Qubilai Khan: Yuan Emperor of the World

Qubilai Khan (also known by the temple name Shizu) was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, from 1260 to 1294, and the founder of the Yuan dynasty in China.1 However, he did not achieve universal recognition, and only the Ilkhanid regime of Iran remained fully supportive of him. He transcended his steppe origins and evolved a multi-ethnic, multicultural administration that united China and incorporated greater Iran.


The earliest reference to Qubilai concerns a coming-of-age ceremony, yaghlamishi,2 performed by his grandfather, Chinggis, in 1224, Bechin Yil (Year of the Monkey). It occurred after his first hunting expedition near the River Ili with his brother, Hulegu, when the brothers had made their first kill, an antelope and a rabbit. Their grandfather, following Mongol tradition, smeared fat from the killed animals onto the boys’ middle fingers and greased their thumbs. Rashid al-Din recounts this tale, claiming that during the anointing whereas Qubilai held Chinggis Khan’s thumb gently, the young Hulegu grabbed his grandfather’s proffered digit harshly, eliciting a cry of pained surprise from the old man.3 This early anecdote makes plain that the young boys’ links with the steppe and Mongol traditions were encouraged and kept alive by, among others, their grandfather. However, what also becomes clear is that these boys were very aware and influenced by the wider world beyond the steppe. Their mother, Sorqoqtani Beki, ensured that her sons had mastered the traditional Mongol skills of riding, hunting, archery and combat while also schooling them in literature, the arts and sciences, for which task she employed Chinese scholars, a Persian tutor from the northern Iranian city of Qazvin and an Uyghur named Tolochu to teach them Mongolian literary skills. Her boys were well versed in those skills that would enable them to flourish confidently in the lands south of the Eurasian steppe.

Sorqoqtani Beki

The remarkable rise to power of the Toluid brothers, Mongke (d.1259), Qubilai (d.1294), Hulegu (d.1265) and Ariq Buqa (d.1266), grandsons of Chinggis Khan, owes much to the dedication and ambition of their mother, Sorqoqtani Beki. Her resistance to re-marriage after the death of her husband Tolui Khan, the youngest son of Chinggis Khan, and her exploitation of family connections, along with her willingness to become involved in political intrigue and family rivalry, allowed her sons to reap rich political rewards. In particular it was her second-born son, Qubilai, who profited immeasurably from her experience and attention, and her influence on Qubilai is acknowledged in the sources. Sorqoqtani’s upbringing had been steeped in politics, and she nurtured its intrigues and machinations in her blood. She was determined that her sons were likewise fully cognisant of political reality as they grew and that they developed political antennae to watch the world around them as it grew. By remaining single after her husband’s death in 1233, she was able to concentrate on developing her political and personal connections and building cross-family networks, which might have been difficult had she been married to a major political-player such as Guyuk. While her husband Tolui had been alive and busy campaigning, she had been left alone to educate and raise her four sons. After his death she concentrated on ensuring that her sons benefitted from the connections she was forging. She kept a low profile and during the reign of Toregene Khatun (r.1241–6) she began to ‘cultivate the goodwill of the nobles through gifts and beneficence’, she ‘planted love and affection in everyone’s heart and soul’ and ‘through generosity and favours, she kept the troops and foreigners obedient and on her side’.4 She was an astute political operator, a consummate negotiator and formidable opponent. ‘If I were to see among the race of women another woman like this, I should say that the race of women is far superior to that of men.’5 So intoned Mutanabbi, a poet invoked both by Bar Hebraeus and Juwayni, though Juwayni is also effusive in his own praise.

Now in the management and education of all her sons, in the administration of affairs of state, in the maintenance of dignity and prestige and in the execution of business, Beki, by the nicety of her judgement and discrimination, constructed such a basis and for the strengthening of these edifices laid such a foundation that no turban-wearer (kulah-dar) would have been capable of the like or could have dealt with these matters with the like brilliance.6

Having resisted the pressure to marry Guyuk Khan, Sorqoqtani concentrated instead on her appanage Zhending in Hebei province, educating her sons through example in the arts of statecraft and administration. She taught her sons to respect and nurture the land and their subjects and ensured that the boys received a comprehensive and practical education.

