Apart from his grandfather Genghis Khan, no other Mongol ruler matched the accomplishments of Kublai Khan. His branch of the Mongol royal family was not expected to rule. But because of his strength and intelligence, Kublai became the Mongols’ Great Khan. Khublai Khan ruled China as its first Mongol Emperor in 1271 after he defeated the Southern Song Dynasty. He then established the Yuan Dynasty which ruled China from 1271 to 1368. Kublai Khan is recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History between 1234-1305.
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The Mongol Conquest From Genghis Khan to Kublai Khan
When Kublai was born in 1215, Genghis Khan had already conquered the Jin Dynasty of Northern China. At that time, the Mongols were also the undisputed masters of Asia and to some extent, Russia. The Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Iraq, while their armies even ventured as far as Eastern Europe. They also destroyed the Abbasid Dynasty in 1258 and ended the Khwarezmian Dynasty of Persia in 1220.
The whole family disagreed on which son would inherit the role of Khagan (Great Khan) when he died in 1227. Because of the disagreement, it took the Mongols two years before they elected Genghis’s third son Ogedei as his successor. This compromise also led to the division of the Mongol Empire. Batu, Genghis’ grandson through Jochi, became the ruler of the Golden Horde in Russia and West Asia. Chagatai, Genghis Khan’s second son, ruled Central Asia. Tolui, Kublai’s father and youngest of Genghis’ sons, ruled the northern part of China and their Mongolian homeland.
In 1234, Ogedei completely crushed the Jin resistance in Northern China. The Mongols then turned Korea, Armenia, Georgia, Tibet, and Russia into tributaries. They even ventured as far as Poland and Hungary in 1241. They later withdrew and hurried back to Mongolia when Ogedei died on December 11, 1241.
Kublai Khan was born on September 23, 1215. Kublai’s father was Tolui. He was Genghis Khan’s youngest son, by his Keraite wife, Sorghaghtani Beki. His brothers were Mongke, Hulagu, and Ariq Boke. Little is known about his early life as they were just another branch of the royal family and were not expected to rule the Mongols.
Sorghaghtani Beki and Her Sons
The Christian Keraite princess Sorghaghtani Beki was one of the most prominent women who married into Genghis Khan’s family. Kublai’s father, Tolui, was always away on military campaigns, so she was left to raise her four boys without him. She was also responsible for their education, and she made sure that her sons learned how to ride, shoot, and hunt at a young age. Kublai also learned how to read and write Mongolian because of his mother’s insistence. The boy, however, never learned to read and write Chinese, so he had to rely on interpreters and translators for much of his reign as emperor.
Tolui died of alcoholism between 1231 and 1232. The Mongol Khagan Ogedei offered to arrange the marriage between his widowed sister-in-law and his own son Guyuk. Sorghaghtani, however, politely declined the Kagan’s offer. She told Ogedei that she would rather devote her time to her sons.
Kublai as a Young Mongol Ruler
Sorghaghtani later asked Ogedei to give her an appanage (a piece of land). This request was granted in 1236. Ogedei gave her Zhengding County in Hubei Province. It was ruled by her son Kublai soon after. Kublai also received his own land to rule in Hubei later on. However, he stayed in Mongolia, so he was unaware that his Mongol administrators oppressed the Chinese farmers who lived in his appanage. The Chinese farmers were forced to leave the area because of the oppression and settled in areas where Mongols did not rule.
When Kublai learned of the situation in his appanage, he immediately replaced the corrupt Mongol administrators with Chinese officials. He also reformed the administration to ease the farmers’ burden. By 1240, many of those who left returned to their own land and worked as farmers again.
Kublai had four principal wives, but it was his second wife and chief consort named Chabi who became influential in his court. He married her before 1240, and she gave birth to their oldest son, Dorji, in 1241. It was also the year when the Khagan Ogedei died. Ogedei wanted his grandson Shiremun to succeed him as Khagan. But his wife, Toregene Khatun, wanted the Mongols to elect her son Guyuk. While he was away on a military campaign, Toregene bribed and schemed so her son would get elected as Khagan. However, she fell out of favor with some Mongol ruling families because of her schemes.
