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Thursday 24 May 2007


First time I heard about Kublai Khan was as a solution to a crossword hint ‘Coleridge’. The phrase that came to my mind after hearing the hint was ‘Rhyme of an ancient mariner’ but nothing related to it was fitting the boxes. Suddenly one of my friends exclaimed, ‘Its Kubla Khan’. ‘Kubla Khan or, a Vision in a Dream, a Fragment’ is very famous poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was under the influence of Opium when he had a hallucination that he had a visitor from Xanadu, the summer capital of Mongol King Kubla Khan, and hence begot the famous lines.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khana
stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground

with walls and towers were girdled round:
and there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
and here were forests ancient as the hills,
enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

I wondered what made a British poet of eighteenth century compose a poem on a Mongol king who lived about six hundred years earlier to him.

Kubla Khan remained a puzzle for me for the next four years. My perception of him was of a Mongol King of China who was visited by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo and probably was related to Chenghis Khan. Kublai remained hidden in some corner of my mind till I serendipitously got hold of a book titled ‘Kublai Khan’ authored by John Man. The book was engrossing and Kublai: captivating. Such was the influence of book on me that I decided to write a brief history of Mongols before the knowledge gets lost in the quagmire of my cognitive information.

Kublai Khan or Kubla Khan was a Mongol by origin and the founder of Yuan dynasty of China. He ruled the Yuan kingdom from 1260 A.D. to 1294 A.D. He was the grandson of famous Chenghis Khan. It was Chenghis’ unfinished task which his later generations including Kublai tried to complete. The task was to bring the world under Mongols. Kublai came very close to completion. To know about Kublai it is imperative to know about Chenghis, his achievements, and his wishes.

The Family Line

KEY : KUBLAI M Chabi means Kublai married Chabi
Khagans are shown in red color and capital letters
Khanates are shown in blue color
Chenghis Khan was born as Temujin to Yesugei and Hoelun circa 1162-1167 in the mountainous area of Burkhana Khaldun in Khenti province of Mongolia. His father, Yesugei was chief of Kiyad tribe and was vassal of Ong Khan (also known as Wang Khan) of Kerait tribe. His mother, Hoelun, was of Olkhunut tribe of Mongol confederation.
Temujin had a difficult and distressed childhood. When he was in early teens, his father was poisoned by rival tribe of Tatars. He and his mother, Hoelun, were repudiated by their tribe. For next few years they lived in indigence. But these were the times when Hoelun taught him the way of life in nomadic environment. He learned that alliances and diplomacy are important for survival. At the age of thirteen he killed his half brother and became the chief of his household. When he was 16 he married Borte, a girl from Konikirat tribe. Later on in one of the raid Borte was kidnapped by Merikit tribe. Temujin with the help of Ong Khan of Kerait tribe rescued her from the Merikits. Nearly nine months after this incidence, Borte gave birth to a baby boy whose parentage would remain disputed. The boy was name Jochi. Borte bore three more sons to Temujin. Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei and Tolui were the four sons of Temujin. All of them in future, except Jochi, would become rulers of different Khanate.

Around the end of 11th century there were five different confederates in Central Asia involved in internecine rivalry namely, Naimans, Merikits, Uyghers, Tatars and Mongols. Mongols comprised of Keraits, Ongirrad, Jalayr and Taichud tribes.
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Ong Khan was the head of Kerait tribe to whom Temujin offered himself as a vassal. Slowly and steadily, by 1206 Temujin had defeated and captured the entire confederate and unified them as ‘Mongols’. At a council of Mongol chiefs, he was acknowledged as the leader (‘Khan’) of the consolidated tribe and was given the title ‘Chenghis Khan’. The title of ‘Khagan’ (the Great Khan) was conferred to him posthumously by his son Ogedei.

The unified Mongol confederation was bordered on by Jin dynast towards east and south and by Tangut’s Xia dynasty towards south west. By 1209 Chenghis conquered both the dynasty bringing them under the Mongol confederation. Chenghis next target was Kara-Khitan khanate which was towards the west of Mongol territory. By 1218, Kara-Khitan was annexed and the Mongol confederation now extended till Lake Balkhash in present day Kazakhstan. Chenghis did not stop here. He wanted that powerful Kwarazmid Empire should accept his supremacy. Kwarazmid Empire was a Sunni Muslim dynasty that ruled the central Asia and Persia and extended towards the Caspian Sea. It was the military genius of Chenghis khan that this powerful and vast dynasty was wiped off from the face of world map and was added to the Mongol confederate.

