Kublai Khan

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Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan
Birth and death: Sept. 23, 1215–Feb. 18, 1294
Clan name
Borjigin[1] (Боржигин)
Bei'erzhijin[2] or
Sublineage name[4]:
Khiyad[5] (Хиад)
or Qiyan
Given name: Khubilai (Хубилай)
Khan of the Mongols
Dates of reign: May 5, 1260–Dec. 17, 1271
Emperor of Yuan China
Dates of reign: Dec. 18, 1271[7]–Feb. 18, 1294
Era Names: Zhongtong, Zhiyuan
Dynasty: Ön[8], now Yüanh [9] (Юань)
Khan name: Setsen Khan (Сэцэн хаан)
Xuechan Han
Temple name: Shizu
Posthumous name: Emperor Shengde
Shengong Wenwu
General note: Names given in Mongolian, then in Chinese.
See Notes

Kublai Khan, Khubilai Khan, Qubilai Khan or "the last of the Great Khans" (September 23, 1215 - February 18, 1294) (Mongolian: Хубилай хаан) was a Mongol military leader. He was the fifth Khagan (1260–1294) of the Mongol Empire as well as the founder and the first emperor (1271–1294) of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty. He was the first non-ethnic Chinese to rule the empire. He was crowned as Tien-tse, "Son of Heaven," following Chinese tradition. Born the second son of Tolui and Sorghaghtani Beki and the grandson of Genghis Khan, he succeeded his older brother Möngke in 1260. Kublai Khan's brother, Hulagu, conquered Persia and founded the Ilkhanate. Kublai also had a cousin named Kaidu, who died in 1301. Kublai's rule in China showed that the Mongol's could not only conquer but that they could also govern. While the greater Mongol empire fragmented during his life, he consolidated his power in China and also created stability, at least until his death. When he conquered the South, he made sure that the countryside was not laid to waste so that agriculture would suffer.

After Kublai died, rivalry for the succession resulted in renewed instability, and his dynasty could not hold onto power, falling to the Mings in 1368. Among the Mongols, Kublai was renowned for his administrative ability and was known as Setsen Khan (“The Wise Khan”). By adopting many Chinese customs, he is said to have earned the respect of the Chinese as well. His fame and the splendor of his court reached the Western civilization through the writings of Marco Polo.


Early Years

Kublai was the grandson of Genghis Khan. As a youth, he studied Chinese culture and became enamored with it. In 1251, his elder brother Mongke became khan of the Mongol Empire, and Kublai became the governor of the southern territories of the Mongol Empire. During his years as governor, Kublai managed his territory well, boosting the agricultural output of Henan and increasing social welfare spending after receiving Xi'an. These acts received great acclaim from the Chinese warlords and were essential to the building of the Yuan Dynasty.

In 1253, Kublai was ordered to attack Yunnan, and he destroyed the Kingdom of Dali. In 1258, Möngke put Kublai in command of the Eastern Army and summoned him to assist with attacks on Sichuan and, again, Yunnan. Before Kublai could arrive in 1259, word reached him that Möngke had died. Kublai continued to attack Wuhan, but soon received news that his younger brother had usurped power. He quickly reached a peace agreement with Song Dynasty troops and returned north to the Mongolian plains.

Both his brother and Kublai crowned themselves khan in 1260, and the two brothers battled for three years before Kublai finally won. However, during this civil war, Yizhou governor Li revolted against Mongol rule. The revolt was swiftly crushed by Kublai, but this incident instilled in him a strong distrust of ethnic Hans. After he became emperor, Kublai instituted several anti-Han laws, such as banning the titles of and tithes to Han Chinese warlords.

Emperor of Yuan

As emperor of Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan worked to minimize the influences of regional lords who had held immense power before and during the Song Dynasty. His mistrust of ethnic Han Chinese caused him to hire other ethnic group members as officials more often than Han Chinese.

At the eighth year of Zhiyuan (1271), Kublai Khan officially declared the creation of the Yuan Dynasty, and proclaimed the capital to be at Dadu (Beijing, China) in the following year. To unify China, Kublai Khan began a massive offensive against the remnants of the southern Song Dynasty in the eleventh year of Zhiyuan, and destroyed the Song Dynasty in the sixteenth year of Zhiyuan, unifying the country at last.

