Beijing—capital of China, the country with the largest population on earth. Beijing is one of the world’s great cities and it was made capital of China by a great man. That man was Kublai Khan. Kublai declared himself “Great Khan,” the supreme ruler of the Mongol empire at his palace of Xanadu in 1260. But his main interest was in China where he reigned until 1294 and founded the Yuan Dynasty. This meant he also became a major figure in the history of China.
“Kublai Khan was an extremely significant figure in the course of Chinese history, because he was the first significant non-Chinese ruler to rule over the entire Chinese empire; and, more than that, had aspirations, in effect, to try to rule the entire world.”
Kublai Khan was the grandson of the legendary Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan, who carved out a vast empire across Asia and the Middle East at the beginning of the 13th century. Like his grandfather, Kublai crushed his enemies with brute force; yet he ruled his own lands peacefully, setting up governments, creating systems of taxation and promoting culture and commerce. He made Beijing the capital of the biggest empire the world had ever seen, stretching from the shores of the China Sea to the river Danube in Europe and from Siberia to the Indian Ocean. But his greatest achievement was the unification of China, a unification that survives to this day; and, although he reigned over 700 years ago, his story is one that still has great significance.
“The reason why Kublai Khan is of interest today is because Kublai Khan ruled a great multi-cultural society, a great multi-cultural empire, and he presided over a global economy. And this was globalization in the—in the Middle Ages. And, again, his empire incorporated many, many different cultures and peoples and he was able to unify them, bring them together and do so successfully.”
So Kublai Khan was clearly a man of vision, but what else do we know about him? The Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who lived in Kublai’s court for more than 20 years, described him as a man of middle height with a figure of just proportion and a face that was somewhat red, which may have resulted from his love of food and alcohol. But he was also capable of extreme violence, barbarity and cruelty. He carved out his great empire with one battle after another; and, even though his military career started quite late in his life, his skill in combat was second to none. But there was another, very different side to his character. Throughout his reign, the Wise Khan—as he was known—courted the most sophisticated, intellectual, scientific and artistic minds of the day. And he was very practical, recognizing the benefits that freedom of trade and effective taxation would bring.
“In terms of practical changes, one of the big things you would have seen if you lived through his rule was a massive increase in public works. For instance, China’s canal system was increased during his time through massive use of forced labor. This meant that grain and other important agricultural goods could be transported up and down the country much more conveniently without having, for instance, to use the often slightly dangerous pirate-ridden seas on the Chinese coast. Another innovation of the period, and one that would have great significance later, was the introduction of paper currency—banknotes.”
To understand the full significance of this, we need to know more about the Mongol culture that Kublai Khan came from. Kublai’s grandfather, Genghis Khan, was one of the most violent men in history. In just two decades in the early 13th century, his forces carved out the biggest empire in world history. The Mongolian tribes he led originated from the steppe grasslands in the shadows of the Altai Mountains, in the southwest of the modern state of Mongolia. The Mongols were a nomadic race; they had no towns. Instead, they lived in magnificent, tented settlements. It was a harsh existence, and it produced a race of men and women who were extremely tough. In 1206, Genghis Khan was proclaimed universal ruler of these people of the steppes and he set about organizing his military resources. In a great flurry of violence, Genghis Khan’s campaigns extended from the Black Sea to Korea. Their brutality was legendary.
“If you resisted the Mongols, you were in deep trouble, because once they had laid siege to your town and taken it, you might find that, for instance, every man would have his head cut off. There were famous tales—semi-mythical perhaps but still very indicative—of piles of heads like cannonballs being found in conquered cities. Or they might exercise arbitrary terror. For instance, decide that every man over a certain height in the city was going to be executed, or that everybody in town’s ears were going to be cut off and placed in a big pile. And it was well known also that, by surrendering, you could avoid these sorts of horrors. Therefore, the Mongols managed, through psychological terror and rumors of how brutal they were, often to force cities to surrender without even fighting, because they were afraid of the alternative if they actually tried to resist.”
