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Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan: Architect of The Yuan Dynasty

Kublai Khan, born in 1215, was an important person in global history. He is well-known for his inspirational leadership, strategic acumen, and cultural breakthroughs. As the grandson of Genghis Khan, he inherited a large empire that covered parts of Asia and Europe.

Kublai Khan’s reign represented a fundamental shift in Mongol governance, as he attempted to bridge the gap between his predecessors’ nomadic customs and the sophisticated civilizations they had conquered.

Kublai Khan rose to power in 1260, becoming emperor of the enormous Mongolian Empire created by his grandfather, Genghis Khan. He separated himself from his forefathers by dominating through an administrative structure that respected and accepted the indigenous customs of conquered peoples, rather than by brute force alone.

After subjugating the Song Dynasty in southern China, he became the first Mongol to govern over the entire country, ushering in a lengthy period of prosperity for the empire. However, internal political conflict, discriminatory social policies, and several ill-fated military expeditions eventually damaged the Yuan Dynasty’s long-term sustainability.

Son of The Empire

Kublai Khan was nurtured in the Mongolian Steppes’ nomadic culture. From an early age, he learned fighting, hunting, and riding. He also acquired an interest in Chinese culture and philosophy.

When his brother was appointed Great Khan in 1251, Kublai was given command of northern China. He surrounded himself with Chinese advisers and constructed a new capital called Shangdu while respecting the customs of the local populace.

Early Life and Rise to Power

Kublai Khan was the fourth son of Genghis Khan and Sorghaghtani Beki, a strong and influential Mongol Empire person. Kublai showed a deep interest in learning and administration from a young age. He had a well-rounded education that encompassed knowledge of other cultures, languages, and faiths.

Following the death of his brother, Mongke, in 1260, Kublai Khan emerged triumphant in a power struggle and came to the throne as the Mongol Empire’s fifth Great Khan. He constructed his capital in Shangdu (also known as Xanadu) and then relocated it to Dadu (present-day Beijing).

Also Read: Famous Mongolian Leaders


Kublai Khan had the following marriages:

First, he married Tegulen, who unfortunately died soon after their marriage. Following that, he married Chabi of the Khongirad, whom he regarded as his most treasured empress. Following Chabi’s tragic death in 1281, Kublai followed Chabi’s imagined request by marrying Nambui, her young cousin.

The following is a list of Kublai Khan’s main wives, grouped by ordos:

First and Second Ordos

1. Tegulun Khatun (deceased 1233)—daughter of Tuolian of Khongirad. She married Kublai in 1232 but passed away shortly after giving birth.

  • Dorji (born 1233, deceased 1263) was the director of the secretariat and head of the Bureau of Military Affairs from 1261, but passed away at a young age.

2. Empress Chabi (born 1216, married 1234, deceased 1281)—daughter of Chigu Noyan from the Khongirad. They had four sons and six daughters:

  • Grand Princess of Zhao, Yuelie—married to Ay Buqa, Prince of Zhao.
  • Princess Ulujin—married to Buqa from the Ikires clan.
  • Princess Chalun—married to Teliqian from the Ikires clan.
  • Crown Prince Zhenjin (1240–1285)—Prince of Yan
  • Manggala (circa 1242–1280)—Prince of Anxi
  • Grand Princess of Lu, Oljei—married to Ulujin Kuregen from the Khongirad clan, Prince of Lu.
  • Nomughan (deceased 1301)—Prince of Beiping
  • Grand Princess of Lu, Nangiajin—married to Ulujin Kuregen from the Khongirad clan, Princess of Lu. After Ulujin’s passing in 1278, she married his brother Temur. Following Temur’s death in 1290, she married a third brother, Manzitai.
  • Kokechi (deceased 1271)—Prince of Yunnan
  • Princess Jeguk (1251–1297)