Sorghaghtani also worked hard to maneuver her sons to success. She became friends with Guyuk’s enemy, Batu Khan of the Golden Horde of Russia. However, this was not powerful enough to challenge her sister-in-law. Guyuk finally became Khagan in 1246, and the Mongols under his rule continued to expand their domain in Asia and Europe.
In 1247, the hostility between Batu Khan and Guyuk came to a head. Guyuk gathered his men and headed west to attack Batu. When Sorghaghtani learned of his plans, she immediately sent messengers to Batu to tell him of Guyuk’s plan, but the khagan died on the way. Her loyalty pleased Batu Khan. He assured her afterward that he would support one of her sons as the next khagan in the Mongol assembly.
Batu and the other Mongol rulers hurried back to their homeland to elect a new khagan in 1251. Although it was not without opposition, the Mongol leaders elected Kublai’s brother Mongke as the new khagan. Sorghaghtani died in early 1252. Her sons honored her with a commemorative tablet in Beijing. They also had her portrait displayed in a Nestorian church in Mongolia.
The Rise of the Tolui’s Sons
The fight for the position of khagan continued as the sons of Ogedei and Chagatai did not acknowledge Mongke as khagan. Guyuk’s widow, Oghul Qaimish, also sided with the rival faction. Mongke was swift in getting rid of opposition, and he ordered the execution of many of them, including Guyuk’s widow. As a typical Mongol ruler, Mongke was tolerant of other religions. He also lowered taxes and expanded the Mongol realm. Some of his most important achievements were the fall of the Ismaili sect known as the Order of the Assassins in Persia and the Sack of Baghdad. His younger brother, Hulagu, was promoted as commander of the Mongol army because of these conquests.
Mongke prepared an invasion against the Southern Song as early as 1252. He assigned his younger brother, Kublai, as commander of the army that would besiege Hangzhou, the capital of Southern Song. The brothers knew that a direct attack from the north would not weaken the Southern Song. So they tried to soften the eastern and southwestern fronts of the Empire. Their first target was the Kingdom of Dali.
The Dali Campaign
One of Kublai’s most reliable general in the Dali campaign was General Subotai’s son Uriyangkadai. They led the march south in 1253 and immediately sent the Mongols’ usual “submit-or-else” message to the chief minister of the Kingdom of Dali. This message was sent through Mongol envoys, but the chief minister executed them upon hearing the Mongols’ demand.
Because of the chief minister’s refusal to submit, Kublai and his troops started the invasion in October 1253. The Mongols quickly subdued the kingdom and executed the officials who defied them. Kublai left behind Mongol administrators who shared power with Dali’s ruling family. General Uriyangkadai, meanwhile, continued his campaigns in the southwest with Kublai’s blessing. The general even ventured as far as North Vietnam (Annam) which became the Mongols’ tributary.
In Northern China and The Trouble with Mongke
After the Dali campaign, Kublai was free to rule his land in northern China. The khan’s land now stretched from Hunan to Shaanxi. He ruled it with the help of Chinese and Mongol officials. He cultivated a close relationship with the Chinese adviser Liu Bingzhong who later helped him choose a site for his new city. They decided to build it near the former Jin capital Zhongdu (modern Beijing) and named the new city Dadu/Khanbaliq. Liu Bingzhong was also the architect of Kublai Khan’s summer capital called Shangdu (Xanadu).
The Mongol nobility did not like Kublai’s adoption of Chinese values and lifestyle. It seemed to them that Kublai was abandoning the Mongol values and way of life for a sedentary Chinese life. After the Dali campaign, Kublai also became famous, and because of this, Mongke became envious of his brother.
In 1257, Mongke sent his own men to investigate the collection of taxes in Kublai’s land. But it was only a scheme against his own brother. After inspecting the books, Mongke’s men gathered Kublai’s Chinese officials and had them all killed. Some were lucky enough to escape the purge only because they were under the protection of Mongol noble families who lived in China. Mongke then forbade Kublai from collecting taxes from his own land.
Kublai became angry, but he could not risk the stability of the Mongol Empire by rebelling against his own brother. His Chinese advisers instead told him to submit to his brother by sending envoys of his own to Karakorum, the Mongol capital. It was useless as Mongke did not listen to his envoys, so Kublai was forced to go to his brother’s court himself. Kublai’s submission was effective, and they reconciled. Mongke joined his brother in leading the army in the invasion of the Southern Song in 1258.