But as the Mongol Empire spread across Asia, there was one major obstacle they couldn’t overcome. The Sung Empire of southern China had over 50 million people and vast resources. For years, the Mongols tried to conquer this giant of the south but were unsuccessful. It was going to take a warrior of very special abilities to overcome the resistance of the Sung Dynasty, who ruled southern China. This man was Kublai Khan. But it was to be many years before he was to get the chance to prove himself. Kublai was born in Mongolia in 1215 when his grandfather Genghis was at the height of his power. His father Tolui was a coarse, military man, the youngest of Genghis’ four sons by his favorite wife. Kublai’s childhood and early career were unspectacular; they gave little hint of how influential he was to become, not just as overlord of all the Mongol dominions but also as the ruler of his own Chinese empire. His father died from alcoholism when he was 15, but this seems to have had little effect on the young Kublai, because Tolui had been away at war for years at a time and Kublai had hardly ever seen him. His primary influence was his remarkable mother Sorghaghtani. Women enjoyed a prominent role in Mongol society. Regularly, they would fight alongside their husbands; others ruled their own territories. Sorghaghtani was typical of this strong tradition. As a young woman, she was one of the few people to stand up to Genghis Khan; and Genghis had a high regard for her and for her son Kublai. The great warrior was quick to recognize the child’s intelligence. Like most Mongol children, Kublai could ride and shoot by the time he was three, and he was an accomplished fighter. But his mother also pushed him academically and Chinese scholars taught him Confucian philosophy, which was based on principle of harmony in the family, order in the state, and peace in the empire.
“She is credited with having brought all her children up in this rather enlightened way, to realize that there was no use just killing people and enslaving them, taking their things, but if the empire was really going to become a real empire, not simply just a conquest state, you had to respect the traditions of the people you were—you’d conquered and you had to preserve, you know, the wealth that was there, not simply destroy it or dissipate it. So he obviously benefited from wise counsel with his mother, and he was educated in Chinese ways as a younger man and that obviously paid off when he became Khan.”
By taking the time to educate him and expose him to the peaceful teachings of Confucius, without ever renouncing the violent ways of the Mongols, she encouraged the two sides of his nature that was to be the key to his success. The fact that Soghaghtani raised her sons and ruled her lands in such a different way to the male Mongol warlords was to have a huge influence on Kublai. In 1236, at the age of 21, Kublai was granted his own lands by his uncle Ogodei, who had succeeded Genghis on his death in 1227. These lands were in the Hopei region of northern China. At first, Kublai ruled his lands from his Mongolian home. He left day-to-day affairs to local officials, just like other Mongol nobles, who had little interest in everyday issues at local level. But, in his absence, the already poor farmers were heavily taxed or they were taken away from their farms to provide labor for state schemes, like road-building. With his mother’s influence, Kublai decided to change things. He instituted reform that was gratefully received in his lands by the peasants of northern China. Roads and bridges were improved, and he did much to improve the quality of life for ordinary people.
“He was also, in a way that may seem to us rather modern, concerned to make sure that welfare provisions for the destitute and the poor were sufficiently well-arranged. This meant that, for instance, areas which had suffered from war or drought or famine were relieved of their tax obligations for a certain amount of time until they could once again afford to actually pay taxes to the central treasury. And instead of paying taxes, quite often they were given either food or monetary subsidies by the central government to make sure that they got themselves back on their feet.”
So, from an early age, Kublai started to show the qualities of an enlightened and progressive ruler. He extended the Mongol postal system, which was the most advanced in the world. This opened up the area to trade and ensured that his messages reached the most remote areas. But back in the Mongol capital Karakorum, the more traditional families distrusted Kublai and his mother. They thought they were selling out and becoming too much like the Chinese merchants, who the Mongols had always robbed from in the past. What is clear is that, even at this early stage in his career, Kublai was setting the pattern for the way that he was going to rule. One of the most significant things was the fact that he didn’t work alone. Instead, he would always consult a wide range of advisors.
“Quite often when he didn’t necessarily understand an idea—whether it was about warfare or about governance—he would show no embarrassment in calling his advisers and actually asking them what he should do. And, interestingly, one of the most important influences in his life was his favorite wife Chabui, who, in fact, advised him not only on his past conquests of China before he actually got to be the emperor, but also about good governance while he actually set on the emperor’s throne.”