Sorqoqtani guided Qubilai in the administration of his own appanage of Xingzhou, aware that any experiences from these formative years of his youth could well determine the style of governance he would adopt in later years. She firmly believed that the success and failures that Qubilai endured in his early years would father the choices and decisions he would make later in life. She instilled a strong sense of tolerance and appreciation of multiculturalism in her son from the beginning, even appointing a Buddhist Tangut wet nurse, a woman who the young boy was not to forget.7


After the final surrender of the Jurchen in 1236, the Great Qa’an, Ogodai, awarded the Toluid boys and their mother lands in Hebei province to which 80,000 tents were attached. These 80,000 families would of course be supportive of their new masters and would look to them for support against the indigenous settled communities of Khitans, Jurchens and northern Chinese. Most of these tents would be traditionalist Turco-Mongols generally harbouring the biases and prejudices of their steppe upbringing expressed by distain for, ignorance of and lack of interest in the indigenous, settled inhabitants of the province whether rural peasants or urban sophisticates. These settled people and their communities were viewed as a source of income and their towns and farms as ripe for the picking and ready for exploitation. Settled people themselves had traditionally been viewed from the steppe as simply slaves for labour, servitude or sex, though the potential that artisans might possess had been recognised and hence such skilled workers were beginning to be prized for their craftsmanship and for their resale value as booty.

Now that the Turco-Mongols were arriving as settlers rather than invaders, attitudes were expected to change, but change was slow and such chauvinist attitudes were deeply entrenched. Such a profound transformation was generational and would also have to have demonstrable advantages. The generation to which Qubilai belonged was at the vanguard to this metamorphosis. Their fathers and grandfathers had been the warriors; they had been born into the hardship of the steppe and they had had to fight their way out of it. Now they wanted their reward and they enjoyed feasting on the prizes they felt they had earned. Qubilai and his generation had been born into power and luxury. They had not experienced the deprivation of the steppe. They had grown up with the trappings of ‘civilisation’. They had enjoyed education and learning and the company of the Empire’s elite. Their attitudes had been honed and cultivated in a different cultural petri dish than that of their fathers and most of their subjects.

Qubilai received 10,000 tents, but his early attempts at administering his land and subjects resulted in a disastrous abandonment of the lands and a general exodus by the farmers and peasants. The farms and the peasantry had not necessarily been sacked and plundered, but the tax regime imposed on them was far too harsh and imposed without consultation or cooperation. The basic predatory attitude had not been abandoned and therefore the Chinese had reacted in a wholly predictable fashion, fleeing southward out of reach of the Mongol hordes. It was only the timely intervention of Qubilai’s mother that prevented bankruptcy as his tax returns steadily dwindled. Sorqoqtani Beki sent Qubilai Chinese officials who enacted tax and administrative reforms and taught him lessons that were to remain with him the rest of his life and which were to inform his subsequent principles and ideas of government and conquest. Any attempt to impose a pastoral economy on the Chinese was forgotten.

With an army of Chinese, Khitan, Tibetan, Muslim and Mongol councillors, Qubilai set up an administration to help him govern, recognising that he would have to accommodate the Chinese and assimilate their institutions and practices with those of his councillors. He therefore fostered an agrarian economy and set about building an irrigation system with a planned agricultural policy that would make use of improved tools and imported seeds. What he began as a youth in northern China, he would continue elsewhere whenever the opportunity arose, and the conquest of Dali was that welcome opportunity to translate his lessons and early experiences into reality.


After having successfully absorbed northern China and the Jurchen administration into the Empire, with the fulsome support of the Khitans and with the covert aid and tacit support of the Song, the Chinggisids under Mongke and later under Qubilai, began slowly to erode the confidence of the Song emperors and the trust of their subjects. For four decades, from 1235 until 1276, military confrontation, constant harassment, financial inducements, propaganda and political machinations were employed to undermine the Song state at every opportunity and at all levels. Defections were encouraged and not punished, and Song confidence leaked and threatened to start haemorrhaging. In the 1250s Qubilai directed a military campaign with his leading general, Uriyangqadai Noyan (1199–1271),8 against the Kingdom of Dali, modern-day Yunnan.9 His aim was to split the Song defences and force them to divert manpower from their northern and western frontlines to the south. Dali was inhabited by non-Han tribespeople who harboured little loyalty or attachment towards their oppressive and imperious Chinese neighbours, the very people whom Guo Baoyu, a Han Chinese strategist and adviser to Chinggis Khan had once advised employing against the Song. ‘The bravery and fierceness of the tribes of the southwest should be put to use by first subjugating them, and then using them to surround the territory.’10 Qubilai had heeded his Chinese strategists, Yao Shu and Liu Bingzhong, who had cautioned him against using excessive force against the native population of Yunnan when he moved his forces south. Qubilai was receptive to their adamant insistence that he should resist all provocation and desist from any general massacres. His mother had taught him the value of patience, listening and learning. Yao Shu narrated the story of the successful Song general Cao Bin, who had launched an assault on the city of Nanjing. The general had captured the city without bloodshed or even killing ‘so much as a single person; the markets did not alter their opening, and it was as if the proper overlord had returned’.11 Today Yunnan province remains as a testament to Qubilai’s foresight as does the honour in which Sayyid ʿAjal, the first Yuan governor, is still held to this day.

