Kubilai Khan

Kubilai Khan

Kubilai Khan

Kubilai Khan - Ruler of Yuan Mongol china


Although the Mongols completed their conquest of northern China, which had been ruled by the Manchurian Chin Dynasty (1125-1234), they did not complete the conquest of southern China until 1278/9. The Sung dynasty ruled southern China and had actually allied with the Mongols against the Chin. After a long struggle, the Sung fell. China became unified for the first time since 970 B. C. E., this time under a non-Chinese dynasty-the Yuan.

Established in 1272, the Yuan dynasty was comprised of the family of Kubilai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson. Kubilai was one of four sons of Tolui, Genghis Khan's youngest son, and Sorqoqtani, the highly esteemed wife of Tolui. Mongke, the eldest, ruled as khan of the Mongol Empire from 1252 until his death in 1260. Hulegu founded the Il-Khanate centered in Persia. Ariq-Boke, however, vied with Kubilai for the throne after Mongke's death. Ultimately Kubilai won, but the Empire was fractured by such dynastic quarrels. Although Kubilai remained the Great Khan and, theoretically, ruler of all of the Mongols lands, his domain consisted of much less: Mongolia, China, Korea, and Tibet.

Kubilai Khan's reign marked a shift in Mongol imperial theory. Rather than remaining in Mongolia, Kubilai moved his capital from Karakorum to Beijing. In addition, he assumed the attributes of a Chinese ruler, performing many of the ceremonies that a Chinese Emperor normally did and dressing as a Chinese emperor rather than as a traditional Mongol khan. Kubilai realized that in order to successfully rule China, the Mongols-and the emperor in particular-had to be viewed as legitimate rulers from a Chinese point of view. Indeed, the configuration of the Yuan dynasty is thought to have followed a strategy developed by a Chinese advisor to Kubilai Khan to gain the support of the Chinese intelligentsia and provide legitimacy.

This is not to say that Kubilai Khan became sinicized. His reign marked many transitions in government for China. Under his policies, Han Chinese were restricted from occupying several positions in the government; preference was given to foreigners and to nomads. He also abolished the Confucian-based exams which were the foundation for gaining employment in the governmental bureaucracy of traditional China. Based on Confucian tradition, the Chinese Emperor was meant to rule by example. Kubilai, with his Mongol pragmatism, ruled instead by decree. Rather than relying on local magistrates, the Yuan Dynasty attempted to establish a uniform rule throughout China. Kubilai created new ministries to govern the empire as well as to advise him. Furthermore, these bureaus were duplicated at the provincial and local levels. Although the upper echelons of government were staffed by foreigners- perhaps even by Marco Polo if he is to be believed- the Mongols found plenty of work for the vast numbers of Chinese-educated scholars and bureaucrats. During the Yuan dynasty, a great proliferation of literary output occurred. Histories of the Liao, Jurchen or Chin, and Sung dynasties were written in addition to numerous encyclopedias and other works.

Another significant break from both the traditional Mongol and Chinese empires was Kubilai's strong support of Buddhism. Although the Mongols had been tolerant of Buddhism, none of the khans prior to Kubilai had converted. Under his reign and the guidance of the 'Phags-pa Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, rather than Chinese variants, became influential among the Mongols. This would have important ramifications in the later history of Mongolia.

In addition to setting up an effective government, the Yuan Dynasty under the leadership of Kubilai did not forget the conquering spirit of Genghis Khan's era. Many of Kubilai's military efforts were directed westward against his cousin and longtime adversary, Qaidu, son of Ogodei, who dominated central Asia. Their wars continued until the death of Qaidu in 1301, although flare-ups between their descendants often occurred. In addition, Kubilai attempted to conquer Japan but was foiled by unexpectedly fierce resistance in 1274 and then by storms, or kamekazi, in 1281. Although he was somewhat more successful in Vietnam, Burma, and even for a brief period in Java, his successes there were ephemeral, and the Mongols did not establish direct rule in any of those areas.

Kubilai died in 1294; he was succeeded by his grandson Temur Oljeitu (1294-1307). During the reign of Kubilai and his grandson, there was much interaction between east Asia and the rest of the world. Under Temur Oljeitu's rule, the territories of the Yuan dynasty were stable, and many have considered it the golden age of the Yuan. Caravans took Chinese innovations such as the compass, gunpowder, and the wheelbarrow westward. Persian cobalt dyes decorated Chinese porcelain. Humans and animals became central subjects in Chinese art rather than only landscapes. In addition, while the ban on the Confucian examinations stifled traditional literature, new forms of culture evolved, such as Chinese opera which was popular among not only the Chinese and their Mongol rulers, but also among foreigners who came to China.

After Temur Oljeitu's death, the Yuan dynasty dissipated. Between 1307 and 1333, seven emperors sat on the throne,a clear indication that life as emperor was precarious. Naturally, longterm policies could not be carried out under such conditions, and central control of the empire declined. Soon many regions were dominated by semi-independent warlords rather than by the state. The last emperor, Togon Temur, came to the Yuan throne in 1333 and ruled until 1368. His thirty-five year reign was not, however, a glorious one. From the start, Togon Temur was beset by rebellions. At first these were minor, but as they often took place beyond the reach of his armies, these small sparks steadily grew. By 1360, the rebellions had increased in severity. In addition, civil wars flared between various Yuan family members and frontier wars erupted. Perhaps the most divisive factor in Togon Temur's reign was corruption. Fiscal irresponsibility and neopotism among the royal family and the bureaucracy rendered the government ineffectual against domestic and foreign threats. Unity even among the Mongols slipped.

Finally, Togon Temur's reign took place during a period of natural disasters. The Yellow River flooded and famine resulted. Because of the government's inability to carry out concerted action, corvee labor could not maintain the system of dams, levees, and dikes that normally held floods in check. With the floods, grain fields were inundated and crops ruined.

By 1368, the badly fragmented Yuan dynasty had collapsed in China. Although most of the Mongols fled, many Mongol families remained to serve the successor Ming dynasty. Deposed in China, Togon Temur declared himself ruler of the Northern Yuan in Mongolia, but he found little success even in the traditional homeland of the Mongols. The descendents of Ariq Boke, Qubilai's brother and rival for the throne, dominated Mongolia at this time, although they were still nominal subjects of the Yuan dynasty. They sought their revenge. In addition, Mongols in the Oirats tribes in Western Mongolia were ruled by chieftains not descended from Genghis Khan, and they also did not wish to see a central power established in Mongolia.

Thus attacked from the north and west by Mongols and from the South by the Ming Dynasty, Togon Temur and the Northern Yuan never really stood a chance of success. In 1270 he fell in battle, somewhat ironically, at the old Mongol capital of Karakorum which Kubilai Khan had forsaken. The final claimant to the Yuan throne, Togus Temur, died in battle in 1388, and there the line of Kubilai Khan ended.

Dr. Timothy May
Assistant Professor of History
Young Hall

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