Kublai had married Chabui in 1239, and their first son was born a year later. She encouraged men of the arts and science to come to the court to debate with Kublai and seems to have been a moderating force on him. Kublai relied on Chabui throughout his life for support and guidance. In later years, her personality, practicality and interests would influence the fashions and trends of an empire. But Chabui wasn’t his only wife, because Kublai was a Mongol, and this was a culture in which khans traditionally had four wives. Kublai was no exception and ultimately he had four households and a magnificent harem. But, as an ambitious young man, Kublai had more important things on his mind, especially when his brother Mongke was elected Great Khan after the death of their uncle Ogedei in 1251. This was the opportunity Kublai had been waiting for. When his brother became Great Khan, Kublai’s wealth and standing rose overnight as he was granted new lands in northern China by Mongke. What Kublai needed now was the chance to prove himself as a warrior. This was vital. Throughout Mongol history, military success was the key to being seen as a strong leader. His opportunity came when Mongke decided to finish the campaign his uncles had started against the southern Sung Empire. A direct assault on the Sung was risky, unpredictable. Instead, Mongke planned a two-prong, pincer attack. Two Mongol armies would descend on the Sung simultaneously from both the north and west, but the plan had a drawback. On the western route, the independent non-Chinese kingdom of Nanchow stood directly in the way. It would have to be dealt with if the Mongols were to succeed against the Sung Empire. Kublai was selected to lead the attack on Nanchow and received the order to move in July 1252. Conquering Nanchow meant a direct assault on its fortified capital, Ta-li. This invasion was no easy task; massive obstacles had to be overcome. Three great rivers and the rugged mountain ranges of the Tibetan Plateau lay in Kublai’s path. Envoys that Kublai sent ahead to tell the king to submit were beheaded, and the kingdom of Nanchow refused to surrender. After two months, Kublai’s forces reached the banks of the mighty Yangtze River. The critical moment had come, but there were no bridges. On the opposite bank, the Ta-li army slept, confident that Kublai’s army could not cross the river. But Kublai directed his men to make inflatable bags from sheepskins, and they crossed the river late that night in a surprise attack. The Ta-li forces were cut down in their thousands by the Mongol cavalry as they attempted to flee back to the capital. Soon, the Mongol forces were at the gates of Ta-li. Everyone inside knew that Mongol tradition was to slaughter the inhabitants of the first city they took on a campaign as an example to the rest of the country. But Kublai was different; he promised that the city would be spared if they surrendered peacefully. Sensibly, Ta-li opted to do so, and Kublai kept his word. Victorious, Kublai returned to northern China and began to build an impressive new capital city. Called Shang-tu, it was built Chinese-style in the lands between Mongolia and China. The new city, which was later immortalized in European literature as Xanadu, aroused concern among Mongolian traditionalists. To them, it appeared the young upstart had become Chinese. For a Mongol prince to build a city in China was bad, but when reports arrived that he’d rival the Mongol capital Karakorum, it was too much. And, as news arrived that Kublai had overturned Mongol taxation policies, charges of treason were inevitable, as was a family rift that threatened to tear the Mongol empire apart. But after a period of tension, Kublai’s strong relationship with his brother Mongke saved his position. If Mongke was to succeed in overcoming the Sung Empire, he would need his brother’s diplomatic flair and the Chinese allies that Kublai was gathering around him. Kublai was given command over one of four massive Mongol armies, which left Shang-tu in 1258. The Mongol forces made swift progress into central China, but as they reached the banks of the Yangtze River, disaster struck. The south’s warm, oppressive climate made it a hotbed for disease. Mongke went down with a serious case of dysentery and died suddenly. The Great Khan left no successor, and the Mongol world came to an abrupt halt. The Sung campaign was abandoned; Karakorum was in a state of crisis. Who would take up the position of Great Khan? From the four corners of the Mongol Empire, nobles came rushing to Karakorum; but Kublai wouldn’t turn back. It had taken him years to reach this point, and he thought that, with more of southern China under his control, he would have a greater power base than any other Mongol leader. A final conquest of the lands that had eluded his father and grandfather would impress upon the noble families his military prowess and suitability for the position of Great Khan. So Kublai tried to finish the Sung off before he returned north. He continued to fight for two months, severing the Sung’s main supply line along the Yangtze River. The Sung were in panic; they had been taken by surprise in the initial attacks and were in real danger of a complete collapse. But Kublai couldn’t capitalize on his position because, back in the Mongol heartland, there was turmoil. Kublai’s wife begged him to return to the north to face the possibility of civil war, despite the chance he had of smashing the Sung once and for all. The threat in the north was coming from the youngest of Kublai’s brothers, Arik-Böke, who had remained in the Mongol capital Karakorum.