The Dali Stele, erected in 1304 to commemorate Qubilai Khan’s conquest of Yunnan, is a monument to the success that the policies introduced by the Yuan administration achieved for this long neglected province.12 The Kingdom of Dali was absorbed into the Yuan Empire. Retribution for the murder of the first Chinggisid envoys sent to negotiate peace with the king, Duan Zhishan, was limited to Gao Taixiang, the official deemed responsible. Eventually the renowned Sayyid ʿAjal Shams al-Din ʿOmar Bokhari (d.1279) was appointed governor of the province and he instigated the integration of Dali into the Empire, with the introduction of planned irrigation and agricultural policies and the establishment of a network of schools, mosques and temples for the promotion of free education. He was so successful that he is still revered throughout Yunnan, now a fully integrated part of China. Qubilai Khan’s designs to absorb Dali should be compared with his brother Hulegu’s vision of bringing Iran fully into the embrace of the Empire. Both brothers minimised military action, both stressed the advantages of the wider market, both emphasised the presence of an aggressive exploitative neighbour and both sought the cooperation of the native people of the region. No love was lost when the people of Yunnan joined the Chinggisids and turned on their former exploiters, the Chinese, just as when Hulegu turned his forces on the Arab Caliph of Baghdad, there was little dissent from the Iranians called upon to support him. The imperial dream and the Chinggisid revolution burned their beacons brightly in Iran and in Dali.

Yunnan was Qubilai’s first opportunity to practise those administrative and imperial policies that he had learnt from his mother and that he had been applying in those lands originally assigned to him.13 His successes were interrupted by the premature death of his brother Mongke Qa’an, struck down by pestilence, and his own elevation to the imperial throne. His successful campaign in the south-west is a testament to his mother’s perseverance and emphasis on education and learning.14


To clarify his intentions and signal his own transformation, Qubilai established a new seat of government.15 Qaraqorum, Ogodai’s capital, was a steppe metropolis which stood as an urban oasis in a desert of rolling steppe lands. It had the vibrancy and dynamism of a multicultural and multi-ethnic city, but it lacked a hinterland which could provide for a burgeoning population. Qubilai built his new capital on the plains south-east of the steppe lands of his birth, close enough to maintain his links with his nomadic past and far enough away to assure his Chinese subjects of his commitment to them. He allowed the principles of geomancy, or feng shui, to dictate the most propitious location for the placement of tombs, residences and palaces, while the actual construction, started in 1267, was undertaken by a mixed team of nationalities, celebrating and reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Dadu known also as Khanbaliq, ‘Home of the Khan’.

The capital’s dual name, Turkish Khanbaliq and Chinese Dadu, reflects the powerful influences that were vying for supremacy in all aspects of the new state’s administration and image. Qubilai had the layout of his city designed along traditional Chinese lines with symmetrical east–west and north–south axes, 11 three-storey tower gates allowing access and a clear separation between the imperial city where the royal family resided, then firstly an inner wall within which government officials lived and worked and secondly an outer wall marking the area designated for ordinary citizens of the city. Such an urban layout would have been very familiar to his Chinese subjects as would the buildings within the Imperial city of a reception hall for foreign embassies and the royal palace with quarters for the khan himself, and for his consorts and concubines. The imperial city was criss-crossed by canals, bridges, lakes and gardens, all features found in traditional grand Chinese residences. This was a reflection of the Great Khan and the world in which he now dwelt; the implication that he had abandoned his Mongol heritage was undermined by the presence of traditional Mongol gers within the confines of the imperial city. His sons lived close by their father in their own gers adjacent to the palace, and when one of his wives became pregnant he ensured that the last stages of the childbirth were experienced in the traditional felt-covered dwelling. In the Great Khan’s sleeping quarters, curtains and screens made of ermine skins and animal pelts were hung as reminders of his nomadic past, though hunting was a pastime the khan enjoyed throughout his life. In modern-day Mongolia, the practice of erecting gers in the gardens or yards of the townhouses is still widely observed.

