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Zhou and Qin
Intermediate times
     Kublai Khan and the Yüan dynas....
     Marco Polo in China

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Kublai Khan and the Yüan dynasty of China: 1252-79

From 1252 Kublai presses south through the mountainous western regions of China, into Szechwan and Yünnan. His attention is distracted by the death of his brother, the great khan Mangu, in 1259. Kublai is elected khan in his place by the Mongol nobles campaigning with him in China. But the same position is claimed by a younger brother, Ariq Böge, at Karakorum.

Kublai defeats his brother in 1264. As Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol empire, he is now free to give his full attention to China. In 1267 he reveals the seriousness of his ambitions when he moves the imperial capital south from Karakorum to Beijing - a town severely damaged by his grandfather, Genghis Khan, in 1215.


Kublai Khan builds himself a magnificent city at Beijing. Its walls are 24 miles in circumference and some 50 feet high. The Mongols call it Khanbaliq, the 'city of the Khan'; and under a version of this name, as Cambaluc, it becomes famous even in Europe.

From this base in the north he sets about overwhelming the Song dynasty. As early as 1271 he makes it plain that he sees himself not as an invading barbarian but as the Chinese emperor of a new dynasty. In that year he announces a Chinese name for his dynasty - Ta Yüan, meaning 'Great Origin'. Ancestors are vital in China, so his grandfather Genghis Khan is given a posthumous Chinese title: T'ai Tsu, 'Grand Progenitor'.


Kublai soon makes good these Chinese pretensions. In 1276 Hangzhou, the capital of the surviving Song dynasty, falls to his armies. The young emperor and his mother are brought to Kublai's court and are treated with civility. By 1279 there is no further Song resistance. The Chinese chroniclers record, from that year, the start of a new dynasty - the Yüan, the first in the empire's history to be ruled by an outsider.

But Kublai Khan is determined not to be an outsider. He even adopts the adminstrative system of the Chinese bureaucracy. The only difference is that he employs more foreigners than a Chinese emperor would. One of them, Marco Polo, has left a vivid (if one-sided) glimpse of Mongol China.


Kublai Khan is sovereign over regions more extensive than any previous Chinese empire. Even allowing for the fact that his authority in the Mongol territories in the west is only nominal (as the great khan), he has under his direct control Mongolia, Tibet, Manchuria, Korea and the whole of China down to the South China Sea.

Only one great prize escapes him, frustrating his clean sweep of the region. Two expeditions against Japan are costly disasters - in 1274 and again in 1281, during Marco Polo's years in China.


Marco Polo in China: 1275-1292

Marco spends seventeen years in China, fulfilling a wide variety of tasks in Kublai Khan's administration. He is in effect a member of an occupying force, speaking Mongolian but not Chinese, so his understanding of the people is limited. But he travels a great deal, often trading on his own account as well as serving the emperor, and he describes many cities.

Hangzhou is his favourite. He pretends not to be certain which is more impressive - the number of its bridges or the number of its prostitutes. His interests seem more with the latter. Those who sample these women, he says (as if speaking of someone else), 'are so much taken with their sweetness and charms that they can never forget them'.


Marco has often been criticised for failing to mention one peculiarity of China - the drinking of tea, which is already by this time a Chinese addiction. The two oddities which strike him most forcibly are a marvellous black stone, useless for building with, which the Chinese dig up and burn (one of the earliest references to coal); and their use of bank notes (see Bank notes in China).

Paper money is not a Mongol innovation, being in use already in the Song dynasty, but Marco gives a fascinating description of government officials stamping the notes with a cinnabar seal.


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