2.37. History of the Mongols: Kublai Khan's Reign
“Now I wish to tell you [...] all the very great doings and all the very great marvels of the very great lord of the Tartars, [...] who is called Kublai Khan, which [...] means to say in our language the great lord of lords, emperor, and [...]this great Khan is the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world, or that now is from the time of Adam our first father till this moment; and under him all the peoples are set with such obedience as has never been done under any other former king. And this I shall show you quite clearly in the course of this our second book, that it is a true thing which I have told you so that each will be sure that he is, as we say without contradiction, the greatest lord that ever was born in the world or that now is.”
So Marco Polo introduces Kublai Khan in his Description of the World, as per the classic translation of Moule and Pelliot. Having now taken you through the successful Mongol conquest of China and fall of the Song Dynasty, we’ll now look at Kublai’s reign itself, and his efforts to build a new dynasty in China. Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and simultaneously Emperor of China, Kublai Khan was one of the single most powerful men in human history, rumours of his vast wealth and might spreading across the world. Kublai Khan’s long reign will be dealt with in two halves; a first one today covering 1260 to 1279, followed by a look at Kublai’s foreign ventures, then another episode detailing his last years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Kublai’s name has popped up in several episodes even before his war with Ariq Boke, but we’ve dealt little with the man directly. Born on the 23rd of September, 1215, Kublai was the second son of Tolui and Sorqaqtani Beki, and a grandson of Chinggis Khan. Indeed, Kublai was the last of the Great Khans to have ever personally met Chinggis, though Kublai was little more than 12 years old at the time of Chinggis’ death. It was never likely that Kublai would have come to the throne: while all of Sorqaqtani’s son received the same extensive education, learning to read and write the Mongolian script, take lessons in governance and even had Chinese advisers, Kublai was the only one of her four sons who really found himself attracted to Chinese culture. In time, Kublai even came to speak some Chinese, though never learned the characters. While Sorqaqtani’s eldest son Mongke led armies on the Great Western Campaign across the steppe in the 1230s, Kublai was beginning to govern Chinese for the first time, having been given an appanage in North China by Ogedai Khaan in 1236. Like many Mongols granted territory in China, Kublai did not actually rule from China, staying in Mongolia proper. As with much of North China, Kublai’s appanage was left to the whims of tax farmers and merciless officers demanding extraordinary levies. By the time Kublai learned of it, thousands of tenants had already fled their lands. Perhaps on the council of his Chinese tutors, Kublai sought assistance and local knowledge. The tax farmers in his lands were dismissed and replaced with dedicated officials. A regular taxation system enforced, burdens lessened and by the 1240s Kublai had succeeded in encouraging a number to return. The episode was an important one for Kublai. Leaving government to operate without oversight would allow all manner of corruption and abuse into the system, depreiving the lord of his tribute and putting increased pressure onto the peasanty and farmers at the bottom. Given the chance, they would flee, leaving those petty officials to now increase the pressure on remaining tenants and continue the cycle. By curbing abuses and encouraging growth, Kublai reasoned, the lord would reap even greater rewards over time.
For most of the 1240s, Kublai was a minor figure. He was a grandson of Chinggis and thus a high ranking prince, to be sure, but one of little importance without a military record to his name- the only kind of record which mattered, as far as the Mongols were concerned. Just before 1240 Kublai married his second and most famous wife, Chabi of the Onggirat. A wise and outspoken woman, Chabi would, for most of Kublai’s long life, be one of his most significant advisers and supporters, a calming and motivating voice when he needed it most. Chabi was also a devout Buddhist, and certainly must have encouraged Kublai’s own interest in Buddhism. It’s no coincidence their first son was given a rather classically Tibetan Buddhist name, Dorji. She may very well have been a driving force in bringing more Buddhist advisers into Kublai’s fledgling court in the 1240s. In 1242, the Buddhist monk Hai-yun was summoned to Kublai, who further educated Kublai on Buddhism. In 1243, Hai-yun helped Kublai choose the Chinese Buddhist name of Zhenjin, “True Gold,” for Kublai’s second son, rendered in Mongol as Jingim. Hai-yun introduced Kublai to another Buddhist, Liu Ping-chung, who would become one of Kublai’s most prominent advisers in the years to come. While Kublai was personally more inclined to Buddhism, he did not limit himself to it. Confucian scholars such as Chao Pi, Tou Mo and most famously, Yao Shu, came to Kublai in these years. Yao Shu was highly trusted by Kublai, and the Chinese sources are replete with examples of Yao Shu turning ancient Chinese parables and stories into practical advice for Kublai as a general and in time, ruler. These men were made responsible not just for informing Kublai of the ancient Confucian classics, but of tutoring Kublai’s sons as well. The oldest boy, Dorji, died early, and Jingim became the focus of their teaching efforts, receiving an education in Buddhism, Confucianism and even Taoism.
Confucians and Buddhists were not his only advisers; Uighurs, Turks and Central Asians served Kublai in a vareity of roles as interpeters, translators, officials and financial advisers. For military matters of course, Kublai relied on his Mongolian kinsmen. Over the 1240s and into the 1250s, Kublai cultivated what historian Morris Rossabi has termed the “kitchen cabinet,” of advisers, a wide collection of opinions and experiences which he could draw upon, men he knew for years and trusted, backed up by his wife Chabi.
As we’ve covered before, when his older brother Mongke became Grand Khan in the 1250s Kublai was thrust into the international spotlight. We needn’t go into this in great detail again; how Kublai was for the first time given a military command, against the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. How Kublai returned to Northern China to oversee matters for Mongke there, only to annoy his brother with possible aspirations to greater autonomy and perhaps independence, an overconfidence brought on by a successful military campaign and fruitful years as a governor which saw him construct his own capital, known as Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. Mongke greatly reduced Kublai’s influence in the aftermath, and Kublai only managed to crawl back into Mongke’s favour in time to be given command of an army in a massive assault on the Song Dynasty. The sudden death of Mongke in August 1259 brought the campaign to a screeching halt. Mongke and Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, stepped up into the regency. Kublai ignored requests to return to the imperial capital at Karakorum in Mongolia, and continued to campaign for a few more months, until his wife Chabi sent word of rumour that Ariq was going to put his name forward for the Khanate. But Kublai had already been aspiring for the throne. He may have intended to keep campaigning and build up his rather lacklustre resume as a commander, but now had to rush north earlier than he had hoped. In May of 1260, at his residence in Shangdu, Kublai declared himself Khan of the Mongol Empire, precipitating a four year civil war between himself and Ariq. Though Kublai had Ariq’s surrender by 1264, over tho…