A point worth mentioning here is that there is no doubt that Chenghis was a military man par excellence but it is also true that he was fortunate enough to be assisted by equally brave sons and commanders. Two most notable commanders were Subutai and Jebe. Both of them had won many crucial wars for Chenghis.

After the conquest of Kwarazmid Empire the Mongol army got divided into two streams. One led by Chenghis himself, marched toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India. Other Led by Subutai and Jebe proceeded towards Caucasus* and Russia. Both the armies defeated everything that came in their way and returned Mongolia by 1225.

[ * Caucasus – or Caucasia is a region bordered on south by Iran, on the southwest by Turkey, on the west by black sea, on the east by Caspian sea, and on north by Russia. The Caucasus includes the Caucasus Mountains and surrounding lowlands. The nation states that compose the Caucasus today are the post soviet state of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and various parts of Russia and Iran.] SRC.:Wikipedia

By this time Chenghis khan was the emperor of largest kingdom the world has ever seen. Though Chenghis was the master of the half of the world but there was a kingdom, in the very backyard of Mongol kingdom, left to be conquered. It was the Song Dynasty of present day southern China. But Chenghis died in 1227 with this unfinished task which would be eventually completed by his grandson, Kublai Khan, by 1278.

Before his death Chenghis Khan had decreed that his third son, Ogedei, would succeed him and only Ogedei’s descendents would become the great khans. He also divided his empire among his four sons, with the three accountable to Great Khan, who was Ogedei. The Khanates created by Chenghis were:

- Empire of Ogedei khan comprised of eastern Asia including China.
- Tolui controlled the Mongol homeland
- Chagtai Khan received central Asia and northern Iran
- Jochi died before Chenghis khan. Hence his territory was divided between his sons Batu Khan and Orda Khan. It comprised of Russia and Caucaus – together called golden horde.

Chenghis Khan was not only a master military man but was also a visionary. Before his death he had settled the succession issue and had ensured that none of his sons feels discontented. History is replete with examples where in great kingdoms have gone into dust for the internecine succession conflicts between suitors. But that was not going to be the case with Mongols, at least not immediately, for every one accepted Ogedei as Khagan as ukased by Chenghis.

Ogedei continued with the expansion of Mongol Empire. His martial activities started with three big campaigns. First campaign, led by Subutai established Mongol’s sovereignty in Iran. Another one, led by Ogedei himself, dealt with attack on Korea. The third campaign was aimed at fulfilling Chenghis’ immediate goal of stabilizing northern China. This was carried on by Tolui.

Tolui died in the early part of his campaign. Ogedei, who had a great affection for his brother, allowed Tolui’s wife, Sorkakatani, to run Tolui’s estate. Sorkakatani was a very clever and ambitious woman. She ruled Mongolia for next 15 years as a queen, subjected to her emperor Ogedei. She was known for her wisdom. She was a daring lady. She had the gumption to refuse Ogedei’s proposal of marrying his son Guyunk. Sorkakatani had four sons from Tolui; Monkhe, Kublai, Hulegu and Ariq. Two of them would become Khagans, another one a brilliant and ruthless conqueror and one a rebel. It was her stratagem that her sons became Great Khans. For this to happen, the decree of Chenghis that only Ogedei and his descendents would become the Khagan, needed to be violated.

Ogedei, after mid thirties, drank himself towards death. He died in December, 1241. After his death his wife, Toregen, took over the reign as a regent. She wanted her son Guyunk as the next Khagan. Unlike his father Guyunk was a week man but like him he was a big drunkard.
Among many people who wanted to be Khagan one was Batu, son of Jochi and a rival of Guyunk. Batu was a brave man. He had carried many conquests in Russia and Caucasus.
For Sorkakatani this was not the opportune time to claim the throne. She held her cards to her heart and supported Guyunk for khaganship.