“So there were two rivals and it was important to understand what these two rivals represented, because Arik-Böke was a Mongol of the old school. That is to say, he wanted Mongol rule to carry on in the way that it had always been. He wanted the Mongols to be based in the steppe, which was their traditional homeland; to carry on a sort of a conquest-state, which means that they were conquering, plundering, ruling really as outsiders in a way, just dominating the areas that they conquered. And what Kublai represented was a rather different approach by now; he’d already been in China some years. And he had the resources of a great sedentary civilization behind him. You know, he was the most important figure in what was then just the province of China, the part of the empire.”
But many Mongol families didn’t like these new ways of Kublai and his love for cities and Chinese culture. They saw in Arik-Böke a chance to bring the Mongols back to their roots by opposing Kublai. So a secret council was convened and a rebellion planned. Those who rose up against Kublai included the late Mongke’s sons, his widow and the grandchildren of the former Great Khan, Ogedei. It was a formidable alliance. They declared Arik-Böke the next true Great Khan and began to march on Shang-tu and Chung-tu, the old capital of northern China, both vital cities in Kublai’s domain. Kublai’s wife Chubai and his advisors sent messenger after messenger, impressing on him the danger of Arik becoming Great Khan. Kublai finally had to give in to their pressure and rode north; back over the territory he had fought so hard for. He garrisoned Shang-tu and went into discussion with his favorite advisors on what to do next. It was a critical moment in his life. A great council was held at Shang-tu, at which prince after prince stepped forward and spoke supporting him. Then his other brother Hulagu, who was in Persia, sent a fast rider carrying the vital news that he would back him. This was the news Kublai had been waiting for. Now he felt that he was better supported than his rival Arik-Böke, and on the 5th of May, 1260, he accepted the position of Great Khan, supreme ruler of the Mongol world. He was 44 years old and had just become the most powerful leader the world had ever seen. But with Arik-Böke’s supporters still pressing his claims as Great Khan, Kublai realized, if he wanted to hold on to this position, he would have to fight his brother. His tactics for the war were simple but effective. Kublai cut off Karakorum’s supply lines, leaving Arik-Böke to starve. He then advanced on the Mongol capital with the full might of northern China behind him. Arik-Böke headed southeast to meet him, and, in 1261, the two armies clashed on the Chinese border. Arik-Böke’s forces were outmanned and out-maneuvered, and it soon became clear to him that they were no match for those of his brother. So he traveled to Shang-tu and surrendered. Kublai decided that he would cement rule over northern China by building a new capital called Ta-tu, or great capital. The place he chose is on the site of the Beihai Park in modern-day Beijing. Work began in 1266, and it was to take 30,000 men five years to complete it. But, while it was being built, Kublai’s territorial expansion continued. By now, he controlled the Mongolian heartland and, with northern China under his belt, he set his sights on the prize that had eluded the great khans for generations—to conquer the Sung and unite China under the Mongol flag. But Kublai was a diplomat as well as a great warrior, and, at first, he tried wooing the Sung with promise of self-rule and prosperity under Mongol leadership. But his appeals fell on deaf ears. The Sung had no intention of submitting to a barbarian. In 1265, skirmishes erupted into full-blown battle. It was now that Kublai realized just how tough a challenge he had set himself. His armies had to thrash their way through the humid, enemy-infested forests of the south. It would be a great test of Kublai’s skills as a military leader.
“Kublai Khan as a military leader was both bold and daring. He was trying to put forward one of the greatest military actions that had been seen in history up to that time—in the 1260s—which was to conquer the whole of southern China, in other words, a huge cultural heartland that held something like 50 million people. To do this, he was clearly going to have to use a variety of tactics, not all of which would have been very obvious to someone like him, who came from a northern Asian, nomadic background.”
