On this day in 1260, Kublai Khan became Great Khan, or ruler of the Mongol Empire. He quickly distinguished himself as one of history’s greatest conquerors.
The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan was known to be courageous, intelligent, and strong as a boy. By age nine he hunted his first antelope, by 12 he was a skilled horseman, and by 17, when his father died, he was a skilled warrior. Thanks to his family name, Khan quickly rose to prominence in China. In 1236, he was granted a fiefdom in northern China. In 1251, when his brother Mongke became Great Khan, Khan was named viceroy of northern China. As viceroy, he worked to pacify uprisings in Yunnan and to establish his northern capital in a frontier between China’s farmlands and the Mongolian steppe. He named his new capital Shang-tu, or Upper Capital, which later became anglicized as “Xanadu.”
In 1259, Mongke died and a dispute arose over who would become the next Great Khan. A council in the Mongol capital of Karakhoram named Khan’s younger brother, Arik Boke, Great Khan. Khan disputed the result with his own council, which, on 5 May 1260, named him Great Khan. The brothers’ feud quickly touched off a civil war. Khan’s troops destroyed Karakhoram and the fighting continued for four years until August 1264, when Arik Boke finally surrendered to his older brother at Shang-tu.
Khan finally exerted control over the entire Mongol homeland, including Mongol territories in China. He also had some authority over tribes in Russia and the Middle East, but what Khan really wanted was to conquer southern China and unite his lands. Khan pursued this campaign with vigour: he converted to Buddhism, moved his main capital to Dadu (modern-day Beijing), and named his Chinese dynasty Dai Yuan. His strategy was successful. By 1276 most of the Song imperial family of China surrendered to Khan. But the final conquest of Song China occurred in 1279 at the Battle of Yamen, when Khan and his Mongol forces surrounded the Song palace, forcing all inside to surrender – or, as the eight-year-old Chinese emperor did when he jumped into the ocean – commit suicide.
Under Khan, China’s arts, sciences, and political organisation flourished. He issued paper currency backed by gold reserves and patronised astronomers and clock-makers, urging them to advance their science. He even had a written language created for some of Western China’s non-literate languages. But Khan was not content with this. He went on to lead attacks on Burma, Vietnam, Japan, and Indonesia, not all of which were successful.
Drowned in sorrow by the death of his favourite wife and oldest son, Khan withdrew from the empire and died on 18 February 1294. He was the first non-Chinese emperor to rule all of China, and had ruled the world’s richest empire in Yuan China and the second-largest land empire ever. His summer garden in Shang-tu, or Xanadu, is the subject of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, and of Marco Polo’s travelogue.
Caption: The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan was one of history’s greatest conquerors.