It was tenacity and diplomacy of Toregen that at Kuriltai (The great assembly of Mongol prince) in 1246 Guyunk was selected as Khagan. Batu, who was on his way to Kuriltai, was not happy. He along with his army continued the march toward Karakorum, the capital of Mongol Kingdom. Guyunk sensed some danger from Batu. He prepared a large army and marched westward towards Batu’s army.

Sorkakatani was not happy with the happenings. She could see the empire going into shambles. She sent a secret message to Batu, telling him about Guyunk’s plan. Having known Guyunk’s intention Batu too prepared his army for the battle.

Both the armies were face to face near Lake Balkhash. This war would have destroyed the Mongols. But before this could happen, Guyunk, who was perpetually sick and was worn out of travel, died.

This gave Batu a golden opportunity to become the Khagan but he was contended with his empire in southern Russia. As he owned Sorkakatani a favor, he proposed Monkhe, eldest son of Sorkakatani, as Khagan.

But Monkhe did not become Khagan immediately. Oghul Kaimsh, Guyunk’s widow and the regent after her husband’s death, wanted to continue as queen till her son come off to the ruling age. Sorkakatani was in no mood to wait. This was the opportune time to claim throne for her son. For few years the tussle for succession continued. In the end Sorkakatani’s effort bore fruit. Monkhe became the new Khagan. The line of succession had passed from Ogedei’s family to Tolui’s family.

Monkhe continued with the expansion of Mongol empire. Triad of brothers; Monkhe, Hulegu and Kublai went into different direction and added new territories to the already humongous empire. Hulegu moved westward towards the Islamic empire. Monkhe and Kublai moved south towards the Yunnan and Song dynasty.


Many Muslims believe that the biggest catastrophe that had befallen on the community has not come from any religious battle but from a swarming army of nomadic Mongols led by Hulegu. This vast army didn’t have any territorial ambition but was especially sent by Monkhe as he feared that he’ll be assassinated by Muslim fanatics.

At that time a Muslim cult called Hashashins (Assassins) has emerged in south west Asia which carried out political assassinations. They went for their mission by taking Hashish (cannabis – the word assassin originated from Hashish) and hence the name Hashashins (assassins). It is believed that Monkhe heard that a group of 40-400 Assassins have been dispatched to kill him. Whether this was true or not but Monkhe took it seriously and dispatched a large army, headed by brother Hulegu, to obliterate them. And Hulegu did the same. Not only the Assassins were done with but Hulegu went further in south west Asia and shook the foundation of Islamic empire.

After destroying Assassins, Hulegu marched towards Bagdad which was ruled by Abbasid dynasty. Any city which peacefully capitulated to Mongols was left untouched but one which opposed was crushed ruthlessly.

The Abbasids committed that mistake. The Abbasid Caliph refused to accept Mongol’s supremacy. Angered, Hulegu marched in Bagdad carrying out unprecedented plundering and pillaging. About a Lakh of people were killed including the Caliph. The cultural center of South East Asia was beaten to dust by Hulegu.
After conquering the Abbasids, Hulegu marched towards Syria which was ruled by Ayyubids. Hulegu conquered Syria also. From Syria Mongols proceeded towards Palestine and Egypt, which was control by Mamluk Turks. Mamluks had previous experience of fighting Mongols during the Chenghis Khan’s raid. It was not their experience but divine providence that saved Mamluk’s from Hulegu’s wrath. Monkhe had died back home. Hulegu returned back leaving behind a very small army.
Hulegu who had developed a liking for Persia, returned back to start his own Khanate. He became the first khan of IllKhante.

Song dynasty was south of Mongol kingdom. It was everything that Mongolia wasn’t. Song was a 300 years old kingdom and a leading power of the region. It had 70 million of people residing in scores of cities. River Chang (Yangtze) was the lifeline of the kingdom with 2700 Km of it acting as a major highway. Song was an economic superpower which was culturally superior and politically more united that any other powers in the region. This was the era of Chinese renaissance.

