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Kublai Khan[1] was a Mongolian general and statesman and the grandson and greatest successor of Genghis Khan. Also known by his regnal[2] name Setsen Khan, he was the fifth emperor (reigning from 5th May 1260 until he died in 1294) of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty. In 1279, he completed the conquest of China begun by Genghis Khan and became the first Yuan ruler of all of China, the word Yuan meaning “origin of the universe.”

To unify China, Kublai began a massive offensive against the remnants of the Southern Song in 1274 and finally destroyed the Song in 1279, unifying the country at last at the Battle of Yamen, where the last Song Emperor Zhao Bing committed suicide by jumping into the sea and ending the Song dynasty. In 1271, Kublai Khan proclaimed the empire’s dynastic name “Great Yuan”[3] and formally claimed orthodox succession from prior Chinese dynasties[4]. Kublai is also known in historiography as Emperor Shizu of Yuan by his temple name Shizu.

The Yuan dynasty came to rule over most of present-day China, Mongolia, Korea, southern Siberia, and other adjacent areas. He also amassed influence in the Middle East and Europe as khagan.

By 1279, the Yuan conquest of the Song dynasty was completed, and Kublai became the first non-Han Emperor to rule all of China proper. The Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty or the Mongol invasion of China, beginning under Ögedei Khan[5] and completed under Kublai Khan, was the final step for the Mongols to rule the whole of continental East Asia under the Yuan dynasty. It is considered the Mongol Empire’s last great military achievement.

Post-mortem portrait of Kublai Khan; made to make him appear about 30 years younger. Attribution: Araniko, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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The imperial portrait of Kublai was part of an album of the portraits of Yuan emperors and empresses, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. White, the colour of the imperial costume of Kublai, was the imperial colour of the Yuan dynasty based on the Chinese philosophical concept of the Five Elements.[6]

The Five Elements[7] is a fivefold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields used to explain a wide array of phenomena, from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicinal drugs.


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Diagram of the interactions between the wuxing. The “generative” cycle is illustrated by grey arrows running clockwise on the outside of the circle, while the “destructive” or “conquering” cycle is represented by red arrows inside the circle.
Parnassus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

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The “Five Phases” are Fire, Water, Wood, Metal or Gold and Earth or Soil. This order of presentation is known as the “Days of the Week” sequence. In the order of “mutual generation”, they are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. In the order of “mutual overcoming”, they are Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, and Metal.[8] The system of five phases was used for describing interactions and relationships between phenomena.

Kublai Khan distinguished himself from his predecessors by ruling through an administrative apparatus that respected and embraced the local customs of conquered peoples instead of by force alone.

His subjugation of the Song Dynasty in southern China made him the first Mongol to rule over the entire country and led to a long period of prosperity for the empire. However, internal political strife, discriminatory social policies and numerous ill-fated military campaigns would ultimately undermine the long-term viability of his Yuan Dynasty.[9]

During Kublai Khan’s reign, the Mongol Empire expanded to its largest size, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Korean peninsula. There were setbacks along the way, including a series of campaigns with mixed results in South East Asia and two failed invasions (see below) of Japan in 1274 and 1281. Kublai, the last of the great Mongol rulers, died of illness exacerbated by his repeated overindulgence in food and alcohol; his tomb has never been found[10].

In Europe, the name of the Emperor, Kublai Khan, and his capital in China, Xanadu, became synonymous with wealth, luxury, trade, exotic spices, silks, and animals. However, for the Chinese and Japanese, they saw the Emperor slightly differently. Kublai Khan was a foreigner, a Mongol, invader, and he was met with military resistance. Nevertheless, Kublai Khan managed to build a reputation as a wise, benevolent ruler and left an indelible print on Chinese culture[11].

Failed Conquest of Japan

  • 5th October 1274: Around 1,000 soldiers of the Mongol army land on the Japanese island of Tsushima, the first attack of Kublai Khan’s Mongol invasion of Japan.
  • 29th July 1279: Five emissaries dispatched by Kublai Khan from the Mongol Yuan dynasty were beheaded by Japan.
  • 21st May 1281: Kublai Khan’s second invasion of Japan began with an attack on Tsushima Island but met fierce resistance, and his troops were forced to withdraw.

