Kublai Khan (1215-1294) was the greatest of the Mongol emperors after Genghis Khan and founder of the Yüan dynasty in China. Though basically a nomad, he was able to rule a vast empire of different nations by adapting their traditions to his own government.
Genghis Khan was succeeded by his third son Ögödei (1229-1241); after Ögödei's death his widow, Töregene, ruled until 1246, when his eldest son, Güyük, was elected khan. Güyük died 2 years later, and from 1248 to 1252 his widow, Oghul Khaimish, was regent of the empire. The election of Möngkë (or Mangu), the eldest son of Tulë (or Tolui, 1192-1232, the youngest son of Genghis), in 1251 restored the khanship to Tulë's line, but not without strong opposition from Ö gödei's descendants, who regarded themselves the legitimate successors to Genghis's empire.
Kublai Khan was the fourth son of Tulë, one of the four sons of Genghis by his favorite wife, Bourtai. Strong, brave, and intelligent, Kublai was Genghis's favorite grandson; when he was only a lad, he had accompanied his father, Tulë, in campaigns. Kublai was 17 when his father died. In tribute to his younger brother's service, Ö gödei assigned the Chen-ting principality (modern Hopei) to Tulë's widow, Soryagtani-bäki. The widow was an ambitious woman who had a natural liking for Chinese culture and had recruited Chinese scholars to administer her domain.
In his early years, through frequent contacts with the Chinese, Kublai became aware of the potential of the Chinese literati as his future political allies. As early as 1242, he had begun to summon men of culture to his quarters in Karakorum in the Gobi Desert to offer counsel on political affairs, including the famous Buddho-Taoist Liu Ping-chung, who advised him on the Confucian principles of government and the application of Chinese methods for administrative and economic reforms. The opinions of these cultured people became dominant in Kublai's thinking as he began to ascend in national politics.
When Möngkë succeeded to the khanship in 1251, Kublai was entrusted with the administration of the Chinese territories in modern Chahar in the eastern part of the empire. In this and the following year Kublai invited Liu Ping-chung to organize a corps of Chinese advisers and to introduce administrative and economic reforms in his territories. The success of the reforms subsèquently introduced in Hsing-chou in 1252, largely based on the Chinese model, further convinced Kublai of the feasibility of restoring the indigenous institutions in the consolidation of his domain. In 1253 he received the district of Ch'ang-an (Sian) in the Wei River valley (in modern Shensi) as a personal fief and began to establish a permanent territorial administration. Many of the Chinese advisers became his key administrators.
Kublai was also entrusted by Möngkë to take command of expeditions aiming at the unification of China under the Mongol emperor. The primary target was the subjugation of the Southern Sung dynasty, whose capital was at Lin-an (modern Hangchow); however, Kublai delayed action against South China until after he became emperor. Meanwhile, he waged a campaign against the western province of Szechwan and took the provincial city Chengtu in 1252. From there his armies marched south and without much difficulty conquered the Thai kingdom of Nanchao in modern Yunnan Province. Kublai returned north in 1254, leaving the war to his trusted lieutenant Uriyangqadai, whose forces subsequently penetrated into Tonkin and subdued the kingdom of Annam.
In 1257, displeased with the progress of the war against Sung China, Möngkë led an expeditionary force in person into western China but succumbed to the Chinese defense when he tried to capture Ho-chou in Szechwan in August 1259. Möngkë's unexpected death not only brought the war to a complete halt but precipitated a crisis of succession. In June 1260, supported by the pro-Chinese faction, Kublai was elected by the Mongol assembly as Möngkë's successor, but his younger brother, Ariq Böge (died 1266), bolstered by the conservative faction, disputed the election and proclaimed himself khan at Karakorum. In the following years Kublai fought his rebellious brother, defeating him in 1264. Meanwhile another pretender, Kai-du, a grandson of Ö gödei, revolted in 1268 and retained his independence in parts of Turkistan until his death in 1301.
