Kublai Khan

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Kublai Khan was the grandson of the conquering Genghis Khan, and the first emperor of China's Yuan Dynasty. It was at his command that the two Mongol invasions of Japan were launched in 1274 and 1281.

Early Life

Kublai Khan's mother Sorghaghtani Beki was a devout Nestorian Christian. His brothers included Hulagu, Mongke, and Ariq Boke, khans of great historical significance for their activities in Central Asia and further west. Though illiterate herself, Sorghaghtani Beki made sure that each of her sons studied other languages, so as to better prepare them for governing the lands they would conquer.[1]

Kublai Khan later married a woman named Chabi, who is also known for her active political prominence. She played a significant role in the conversion of the Mongol people to Tibetan Buddhism, offering patronage to Tibetan monks and monasteries.[1]

Conquest of China

Mongol forces first entered China under Kublai's grandfather Genghis Khan, defeating the Jurchen Jin Dynasty which had controlled northern China since 1127. Under Kublai Khan, they pressed further south, and began threatening the Southern Song Dynasty. The riverine environment, Mongol unfamiliarity with boats, and sub-tropical climate presented difficulties; while the Mongols were unmatched on the grassy steppes to the north, here many of their warriors succumbed to malaria, and their horses to the heat. Their armies pressed forward, however, and were eventually successful in taking the steppes of southwestern China, from which they then attacked China's economic heartland from the west, taking it too, in part thanks to superior use of the Song's own gunpowder weapons.[1]

Kublai Khan declared the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, establishing a new capital at Dadu (大都, lit. "Great Capital"; this city would later become Beijing). He would spend the next eight years completing his conquest of China, capturing the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou in 1276. The Empress Dowager Xie Daoqing and the child emperor, Emperor Gong of Song, were escorted to Dadu, where they were treated with honors. Meanwhile, the Song dynasty continued briefly with a succession of two emperors reigning in exile, before they too were killed and the Song Dynasty came to its ultimate end in 1279.

The Yuan thus became the first non-Han Chinese dynasty to rule all of China proper. It was also the first to not have a uniform legal code to apply to all subjects, as Kublai Khan carefully balanced his adoption of Chinese practices with maintenance of Mongol ones. He lived in a permanent capital, rather than in a nomadic collection of yurts, and took a Chinese posthumous imperial name, Shizu, retroactively naming his grandfather Emperor Taizu of Yuan, and Ogodei Khan Emperor Taizong of Yuan. Kublai Khan's law codes separated Mongols and Chinese, banning their intermarriage, restricting their interactions, and holding them to different law codes.[2]

Mongol Invasions of Japan

The Khan sent envoys to Dazaifu in 1268, essentially commanding Japan to submit to Mongol authority or else be conquered. This message was passed on to authorities in Kyoto and Kamakura, who ultimately ignored it. Another similar warning sent in 1271 led to the Kamakura shogunate ordering the enhancement of defenses along the northern Kyushu coast. The Khan sent yet another envoy in 1272, who was also rebuffed. His armies then invaded in 1274, but were ultimately forced to call off the invasion, in large part due to suffering great losses in a storm.

The Khan then began to prepare a second invasion, and sent another message, threatening a new invasion and this time demanding that the "King of Japan" submit to Mongol suzerainty and present himself at Beijing. The messengers were brought to Kamakura and executed. Having not yet fully conquered Song Dynasty China until 1279, and facing famines and other difficulties in Korea, the Khan's plans for invading Japan were delayed for a time; he finally launched his second invasion in 1281, and was thwarted once again by the weather. The Khan planned for a third invasion, but this never came to fruition, in part due to affairs which occupied him and his men in China.

Other Conquests

The Mongols under Kublai Khan took Yunnan province in southwestern China and parts of Burma in the 1270s, presenting a threat to the Khmer Empire of Cambodia, and attempting, though unsuccessfully, to invade Java in 1293.[1]

The Khan also oversaw a failed attempt to invade the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1291; his successor would invade Ryûkyû again in 1296, but this too was unsuccessful. Kublai Khan died in 1294.


  • George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334, Stanford: Stanford University Press (1958), 419-448.
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 394-399.
  2. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 225.