1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kublai Khan
KUBLAI KHAN (or Ḳaan, as the supreme ruler descended from Jenghiz was usually distinctively termed in the 13th century) (1216–1294), the most eminent of the successors of Jenghiz (Chinghiz), and the founder of the Mongol dynasty in China. He was the second son of Tulē, youngest of the four sons of Jenghiz by his favourite wife. Jenghiz was succeeded in the khanship by his third son Okkodai, or Ogdai (1229), he by his son Kuyuk (1246), and Kuyuk by Mangu, eldest son of Tulē (1252). Kublai was born in 1216, and, young as he was, took part with his younger brother Hulagu (afterwards conqueror of the caliph and founder of the Mongol dynasty in Persia) in the last campaign of Jenghiz (1226–27). The Mongol poetical chronicler, Sanang Setzen, records a tradition that Jenghiz himself on his death-bed discerned young Kublai’s promise and predicted his distinction.
Northern China, Cathay as it was called, had been partially conquered by Jenghiz himself, and the conquest had been followed up till the Kin or “golden” dynasty of Tatars, reigning at K’ai-fēng Fu on the Yellow River, were completely subjugated (1234). But China south of the Yangtsze-kiang remained many years later subject to the native dynasty of Sung, reigning at the great city of Lingan, or Kinsai (King-sz’, “capital”), now known as Hang-chow Fu. Operations to subdue this region had commenced in 1235, but languished till Mangu’s accession. Kublai was then named his brother’s lieutenant in Cathay, and operations were resumed. By what seems a vast and risky strategy, of which the motives are not quite clear, the first campaign of Kublai was directed to the subjugation of the remote western province of Yunnan. After the capture of Tali Fu (well known in recent years as the capital of a Mahommedan insurgent sultan), Kublai returned north, leaving the war in Yunnan to a trusted general. Some years later (1257) the khan Mangu himself entered on a campaign in west China, and died there, before Ho-chow in Sze-ch’uen (1259).
Kublai assumed the succession, but it was disputed by his brother Arikbugha and by his cousin Kaidu, and wars with these retarded the prosecution of the southern conquest. Doubtless, however, this was constantly before Kublai as a great task to be accomplished, and its fulfilment was in his mind when he selected as the future capital of his empire the Chinese city that we now know as Peking. Here, in 1264, to the north-east of the old city, which under the name of Yenking had been an occasional residence of the Kin sovereigns, he founded his new capital, a great rectangular plot of 18 m. in circuit. The (so-called) “Tatar city” of modern Peking is the city of Kublai, with about one-third at the north cut off, but Kublai’s walls are also on this retrenched portion still traceable.
The new city, officially termed T’ai-tu (“great court”), but known among the Mongols and western people as Kaan-baligh (“city of the khan”) was finished in 1267. The next year war against the Sung Empire was resumed, but was long retarded by the strenuous defence of the twin cities of Siang-yang and Fan-chēng, on opposite sides of the river Han, and commanding two great lines of approach to the basin of the Yangtsze-kiang. The siege occupied nearly five years. After this Bayan, Kublai’s best lieutenant, a man of high military genius and noble character, took command. It was not, however, till 1276 that the Sung capital surrendered, and Bayan rode into the city (then probably the greatest in the world) as its conqueror. The young emperor, with his mother, was sent prisoner to Kaan-baligh; but two younger princes had been despatched to the south before the fall of the city, and these successively were proclaimed emperor by the adherents of the native throne. An attempt to maintain their cause was made in Fu-kien, and afterwards in the province of Kwang-tung; but in 1279 these efforts were finally extinguished, and the faithful minister who had inspired them terminated the struggle by jumping with his young lord into the sea.
Even under the degenerate Sung dynasty the conquest of southern China had occupied the Mongols during half a century of intermittent campaigns. But at last Kublai was ruler of all China, and probably the sovereign (at least nominally) of a greater population than had ever acknowledged one man’s supremacy. For, though his rule was disputed by the princes of his house in Turkestan, it was acknowledged by those on the Volga, whose rule reached to the frontier of Poland, and by the family of his brother Hulagu, whose dominion extended from the Oxus to the Arabian desert. For the first time in history the name and character of an emperor of China were familiar as far west as the Black Sea and not unknown in Europe. The Chinese seals which Kublai conferred on his kinsmen reigning at Tabriz are stamped upon their letters to the kings of France, and survive in the archives of Paris. Adventurers from Turkestan, Persia, Armenia, Byzantium, even from Venice, served him as ministers, generals, governors, envoys, astronomers or physicians; soldiers from all Asia to the Caucasus fought his battles in the south of China. Once in his old age (1287) Kublai was compelled to take the field in person against a serious revolt, raised by Nayan, a prince of his family, who held a vast domain on the borders of Manchuria. Nayan was taken and executed. The revolt had been stirred up by Kaidu, who survived his imperial rival, and died in 1301. Kublai himself died in 1294, at the age of seventy-eight.