The First Invasion of Southern Song
Mongke’s invasion of Southern Song encountered fierce opposition from the Mongol leaders. They insisted that the venture would fail as southern China was a breeding ground for diseases and that their horses would find it difficult to navigate the swampy and rugged terrain. Mongke was insistent, and the march of the Mongol army to conquer Southern Song started in early 1258. The Khagan left behind their youngest brother, Ariq Boke, to rule the Mongol homeland while he was away.
The Mongols were great horsemen, and their use of cavalry in previous wars always gave them an advantage. They chose to use bombards and foot soldiers instead as their horses would find the terrain difficult. The large Mongol army led by Mongke and Kublai crossed the Yellow River in 1258. They soon captured a Southern Song stronghold in Sichuan. The army then marched to Chengdu and crossed the Yangtze River where they met with Uriyangkadai’s troops from Yunnan.
Mongke was not meant to finish the campaign as he died of cholera or dysentery while besieging a town in Chongqing in 1259. His death sent the campaign into a sudden halt. The Mongols returned Mongke’s remains to Mongolia, while Kublai stayed behind. They buried him alongside his father and grandfather. The Southern Song would remain free of Mongol rule for a few more years.
Mongol Civil War
When news of the khagan’s death reached Ariq Boke, he immediately gathered his troops and marched to Kublai’s domain in Northern China. Kublai’s wife Chabi heard of Ariq Boke’s approach, so she immediately sent a messenger to her husband to hurry back to Northern China. Kublai returned to his land with his troops when news of the invasion reached him in 1260. He traveled to Karakorum in the same year to join the assembly there.
Their brother, Hulagu, also left his campaign in Syria and came back to Karakorum to elect a leader. Hulagu was secure in his own domain in West Asia, so he was not interested in being khagan. Both Kublai and Ariq Boke wanted to become the Great Khan, but most of the Mongol leaders sided with Kublai. Hulagu himself supported his older brother, and Kublai accepted the position on May 5, 1260.
Ariq Boke, along with his conservative Mongol allies, were unhappy with the results of the election. His allies declared him as the rightful khagan in June 1260. He was supported by Hulagu’s enemy Berke Khan of the Golden Horde, as well as by Alghu of the Chagatai Khanate. Kublai was left without an ally when Berke and Hulagu’s hostility finally escalated to war in 1262.
The Southern Song also used the civil war to attack the Mongol garrisons in the south. Kublai could not afford to be distracted from his war against Ariq Boke, so he left the Song alone temporarily. Meanwhile, he blocked his younger brother’s supply route so Ariq Boke could not receive provisions in his base in Karakorum. Kublai then led his troops and attacked the Mongol capital in the fall of 1260. Ariq Boke was forced to retreat deeper into Central Asia while Kublai occupied the capital.
In November 1261, the rival brothers and their troops finally faced off in the Battle of Shimutai. Kublai overpowered Ariq Boke’s army at first, but the younger brother tried hard to keep his army intact. They met once again when Ariq Boke attacked Kublai’s army near the Khingan Mountain. Kublai easily crushed Ariq Boke’s troops, but his rebellious brother escaped.
But Ariq Boke food was about to run out, so he sent his envoys to the Chagatai khan Alghu to collect some provisions. Alghu saw that Ariq Boke’s cause was hopeless, so the Chagatai khan ordered the execution of the envoys. Angered because of the death of his envoys, Ariq Boke attacked Alghu’s stronghold in Almalikh and ruled it when the Chagatai khan fled.
Ariq Boke became increasingly cruel with his people when he saw that his war against his brother was hopeless. He finally surrendered to Kublai in 1264 and appeared in his court in the same year. It seemed that all was well again between the two. But Kublai ordered Ariq Boke not to appear in his presence for a full year as punishment.