Kublai preoccupied himself with the reorganization of government, aiming at greater political control and effective economic exploitation of the country. In the following decade the Mongol administration adopted a Sinicized bureaucracy. The new central administration of the Chinese territory consisted of the secretarait, the privy council, and the censorate in charge of state, military, and censorial affairs. Local administration was subdivided into four different levels of responsibility: the province, prefecture, secondary prefecture, and district. A system of recruitment of civil servants was introduced, while government officials, civil and military alike, were recruited through regular channels and received a fixed salary. The traditional Chinese features of government, such as Confucian rites, music, and calendar, were also restored.
Following this reorganization, a new capital city was constructed at Yen-ching (present-day Peking) in 1267; first called Chung-tu, it was renamed Ta-tu (or Daidu, "great capital") in 1272. From then on, the Emperor spent his summer in Shang-tu (or Xangdu, "upper capital") in southern Mongolia and his winter in the new capital. Finally, a Chinese national title, Yüan, was adopted in 1271. In the context of the Book of Changes Yüan means "the primal force (of the Creative)," or "origin (or beginning) of the Universe."
In the eyes of Kublai, the restoration of Chinese institutions and customs was a tactical maneuver rather than a capitulation to the Chinese political style. In reality, outside the bureaucracy, much of the Mongol practice still prevailed. The Mongols, especially the military, were organized on their traditional patterns and preserved their nomadic identity. Even within the Chinese bureaucracy, where the Mongols were susceptible to Sinicization, Chinese influence was kept in check by the predominance of the Mongols and central Asians. The presence of an institutional duality under Kublai earmarks the complexity of the Mongol rule in China.
Meanwhile, Kublai proceeded with his operation against the Southern Sung which had been delayed by internal feuds. After 5 years of siege, Kublai captured the twin cities of Hsiang-yang and Fan-ch'eng on opposite sides of the Han River in 1273. Thereafter Kublai entrusted the command to Bayan, his most gifted general, who captured the Sung capital, Lin-an, in 1276. The young emperor of Sung, Kung-tsung, and his mother were taken captive and sent as prisoners to Kublai's court.
Sung resistance continued with two young princes successively proclaimed emperor by the loyalists of the throne. But their efforts were finally nullified by defection from their ranks, and in a heated naval encounter off the coast of Kwangtung in February 1278 the Sung forces were annihilated and the last emperor perished in the sea, thus ending the Sung dynasty. By this time Kublai had been acknowledged as the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire by his brother Hulagu in Persia and the Mongol dominion in southern Russia (Golden Horde), and Kublai's empire stretched from Korea to the Arabian Desert and eastern Poland, across 2 continents.
As emperor of China, Kublai conformed with the Chinese tradition by demanding allegiance and tributary gifts from its neighboring vassals. Some of these, such as Annam and Korea, had already submitted. To others, Kublai dispatched envoys asking for submission and launched campaigns if his demands were ignored. Many of these expeditions, however, ended in failure. Twice between 1274 and 1281 Kublai's armies against Japan were either destroyed by storm or annihilated by the Japanese because of the Mongols' inability to fight sea battles and the poor quality of their naval forces.
Kublai suffered another setback when he attempted to subdue the Malay kingdom of Champa in Indochina (1283-1287), securing, after a long war, only nominal allegiance from the Cham king. Three expeditions against Burma (1277, 1283, 1287) brought the Mongol forces to the Irrawaddy delta, but again Kublai had to be content with the acknowledgment of a formal suzerainty. The Khmer kingdom of Kambuja, however, submitted in 1294. During the last years of his reign Kublai launched a naval expedition against the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit (1293), but the Mongol forces were compelled to withdraw after considerable losses. Kublai also sent envoys to southern India but used no force as Chinese interests in these parts had always been purely commercial.
Under Kublai, the Mongol ruling oligarchy adopted divide-and-rule tactics. The Mongols and central Asians remained unassimilated and separate from Chinese life; the social and economic fabric of the Chinese was left basically unchanged. The rule of the Mongol minority was assured by discriminating legislations. The whole population of China (about 58,000,000 in 1290) was divided into a hierarchy of four social classes: the Mongols; the central Asians; the northern Chinese, Koreans, and Jürchen; and the southern Chinese.
