Kublai Khan (1215-1294)

Kublai Khan
Marco Polo, TV miniseries, 1982

Kublai Khan

AAM Emperors Treasures Kublai Khan EX2016.3.24

Kublai (ᠬᠤᠪᠢᠯᠠᠢ, 忽必來; 1215-1294) was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire (reigned 1260–94). He also founded the Yuan dynasty in China in 1271, and ruled as the first Yuan emperor until his death in 1294. He was the fourth son of Tolui and a grandson of Genghis Khan.

In 1251, Kublai’s eldest brother Möngke became Great Khan, and Kublai was invested with full civil and military responsibility for the affairs of China. He appears never to have learned to read or write Chinese, but already he had recognized the superiority of Chinese thought and had gathered around himself a group of trustworthy Confucian advisers.

Kublai received the viceroyalty over North China. He managed his territory well, boosted the agricultural output of He’nan, and increased social welfare spendings 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 subjugated the Dali kingdom. Duan Xingzhi (?-1260), the last king of Dali, was appointed by Möngke as the first tusi or local ruler. By the end of 1256, Yunnan was completely pacified.

Kublai Khan favored Buddhism. Ordered by Möngke, Kublai called a conference of Taoist and Buddhist leaders in 1258. At the conference, the Taoist claim was officially refuted, and Kublai forcibly converted 237 Taoist temples to Buddhism and destroyed all copies of the Taoist texts.

In 1258, Möngke put Kublai in command of the Eastern Army and summoned him to assist with an attack on Si’chuan. Before Kublai arrived in 1259, word reached him that Möngke had died. Kublai decided to keep the death of his brother secret and continued the attack on Wuhan, near the Yangtze. The Song minister Jia Sidao secretly approached Kublai to propose terms; he offered an annual tribute of 200,000 taels of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk, in exchange for Mongol agreement to the Yangtze as the frontier between the states. Kublai declined at first but later reached a peace agreement with Jia Sidao.

In 1260, Kublai succeeded Möngke as Great Khan, but had to defeat his younger brother Ariq Böke in the Toluid Civil War lasting until 1264. Ariq Böke died, but the family feud continued throughout Kublai’s reign. Against him were ranged those who resented the abandonment of the old ways of the steppe and the adoption of an alien, China-centred culture.

Kublai’s achievement was to reestablish the unity of China, which had been divided since the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907). By 1279, the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty was completed and Kublai became the first non-Han emperor to conquer all of China.

In popular culture

1974 Marco Polo (Hong Kong)
1982 Marco the Magnificent (France)
1982 Marco Polo (United States, TV miniseries)
1983 The Return of the Condor Heroes (Hong Kong, TV miniseries)
1984 The Return of the Condor Heroes (Taiwan, TV miniseries)
1995 The Condor Heroes 95 (Hong Kong, TV miniseries)
2006 The Return of the Condor Heroes (China, TV miniseries)
2013 The Legend of Kublai Khan (China, TV series)
2014 Marco Polo (Netflix, TV series)
2014 The Romance of the Condor Heroes (China, TV series)