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Kublai Khan: Mongol Warrior, Horseman, Hunter and Powerful Emperor

Kublai Khan: Mongol Warrior, Horseman, Hunter and Powerful Emperor

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Kublai Khan is perhaps best known for his establishment of theYuan Dynasty, and may be considered as one of China’s most famous emperors. Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. To the Chinese people of that time, the Mongols, who enjoyed a way of life that was much different from theirs, were viewed as uncivilized barbarians. Yet, Kublai Khan is remembered in history as a wise ruler. The Chinese too view him in a generally positive light, one of the main reasons of which was his adoption of Chinese culture when he became Emperor.

Early Life of Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan is recorded to have been born in Mongolia in 1215. Kublai’s father was Tolui, the fourth son ofGenghis Khan, whilst his mother was Sorghaghtani Beki. Amongst Kublai’s siblings were Möngke Khan, the fourth Khagan (Great Khan) and the first of the Toluid line to hold this title, Hulagu Khan, the first ruler of the Ilkhan, and Ariq Böke, whom Kublai had to engage in a civil war in order to succeed Möngke as Khagan. These three brothers were the Sorghaghtani’s first, third and fourth sons respectively.

Kublai was tutored in the art of warfare from a young age, as was the norm amongst the nomads of theMongolian steppes. Thus, Kublai became a skilled warrior, horseman and hunter. In addition, Kublai is said to have been exposed to Chinese culture and philosophy from a young age, and was attracted to it. This exposure would influence many of the decisions that Kublai would make later on in his life.

Painting of Kublai Khan on a hunting expedition, by Chinese court artist Liu Guandao, c. 1280.

Painting of Kublai Khan on a hunting expedition, by Chinese court artist Liu Guandao, c. 1280. (Public Domain)

When Kublai’s elder brother, Möngke, became the Khagan of the Mongol Empire in 1251, he was appointed as the governor of the empire’s Chinese territories, i.e. northern China. At that time, the southern part of China was being ruled by the SouthernSong Dynasty, and the Mongols had been planning its conquest, though they had been unsuccessful thus far. Kublai is said to have held the customs and traditions of the people he administered in high regard. In addition, Kublai appointed Chinese advisors to help introduce reforms. The adoption of such measures meant that Kublai’s rule was accepted by the local population.

Audience with Möngke Khagan.

Audience with Möngke Khagan. (Public Domain)

The War between Brothers

In 1259, Möngke was killed during a military campaign against the Chinese, and a civil war soon broke out between Kublai and his youngest brother, Ariq Böke. It may also be mentioned that Möngke‘s death marked the beginning of a divided Mongol Empire. As Kublai and his other brother, Hulagu, had been away from the Mongolian capital of Karakorum,

Ariq Böke, Khagan of the Mongol Empire

Ariq Böke, Khagan of the Mongol Empire (Public Domain)

Ariq Böke seized the opportunity to have himself proclaimed Khagan. Kublai returned to Karakorum in 1260, and disputed his brother’s claim to the throne. Additionally, Kublai, with the support of pro-Chinese groups, had himself proclaimed Khagan. This resulted in a civil war that lasted until 1264, from which Kublai emerged victorious.

Southern Conquest

Kublai could now focus on the conquest of the Southern Song, which would be a lengthy campaign. This campaign was much more challenging than previous ones, as the terrain and climate of southern China neutralized the Mongol army’s greatest strength – their cavalry. Thus, Kublai had to adopt different tactics. For instance, he adopted siege technology from peoples the Mongols encountered further west, and built up a navy to attack the southern Chinese coast.

The first measure enabled the Mongols to capture the Chinese walled cities, most significantly during the siege of Xiangyang, whilst the second allowed the Mongols to attack the southern Chinese coast. It was the Mongol’s naval power that enabled them to bring about the final defeat of the Southern Song at the Battle of Yamen in 1279.

Mongol soldiers

Mongol soldiers (Public Domain)

Kublai’s conquest of the Southern Song was an impressive military achievement, and it made him the first non-native emperor to rule over the whole of China. Nevertheless, a number of Kublai’s military campaigns ended in failure, most notably those against the Japanese and the Vietnamese. Kublai died in 1294, and was succeeded by his grandson, Temür Khan. TheYuan Dynasty lasted less than a century after Kublai Khan’s death.  

Top image: Statue of Kublai Khan. Source: (CC BY 2.0)

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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