Kublai Khan

Kublai Setsen Khan
Emperor Shizu of Yuan
Portrait of Kublai Khan drawn shortly after his death on February 18, 1294. Kublai's white robes reflect his desired symbolic role as a religious Mongol shaman. Now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan; colors and ink on silk, 59.4 by 47 cm.
5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire
Reign5 May 1260 – 18 February 1294 [note 1]
Coronation5 May 1260
PredecessorMöngke Khan
SuccessorTemür Khan (Yuan dynasty)
Pretender(s)Ariq Böke (from 11 August 1259 to 21 August 1264)
1st Emperor of the Yuan dynasty
Reign18 December 1271 – 18 February 1294 [note 2]
SuccessorTemür Khan
Born23 September 1215
Mongol Empire
Died18 February 1294 (aged 78)
Khanbaliq, Yuan dynasty, China
  • Tegulen Khatun
  • Qoruqchin Khatun
  • Chabi Khatun
  • Dorbajin Khatun
  • Hushijin Khatun
  • Bayujin Khatun
  • Nambui Khatun
Full name
Chinese: 忽必烈
Era dates
  • 中統 (Zhōngtǒng) 1260–1264
  • 至元 (Zhìyuán) 1264–1294
Posthumous name
聖德神功文武皇帝 (Emperor Shèngdé Shéngōng Wénwǔ)
Temple name
Shìzǔ (世祖)
Setsen Khan (ᠰᠡᠴᠡᠨ
MotherSorghaghtani Beki
ReligionTibetan Buddhism

Kublai (/; Mongolian: Хубилай, romanized: Hubilai; Chinese: 忽必烈; pinyin: Hūbìliè) was the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire (Ikh Mongol Uls), 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 the fourth son of Tolui (his second son with Sorghaghtani Beki) and a grandson of Genghis Khan. 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.[1] 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.[2][3][4] 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.[5]

In 1271, Kublai established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China, Korea, and some adjacent areas, and assumed the role of Emperor of China. By 1279, the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty was completed and Kublai became the first non-Han emperor to conquer all of China.

The imperial portrait of Kublai was part of an album of the portraits of Yuan emperors and empresses, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. White, the color of the royal costume of Kublai, was the imperial color of the Yuan dynasty.[6]

Early years

Kublai Khan was the fourth son of Tolui, and his second son with Sorghaghtani Beki. As his grandfather Genghis Khan advised, Sorghaghtani chose a Buddhist Tangut woman as her son's nurse, whom Kublai later honored highly. On his way home after the Mongol conquest of Khwarezmia, Genghis Khan performed a ceremony on his grandsons Möngke and Kublai after their first hunt in 1224 near the Ili River.[7] Kublai was nine years old and with his eldest brother killed a rabbit and an antelope. After his grandfather smeared fat from killed animals onto Kublai's middle finger in accordance with a Mongol tradition, he said "The words of this boy Kublai are full of wisdom, heed them well – heed them all of you." The elderly Khagan (Mongol emperor) Genghis Khan would die three years after this event in 1227, when Kublai was 12. Kublai's father Tolui would serve as regent for two years until Genghis' successor, Kublai's third uncle Ogedei, was enthroned as Khagan in 1229.

After the Mongol conquest of the Jin dynasty, in 1236, Ogedei gave Hebei (attached with 80,000 households) to the family of Tolui, who died in 1232. Kublai received an estate of his own, which included 10,000 households. Because he was inexperienced, Kublai allowed local officials free rein. Corruption amongst his officials and aggressive taxation caused large numbers of Chinese peasants to flee, which led to a decline in tax revenues. Kublai quickly came to his appanage in Hebei and ordered reforms. Sorghaghtani sent new officials to help him and tax laws were revised. Thanks to those efforts, many of the people who fled returned.

The most prominent, and arguably most influential, component of Kublai Khan's early life was his study and strong attraction to contemporary Chinese culture. Kublai invited Haiyun, the leading Buddhist monk in North China, to his ordo in Mongolia. When he met Haiyun in Karakorum in 1242, Kublai asked him about the philosophy of Buddhism. Haiyun named Kublai's son, who was born in 1243, Zhenjin (Chinese: True Gold).[8] Haiyun also introduced Kublai to the formerly Daoist, and at the time Buddhist monk, Liu Bingzhong. Liu was a painter, calligrapher, poet, and mathematician, and he became Kublai's advisor when Haiyun returned to his temple in modern Beijing.[9] Kublai soon added the Shanxi scholar Zhao Bi to his entourage. Kublai employed people of other nationalities as well, for he was keen to balance local and imperial interests, Mongol and Turk.[10]