3. Empress Nambui (married 1283, went missing 1290) was the daughter of Nachen, who was the uncle of Empress Chabi

  • Temuchi

Wives from Third Ordo

1. Empress Talahai

2. Empress Nuhan

Wives from Fourth Ordo

1. Empress Bayaujin-daughter of Boraqchin of Bayauts

  • Toghon-Prince of Zhennan

2. Empress Kokelun


1. Lady Babahan

2. Lady Sabuhu

3. Qoruqchin Khatun—daughter of Qutuqu (brother of Toqto’a Beki) from Merkits

  • Qoridai—Commander of Mongke in Tibet

4. Dorbejin Khatun—from the Dorben tribe.

  • Aqruqchi (deceased 1306)—Prince of Xiping

5. Hushijin Khatun—daughter of Boroqul Noyan.

  • Kokochu (fl. 1313)—Prince of Ning
  • Ayachi (fl. 1324) — Commander of the Hexi Corridor

6. An unknown lady

  • Qutluq Temur (fl. 1324)

7. Asujin Khatun

Innovations and Cultural Exchange

Kublai Khan is well-known for his attempts to promote cultural interaction within his kingdom. He aggressively supported East-West exchanges of ideas, art, and technology. He welcomed foreign intellectuals, artists, and merchants, contributing to the Silk Road’s burgeoning trade.

Chinese, Persian and Central Asian civilizations thrived alongside traditional Mongol habits under Kublai’s patronage. This cultural fusion resulted in the Yuan Dynasty’s rich tapestry of creative expression, architecture, and gastronomy.

Administration and Governance

To properly administer his large realm, Kublai Khan realized the need for a more centralized and structured government. He incorporated Chinese government aspects such as the development of a bureaucracy and the use of a census system.

Kublai Khan sponsored enormous infrastructure projects, such as the development of a massive canal network and a highway system, to further solidify his control. These endeavors aided communication, commerce, and economic development across the empire.

Also Read: Why Mongols Were So Successful

Military Conquests and Legacy of Kublai Khan

Despite his diplomatic and artistic successes, Kublai Khan was a skilled military leader who maintained the Mongol Empire’s growth. His soldiers fought in Southeast Asia, Japan, and even attempted to capture Vietnam. However, these efforts were greeted with mixed results, as Japan notably resisted Mongol invasions known as the Kamikaze typhoons in 1274 and 1281.

Kublai Khan died in 1294, leaving behind a complicated legacy. His rule was a watershed event in history, as he effectively merged Mongol nomadic customs with conquered lands’ civilizations. His administration, governance, and cultural exchange endeavors provided the groundwork for the wealthy Yuan Dynasty.

Victory in Northern China

Kublai’s brother Mongke became Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1251, and he was dispatched to China. He rose to the position of viceroy of northern China, where he was praised by local authorities. Kublai chastised an official in 1252, causing conflict. In 1253, he was instructed to attack Yunnan, which he successfully conquered and installed a local king.

Kublai was especially interested in Tibetan healing traditions, and he included Tibetan monks in his retinue. There were disagreements over Kublai’s reign in 1257, but he reconciled with Mongke. Kublai settled a dispute between Daoists and Buddhists in favor of Buddhism. Kublai was given command of the Eastern Army in 1258, and following Mongke’s death, he continued the war in Wuhan, eventually striking a peace deal.

Brothers’ Dispute (Kublai-Boke), Kublai’s Emergence as Great Khan

Despite a formal claim by his younger brother Ariq Boke, Kublai Khan was elected Great Khan by his followers at the Grand Kurultai in 1260. This sparked a fight between Kublai and Ariq Boke, which resulted in the destruction of Karakorum, the Mongol capital.

Kublai obtained backing in Shaanxi and Sichuan and sought to resolve the conflict diplomatically in Hangzhou but failed. He also selected Abishqa as the next Chagatai Khanate commander, but Ariq Boke kidnapped him. Ariq Boke was defeated in combat, resulting in the fall of Karakorum. Ariq Boke temporarily regained control of the city in 1261.