He ruled better than his predecessors, promoting economic growth with the rebuilding of the Grand Canal, repairing public buildings, and extending highways. However, Kublai Khan's domestic policy also included some aspects of the old Mongol living traditions, and as Kublai continued his reign, these traditions would clash more and more frequently with traditional Chinese economic and social culture.

He also introduced paper currency, although eventually a lack of fiscal discipline and inflation turned this move into an economic disaster. He encouraged Chinese arts and demonstrated religious tolerance, except in regards to Daoism. His capital was at Beijing (then Cambuluc or Dadu 大都, literally “big capital”). The empire was visited by several Europeans, notably Marco Polo in the 1270s who may have seen the summer capital in Shangdu (上都, literally “upper capital” or Xanadu).

He conquered Dali (Yunnan) and Goryeo (Korea). Under pressure from his Mongolian advisors, Kublai attempted to conquer Japan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Java. All these failed attempts, costly expeditions, along with the introduction of paper currency caused inflation. However, Kublai Khan also forced warlords from the Northwest and Northeast to capitulate, ensuring stability for those regions. Kublai Khan died in the 31st year of Zhiyuan (1294).

Invasions of Japan

Kublai Khan twice attempted to invade Japan in search of gold; however, both times the samurai resisted firmly and bad weather destroyed the fleets. The first invasion attempt took place in 1274, with a fleet of nine hundred ships. The second invasion occurred in 1281, with a fleet of over 1,170 large war junks, each close to 240 feet long. The Japanese were prepared for this invasion and they had built a wall several feet high on the island where Mongols were predicted to land, in order to prevent horses from coming ashore easily. The campaign was badly organized as the Korean fleet reached Japan much ahead of the Chinese fleet. Japanese samurai defeated the largely Chinese and Korean army of Mongols.

Dr. Kenzo Hayashida, the marine archaeologist, headed the investigation that discovered the wreckage of the second invasion fleet off the western coast of Takashima. His team's findings strongly indicate that Kublai Khan rushed to conquer Japan and attempted to construct his enormous fleet in only one year (a task that should have taken up to five years), which forced the Chinese to use any available ships, including river boats, in order to achieve readiness. Most importantly, the Chinese, then under the Khan's control, were forced to build many ships quickly in order to contribute to the fleet in both of the invasions. Had Kublai used standard, well-constructed ocean-going ships, which have a curved keel to prevent capsizing, his navy might have survived the journey to and from Japan and might have conquered it as intended.

John Pearson, author of Kublai Khan (2005), writes, "The cost of these defeats led the Khan to devalue the central currency, further exacerbating growing inflation. He also increased tax assessments. These economic problems lead to growing resentment of the Mongols, who paid no taxes, among the Chinese populace." David Nicole writes in The Mongol Conquerors, "these disastrous defeats shattered the myth of Mongol invincibility throughout Asia." He also wrote that Kublai Khan was determined to mount a third invasion, despite the horrendous cost to the economy and to his and Mongol prestige of the first two defeats, and only his death prevented such a third attempt, despite the unanimous agreement of his advisors against such an attempt."

In early 2006, previous theories that Kublai's fleet was made up entirely of river boats were weakened when archaeologists discovered evidence of keel-building. One current theory is that the new Mongol technology of explosives (grenade-like weapons) may have backfired owing to inexperience when the Mongols attempted to apply it against Japan.

Invasions of Vietnam

First invasion

Initial Mongol attempts at invasion took place along the border North Vietnam region in the year 1257. As the Mongols' traditional style of warfare was raiding, also they were not familiar with the hot Vietnamese weather; finally they were settled in a long fight with the Southern Song Dynasty that had large fortified cities. The Vietnamese held out and eventually the Mongols were forced to retreat, but they did not give up. During the fall of the capital, Thăng Long (today Hanoi), it is written that the young king asked the prime minister, Trần Thủ Độ, what must be done, he responded, "...as long as my head is still on, please do not worry your majesty!"

Third invasion

In 1287 Prince Toghan led the third Mongol invasion, consisting of 500,000 men and a vast fleet into Đại Việt. Early assault by Prince Ariq-Qaya and his cavalry swiftly captured Phú Lương and Đại Than—two important border stations in the northern Đại Việt border. By this time Prince Toghan's fleet had devastated most of the force of General Trần Khánh Dư in Vân Đồn. King Trần Nhân Tông called back General Trần Khánh Dư for court-martial, but this general delayed his return and regrouped his force in Vân Đồn.