One of the things he had to learn was how to deal with a completely new type of combat—marine warfare. The Mongols had never been a seafaring race, but Kublai recognized that he would need a navy to keep the Sung from being able to supply its army from the South China Sea. Kublai’s forces captured 150 Sung boats in a raid on the coastal town of Tial-yu-shan. Using the captured ships, Kublai set about transforming the Mongols into a formidable naval power. It was this sort of bold innovation that set Kublai apart as a leader. The Mongols took to battle on the waves at astonishing speed. By 1268, Kublai had himself a navy, and on land, his army rampaged southwards, capturing town after town. By 1271, as Kublai’s armies swept all before them, the construction of his grand capital was completed. The wall of Ta-tu was 20 miles in circumference and was split into two areas. The inner wall held Kublai’s ornate imperial city; inside the outer wall lived the officials and scholars of the court. The ordinary people lived beyond the outer wall. The Forbidden City—which was built later, in the Ming Dynasty—now stand on the site where Kublai wined and dined his court in lavish style. At Ta-tu, Kublai lived in the lap of luxury with attendants and beautiful concubines on hand to service his every need. Following the traditions of Chinese rulers of the past, Kublai proclaimed himself emperor and founded a new dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty.
“He chose the name Yuan as the name of his dynasty very cleverly. Traditionally, the Chinese had named their dynasties after a place or a town from where they originated. Now, Kublai did not do this; obviously if he had called it after Mongolia or a Mongol name, this would have annoyed—this would not have gone down well with the Chinese. They’ve very nationalistic. So he chose the word yuan. Yuan in Chinese means “origin.” So it was a Chinese word. In addition to this, the word yuan occurs in the I Ching, the book of changes, the book of divination. In the I Ching, it means “origins of the universe.” So this was a powerful name he chose for his dynasty.”
But on the military front, there was a setback. On the banks of the Han River, his army came to the impregnable cities of Xiangyang and Fangcheng. Beyond the great fortresses lay the Yangtze River and the heart of the Sung Empire. It took Kublai’s forces more than five years to break this last bastion of Sung resistance. Then, as Kublai’s forces crossed the Yangtze, more and more commanders switched to the Mongol side. In the Sung capital Hangzhou, the royal family were frantic. The Sung emperor at the time was only four years old; affairs were handled by his aging mother and in 1276, the empress dowager finally admitted defeat. The Sung leaders were taken as privileged prisoners to Kublai’s court, but the four-year-old emperor was spirited away. So Kublai sent his forces in pursuit. The last remnants of the Sung leadership put to sea and were hunted down by Kublai’s navy. The last that was seen of the boy emperor was in the hands of a Sung admiral, who jumped into the sea with him, declaring, “The Sung emperor chooses death rather than imprisonment.” It was now 1279. Seventy years of on-off warfare with the south was now over, and the whole of China was in Kublai’s hands.
After defeating the Sung, Ta-tu became the capital of all of China and would remain so right up to today. One of his first priorities was to improve communications between north and south. To do that, Kublai employed three million laborers to extend the Grand Canal to carry grain from the fertile south up to the imperial city. Kublai could now draw on the resources of the most advanced nation on earth. The Sung led the world in the quality of their goods and their busy trade routes would make Kublai one of the richest men on earth. The Mongol empire now had the largest army in Asia, the largest fleet, the most prosperous people, and the largest city on earth–Hangzhou. It was a spectacular achievement for Kublai, and it cemented his position as Great Khan. Kublai treated the deposed Sung royal family well, and he told his officials he would not tolerate any looting of the south’s riches. Kublai knew he would have to win over the people of the south if he was to lead a united China. To do this, he ensured that south China would receive the same help toward recovery from war that the north had. He introduced schemes to help with economic growth and agricultural development.
“Kublai Khan realized that the constant warfare that China had suffered in the decades before the establishment of his own dynasty had serious disrupted agriculture. Of course, in a large farming-based society like China, this was a great disaster; it could cause disruption, famine and all sorts of social upheavals. Therefore, he made a very active and successful effort to try and reform the way in which agriculture was carried out in China.”