Mongol custom, however, dictated a harsher punishment for Ariq Boke’s rebellion. Kublai knew that he needed to do it soon, so he invited other Mongol khans to attend an assembly to come up with a fitting punishment for his brother. Hulagu and Berke did not attend as they were in the middle of a war against each other. Alghu Khan sent an unenthusiastic reply. Kublai’s problems were solved in 1266 when Alghu, Hulagu, and Berke died. Ariq Boke also died sometime in 1266, so there was no need for Kublai to punish him. Whether he died of an illness or foul play, Kublai’s path to ruling as the sole khagan was clear.
Kublai: Khan of Khans and Ruler of North China
While the civil war with Ariq Boke was raging, Kublai also made overtures to Southern Song officials. He rewarded Southern Song defectors to encourage others to side with the Mongols. Now that his position as Khagan was secure, he could focus on ruling Northern China and renew the conquest of the Southern Song. His desire to conquer the south was only natural as its land was more fertile than the north. It was also the gateway to the lucrative sea trade with Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East.
Preparations for a renewed invasion of the Southern Song went on between 1261 and 1264. He enlisted the help of Jurchen, Mongol, and Chinese troops. These soldiers were led by Chinese, Uighur, Mongol, and Persian generals. Kublai knew that he needed to build a navy to counter the Southern Song, but this was one skill that the Mongols did not have. Instead, he ordered his Jurchen, Korean, and Northern Chinese men to build the Mongols a fleet.
Before the invasion started, Kublai first sent an envoy to the Southern Song royal court in Hangzhou to demand the emperor’s submission. The Southern Song ministers did not learn anything from the Siege of Baghdad or the Dali campaign, so they imprisoned the khan’s envoys after hearing their message. Kublai Khan immediately ordered his army to march south when he heard of the fate of his envoys.
The Battle of Xiangyang
In 1265, the Mongols defeated the Southern Song defenders in the battle at Diaoyu Fortress in Chongqing. It was the first major clash between the two, and the Mongols later seized more than a hundred Song ships which he added to his fleet. In 1267, they besieged the Southern Song cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng in Hubei. Both cities were located on the banks of the Han River, so the Mongols blocked all ships that tried to ferry supplies into the city. The defenders of Fancheng and Xiangyang continued to hold out even though they were low on food and other provisions.
While he was in the middle of the siege in 1271, an adviser suggested that the Khan should name his own dynasty. The adviser suggested the name “Yuan” which means “origin” in Chinese. Kublai was pleased, and he adopted it as the name of China’s new dynasty.
In 1271, the khan finally became impatient to break the siege of Fancheng and Xiangyang. He sent a message to Ilkhan Abaqa in Persia to help him. The Ilkhan sent Kublai two Muslim engineers named Ismail and Al al-Din in 1272. The two then designed and built a mangonel (catapult) that battered the walls of Fancheng and Xiangyang. Ismail and Al al-Din’s mangonel was effective. The defenders of Xiangyang and Fancheng finally surrendered the Southern Song stronghold to Kublai’s forces in 1273.
The Fall of the Southern Song
After the fall of Xiangyang and Fancheng, Kublai assigned the Turkic general Bayan as commander of the troops bound for Hangzhou. Bayan and his soldiers conquered Southern Song towns along the way. They also engaged the Southern Song defenders in land and naval battles in Hankou (Hubei) in 1275. The defenders, however, were heavily outgunned. They were defeated when the Mongols once again used their mangonel.
The people and the officials of the Southern Song panicked when they heard that Xiangyang fell and that the Mongols were on their way to Hangzhou. Emperor Duzong also died in 1274. He only had young sons as his successors. This situation added to hopelessness felt by the Southern Song royal family. The officials hastily proclaimed the young Prince Zhao Xian as his father’s successor. His grandmother, Empress Dowager Xie, stood as his regent.
Many of the Southern Song officials either died or defected to Kublai Khan’s side some years before, so the Empress had no one to turn to for help. The Empress made a last-ditch effort to convince General Bayan that they would submit to the Mongols if only they would turn back. Victory was on the horizon, so Bayan thought it was unreasonable to abandon the conquest. He ignored the Empress Dowager’s pleas until she had no choice but to send the royal family’s seal to the general as a sign of her family’s submission.
The End of the Song
General Bayan accepted the Empress Dowager’s submission. Before the invasion, Kublai told him to refrain from unnecessary violence toward the Chinese people. The Khagan also forbade him from destroying Hangzhou. Bayan followed his orders, and the general himself escorted the child emperor, his mother, and his grandmother to Kublai’s capital.