If his new capital had become largely Chinese, Qubilai made sure that Mongol traditions were kept alive and practised in his original capital, Shangdu (known as Kaiping until 1263), in which he had first been proclaimed Qa’an on 5 May 1260. It was the city that Marco Polo visited in the 1270s and that subsequently achieved universal fame and acclaim as Xanadu. Shangdu had a closer association with its nomadic past and continued to serve as a summer hunting preserve with one source claiming 500 birds of prey.

Khanbaliq became the commercial hub of the Empire with waves of Arabs, Persians, Turks and especially Koreans (Goryeo) flooding its bustling bazaars and mazes of lanes and alleys. ‘Hawkers chase after little, /In muddy alleys traverse the deep. / Them carrying goods and shouting all day, /A hundred sounds are heard.’16 The central district clumped around the Drum and Bell Towers were a string of markets selling silk, leather, hats of great variety, geese, ducks, beads, jewellery, ironware and rice noodles, while the Yangshi Jiaotou (Sheep Market), or Yangjiaoshi (Ram’s Horn Market), inside the western Shuncheng Gate was teeming with sheep, horses, oxen, camels, hinnies and other domesticated animals. There were book markets and paper markets, and the city soon became the largest handicraft centre in northern China.17 Marco Polo reckoned that 1,000 cart-loads of silk entered the city every day, and small industries fed the frantic markets 24 hours a day processing the silk, rug weaving, wicker manufacturing and innumerable other light and heavy crafts. Arms manufacture was an important business, as was wine making and the production of distilled liquor, alaji. Mining from the provinces gave rise to a multitude of trades and fed a thousand small furnaces blackening the capital’s skies and walls. Coal was the major fuel for domestic and industrial needs, and its use inspired the capital’s poets. ‘Below-ground pits are dainty and coals are red’, ‘With warm pits and coal furnaces, fragrant beans are cooked’, ‘In the deep night I take a stroll east of the jade railings./On incense ashes and borneol cinders, fire is still red.’18

However, all was not roses in this vibrant urban cosmopolis, which fed not only itself and its sprawling suburbs but a vast united China, an empire beyond and the slave trade. Though a thriving aspect of the cities of western Asia, the slave trade was conducted openly at the ‘Human Market’, part of Khanbaliq’s famous Ram’s Horn Market. Whereas many of the slaves sold in the west were captured as a result of military conflicts and were destined to become mamluks, the slaves in the ‘Human Market’ were there because of abject poverty or the indebtedness of their parents. The notorious ‘lamb loan’ (yanggaoli), a particularly obnoxious form of exploitative usury, led to great misfortune and the desperate trafficking of children and wives.19 The qukou or ‘the captured and ordered about’ were sold alongside horses, sheep and other livestock in ‘several tiers [and] […] seated according to class’.20 They were afforded no rights over their possessions, bodies or future, and qukou deemed ‘guilty’ of a perceived offence could be legally executed by their owner. The killing of an ‘innocent’ qukou might result in the accused slave-owner receiving 87 blows.21 Slaves were a major constituent of Khanbaliq life and only the poorest households did not use them. Ahmad Fanakati (1242–82), the state’s Khitan chief minister, had 7,000.

Mongke Khan had originally ordered that the polymath Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201–74) be sent from his ‘detention’ in the Ismaʿili stronghold of Alamut to his capital in Qaraqorum, where the scientist justly famous for his astronomical knowledge could reside and conduct his research for the benefit of the Qa’an’s imperial court. Qubilai now wished to fulfil that ambition, at least in part by overseeing the construction of an observatory in his new capital. Though without the resources of Baghdad and Alamut nearby to furnish a library for his proposed observatory, the renovated Hanlinyuan could provide the literary treasures to fire his astronomical centre. Dispatched especially from Iran, Jamal al-Din cooperated with the engineer and astronomer Guo Shoujing22 in setting up this famous astronomical centre and devising tables, charts, maps with colour coding, grids and a new Chinese calendar. The solid structure along with some of the original instruments has survived until now and can be visited at the original site, a pleasant walk from Tiananmen Square.