They had many practices which the world will follow after a couple of centuries. They had developed new ways of growing rice. They had an excellent navigation system in place with about 50000 Km as river highway. Civil servants were chosen by examination. The laws of the state were to help the poor. The source of revenue for the government was tax and the monopoly on salt and mining. Song’s have introduced paper currency. They knew the art of printing which the Europeans would discover four centuries later.
With all it greatness it had only one weakness. It was not a great military power. This became their Achilles’ heel.

In 1252 Monkhe bestowed the ambitious task of conquest of Song to Kublai. Kublai was 37 at that time and had not led any major raid. To help him Monkhe gave him one of the most experienced general, Urying Kadai, son of legendary Subutai. Together they marched to conquer Song.

A frontal attack on Song over broad and well defended Chang River would have led to failure. Mongols needed a base from where they could attack. That base was in the south west of song. It was the kingdom of Dali, named after the capital city Dali. The region was known as Yunnan meaning ‘South of cloud’. Kublai wanted Dali. For war strategist the invasion on Dali would be an act of hara-kiri. Dali flanked by Azure Mountain on one side and Erhai lake on another was well defended. So Kublai sent three envoys to Dali asking the king to capitulate. But the envoys were executed by the prime minister who was the real power behind the Duan King. This was an act of most serious diplomatic crime. Kublai was left with no other option but to attack. He divided his army into three divisions and attacked from three different directions. Dali fell in the hands of Mongols. The leading minister and his underlings were executed. The king became a puppet in the hand of Kublai.

With western frontier of Song’s Kingdom in Mongol hands, Kublai was well set for his next target that was the Kingdom of Song.


Here I would like to deviate from Kublai’s martial activities and talk about his administrative endeavors. Though Kublai was looking after his appanage and was accountable to Monkhe, he ran it more like a mini kingdom. He carried out many reforms and experimented with large scale state management. Kublai didn’t trust the ethnic Hans but wanted to maintain friendly relationship with powerful Hans landlords. His capital at Zhandou (present day Beijing) had a majority of Hans population. Kublai wanted a capital where there was an equal mix of both Mongol and Chinese culture and should also be close to Zhandou. Xanadu with its grassland, which suited the Mongol lifestyle and with its proximity to Beijing, was apropos. In 1256 Kublai moved his headquarter to Xanadu. For 112 years, Xanadu remained the summer capital of Yuan dynasty. The city was abandoned in 1368 after the fall of Yuan Kingdom. For next 600 years the city with all its buildings, palaces, and courtyards turned into mounds covered by grassland till a British doctor in Beijing, Dr. Stephens Bushel, discovered it in 1872. It is interesting to note that when Coleridge had a vision of visitor from Xanadu, the city was nonexistent for world. So it is surprise that the palaces and glory were all real.


By 1257, Monkhe has secured Russia and Persia. To fulfill Chenghis’s vision of world under Mongol, two places still needed to be conquered: Rest of China (Song) and Rest of World. It is worth noting that at that time America was undiscovered so the world comprised of Asia, Europe and part of Africa. The Mongols have conquered the major portion of it. Of the two of the targets, Song was the tougher one.

Song was a land of rivers and mountains where Mongol style of warfare, more adapted to grassland, was not suited. Mongols could capture a castle or destroy a fort in a trice but fighting in a river by ships was what they have not done before.

The capital of Song, Linan (present day Hangzhou), was the world’s most populous city with population more than a million. It had the finest ports in the world. To capture Song, Mongols would have to capture Linan and forty one other cities with more than a million populations along with fifty million peasants dwelling in Yangtze basin. The task was formidable but the Song was doomed for it had Mongols as its enemy.

Monkhe’s plan for song was big. He divided the army in three wings. All three wings would attack from different directions and would converge on Yangtze at city of Wuchang from where they would take over capital of Hangzhou. One column, headed by Kublai, left Xanadu and would meet other two columns at Wuchang. One column from Yunnan was headed by Uryiang Kadai and another one left from Kiaclugh. Monkhe himself led a separate campaign in the center of this region. Progress of each of the column was very slow.

By August 1259 Monkhe was tired of the campaign. Weariness and alcohol made him sick. He died of Cholera. The campaign needed to be stopped for the ritual of burial which was a month long process.

