Who Was Kublai Khan?
Kublai Khan (September 23, 1215 – February 18, 1294) was the greatest, most intelligent and most cultured of the great Mongol leaders of Asia. He became ruler over more people than had ever before acknowledged allegiance to one man. Kublai Khan was the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire, reigning from 1260 to 1294 (although due to the division of the empire this was a nominal position).
He also founded the Yuan dynasty in China as a conquest dynasty in 1271, and ruled as the first Yuan emperor until his death in 1294. Kublai was fourth son of Tolui (his second son with Sorghaghtani Beki) and the grandson of Genghis Khan, the great Mongol conqueror who founded a vast empire as the leader of a horde of fierce nomadic horsemen.
He succeeded his older brother Möngke as Khagan in 1260, but had to defeat his younger brother Ariq Böke in the Toluid Civil War lasting until 1264. This episode marked the beginning of disunity in the empire.
As a child, he formed an ambition to complete the conquest of China, started by his ancestors. This he achieved in 1279, establishing himself at Cambaluc (modern Peking), assuming the title of Emperor and founding the Yuan dynasty, which ruled China until 1368.
By 1279, the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty was completed and Kublai became the first non-native emperor to conquer all of China. Kublai’s real power was limited to China and Mongolia, though as Khagan he still had influence in the Ilkhanate and, to a significantly lesser degree, in the Golden Horde. If one counts the Mongol Empire at that time as a whole, his realm reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, from Siberia to what is now Afghanistan – one fifth of the world’s inhabited land area.
In his efforts to expand the empire of the Great Khan, Kublai owed much of his success to the great generalship of Bayan, his commander-in-chief. Bayan was described as “the hundred-eyed” because of his ability to see every aspect of a situation before drawing up and executing his military plans.
Kublai also hoped to conquer Japan, but the Mongols, though wonderful troops on horse-back were bad sailors and the attempted invasion ended in disaster. Nevertheless, his dominions stretched across Asia from the Arctic Ocean to the Malay Peninsula and from Korea to Asia Minor and the border of Hungary.
Kublai Khan adopted the Chinese way of life and made Buddhism the state religion. Throughout his lands the barriers came down and the highways were opened to the spread of commerce and knowledge between East and West. His fame attracted scholars, merchants, adventurers and envoys from many countries to the Chinese capital.
Among them was the Venetian Traveler Marco Polo who spent 17 years in the service of the Khan, and whose book describing the splendors of Kublai’s court fired the imagination of much later explorers and led eventually to the discovery of America.