Khubilai Khan

After Ögödei?s death in the end of 1241 CE, Khubilai began to be seen on the historical scene. Khubilai?s father Tolui never had the chance to become Khaghan and it seemed like Khubilai too would play a lesser part in the Mongolian history scene. Few people could have foreseen that he eventually would be one of the most powerful persons in the Mongolian Empire.

Nevertheless, one of these few that saw this was Khubilai?s own remarkably competent and intelligent mother, Sorghaghtani Beki. She had high ambitions for her four sons and spent all her time for her sons? careers. Her four sons would all be prominent men in the Mongolian Empire. Möngke, the oldest son, was Khaghan from 1251 to his death in 1259 CE; Khubilai succeeded his older brother and ruled between 1260 to 1294 CE; Hülegü destroyed the Abbasid-dynasty, which had ruled the larger part of the Middle East and Persia since the year 749 CE, furthermore he started his own dynasty in Persia; Arigh Böke, the youngest of the sons would rule over their Mongolian homeland.

Sorghaghtani Beki?s contemporary men and women in the known world regarded her as one of the most remarkable women in that era. A European missionary by the name of John of Plano Caprini, who visited Mongolia before her sons became rulers, noticed that ?this woman was highly honored among the Tartars, the only exception was the emperor?s mother?? The Persian historian, Rashid al-Din wrote that she was ?extremely talented and able and that she was elevated over all other women in the world.?

A Hebrew physician by the name of Bar Hebraeus, who lived in the Middle East, praised her as ?a queen who trained her sons so well that all princes were amazed by her administrative skills.? It is unusual to find such unanimity among these historians and observers of the 13th century. Without the political involvement and skillful manipulation that this remarkable woman achieved, Tolui?s descendants might not have been able to replace Ögödei?s line as the main Mongolian royal line in East Asia.

Sorghaghtani Beki was the niece of Ong Khan, ruler over the Keraits. When Chingis defeated the Keraits, Sorghaghtani was offered to marry his own son, Tolui. Little is known about Sorghaghtani and Tolui?s relationship. One must assume that husband and wife often lived apart from each other. Tolui was usually with his father on military campaigns. Rashid al-Din reports that ?no prince conquered so many countries as he did?, surely one of the finest compliments for a Mongol of that generation. Tolui excelled himself in a number of Chingis campaigns. After Chingis had died in 1227 CE, Tolui served under his brother Ögödei. In the year 1232 CE, Tolui died, probably from alcohol poisoning.

When Ögödei tried to persuade Sorghaghtani to marry his son Güyüg, she declined politely but firmly. Her explanation was that her responsibilities for her sons weighed heavier than her wish to marry the Khaghans son. Sorghaghtani?s political genius shows perhaps best in her religious tolerance. Even though she was a Nestorian Christian, she did not discriminate other religions in the Mongolian empire, she patronized Buddhism and Taoism to gain her Chinese subjects approval.

In addition, she did not neglect Islam as well. She offered alms to poor Muslims, rewarded shaiks (religious leaders) and contributed with money for building of mosques and theological schools, including Khaniyya Madrasa (a religious academy) in the city of Bukhara. But she never denied her Nestorian faith and even Marco Polo, who visited China 20 years after her death, knew that she was a Christian. Yet she felt that the cultivating of different religions in her country was indeed worth the effort and in recordings from contemporary historians throughout Eurasia there were praises of her success.

Khubilai was born on September 23, 1215
CE, the same year that Chingis Khan conquered Beijing. Sources about Khubilai?s childhood and his education and his early travels are limited. Khubilai was just a member in one of the royal families. Only under extreme circumstances would Khubilai be somebody else but an ordinary member of the royal family. Therefore, it was not important to record Khubilai?s career. It seems like his education fell upon his mother since his father was away on military campaigns all the time. She made sure that the young Khubilai learned to master the bow and horseback riding. As many other Mongolians he took an active part in hunting, which was something he continued with even when he came to age.

She also made sure that Khubilai would know how to read and write and hired a Uighur by the name of Tolochu to teach Khubilai to write and read Mongolian. Khubilai?s influence of the Chinese way of life also came from his mother. After her husbands death Ögödei had reluctantly agreed to her request to have an appanage, and gave her in 1236 CE an area in northern China called Chen-ting. As a ruler over a population of Chinese peasants instead of Mongolian nomads, she recognized the politic that exploited the peasants and looted the resources of the country was shortsighted if not catastrophic. Her opinion was that the taxes could be greater if she took care of the agriculture that was already there instead of going into a more traditional Mongolian cattle economy.

Khubilai would eventually follow his mother?s example. The same year Khubilai got an offer from Ögödei of an appanage called Hsing-chou, an area with a population of 10,000 households. At first he did not care much about his province and let it run by itself and ruled it from his home in Mongolia. Even if Khubilai never tolerated the exploiting of the Chinese population, his absence made it difficult for him to control his officials and servants. He never knew of the injustices that were laid upon the farmers. High taxes and the harsh demands on labor made the inhabitants in protest to abandon their homes and farms and settled in areas that were not under Mongolian rule.

When Khubilai finally realized what was happening most of the original 10,000 households had already escaped from his domain. To stop this emigration he replaced the Mongolian officials and tax collectors whom had ruled during his absence, with regular officials that mainly was Chinese. Regular taxes were evaluated, the harsh taxes were removed and a number of Chinese officials were recruited to make the economy strong again. Khubilai?s new policy, to regain the trust from the inhabitants and to make them move back home again, finally worked. In the end of the year 1240 CE, most of the people that had moved away began to return and the area was once again stable. Already at this early stage in his career, Khubilai used his Chinese counselors extensively. Throughout his life and career, he would also consult Nestorian Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Central-Asian Muslims.

His earliest advisors were an eclectic crowd. In the year 1242 CE, he called the Buddhist monk Hai-yün (1202-1257) to his domain. Hai-yün whom Ögödei had elected to abbot of an important monastery in Northern China, introduced Khubilai to the Chinese Buddhism ways of laws and practices, the two men evolved a close friendship. Hai-yün even gave a Chinese name Chen-chin (True Gold) to Khubilai?s second son. Chao Pi (1220-1276) and Tou Mo (1196-1280) were two other advisors that came to Khubilai during the 1240?s, these two advisors educated the young Mongolian nobleman in the spirit of Confucianism, where they emphasized on the virtues and responsibilities that the ruler had towards his people and realm.

Anders Blixt
Diagnosvägen 11 A, 7 tr

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