A great deal of documentary evidence exists about the minutiae of Khanbaliq administrative, commercial and cultural life, and Chen Gaohua’s book23 on the capital provides a tantalising glimpse of what is available. Chen has trawled a wealth of varied sources including scrolls, manuscripts, stela and records to unearth the quotations, data, insights and images of this medieval powerhouse.


Qubilai’s legacy remains bright because apart from bringing China considerable international prestige and glory, his long reign oversaw a much welcomed period of comparative political stability, regional unity, and economic and cultural prosperity. Just as in the west, where his brother Hulegu had received the cooperation of the indigenous people in recognition of his re-establishment of ancient Iran, in the east Qubilai was recognised as having united China and his throne was given legitimacy and his dynasty awarded its special place in Chinese imperial history. Much has been written of the Song Loyalists, but their movement and their influence has been vastly exaggerated and their numbers had dwindled to insignificance by the end of Qubilai’s reign. One reason for their apparent success is that they retired to their farms in China’s vast interior, where they were able to write and issue long tracts of anti-Yuan propaganda without interference or interruption. They did this for the simple reason that they had nothing else to do and the majority of China’s intellectual classes were too busy re-building the country after so many decades of war and centuries of disunity and conflict.

Qubilai sought to heal some of China’s damaging internal disputes and exploit the euphoria engendered by the unity between north and south. He sought the close assistance of Liu Bingzhong, a Buddhist monk well versed in Confucianism, but skilled most notably in mathematics, astronomy, calligraphy and painting. Liu assumed the task of governing Qubilai’s lands in the north along traditional Chinese lines, restoring ancient Chinese ceremonies and rituals and establishing the legal and financial institutions, including the tax regimes that underpinned the imperial system. However, Qubilai refused to contemplate the reintroduction of the civil service examinations that had dominated all aspects of Chinese government for centuries. He refused to be dissuaded from this action because by their very nature such examinations would immediately exclude non-Chinese, and Qubilai was adamant that no one should be excluded from the opportunity of serving in the government. Qubilai wanted to integrate his new China into a global multi-ethnic empire in which he would be able to reward those who had demonstrated loyalty to his Chinggisid ideals. The Chinggisids had always practised as a meritocracy, and many had risen from obscurity to the highest positions of power. The abolition of the exam system was seen as a positive move to empower more people rather than a negative ruling to restrict the Chinese.

Though the abolition of the civil service examination system has often been portrayed as being an anti-Chinese measure designed to exclude native Chinese from local and national government, the reality simply meant that the entrance qualifications were opened to far more people than had previously even thought of applying. The abolition abolished a bias. No one was now excluded from the civil service because of a lack of knowledge of Chinese literature and philosophy.

The much vaunted racial preference league table is often used to demonstrate how the abolition of the civil exams excluded Chinese from the administration. The reality was simply that many people other than indigenous Chinese were now employed in government service, whereas before such work was exclusively for the Chinese. The table which is often quoted in regards to employment policies under the Yuan does not indicate any racial discrimination or favouritism. It reflects the growth of the Empire and the degree of perceived loyalty based on length of service. Choice jobs were often awarded to those who were perceived as most trustworthy and loyal. It was the Turco-Mongol tribesmen who were first to flock to Chinggis Khan’s banner, and those early supporters were generously rewarded with positions of power and prestige. As his armies moved south, east and west Chinggis encountered the sedentary world and needed administrators and officials to deal with the new unfolding reality. Many of those who answered his call for help were the Uyghurs, Muslims and other Semuren, who subsequently held on to the top administrative positions. The same story occurred as lands fell to the Chinggisids and the people were incorporated into the growing administration. The result was the appearance of a roughly four-tier system of appointments, with the southern Chinese assigned to the lowliest ranks since they had been the last to join the swelling army of bureaucrats. A system apparently weighted in favour of Muslims and Persians was also created by the Persian sources, which tended to concentrate on their co-religionists and fellow Persians and again created an impression of a society where these minorities held undue influence.