In his search for gold, Kublai Khan twice attempted to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281 when major military efforts were taken to conquer the Japanese archipelago after the submission of the Korean kingdom of Goryeo to vassaldom[13]. Ultimately a failure, the invasion attempts are of macro-historical importance because they set a limit on Mongol expansion and rank as nation-defining events in the history of Japan. The invasions are referred to in many works of fiction and are the earliest events for which the word kamikaze (“divine wind”) was widely used, originating from the two typhoons faced by the Yuan fleets. The invasions were one of the earliest cases of gunpowder warfare outside of China. One of the most notable technological innovations during the war was using explosive, hand-thrown bombs.[14]

Conquest of China
As the grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai was given a small area of northern China to rule. Kublai was very interested in the culture of the Chinese. He studied the philosophies of Ancient China, such as Confucianism and Buddhism[15], which stood him in good stead upon becoming Emperor.

As a young boy, Kublai was taught the art of warfare and became a skilled warrior and hunter. He also was exposed to many elements of Chinese culture, which he grew to admire.[16] In his early years, through frequent contacts with the Chinese, Kublai became aware of the potential of the Chinese literati as his future political allies. As early as 1242, he had begun to summon men of culture to his quarters in Karakorum in the Gobi Desert to offer counsel on political affairs, including the famous Buddho-Taoist Liu Ping-Chung, who advised him on the Confucian principles of government and the application of Chinese methods for administrative and economic reforms. The opinions of these cultured people became dominant in Kublai’s thinking as he began to ascend in national politics.[17]

Kublai Khan completed the conquest of China (1279), which Genghis Khan had started in 1211. He thus became the first Yuan ruler of the whole of China. Kublai was also the overlord of all the other Mongol dominions, which included areas as diverse as that of the Golden Horde in southern Russia, the Il-Khanate of Persia (present-day Iran), and the steppe heartlands where Mongol princes were still living the traditional nomadic life.

To govern China, with its long and individual political and cultural history, demanded statecraft of a special order.[18] Kublai was enamoured and highly influenced by Chinese culture. He told his advisors to use “feng shui” to decide on a site for his new capital city. The chosen site, which lay at a strategic point between the Mongolian steppes and the more fertile Chinese plains, was called Shang-tu (or known as “Xanadu” to European chroniclers)[19]. Although he used some Chinese in low positions in the government, Kublai relegated most Chinese subjects to the lowest class of society and often appointed foreigners, such as the Venetian explorer Marco Polo, to take important positions over Chinese officials. After failed expeditions against Japan and Java, his Mongol dynasty declined toward the end of his reign and was completely overthrown by the Chinese after his death[20].

The Asia Society says[21] that Kublai Khan made a census of the population, dividing the people into four categories:

  • Mongols.
  • Miscellaneous aliens (which included West Asian Muslims who performed important services for the Mongols).
  • North Chinese called Han people, those who had been under the Chin state and their descendants, including Chinese, Jurchen, Khitans and Loreans; and finally
  • Southern Chinese, subjects of the Southern Sung, whom the Mongols considered the least trustworthy.

A group of people riding horses

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Painting of Kublai Khan on a hunting expedition, by Han Chinese court artist Liu Guandao, c. 1280.
Liu Guandao, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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The Mongol rule over the Chinese became increasingly unstable after Kublai Khan died, and succession became a problem. Between 1308 and 1333, there were no less than eight emperors, two of whom were assassinated. In the absence of an accepted rule of succession, the death of an Emperor caused violent conflict among the different prospective rulers. Crazily, just when the empire needed strong central control to stay in power, the Mongols wasted their efforts battling amongst themselves over succession. When the military leaders no longer had a central figure to whom to give their loyalty, they used the troops for farming their land, not to fight, increasing their own power and reducing the morale of the troops. The end of the Yuan rule in China came “by expulsion and not by absorption.[22]

A poster of a group of people

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Promotional advertisement demonstrating Legend of Yuan Empire Founder Fair Use claimed
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 3.0; additional terms may apply.

“The Legend of Kublai Khan”[23]
The Legend of Kublai Khan, also known as Legend of Yuan Empire Founder, was a Chinese television series based on the life of Kublai Khan and the events leading to the establishment of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty in China.