The first two classes enjoyed extensive administrative, economic, and judicial privileges; the third class held an intermediate position; whereas the fourth, the most numerous of all, was practically excluded from state offices. Separate systems of law were maintained for Chinese and for Mongols and also for the Moslem collaborators. The central Asians enjoyed exceptional political privileges because of their contribution as managers of finance for the ruling elite, and at times they were the chief rivals against the Chinese for top administrative positions.
For tactical and practical reasons, Kublai adopted a conciliatory policy toward the Chinese. He revived the state cult of Confucius, ordered the protection of the Confucian temples, and exempted the Confucian scholars from taxation. Though Kublai had a rather limited knowledge of Chinese and had to rely on interpreters, he had provided a literary education for his heir apparent, Jingim (1244-1286), and other Mongol princes, allowing gradual, though limited, Sinicization. On the other hand, Kublai was equally aware of the political potential of the Chinese literati, and though he had appointed their leading scholars to key administrative posts, he always treated them with caution.
The 1262 rebellion of Li T'an, the governor of Shantung, and the involvement of a high-ranking Chinese official marked the turning point in Kublai's relations with his Chinese ministers. In later years Kublai relied more on his central Asian administrators for support. As to the Chinese from the South who had resisted his rule, Kublai viewed them with apprehension from the very beginning. He did not seek out talents for government service from the South and deliberately suppressed their entry to official careers by enacting legislation making it much more difficult for them than for their northern counterparts. The alienation of the southern Chinese contributed much to the general resentment against the Mongol rule in the mid-14th century.
Kublai was well known for his toleration of foreign religions. The Mongol rulers had been reputed for their acceptance and patronage, embracing Islam in Persia and Nestorian Christianity in central Asia. Under Kublai, religious establishments of the Buddhist, Taoist, Nestorian, and Islamic orders were all exempted from taxation, and their clergy acquired local land rights and economic privileges. The Chinese indigenous religion, Neo-Taoism, was popular under Kublai, although it faced continuous challenge from the Buddhists.
The Mongols, however, ingratiated themselves with a debased form of Buddhism from Tibet called Lamaism. Kublai himself was a convert of Lamaist Buddhism. In 1260 he invited a young Tibetan lama, 'Phags-pa, to his court, honoring him with the title of Imperial Mentor and making him the high priest of the court. In 1269 Kublai entrusted him to devise a new alphabet for the Mongol language based on the Tibetan script but written vertically like Chinese. This new alphabet, known as 'Phags-pa script, however, never supplanted the modified Uighur alphabet for written Mongolian. Under Kublai's patronage, the number of Buddhist establishments rose to 42,000 with 213,000 monks and nuns, a great many of them being Lamaists.
Kublai also had some temporary success in fostering the economic life of China, although the extent of achievement is disputable. In contrast to North China, the landholding elements of the Southern Sung were not dispossessed and generally acquiesced in the change of authority. Trade between North and South China was stimulated by the development of the new capital in Peking. To provide food for the capital's swelling population, the government had to transport grain from the fertile rice-growing lower-Yangtze basin. Kublai inaugurated a system of sea transport around the hazardous Shantung coast and also developed the inland river and canal routes. The problem of transporting food to the capital was eventually solved by extending the Grand Canal system north to Peking from the Yellow River. This resulted in the construction of a new section in the Grand Canal known as "Connecting Canal"; when completed in 1289, it ran through western Shantung north of the modern course of the Yellow River.
Under Kublai, the opening of direct contact between China and the West, made possible by the Mongol control of the central Asian trade routes and facilitated by the presence of efficient postal services, was another spectacular phenomenon in the Mongol Empire. In the beginning of the 13th century, large numbers of Europeans and central Asians—merchants, travelers, and missionaries of different orders—made their way to China. The presence of the Mongol power also enabled throngs of Chinese, bent on warfare or trade, to make their appearance everywhere in the Mongol Empire, all the way to Russia, Persia, and Mesopotamia.
