets. This was before crushing the Song empire into submission.

Final Stage of the Campaign

It was expected that attacks during the campaign would focus on the strategically vital city of Xiangyang. After being besieged for about five years, the area was captured in 1273. This was all thanks to the army’s persistence and the excellent catapults they used.

In early 1275, the Khan called for another Kurultai. It was to decide what strategy to go for in the last campaign against the Song.

The Mongol army crossed the Yangtze in March 1275 and proved to be an unstoppable force. They won against the huge land and sea battle that occurred against the Song.

Other reasons for their victory was due to a lot of the Song generals surrendering or defecting. There were even fights within the advisors of the emperor of the time. And they also lost due to the mindless slaughter of the whole city of Changzhou.

The empress dowager and the young Emperor Gongzong surrendered together with the capital in March 1276. As for the Song royalties, they were taken to Beijing as prisoners.

Of course, there were loyalists who fought for a couple more years. They even installed two more young emperors in the process, namely Dibing and Duanzong. However, they were still no match for the Mongol forces.

The Song was a rich empire, yet they paid dearly due to their absence of political unity. They also didn’t have enough military investments, which was quite notable during the past Chinese warfare. In addition, they didn’t have good mobile cavalry and used poor weapons to battle.

And in March 1279, a huge naval war was won at the Yaishan area close to today’s Macao. This marked the completion of the Mongol conquest of China. To note, it was the first time a country was unified since the 9th century CE.

Establishment of the Yuan Dynasty in China

Kublai Khan claimed China as his primary base. It was when he realized after a decade of ruling, that he needed to focus on governing the area.

After making himself China’s emperor, he claimed himself as Emperor Shizu of Yuan. In 1271, his new dynasty was called Yuan, which meant center, origin, or main pivot.

Kublai Khan as Yuan Dynasty Emperor

The Khan, as the Yuan Dynasty emperor, embraced and welcomed the Chinese culture. As the Khagan or Great Khan, Kublai focused on unifying China’s entirety.

These were some of his efforts to win the hearts and trust of his Chinese subjects. It was all a part of his plans to appear as the Chinese’s rightful ruler.

He surrounded himself with Confucian advisors and Chinese ministers. Yet behind-the-scenes, he gave all key positions of the state to non-Chinese individuals. These included the Mongol imperial bodyguards and Muslims who were experts in the area of finance.

All of Kublai Khan’s efforts paid off when most of the Song imperial family surrendered in 1276. But the wars commenced for another three years.

The Administration of the Yuan Empire under Kublai Khan’s Rule

The main administrative positions in the freshly established semi-autonomous provinces were segregated and given to the Mongols. The classic 6 Chinese ministries that were present since the Tang Dynasty continued normally as before.

However, Kublai Khan chose to revoke the civil service examinations, which mostly favored the Chinese officials with Confucian education. Through continuous efforts, there were eventually no Chinese imperial court protocols in the Karakorum.

The Supremacy of the Mongols in China

Kublai Khan adopted a lot of Chinese systems and tactics. However, he built a social hierarchy that set the Mongols on top while the Chinese peasants were at the bottom.

Emperor Shizu of Yuan made sure that the Mongols were always at an advantage in China. He did this by officially classifying them as superior to the Chinese.

There were forms of segregation too, such as forbidding the Chinese to use Mongol names. They were prohibited from wearing Mongol clothing or even learning the Mongol language.

When it came to intermarriage, it was highly discouraged; plus, there were different punishments made for those who disobeyed. Of course, the severity of these punishments varied depending on the race of the guilty individual.

Instead of being a racially-motivated policy, the Khagan was mainly focused on controlling his subjects. This made it easier for him to determine who was who and to ensure that no rebellions were occurring. As for the Chinese, they were prohibited from carrying weapons and from gathering in public, to name a few.

Kublai also assigned his Chinese subjects to society’s lowest class, whereas foreigners like Marco Polo, were appointed to important positions.

The Venetian Traveler, Marco Polo

Marco Polo traveled in 1271 and was known for crossing Asia to reach China. This was during Kublai Khan’s reign. He even served the Khagan between 1275 and 1292 and acted as a traveling ambassador in the empire’s remote areas.

Upon his return to Europe, Marco Polo recorded his experience in the book called The Travels of Marco Polo. It first circulated in the year 1298, and his descriptions and notes are among the best. The detailed information he provided relating to the Yuan Dynasty and the emperor are the most reliable.