Preparing for the next stage, Prince Ariq-Qaya's ground force later met up with Prince Toghan's fleet in Vân Đồn, advancing together to Thăng Long (today's Hanoi), Đại Việt's capital. General Trần Khánh Dư's regrouped force ambushed and captured Prince Toghan's supply fleet, thus regaining the first victory turn of events for Việt army.

Further victories were secured by General Trần Hưng Đạo (陳興道). Borrowing a tactic used by Ngô Quyền in 938 to defeat an invading Chinese fleet, the Vietnamese drove iron-tipped stakes into the bed of the Bạch Đằng River (located in present-day Ha Bac, Hai Hung, and Quang Ninh provinces) and then, with a small Vietnamese flotilla, lured the Mongol fleet into the river just as the tide was starting to ebb. Trapped or impaled by the iron-tipped stakes, the entire Mongol fleet of four hundred craft was sunk, captured, or burned by Vietnamese fire arrows.

Map showing changes in borders of the Mongol Empire from founding by Genghis Khan in 1206, Genghis Khan's death in 1227 to the rule of Kublai Khan (1260–1294)


Kublai began leading further Mongol advances in the latter years of the 1250s. Zhang Wenqian, who was a friend of Guo and was a central government official, was sent by Kublai Khan in 1260 to Daming where unrest had been reported in the local population. Guo accompanied Zhang on his mission. Guo was not only interested in engineering, but he was also an expert astronomer. In particular he was a skilled instrument maker and understood that good astronomical observations depended on expertly made instruments. He now began to construct astronomical instruments, including water clocks for accurate timing and armillary spheres which represent the celestial globe.

Zhang advised Kublai Khan that his friend Guo was a leading expert in hydraulic engineering. Kublai knew the importance of water management, for irrigation, transport of grain, and flood control, and he asked Guo to look at these aspects in the area between Dadu (now Beijing or Peking) and the Yellow River. To provide Dadu with a new supply of water, Guo found the Baifu spring in the Shenshan Mountain and had a 30-kilometer channel built to bring the water to Dadu. He proposed connecting the water supply across different river basins, built new canals with many sluices to control the water level, and achieved great success with the improvements which he was able to make. This pleased Kublai Khan and led to Guo being asked to undertake similar projects in other parts of the country. In 1264 he was asked to go to Gansu province to repair the damage that had been caused to the irrigation systems by the years of war during the Mongol advance through the region. Guo traveled extensively along with his friend Zhang. taking notes of the work which needed to be done to unblock damaged parts of the system and to make improvements to its efficiency. He sent his report directly to Kublai Khan.

Later Life

Kublai, in the later part of his life, developed severe gout. He also put on a lot of weight due to eating lots of animal organs. It is believed that this was a result of the death of not only his favorite wife, but also his chosen heir shortly before this period. This also more than likely increased the amount of iron in his blood which probably led to his problems with gout, ultimately leading to his death.


General note: Dates given here are in the Julian calendar. They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.

  • ^  This is the singular. The plural is Borjigi.
  • ^  This is the most frequent Chinese version of the clan name nowadays.
  • ^  This Chinese version of the clan name was the most frequent during the Qing Dynasty.
  • ^  The Cambridge History of China thinks that Khiyad was a sublineage inside the larger Borjigin clan, but other scholars disagree and think that Borjigin was a sublineage inside the larger Khiyad clan, while there are those who think that Khiyad and Borjigin were both used interchangeably.
  • ^  This is the plural. The singular is Khiyan.
  • ^  This Chinese version of Khiyad is the one that appears in the Chinese history of the Yuan Dynasty.
  • ^  Founded the Yuan Dynasty on that day. However, was not in control of southern China until February 1276, when the Southern Song emperor was captured and the imperial seal was relinquished to the Yuan. The last pockets of resistance in southern China fell in 1279.

The Yuan Dynasty was the first to think the world was round, but thought that the other parts had horrible devils and spirits in them.


  • Crompton, Samuel. Meet the Khan: Western Views of Kuyuk, Mongke, and Kublai. San Jose, CA: Authors Choice Press, 2001. ISBN 9780595196074
  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Reprint edition, 1990. ISBN 0631175636
  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990. ISBN 0520067401
  • Saunders, J. J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. ISBN 0812217667

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