Kublai faced a mutiny at Yizhou, which he quickly subdued, leading to the leaders’ execution. This incident made Kublai mistrust ethnic Hans. Ariq Boke appointed Chagatayid Khan Alghu, who switched allegiance to Kublai and defeated a punitive expedition. In 1264, Ariq Boke surrendered to Kublai.

Western khanate kings accepted Kublai’s power. Kublai called a fresh kurultai, but Hulagu Khan and Berke refused to come. The opposing claims of the brothers caused a civil war between the two sides, with Kublai finally triumphing in 1264. Ariq Boke surrendered to Kublai in Shangdu, who saved his life. Kublai, on the other hand, had all of his allies killed, solidifying his position as the next Great Khan of the Mongolian Empire.

Yuan Dynasty’s Founder

Kublai Khan, the Great Khan, founded the Yuan dynasty in 1271, making China his primary operating base. He accepted Chinese political and cultural traditions, consolidated authority, and leaned heavily on Chinese advisers. Drogon Chogyal Phagpa was designated as Kublai’s Imperial Preceptor, giving him power over all Buddhist monks. In 1279, he defeated the Southern Song and united China.

The Yuan dynasty was divided into provinces, each with its own administrative system, and included areas such as China, Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Korean Peninsula. Kublai encouraged economic expansion through infrastructural projects and introduced a uniform paper currency known as the Jiaochao. Fiscal troubles and inflation, on the other hand, eventually led to economic woes.

Kublai fostered Asian arts, showed religious tolerance, and employed foreign ambassador Marco Polo for 17 years.

Confucius’ ancestors were divided into two branches, one in the north (Qufu) and one in the south (Quzhou), with the northern branch maintaining the title of Duke Yansheng when the southern branch refused to return to Qufu. Kublai Khan also issued ordinances outlawing Jewish and Muslim dietary rules, as well as circumcision.

Warfare and Foreign Relations

While Kublai Khan first restricted the kheshig’s responsibilities, he built a new imperial bodyguard. This unit was originally made up solely of ethnic Han people, but it was eventually supplemented by Kipchak, Alan (Asud), and Russian forces.

After organizing his own kheshig, Kublai put three of the original kheshigs under the supervision of the descendants of Genghis Khan’s advisers, Borokhula, Boorchu, and Muqali, in 1263. Kublai instituted the practice of having four notable nobles in his kheshig ratify decrees, which was thereafter adopted by all subsequent Mongol khanates.

Both Mongol and Han units were organized in the same decimal system that Genghis Khan pioneered. The Mongols embraced new armaments and technology with zeal. Kublai and his generals conducted military battles in southern China in a methodical and deliberate manner. The Yuan army quickly overcame the Song thanks to the efficient assimilation of Han naval technology.

Tibet and Xinjiang

In 1285, the Drikung Kagyu sect revolted, attacking Sakya monasteries. Duwa, the Chagatayid Khan, aided the insurgents by besieging Gaochang and destroying Kublai’s garrisons in the Tarim Basin. Kaidu won the battle of Beshbalik and seized control of the city the next year.

Many Uyghurs fled Kashgar for safer lands in the Yuan dynasty’s eastern provinces. In 1291, Kublai’s grandson Buqa-Temur crushed the Drikung Kagyu rebellion, killing 10,000 Tibetans and bringing Tibet to an end.

Goryeo Annexation

Kublai Khan invaded Goryeo on the Korean Peninsula in 1260, eventually establishing it as a tributary vassal state. Goryeo came under the even tighter authority of the Yuan after another Mongol incursion in 1273. It was converted into a Mongol military fortress, with various myriarchy commands established. For the Mongol incursions, the Goryeo court contributed both Korean infantry and a powerful naval force.

Naval Expansion

Despite objections from some of his Confucian-trained counselors, Kublai opted to launch expeditions to invade Japan, Burma, Vietnam, and Java, defying Mongol authorities. He also attempted to bring outlying territories under Mongol authority, such as Sakhalin, with the local inhabitants finally succumbing to Mongol power by 1308, following Kublai’s death.