He also treated the Sung nobility well; letting most of them keep their land. Anyone who had surrendered was pardoned, and the different religious groups were treated well. In fact, in religious affairs, he was tolerant of different beliefs all through his reign—Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims all had a place in his kingdom.
“He employed many Muslims in his court, and Muslims considered him sympathetic towards them. The same could be said of the Buddhists. The Buddhists liked him, and the Buddhists considered him one of their own. And the Confucians—the Confucians had great respect for Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan made a point of having Confucians in his administration, amongst his closest advisors he had Confucians, and he encouraged the reading of Confucian classics. So the Confucians were very happy with Kublai Khan as well. So, it many ways he was everything to all men.”
This was particularly true for merchants. Kublai improved their status and introduced measures to generate trade throughout the land. As a result, they turned his kingdom into a global center for trade and commerce.
“Traditionally, merchants have been looked down on by the—by the Chinese, especially the Confucians. Under Kublai, their status was raised. They were called ortogh and merchants and trade was encouraged. This was a boom time for merchants and certainly under the Mongols, their status was considerably raised.”
As the Mongol court became increasingly business-minded, it bore the whole of Asia an incredible period of prosperity. Traders from as far afield as Venice, Germany, Indonesia and Persia all came to take advantage of a great flowering of new ideas in art and technology. Kublai himself became a patron of the arts, and Chinese painting, ceramics, and theater flourished. In seemed Kublai the warrior had turned himself into a civilized, cultured ruler. He recognized that for stability to follow on from his successful conquest, he would have to be seen to be ruling justly. A just legal system in the Chinese style was the bedrock of a stable situation Kublai had in the north, so he implemented the same ideas in the newly won Sung lands. This came as a great surprise to the administration there, who found Kublai a wise leader who truly loved his subjects.
“As a leader, his attitude to the poor, and the peasants and agriculture was perhaps unexpected. He was sympathetic to the peasants and the poor of his empire. It’s often been said that the peasants suffered under Kublai Khan; conditions were very harsh—were bad for them. Well, I think it’s true to say that, for peasants, it made very little difference who controlled them. Conditions were hard, whoever was in control. But under Kublai—he at least seemed to be sympathetic to their plight. He made arrangements for them. For example, he had central stores of grain set up, so when there was—when there was drought, when there were shortages, he could avoid starvation.”
To encourage a sense of easy transition, Kublai made sure he ruled with a system that would be familiar to the Chinese. He also organized a secretariat, which was in charge of civilian issues, and a privy council, which dealt with military matters. Each part of the government had branches in the provinces, to make sure the khan’s orders were carried out. But his implementation of so many Chinese laws and Confucian ideals of peace, order and harmony diluted the Mongol way of life to the point where his grandfather Genghis would no longer have recognized it.
“Kublai Khan is an intriguing figure, because he is one of the rare figures in history who managed to, in fact, overcome his background and actually become a very different sort of person. One would expect from his warrior, nomad background that, in some ways, he would perhaps be someone who was not terribly interested in civilization, in terms of written culture or in terms of living a more sedentary and perhaps in some ways less active life. But, in fact, having conquered China, he gave up a great deal of the nomadic background that had shaped him and became, in some ways, a very typical Confucian-style Chinese ruler.”
It was an incredible example of political expediency; it made sense to Kublai to rule China as the Chinese did. But there was no doubt where the power lay; the Mongols simply inserted themselves at the top of the social ladder. Next came the western and central Asians, followed by the northern Chinese and finally, at the bottom of the ladder, the people of the south. Kublai had reinforced a way of life which promoted an agricultural and city-based civilization and this had been a resounding success; but he was still a Mongol at heart, and he craved new conquests.