There were several direct exchanges of missions between the Pope and the Great Khan, though each with a different motive. In 1266 Kublai entrusted the Venetian merchants, the Polo brothers, to carry a request to the Pope for a hundred Christian scholars and technicians. The Polos arrived in Rome in 1269, receiving an audience from Pope Gregory X, and they set out with his blessing but no scholars.
Marco Polo, Niccolo's son, who accompanied his father on this trip, was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China. It is said that he spent the next 17 years (1275-1292) under Kublai Khan, including official service in the salt administration and trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. Although the flaws in his description of China have tempted modern historians to dispute his sojourn in the Middle Kingdom, the popularity of his journal, Description of the World, was such that it subsequently generated unprecedented enthusiasm in Europe for going east.
Marco Polo had his East Asian counterpart in Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk born in Peking. He crossed central Asia to the Il-Khan's court in Mesopotamia in 1278 and was one of those whom the Mongols sent to Europe to seek Christian help against Islam. There must have been countless numbers of unknown others who crossed the Continent, spreading information about their land and bringing with them artifacts of their culture. Under Kublai, the first direct contact and cultural interchange between China and the West, however limited in scope, had become a reality never before achieved.
After a glorious reign of 34 years, Kublai died in Ta-tu in February 1294. In conformity with the Chinese tradition, Temür, Kublai's grandson and successor, bestowed on Kublai the posthumous temple title Shih-tsu (regenerating progenitor) after Genghis Khan, who was known as T'ai-tsu (grand progenitor). Temür reigned until his death in 1307 and is known in Chinese history as Yüan Ch'eng-tsung.
Kublai must be regarded as one of the great rulers in history. He showed natural magnanimity and imagination, and he was able to transcend the narrow nomad mentality of his ancestors and to administer a huge state with an ancient civilization. He was a vigorous, shrewd, and pragmatic ruler and was close in spirit to Genghis Khan. While his achievement ranked him second to Genghis among the Mongol rulers, he was not unpopular among the Chinese, enjoying the esteem of even the Chinese orthodox historians. During his lifetime he was acknowledged as the Great Khan of the Mongol confederacy, though in effect his authority was confined to China and its peripheral territories.
Nevertheless, Kublai was not content to be a sage emperor in the Chinese fashion; rather, he aspired to be the all-embracing ruler of the entire Mongol Empire in the footsteps of his grandfather. His partial adoption of Chinese political traditions and his divide-and-rule tactics were ingenious devices in the administration of a complex, populous empire.
Unfortunately, Kublai's policy fell short of the anticipation of the conservative elements, who gradually became alienated from the predominately Sinicized Mongol court. As Kublai and his successors steeped themselves deeper in the Chinese tradition, there was a widening schism between the Mongol rulers of China and those of the other khanates within the Mongol confederacy. They preferred to maintain their nomad identity instead of looking toward China for leadership; this estrangement, while weakening the Mongol solidarity, ironically helped to uphold and perpetuate the Mongol heritage after the fall of the Yüan dynasty in 1368.
There is no satisfactory biography of Kublai Khan in English. Useful, though outdated, chapters on him are in general texts on Mongol history such as Sir Henry Hoyle Howorth, History of the Mongols (4 vols., 1876-1927), and Michael Prawdin, The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (1940). For other scholarly contributions to Kublai's period see Herbert Franz Schurmann, ed. and trans., Economic Structure of the Yüan Dynasty (1956); Leonardo Olschki, Marco Polo's Asia (1957; trans. 1960); Ch'ên Yüan, Western and Central Asians in China under the Mongols, translated by Luther Carrington Goodrich (1966); and Igor de Rachewiltz, Papal Envoys to the Great Khans (1970). Recommended for general historical background are René Grousset, The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire (1942; trans. 1952), and Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 1 (1960)