However, these significant military efforts, along with the advent of paper money, resulted in inflation. Due to the conflicts between the Southern Song dynasty and Japan, the issuance of paper currency increased from 110,000 ding to 1,420,000 ding between 1273 and 1276.

Invasion of Japan

Kublai Khan, a Mongol monarch famed for his varied court, elected officials from many ethnic origins based on merit. He attempted to attack Japan twice because of Wokou’s support for the Southern Song dynasty. The first effort, in 1274, was hampered by terrible weather and defects in ship design. The second invasion in 1281 was accompanied by a great fleet but encountered problems at sea.

The Mongols conquered various islands but were eventually destroyed by Japanese forces, notably in important engagements. The Mongols battled as a unified army against individual samurai fighters, employing explosive weaponry.

Despite outnumbering the Mongols, the Japanese were able to resist them owing to the coastal fortifications. Kublai’s hasty fleet building, utilizing inadequate ships, may have contributed to the defeat. The Mongols suffered huge losses as a result of the invasions. Kublai’s intentions for a third invasion were prevented by his death and his counselors’ united decision not to go ahead with it.

Invasion of Vietnam

Between 1257 and 1292, Kublai Khan invaded Đại Việt/Annam (Vietnam) five times. There were important campaigns in 1258, 1285, and 1287. While some believe these operations to be successful because they established tributary connections, Vietnamese history sees them as wins over foreign invaders known as “Mongol yokes.”

The initial expedition in 1258 culminated in the conquest of Thang Long, the Vietnamese capital. This resulted in tributary connections between the Vietnamese and Yuan dynasties. The Yuan tried a second invasion in 1285 to demand more tribute and oversight, but it failed. In 1287, they aimed to replace the ruler of Đại Việt but faced initial successes followed by major defeats. Ultimately, both Đại Việt and Champa acknowledged Yuan supremacy to avoid further conflict.

Europe and Africa

Due to Mongol dominance over trade routes and effective mail systems, there was increasing engagement between East Asia and Europe under Kublai Khan’s rule. In the early 13th century, merchants, traders, and missionaries from Europe and Central Asia began migrating to China.

Because of the Mongols’ control, Yuan subjects were able to travel beyond the empire, reaching countries like Russia, Persia, and Mesopotamia. The African Sultanate of Mogadishu had a reputation in Asia due to previous economic relations with Chinese governments, which drew Kublai Khan’s attention. He dispatched an emissary to acquire information, but they were apprehended. Khan responded by dispatching another envoy to arrange their release.

Nayan’s Rebellion

Genghis Khan’s younger brothers were handed provinces in Manchuria during the Jin dynasty’s invasion. Later generations wanted more freedom after first supporting Kublai Khan’s authority in 1260. Kublai Khan delegated authority to the Mongol nobility while maintaining control. His son Manggala assumed direct control of Chang’an and Shanxi in 1272.

In 1274, Kublai appointed Lian Xixian to combat power abuses in Manchuria, eventually bringing it under Khagan’s rule in 1284. Nayan, a descendant of Genghis Khan’s brother, revolted in 1287 due to growing bureaucracy. Nayan sought an alliance with Kublai’s opponent, Kaidu. In Manchuria, the revolution was supported by numerous Mongol aristocratic families, Jurchens, and Water Tatars.

Nayan was apprehended and killed, and successive disturbances were put down by 1289. As a result, in 1287, Kublai established the Liaoyang Branch Secretariat and reorganized power allocation among loyal princes.

Kublai Khan’s Rule: Navigating Dual Identities in Yuan Dynasty China

There was a mix of Chinese and Mongol traditions during Kublai Khan’s reign in the Yuan Dynasty. While embracing Chinese culture, Kublai also constructed a social structure that favored Mongols over Chinese peasants. This showed his desire to reconcile conqueror and conquered identities.

Foreigners such as Marco Polo had prominent positions in Kublai’s administration, demonstrating his openness to external influence and varied ideas. However, while being costly and ineffective, his ambitious military expeditions put a financial burden on the empire. To support these initiatives, he imposed a labor tax on Chinese peasants, requiring them to do manual labor. The power dynamic between the Mongol governing class and the Chinese populace was heightened as a result.