The series started production in 2011. It premiered at the 2013 Shanghai Television Festival from 11th to 13th June 2013 and was first aired on HBS from 21st to 30th July 2013. The series was directed by Tsui Siu-ming and starred Hu Jun and Charmaine Sheh as Kublai Khan and Chabi, along with Cai Wenyan, Wu Yue, Tang Guoqiang, Gao Fa, Steven Ma and Ray Lui in supporting roles.

Kublai Khan, a prolific poet himself, would no doubt be pleased that he was immortalised in a poem by one of the most famous poets of all time, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem “Kubla Khan”, completed in 1797 and published in 1816 by Coleridge[24], starts with these words:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A 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.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

According to Coleridge’s preface to Kubla Khan, the poem was composed one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream after reading a work describing Shangdu, the summer capital of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty of China founded by Kublai Khan (Emperor Shizu of Yuan). Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by “a person from Porlock[25].

The poem could not be completed according to its original 200 to 300-line plan as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. He left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when at the prompting of Lord Byron, it was finally published.[26]

In Conclusion
Kublai Khan was well known for his acceptance of different religions and reorganised the government, establishing three separate branches to deal with civilian affairs, to supervise the military, and to keep a check on major officials. He greatly supported trade, science and arts and introduced the use of paper money in his Empire to facilitate trade dealings.

Until a few years before Kublai’s birth, the Mongols were illiterate, possessing no experience in statecraft prior to the establishment of the Yuan Empire. Concepts such as the taxation of urban societies were unknown to them until brought to their attention by their foreign advisers, upon whom they relied heavily.

Kublai established effective transportation systems within the empire and ordered the creation of a new alphabet for the Mongol language. A much-respected ruler, his reign lasted for over three decades over the period in which he established a vast, thriving empire.[27]

The lasting legacy is that he achieved what his grandfather failed to do – he conquered China.

Sources and Further Reading

[Cropped] Statue of Kublai Khan in Sükhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar. Together with Ögedei Khan‘s, and the much larger Genghis Khans statues, it forms a statue complex dedicated to the Mongol Empire.
Attribution: Chinneeb, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Also named Khubilai or Kubla, temple name Shizu. Source:

  2. Explanation: A regnal name, or regnant name or reign name, is the name used by monarchs and popes during their reigns and, subsequently, historically. Since ancient times, some monarchs have chosen to use a different name from their original name when they accede to the monarchy. Source: . See also:
  3. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 893.
  4. Source: Kublai (18 December 1271), 建國號詔》 [Edict to Establish the Name of the State], 元典章 [Statutes of Yuan] (in Classical Chinese)
  5. Ögedei Khan (c. 1186 – 11th December 1241) was the third son of Genghis Khan and second khagan-emperor of the Mongol Empire.
  6. Source: Chen, Yuan Julian (2014). “”Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China.” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 44 (2014): 325–364″. Journal of Song-Yuan Studies. 44 (1): 325–364, cited at:
  7. Described at:
  8. References: (1) Deng Yu; Zhu Shuanli; Xu Peng; Deng Hai (2000). [Characteristics and a New English Translation of Wu Xing and Yin-Yang]. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. 20 (12): 937, (2) Deng Yu et al; Fresh Translator of Zang Xiang Fractal five System, Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine; 1999, and (3) Deng Yu et al, TCM Fractal Sets, Journal of Mathematical Medicine, 1999, 12[3], 264-265
  9. Citation and Acknowledgement:
  10. Source:
  11. Source:
  12. Source:
  13. Explanation: A vassal state is any state that has a mutual obligation to a superior state or empire, in a status similar to that of a vassal in the feudal system in medieval Europe. Vassal states were common among the empires of the Near East, dating back to the era of the Egyptian, Hittite and Mitanni conflict, as well as ancient China. Source:
  14. Source: Turnbull, Stephen (19 February 2013). The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281. Osprey Publishing. pp. 41–42. ISBN 978-1-4728-0045-9.
  15. Source:
  16. Source:
  17. Source:
  18. Citation and Acknowledgement:
  19. Source:
  20. Source:
  21. At:
  22. Source:
  23. Source:
  24. Source: The poem is sometimes given the subtitles “A Vision in a Dream” and “A Fragment.”
  25. Porlock refers to literary allusions about unwanted intruders who disrupt inspired creativity.
  26. According to Wikipedia, at:
  27. Source:

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