Most of the kingdoms of Asia paid tribute to Kublai in order to maintain some level of self-control . They knew there was little point in opposing the massive war machine of the Mongols. But Kublai still thought there was one thorn in his side—Japan. He had sent many requests that Japan accept him as their emperor, but every offer was met with the execution of his envoys. It was the challenge Kublai had been hoping for. He enlisted the reluctant Koreans to crew the Sung ships he had captured and mounted his first invasion of Japan in 1274. An army of 20,000 cavalry and infantry reached the offshore island of Iki and overcame the Japanese forces there. But as the day wore on, the weather began to change, and when a storm broke, the fleet was caught in its full fury and was destroyed. But Kublai wasn’t to be deterred by this setback. The reports he’d received from the first attack showed that the Mongol forces were superior in every way. They had simply been the victims of bad luck. So a second invasion was launched in 1281 with a two-pronged attack from north and south China. The commanders were to meet on the island of Iki and then converge on the center of Hakata Bay. But the Japanese were better prepared than the first time, and Kublai’s forces met with fierce resistance. Fighting went on with little progress for two months. Then, disaster—another typhoon struck and slammed the Mongol boats against the rocks; almost all were lost. The Mongol troops on shore watched in horror, as their only chance of escape sunk. The elated Japanese forces quickly overran them. But, even then, Kublai didn’t want to give up.
“Very stubbornly, after this terrible defeat which was extremely costly in terms of men and equipment, of course, and financially, he was determined to have another go against Japan; but, fortunately, on this occasion, he was just so completely put off it by the advisors and the other military people in the government, it was called off. But I think that shows that maybe his judgment wasn’t so good, and it shows that he was rather anxious to fulfill the ideal image of a great Mongol ruler still, which is very much of the conquering hero, the conquering military chief. Of course, they were running out of neighbors to conquer.”
But after this second defeat and the advice he was given, Kublai decided to abandon his military campaigns and he began to get more and more involved in the decadent pleasures of court life. On feast days, 6,000 people could be fed in a single sitting at his palace in Ta-tu, but then, in 1281, tragedy struck. His beloved Chabui died, followed four years later by his son and heir Zhenjin. It was more than Kublai could bear. He was grief-stricken and never recovered from his loss.
“And it’s notable, in fact, that his rule began to decline in many ways in the last decade or so of his life, after Chabui died. And he began, from reports we have at the time, somewhat morose, inclined to drink very heavily, he ate too much and became very obese, and in some senses seemed to almost lose interest in being that very fulfilled, very active ruler that he had been when he had that favorite wife by his side.”
But, by this time, he hadn’t only lost his wife; the trusted advisors that he had gathered around him long ago had also died of old age. A new generation of Chinese and Muslim advisors were in court and had become corrupted by their power. But Kublai was increasingly preoccupied with pleasure, leaving the bulk of minor decisions to his court. Kublai’s final years were spent in isolation; increasingly he consoled himself with alcohol and food, and he became fat and ill with gout. By 1294, Kublai had withdrawn from public life and lost his enthusiasm for the celebrations he once adored. The court at Ta-tu, once a place of merriment and excitement, became gloomy and depressed. In February, when he was in his 80th year, old age and excess finally got the better of him. The great Kublai Khan died alone in his palace.
Kublai’s great hope had been that the lands he had won would stay in Mongol hands forever, but this was not to be. Chinese rebels rose up and reclaimed their nation. The once mighty Mongols fled Ta-tu and the Ming Dynasty was born. The Mongols were assimilated into the new dynasty, and their star began to fade from Asia. But this doesn’t detract from Kublai’s achievements.
To understand the scale of what he accomplished, we have to appreciate where he had come from.
“He came from a nomadic, warlike people—the Mongols—who had never known a very settled kind of society. And he managed to convert himself into the emperor of one of the greatest sedentary civilizations—Chinese civilization—that the world has ever seen. And he did so in a tolerant and cooperative way rather than through sheer brute force, which is what we might have expected from his own background.”
From the days of his grandfather Genghis, Mongol hordes had struck fear and terror into hearts and minds throughout Asia. But Kublai Khan challenged this stereotype. Tempering tyranny with tolerance, his regime brought a more civilized form of rule. This dynamic and forward-thinking leader turned his back on many Mongol traditions and showed that Mongols were more than savages or barbarians. Yet, throughout his reign, Kublai never forgot his heritage; he remained a Mongol and, like other Mongol leaders, he embarked upon numerous military campaigns. His conquest of southern Sung China was a stunning victory; it was one that his warlike predecessors had never been able to achieve and it ensured his status as a great Mongol commander. And the fact that China is still united today is a direct consequence of Kublai’s vision of completing what his forefathers had begun.