Kublai Khan’s reign had a profound influence on China, demonstrating the difficulties and accomplishments of blending many cultures and providing insights into governing in a multicultural kingdom.

Later Years of Kublai Khan

In 1291, Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler, dispatched his grandson Gammala to safeguard his grandfather Genghis Khan’s hallowed burial site. Ikh Khorig was a well-guarded place. Bayan recovered influence in neighboring territories under Kublai’s control in 1293, discouraging Kublai’s adversary, Kaidu, from large-scale military action for three years. Beginning in 1293, Kublai’s armies drove Kaidu’s men off the Central Siberian Plateau.

Following the death of his wife, Chabi, in 1281, Kublai isolated himself from his counselors, preferring to converse with one of his other queens, Nambui. He had multiple daughters, but only two of them were named. Kublai’s wife and daughters were less conspicuous than the important ladies of his grandfather’s period.

Initially, he picked his son Zhenjin to be his successor, and he ruled in a Confucian style. Zhenjin, on the other hand, died in 1286, bringing Kublai tremendous grief. He became depressed, particularly after the deaths of his favorite wife and intended successor, as well as military failures in Vietnam and Japan. This resulted in overeating and drinking, which caused health problems such as gout and diabetes. His illness worsened despite pursuing numerous medical therapies, including shamans and physicians.

He even skipped the usual New Year’s Eve ritual in 1293. He appointed Zhenjin’s son, Temur, as the future Khagan of the Mongol Empire and ruler of the Yuan dynasty before his death. During his terminal illness, he sought solace from Bayan, who was much younger. Kublai Khan died on February 18, 1294, at the age of 78, and was buried in Mongolia two days later.


Kublai Khan, best recognized as a Chinese ruler, also played an important role in creating the Mongol political traditions. He and his adviser ‘Phags-pa devised the “dual principle,” which highlighted the equality of religion and state in politics. This philosophy affected Mongolian history and helped establish a theocratic monarchy after Mongolia achieved independence from China in 1911.

Evaluating Kublai’s character is difficult because Marco Polo’s major account of him is more of a compliment than an impartial appraisal. Polo depicts Kublai as an ideal global ruler, but he also admits his human weaknesses, such as excessive dining and hunting, a complicated personal life, and occasional harshness.

The significance of Kublai lies in his attempt to manage his conflicting duties. Despite his energy and political understanding, he was unable to resolve the fundamental inconsistencies. He gradually resembled a typical Chinese emperor, with China consuming the majority of his attention to the detriment of the Mongol homeland. As a result, internal battles between competing Mongol rulers arose.


Kublai Khan’s reign was distinguished by a distinctive combination of military victories, cultural interchange, and administrative improvements. His vision of a united, cosmopolitan empire laid the stage for succeeding Chinese dynasties and affected world history. Kublai Khan’s legacy lives on through the Yuan Dynasty’s cultural and architectural accomplishments, reminding us of the continuing significance of this great Mongol monarch.

While his reign provided riches to China and the privileged Mongols, Kublai Khan’s successors struggled to keep the balance. The Mongols retreated to the steppes after the monarchy collapsed in 1368, and they no longer played a vital role on the international stage.

Also Read: List of Mughal Emperors: Navigating India’s Imperial Past


What Made Kublai Khan Famous?

Kublai Khan was the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty’s (1206-1368) monarch (reigned 1260-94). In 1279, he conquered China, becoming the first Yuan emperor of all of China. He contributed to the creation of the “dual principle” political philosophy. He made paper money the only medium of exchange as king.

After Genghis Khan, Who Ruled the Mongol Empire?

Genghis Khan’s third son, Ogedei, succeeded his father and governed the Mongol Empire from 1227 CE until 1241 CE. His conquest of Eastern Europe was one of his most significant accomplishments for the empire.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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