Uniting the People in the Empire

Emperor Shizu of Yuan tried to seriously bring the people of his empire together. He did this by encouraging the utilization of various languages in the administration and tolerating an assortment of religions. He even ensured that a selection of dishes were served in the imperial court.

Kublai Khan himself shifted to Tibetan Buddhism. It was a move probably influenced by his wife and advisor. He may also have been persuaded by Phags-pa Lama, a Tibetan monk.

Achievements of Kublai Khan

During the reign of Kublai Khan, he had a number of notable achievements that one should know of.

Establishment of Paper Currency

In 1273, Kublai Khan issued the use of paper money or Chao, which was supported by the government. Paper currency was a huge innovation in the monetary and banking system during this era.

In fact, the Chinese had been using paper money since the Song dynasty. However, it was the Yuan dynasty that started utilizing it as the primary medium of exchange.

The Europeans were amazed when Marco Polo described the paper banknotes. For a certain period, paper currency helped boost trade with other countries and established prosperity.


During his rule, Emperor Shizu of Yuan wanted to support agriculture. To do this, he created the Office for Stimulation of Agriculture.

A lot of his people planned to establish herding inside the wall. However, Kublai passed an edict that restricted the nomad’s animals on farmland.

Instead, he occupied grain storage areas in case of famine in the future. It was necessary, especially in the north, where lands had been damaged by constant warfare.

The capital had 58 granaries that had a capacity of 145,000 Shih. One Shih was equal to 133 pounds. Marco Polo said that 30,000 poor people in the capital were fed daily. Farmers were divided into groups called She, and each had fifty families.

Self-help projects like working on irrigation, planting trees, stocking rivers & lakes, and flood control were encouraged. In addition to that, silk production was also promoted. Those who worked well were rewarded, while those who were lazy received penalty.

Moreover, the She helped the censor in monitoring people. This resulted in the promotion of education in improved agricultural techniques and basic literacy.

Extension of the Grand Canal

During his rule, Kublai Khan ordered 3 million people to extend the Grand Canal, the world’s longest canal. In 1280, this was made to reach his capital in Beijing through hill countries, which previous dynasties didn’t dig through.

As a result, Beijing had direct inland access to the Yangtze River basin and southern cities for the first time. This accessibility helped the northern territory, and the Yuan empire prosper.

Tax Exemption and Promotion of International Trade

Overland and maritime trade flourished under Kublai Khan’s rule. The Mongols welcomed foreigners, including Arabs, Genoese, Jews, Russians, and Venetians. One of these traders who received a warm welcome from the Mongols and worked for the Khagan was Marco Polo.

The Mongols were not involved in the caravan trade, but they encouraged others to be part of it. Kublai Khan used caravan merchants to gather knowledge, and he defended and encouraged them. Merchants experienced security and enjoyed a relatively high status during the Yuan Dynasty.

Another concrete policy was the promotion of international trade. The artisans were a group that benefited from the Mongol’s rule since they previously had a low social status.

As nomads, the Mongols were impressed with quality porcelain and artworks, so Kublai Khan exempted artisans from paying tax.

Although merchants weren’t producers of artworks, they were exchangers of items. They were also discriminated against like the artisans. During Kublai Khan’s reign, they enjoyed the benefits of favorable tax measures and the end of expenditure regulations.

Merchants were urged to utilize paper money, and the currency exchange was further regulated. Plus, more canals and roads aided goods transport. These policies were created to make a boom in trade, especially when it came to fine porcelain.

Higher Social Status of Women

Unlike other cultures, women of the Mongol Empire during the rule of Kublai Khan, took advantage of high social status. They enjoyed having more rights, including the right to inherit and own properties.

When the male warriors were away, the women of the society organized and managed their camps. From the commoners to the nobility, these women were encouraged, inspired, and expected to be adept administrators. With that, Kublai Khan’s mother raised her children to value the lessons of other cultures, as well as education.

As for Kublai Khan’s wife, Chabi, she was no different. His wife was a woman of independence and intelligence. She was also open-minded. Her traits matched Kublai’s concerns and priorities as a ruler, thus, making them a “power couple”.

Chabi’s skill to navigate and take advantage of both the Mongol and Chinese culture helped Kublai in many ways.

Failed Military Campaigns

Kublai launched numerous unsuccessful yet expensive military campaigns. These were all financed by the Chinese peasantry’s manual labor.

Then, his reign later on became slightly disappointing, yet he was able to foster a rather peaceful situation across Asia. It was the so-called Pax Mongolica. There were unusual ramblings of discontent, especially with increased taxes to fund Kublai’s extremely costly foreign exploits.