Though a great figure in Asiatic history, and far from deserving a niche in the long gallery of Asiatic tyrants, Kublai misses a record in the short list of the good rulers. His historical locus was a happy one, for, whilst he was the first of his race to rise above the innate barbarism of the Mongols, he retained the force and warlike character of his ancestors, which vanished utterly in the effeminacy of those who came after him. He had great intelligence and a keen desire for knowledge, with apparently a good deal of natural benevolence and magnanimity. But his love of splendour, and his fruitless expeditions beyond sea, created enormous demands for money, and he shut his eyes to the character and methods of those whom he employed to raise it. A remarkable narrative of the oppressions of one of these, Ahmed of Fenāket, and of the revolt which they provoked, is given by Marco Polo, in substantial accordance with the Chinese annals.
Kublai patronized Chinese literature and culture generally. The great astronomical instruments which he caused to be made were long preserved at Peking, but were carried off to Berlin in 1900. Though he put hardly any Chinese into the first ranks of his administration, he attached many to his confidence, and was personally popular among them. Had his endeavour to procure European priests for the instruction of his people, of which we know through Marco Polo, prospered, the Roman Catholic church, which gained some ground under his successors, might have taken stronger root in China. Failing this momentary effort, Kublai probably saw in the organized force of Tibetan Buddhism the readiest instrument in the civilization of his countrymen, and that system received his special countenance. An early act of his reign had been to constitute a young lama of intelligence and learning the head of the Lamaite Church, and eventually also prince of Tibet, an act which may be regarded as a precursory form of the rule of the “grand lamas” of Lassa. The same ecclesiastic, Mati Dhwaja, was employed by Kublai to devise a special alphabet for use with the Mongol language. It was chiefly based on Tibetan forms of Nagari; some coins and inscriptions in it are extant; but it had no great vogue, and soon perished. Of the splendour of his court and entertainments, of his palaces, summer and winter, of his great hunting expeditions, of his revenues and extraordinary paper currency, of his elaborate system of posts and much else, an account is given in the book of Marco Polo, who passed many years in Kublai’s service.
We have alluded to his foreign expeditions, which were almost all disastrous. Nearly all arose out of a hankering for the nominal extension of his empire by claiming submission and tribute. Expeditions against Japan were several times repeated; the last, in 1281, on an immense scale, met with huge discomfiture. Kublai’s preparations to avenge it were abandoned owing to the intense discontent which they created. In 1278 he made a claim of submission upon Champa, an ancient state representing what we now call Cochin China. This eventually led to an attempt to invade the country through Tongking, and to a war with the latter state, in which the Mongols had much the worst of it. War with Burma (or Mien, as the Chinese called it) was provoked in very similar fashion, but the result was more favourable to Kublai’s arms. The country was overrun as far as the Irrawaddy delta, the ancient capital, Pagān, with its magnificent temples, destroyed, and the old royal dynasty overthrown. The last attempt of the kind was against Java, and occurred in the last year of the old khan’s reign. The envoy whom he had commissioned to claim homage was sent back with ignominy. A great armament was equipped in the ports of Fu-kien to avenge this insult; but after some temporary success the force was compelled to re-embark with a loss of 3000 men. The death of Kublai prevented further action.
Some other expeditions, in which force was not used, gratified the khan’s vanity by bringing back professions of homage, with presents, and with the curious reports of foreign countries in which Kublai delighted. Such expeditions extended to the states of southern India, to eastern Africa, and even to Madagascar.
Of Kublai’s twelve legitimate sons, Chingkim, the favourite and designated successor, died in 1284/5; and Timur, the son of Chingkim, took his place. No great king arose in the dynasty after Kublai. He had in all nine successors of his house on the throne of Kaan-baligh, but the long and imbecile reign of the ninth, Toghon Timur, ended (1368) in disgrace and expulsion and the native dynasty of Ming reigned in their stead. (H. Y.)