Kublai Khan

The Great Khan: Ruler of Mongolia and Yuan China

Painting of Kublai Khan, Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, Silk Road, China
Painting of Kublai Khan, Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, Silk Road, China. Keren Su / Getty Images

Kublai Khan (occasionally spelled Kubla Khan) and his empire prompted wild flights of fancy among Europeans from the time of Marco Polo's expedition of 1271-1292. But who was the Great Khan, really? A romantic vision of Kublai Khan's realm came to English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in an opium-laced dream, inspired by reading the account of a British traveler and describing the city as Xanadu. 

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree
And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery..."

S.T. Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 1797

Early Life of Kublai Khan

Although Kublai Khan is the most famous grandson of Genghis Khan, one of history's great conquerors, very little is known about his childhood. We do know that Kublai was born on September 23, 1215, to Tolui (youngest son of Genghis) and his wife Sorkhotani, a Nestorian Christian princess of the Kereyid Confederacy. Kublai was the couple's fourth son.

Sorkhotani was famously ambitious for her sons and raised them to be leaders of the Mongol Empire, despite their alcoholic and fairly ineffectual father. Sorkhotani's political savvy was legendary; Rashid al-Din of Persia noted that she was "extremely intelligent and able and towered above all the women in the world."

With their mother's support and influence, Kublai and his brothers would go on to take control of the Mongol world from their uncles and cousins. Kublai's brothers included Mongke, later also Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, and Hulagu, Khan of the Ilkhanate in the Middle East, who crushed the Assassins but was fought to a standstill at Ayn Jalut by the Egyptian Mamluks.

From an early age, Kublai proved adept at traditional Mongol pursuits. At nine, he had his first recorded hunting success, bringing down an antelope and a rabbit. He would relish the hunt for the rest of his life—and would also excel at conquest, the other Mongolian sport of the day.

Gathering Power

In 1236, Kublai's uncle Ogedei Khan granted the young man a fiefdom of 10,000 households in Hebei Province, northern China. Kublai did not administer the region directly, allowing his Mongol agents a free hand. They imposed such high taxes on the Chinese peasants that many fled their land; perhaps the Mongol officials were planning to convert the farms into pastureland. At last, Kublai took a direct interest and halted abuses, so that the population grew once more.

When Kublai's brother Mongke became Great Khan in 1251, he named Kublai Viceroy of Northern China. Two years later, Kublai's ordu struck deep into southwest China, in what would be a three-year-long campaign to pacify Yunnan, the Sichuan region, and the Kingdom of Dali.

In a sign of his growing attachment to China and Chinese customs, Kublai ordered his advisors to select a site for a new capital based on feng shui. They chose a spot on the frontier between China's agricultural lands and the Mongolian steppe; Kublai's new northern capital was called Shang-tu (Upper Capital), which Europeans later interpreted as "Xanadu."

Kublai was at war in Sichuan once again in 1259, when he learned that his brother Mongke had died. Kublai did not immediately withdraw from Sichuan upon Mongke Khan's death, leaving his younger brother Arik Boke time to gather troops and convene a kuriltai in Karakhoram, the Mongol capital. The kuriltai named Arik Boke as the new Great Khan, but Kublai and his brother Hulagu disputed the result and held their own kuriltai, which named Kublai the Great Khan. This dispute touched off a civil war.

Kublai, the Great Khan

Kublai's troops destroyed the Mongol capital at Karakhoram, but Arik Boke's army continued fighting. It was not until August 21, 1264, that Arik Boke finally surrendered to his older brother at Shang-tu.

As Great Khan, Kublai Khan had direct control over the Mongol homeland and Mongol possessions in China.

He was also the head of the larger Mongol Empire, with a measure of authority over the leaders of the Golden Horde in Russia, the Ilkhanates in the Middle East, and the other hordes.

Although Kublai exerted power over much of Eurasia, opponents to Mongol rule still held out in his backyard, as it were. He needed to conquer southern China once and for all and unite the land.

Conquest of Song China

In a program to win Chinese hearts and minds, Kublai Khan converted to Buddhism, moved his main capital from Shang-du to Dadu (modern-day Beijing), and named his dynasty in China Dai Yuan in 1271. Naturally, this prompted charges that he was abandoning his Mongol heritage, and sparked riots in Karakhoram.

