An historical block-print illustration of Khubilai Khan, youngest son of Chinggis (Genghis).

Born into a ruling Mongol family, Khubilai Khan began his career as a minor prince who had been granted land in present-day Inner Mongolia, and therefore always had a direct interest in north China. Years of opposition from his brothers and a seemingly constant struggle for power finally led Khubilai to establish a Mongol empire in China, ending the Song dynasty in 1279.

Khubilai Khan, founder of the Mongolian successor khanate (the state or jurisdiction of a khan [sovereign]) in China, was the second of four sons of Tolui-noyan (c. 1190–c. 1231), who was the youngest son of Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan (also known as Genghis Khan, reigned 1206–1227). Born on the steppe (vast, usually level and treeless tracts in southeastern Europe or Asia), the last ruler of Mongol China so born, Khubilai began his career as a minor prince with an appanage (a grant of territory) in what is now Inner Mongolia, which gave him a direct interest in Mongol-occupied north China. In 1251, with the ascension of his brother Möngke as khan of the still-unified Mongolian empire (with the house of Tolui as its rulers), Khubilai acquired considerably more importance. He became his brother’s viceroy in China, then a principal commander as Möngke set about conquering the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279).

During this period Khubilai carefully recruited talent from various quarters, not exclusively Chinese, to build his own coterie of advisors. These allies drew the jealousy of his brother, who removed Khubilai as viceroy and came near to eliminating him. Later, after the sudden death of Möngke while campaigning in 1259, these same advisors helped Khubilai claim succession and build a separatist regime in China.

During the early years Khubilai’s principal opponent was his brother Ariq-böke (d. 1266), whom Khubilai ultimately defeated, but an even more serious opponent emerged in Qaidu (1236–1301), a grandson of Ögödei (reigned 1229–1241), second khan of the unified empire. The struggle with Qaidu, although never threatening Khubilai’s position in China, did prevent him from gaining acceptance as the successor to Möngke and confined Khubilai’s power to China and such areas of Mongolia and Turkistan that he could dominate from a Chinese base.

Forced to make do with what he had, Khubilai built an empire in China, initially in the north, long conquered by the Mongols, then in the south, too, where Khubilai’s armies ended the independent regime of the Song dynasty by 1279. Even before his final victory, Khubilai’s regime had adopted the Chinese dynastic designation “Yuan,” meaning “origin,” drawn from the Book of Changes.

Khubilai’s China, described by the European traveler Marco Polo, was a mix of Mongolian, Chinese, and other cultural influences as Khubilai and his ministers set out to provide a regime that had a little something for everyone, but the most for the Mongols. At its center was a government that was generally Chinese in nomenclature but behind which the reality was very Mongolian. There was no single capital, but the court move from place to place in a regular seasonal cycle based on Daidu, today’s Beijing, and Shangdu (Xanadu), Khubilai’s summer playground in Inner Mongolia. At court representatives of so many cultures jostled for influence, speaking not only Chinese and Mongolian but also Persian, various Turkic dialects, and even Old French. Few societies were ever as diverse. Even the food served was drawn from all over Asia, although the preferred banquet dish was a much-modified Mongolian soup.

Further Reading

Halperin, C. (1985). Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol impact on medieval Russian history. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rossabi, M. (1988). Khubilai Khan, his life and times. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Buell, Paul D.. (2009). Khubilai Khan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1241–1242. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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