In 1290, there was a major rebellion that occurred in Tibet. Genghis Khan’s descendants, especially the Ogedeids, continued assaulting China’s western borders during this incident.

Additionally, Kublai Khan sent a class system that placed the Mongol people at the top. They were followed by the Central Asians, North and Southern Chinese.

For the Chinese, their classes were the most heavily taxed. They were the ones who suffered greatly in funding Kublai’s expensive yet failed military campaigns.

The campaigns included the assaults on Vietnam, Burma, and Sakhalin. These regions then became the empire’s tributary states. Unfortunately, their tributes were dwarfed by the cost of individual campaigns.

Invasion of Southeast Asia

Most areas in Southeast Asia were assaulted by different land and naval campaigns. However, they were somewhat elusive acquisitions with the invasions of Burma, Vietnam, and Java. It’s because they only achieved limited success wherein the Mongol troops faced unfamiliar situations and environments.

The unusual elements they faced were humid jungles, war animals like elephants, parasitic diseases, and more.

As for Japan, Kublai Khan never gave up on them. He continued sending failed diplomatic missions to urge the country to join the tribute system of the Chinese.

The Invasions of Japan

The reason Kublai wanted to include Japan in his empire while he continued battling with the Song is still unclear. It’s likely that he was interested in their resources, while prestige may have been a factor too. That’s because conquest has always been a classic method for Mongol rulers to fix their position of power.

Generally, conquering Japan would’ve given Kublai Khan access to a huge army that consisted of well-trained and skilled Samurai. Or their invasion was likely a form of revenge for the chaos that the Wako or Japanese pirates caused.

Regardless of Kublai Khan’s reasons for invading Japan, he had a clear approach: diplomacy before warfare. In 1268, Kublai dispatched ambassadors, but the Japanese ignored their demands for tribute. The Japanese also prepared and stayed alert in areas where invasion could occur.

In 1274 and 1281, Kublai Khan commenced the two sea-borne invasions of Japan. During this time, he lost patience and gathered a large fleet of ships and sent them off from Korea in 1274.

The ships consisted of more than 16,000 Chinese, Mongols, and Koreans. On the outer islands, the Mongols encountered stiff resistance. On November 19, the invasion fleet proceeded to Hakata Bay

Launch of the Invasions

Kublai returned to diplomacy, sending two additional embassies to the country in 1275. It was to once again demand tribute to be paid. This time, the Japanese leaders were more dismissive, even beheading the ambassadors who arrived.

Thus, another invasion fleet of Kublai Khan arrived in 1281, which was a lot bigger compared to the first. Because of their recent defeat of the Song army, they were able to acquire their navy.

Hakata was able to see the fighting, yet the Japanese’s fortifications withstood the test with ease. After acquiring heavy losses, the Mongol army withdrew to Iki Island. However, they were harassed by Japanese ships that made constant raids via small boats.

At some point, Kublai Khan dispatched reinforcements coming from China. So with the combined fleets and men, they moved east to attack Takashima. The battle there took place in August of the same year.

End of the Invasion of Japan

A vast fleet of warships composed of around 140,000 troops from China united off the Kyushu Island. However, a powerful typhoon, believed to be a Kamikaze (divine wind) by the Japanese, struck the invaders. A large number of their vessels sank, and half of the troops died or were captured.

More than half of the Mongol forces were killed, and thousands were washed away. Most of those who were left stranded at Imari Bay’s beaches were killed. As for the ships that survived, they returned to China.

Death and End of Reign

In 1281, Chabi, Kublai’s favorite wide, died. Four years later, this was followed by the death of his eldest son. After these occurrences, Kublai Khan started retiring from his empire’s day-to-day administration.

The Khagan drank and ate excessively, which made him obese and worsened his gout. On February 18, 1294, he died at the age of 79.

His body was taken and buried in an unknown location. However, claims state that it’s likely somewhere in Mongolia since it was considered a tradition. Plus, it’s also possible that his grave features an extravagant tomb, but this was never found and proven.

After Kublai Khan’s death, the throne of the Khan and emperor of China was succeeded by Temur, his grandson. Initially, Kublai’s choice as his successor was his son Zhenjin, who died prematurely.

The Yuan dynasty that Kublai Khan established enjoyed thirty years of stability. Unfortunately, this was eventually afflicted by disputes. In the next years, the Yuan regime no longer reached the heights of Kublai’s reign.

The Yuan Dynasty lasted until it was overthrown by the Ming Dynasty in 1368.