Nevertheless, this tactic was successful. In 1276, most of the Song imperial family formally surrendered to Kublai Khan, yielding their royal seal to him, but this was not the end of resistance. Led by the Empress Dowager, loyalists continued to fight until 1279, when the Battle of Yamen marked the final conquest of Song China. As Mongol forces surrounded the palace, a Song official jumped into the ocean carrying the 8-year-old Chinese emperor, and both drowned.

Kublai Khan as Yuan Emperor

Kublai Khan came to power through strength of arms, but his reign also featured advancements in political organization, as well as the arts and sciences. The first Yuan Emperor organized his bureaucracy based on the traditional Mongol ordu system, but also adopted many aspects of Chinese administrative practice.

After all, he had only tens of thousands of Mongols with him, and they had to rule millions of Chinese. Kublai Khan also employed large numbers of Chinese officials and advisors.

New artistic styles flourished as Kublai Khan sponsored a melding of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. He also issued paper currency that was good throughout China and was backed by gold reserves. The Emperor patronized astronomers and clockmakers and hired a monk to create a written language for some of Western China's non-literate languages.

Visit of Marco Polo

From a western perspective, one of the most important events in Kublai Khan's reign was the long visit by Marco Polo, along with his father and uncle. To the Mongols, however, this interaction was simply an amusing footnote.

Marco's father and uncle had previously visited Kublai Khan and were returning in 1271 to deliver a letter from the Pope and some oil from Jerusalem to the Mongol ruler. The Venetian merchants brought along the 16-year-old Marco, who was gifted in languages.

After an overland journey of three and a half years, the Polos reached Shang-du. Marco likely served as a court functionary of some sort; although the family asked permission to return to Venice several times over the years, Kublai Khan denied their requests.

Finally, in 1292, they were allowed to return along with the wedding cortege of a Mongol princess, sent to Persia to marry one of the Ilkhans. The wedding party sailed the Indian Ocean trade routes, a voyage that took two years and introduced Marco Polo to what is now Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India.

Marco Polo's vivid descriptions of his Asian travels and experiences, as told to a friend, inspired many other Europeans to seek wealth and the exotic in the Far East. However, it is important not to overstate his influence; after all, trade along the Silk Road was in full flow long before his travelogue was published.

Kublai Khan's Invasions and Blunders

Although he ruled the world's richest empire in Yuan China, as well as the second-largest land empire ever, Kublai Khan was not content. He grew obsessed with further conquest in East and Southeast Asia.

Kublai's land-based attacks on Burma, Annam (northern Vietnam), Sakhalin, and Champa (southern Vietnam) were all nominally successful. Each of these countries became tributary states of Yuan China, but the tribute they submitted did not even begin to pay for the cost of conquering them.

Even more ill-advised were Kublai Khan's sea-borne invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, as well as the 1293 invasion of Java (now in Indonesia). The defeats of these armadas seemed to some of Kublai Khan's subjects like a sign that he has lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Death of the Great Khan

In 1281, Kublai Khan's favorite wife and close companion Chabi died. This sad event was followed in 1285 by the death of Zhenjin, the khan's oldest son and heir apparent. With these losses, the Great Khan began to withdraw from the administration of his empire.

Kublai Khan tried to drown his sorrow with alcohol and luxurious food. He grew quite obese and developed gout, a painful inflammatory disease. After a long decline, Kublai Khan died on February 18, 1294. He was buried in the khans' secret burial grounds in Mongolia.

Kublai Khan's Legacy

The Great Khan was succeeded by his grandson, Temur Khan, son of Zhenjin. Kublai's daughter Khutugh-beki married King Chungnyeol of Goryeo and became Queen of Korea, as well.

Kublai Khan reunited China after centuries of division and strife. Although the Yuan Dynasty lasted only until 1368, it also served as a precedent for the later ethnic-Manchu Qing Dynasty.


  • Polo, Marco, Hugh Murray & Giovanni Battista Baldelli Boni. The Travels of Marco Polo, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1845.
  • Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.