Kublai received them in his court, and they were treated very well. The Yuan Emperor, however, demoted the former Song Emperor to the position of the Duke of Ying. Zhao Xian lived in Kublai’s court until he went into exile in Tibet and became a monk in 1296. His mother and grandmother were placed under the care of Kublai’s chief consort Chabi. They, too, were treated very well until their deaths.
The Mongols captured Hangzhou, but pockets of resistance still existed in some parts of Southern China where some Song loyalists fled. Some of them crowned Zhao Xian’s young brother as the new emperor in Fuzhou. This emperor later died on May 8, 1278—on the run and pursued relentlessly by Mongol warriors. Another brother was also proclaimed as emperor after his brother’s death, but he drowned and died a year later while on the run as well.
Kublai as Emperor of China
With the Southern Song out of his way, Kublai set about in proving that he was the legitimate ruler of China and that he was on the side of the Chinese people. He discouraged his Mongol officials from oppressing the Chinese so they could continue their occupations. He understood that the land was destroyed by many years of war, so he wanted as little disruption in their lives as possible. His policy of toleration led to China’s prosperity, while his Mongol homeland was also stable.
Kublai’s concern for his subjects was obvious on the policies and projects he started during his reign. These policies and projects included:
* The grant of tax relief so the people could recover from wars. He also established a fixed tax system which made the payment of taxes easier for the people. This system helped curb the corruption and abuses of local officials. All taxes went directly to the central government, and the revenue would then be divided between the appanage and Kublai’s government.
* Lighter taxes for those whose mulberry trees and silkworms were damaged during the wars.
* The distribution of paper money as an aid for the people during times of disaster.
* The distribution of grains to orphans and widows.
* The reduction of corvée labor for peasants.
* The prohibition of the conversion of farmlands into pastures. Many Mongol noble families wanted to convert the Chinese farmlands into pastures. But Kublai Khan thought that this would lessen the grains that they could harvest from the farms.
* The extension of the Grand Canal.
* The establishment of post offices all over the Mongol Empire. The post offices made the relay of messages across the empire faster and more efficient. The post offices were also valuable for merchants who passed through the Silk Road (such as the Polo brothers and Niccolò’s son, Marco) as these doubled as hostels along the trade routes.
* The extensive use of paper money in the Yuan Empire. Kublai told the people to surrender all their coins, and he replaced them with paper money.
* The favor he gave to the artisans and the merchants of China. Trade flourished under the Yuan Dynasty so that the Chinese were able to import goods from and export their products to India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
Kublai Khan, however, was not too fond of landowning families which produced China’s scholars and officials. Since he generally favored non-Chinese advisers and he did not revive the civil service examinations, these scholars became unemployed. Some of them were forced to switch careers as poets and monks, while others became bitter and joined other Song loyalists.
Khublai Khan retained his grandfather’s use of the elite Mongolian bodyguards called kheshig. He also required all adult males in his realm aged seventy and below to serve in the military. His concern for the Chinese was balanced with caution. He knew that it was still possible that they would rebel against him, so he did not allow them to cultivate bamboo. He did this so that the plant would not be used as weapons (bows and arrows) against the Mongols. He also ordered that all horses owned by the Chinese should be surrendered to him. Those who hid their horses faced severe punishments from the Mongols.
Later Years and Death
His favorite wife, Chabi, died in 1281. He took her death really hard, and he began to withdraw from the court. The death of his heir, Zhenjin, also added to Kublai’s depression in his later years. He was already obese in his later life, but he continued to turn to food and alcohol to deal with these personal blows. He proclaimed Zhenjin’s son Temur as his successor before his death on February 18, 1294. Kublai Khan was 78 when he passed away.
Picture By Ian Kiu – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link
Man, John. Kublai Khan: From Xanadu to Superpower. London: Bantam Press, 2006.
May, Timothy Michael. The Mongol Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2017.
Nicolle, David, and Richard Hook. The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hülegü, Tamerlane. London: Brookhampton Press, 1998.
Robinson, David M. Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia Under the Mongols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2009.
Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1988 1988. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6g5006zc/
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