When Monkhe died, Kublai was about 250 Km deep into the Song’s territory. To prevent enemy taking advantage from Monkhe’s death he spread the word that the news is a canard. He progressed along the Yangtze to be joined by Uryiang three weeks later. He surrounded Wuchang. Song was losing control over it. But in early October a contingent released from fighting Monkhe came to buttress the Song’s force. Now the battle became equal.

Jia Sidao, commander of songs and a wily diplomat, saw this as an opportune moment and sent a secret envoy to Kublai. He proposed that Song would pay annual tribute to Mongols in exchange of Yangtze being new frontier. Kublai, though at backseat, rejected the proposal simply because he could conquer Song later. Something was happening back home at Karakorum which forced him to return. He would return back after nine years till then song could be in respite.

At Karakorum, Ariq Borke, fourth son of Tolui and Sorkakatani, was organizing a large army for unknown reason. With Kublai at Song’s frontier, Hulegu at western frontier, and Monkhe dead it was obvious that Ariq was planning to be the Khagan. Kublai was certain that Hulegu would back him as Khagan as Hulegu wanted to have his Khanate in Persia. With Hulegu at his side Kublai was the obvious choice for Khagan. But Ariq thought otherwise. For three years the war for succession continued with both the brothers claiming themselves as Khagan. But by 1262 Ariq had lost the game and two brothers got united by weeping in each other’s arm. Ariq died few years later; mysteriously.

While dealing with Ariq’s army Kublai resorted to diplomacy to deal with Songs. In 1260, he sent a messenger to Linan. The messenger was captured ad jailed for next 16 years till he was released by Kublai’s invading army. When the succession issue was over and Kublai well established as Khagan, he started his quest for Song. From his past experience Kublai knew that song was a tough nut to crack. But he had a precarious plan in place for conquering it.
Yangtze flowed from west to east. Kublai Army would be invading from north. A major tributary of Yangtze, Han, flowed southward, making a road to Wuchang and Hangzhou. Now key to Han was city of Xiangyang which was situated on the banks of Hans. So Kublai strategy was like this: To conquer Song Yangtze needs to be conquered, to conquer Yangtze Han needs to be controlled and to control Han Xiangyang needs to be taken. So the key to Song was Xiangyang. Mongol army surrounded the city of Xiangyang by 1268.
Battle of Xiangyang is considered to be one of the toughest battles fought by Mongols. Kublai asked Hulegu for his engineers who had expertise in making big Mangonels. Mangonels were a heavy war engine used for hurling large stones and other missiles. The city was captured and as planned Song was conquered by 1276.


In 1271 Kublai officially declared the creation of Yuan dynasty. By 1276 he had completed the annexation of Song. After that he ruled for another 18 years. He carried out many reforms. Kublai brought stability and security unknown for centuries. Whole of China and Mongolia was unified.

Mongol Empire - 1279

He tried conquering Japan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Java. His entire attempt failed. Because of constant wars the inflation rose very high during his reign. Especially his attempt to invade Japan cost him a lot. There were rebellions from within.


By 1281, Yuan Empire had reached its zenith. Kublai was already 66 by then. A constant defeat at wars and resistance from within the kingdom had disenchanted him. But more than these his favorite wife Chabi, a companion for last 41 years, died. This broke him completely. To find solace he turned to food and drink. He gorged boiled mutton, breast of lamb, eggs, sugary tea and drank airag (fermented mare milk) like water. Airag and wine made him inactive. He became extremely obese. He died on February 18, 1294 leaving behind a vast kingdom and a grand legacy.

China claims that Tibet is integral part of China. The reason it sites is historical. It urges that Tibet was part of china during the Yuan dynasty. But then why it isn’t claiming the entire Mongol empire? That would simply be preposterous. What China claims is the Yuan Kingdom. This is the reason why Chinese consider Mongolia too as part of China. But then if this is the logic China should be part of Mongolia and not vice versa for Kublai was a Mongol. Moreover how far back one can go in time? Before Kublai conquered Tibet, a major portion of China was under Tibet and hence that way China should be a part of Tibet.

Khanates in 1294
██ Golden Horde ██ Chagatai Khanate ██ Ilkhanate ██ Yuan Dynasty

Such contentious issues are hard to resolve based on historical facts for history is not static.
It should be left to the residents of the region to decide what they want for themselves.