Qubilai has often been portrayed as a Chinese emperor attempting to reconcile his Mongol background with his new role and identity while at the same time retaining the loyalty of his traditional Mongol following. However, this view is to misunderstand not only Qubilai’s considerable achievements but also his aims and aspirations. His new capital, Khanbaliq, with his magnificent new palace and his garden containing a traditional Mongol tent or ger has often been ridiculed. Again the contempt is misplaced and rebounds on the observer who exhibits only a failure to comprehend the nature of the Yuan vision. The Toluids, whom Qubilai led and epitomised, aspired to create a global empire encompassing the full extent of their rule. The Chinggisid armies patrolled the frontiers of Asian, Islamic, European and maritime states. Their soldiers wore the dress of a multitude of different people. Their kitchens employed chefs from around the world, and the cuisine that was served catered to every conceivable taste, as just a quick flick through the magnificent pages of Tugh Temur’s culinary guide soon reveals. The Toluids created a multi-ethnic and more significantly a multicultural empire that combined and synthesised and ultimately transcended any one culture to create a unique and richer culture reflecting all its constituent parts. Qubilai Khan did not preside over a Chinese court nor a Mongol court nor a Persian or Muslim court. He was the emperor of a Yuan court that combined and grew out of the many parts that constituted the whole. Qubilai presided over a court of many colours, and he saw his job as to maintain harmony and peace and to reconcile the many conflicts that would inevitably arise.


The festering rivalry between Buddhist and Daoist monks had undermined many attempts at governing the north, and the disputes between the two sides frequently erupted into violence. Mongke Qa’an had originally charged his younger brother with solving this intractable problem and Qubilai was able to demonstrate his political skills in tackling this issue. The two religions shared some basic beliefs and the Buddhists had made liberal use of Daoist terminology when translating very basic theological concepts from their Buddhist texts into Chinese. The disputes were not essentially over doctrine but concerned far more practical matters such as land rights, ownership of property and access to government patronage. Power and access to power rather than ideology or doctrinal disputes were the cause of the violence that the religious leaders inflicted on one anothers’ followers. The appropriate doctrinal argument could always be found and invoked as an excuse for the violence. The Buddhists claimed that the historical figure of the Buddha pre-dated Laozi, Daoism’s founder, and therefore he could claim superiority over the Chinese philosopher. These claims were dismissed since the Daoists countered that Laozi had in fact travelled to the ‘Western Regions’, India and Transoxiana, where he had assumed various emanations, one of which was the Buddha. The teachings that he had then espoused speaking through the mouth of the Buddha were a simplistic form of his original wisdom designed to be understood by the less sophisticated and less educated peoples of those regions.

In 1258 Qubilai forced the two sides together at a conference where their leading theorists could debate before him. Such religious debates had been a favourite pastime for generations of Chinggisid princes.24 However, by 1258 Qubilai had already formed a strong religious leaning of his own and the young Tibetan Buddhist monk, Phags-pa, was already installed at court, where Qubilai and his chief wife Chabi received religious instruction. It was this highly influential monk who devised a script with which to write the Mongolian language, hitherto usually written down in Uyghur script, and which actually became the official script of the state. With the two warring sides together under one roof, Qubilai charged the Daoists with demonstrating before the assembled audience the various magical powers they professed to have. When they failed to change the weather, foretell the future or even cure various diseases, Qubilai declared the Daoists the losers and as punishment 17 leading Daoists had their heads publicly shaved and were then forced to convert to Buddhism. In addition various Buddhist temples that had been occupied by Daoists were liberated and a number of properties that had been confiscated by Daoists from the Buddhists were returned to their rightful owners. No other action was taken and the Daoists were neither banned nor restricted from practising.

When Mongke Qa’an assumed the throne he presided over a united empire, but the factions had been forced into a marriage built on bloodshed. Mongke’s first task had been to strengthen his power base and to build an unassailable Toluid state. He had sent his brother Hulegu west to quell any dissent in the Islamic world and to this end he was able to manipulate the Persian/Arab rivalry already destabilising the region. Welcomed by Iranians eager to be absorbed into a greater trading market that promised not only commercial potential for its entrepreneurs, opportunists and adventurers, the Empire offered stability and security and an end to the military rule and anarchy that had prevailed over much of the country. Iranians flocked to Hulegu’s banner and willingly participated first in the destruction of the blasphemous Ismaʿilis and then in the fall of Baghdad, replacing the weak and corrupt Arab caliph with a Persian governor. In 1258 the fall of Baghdad saw the demise of the old order, the ʿAbbasid Caliphate, and the rise of the new, the Ilkhanate (1258–1335).

In the east a similar movement was also taking shape with equally portentious results. In 1276 Qubilai ordered the taking of Hangzhou and, as in Iran, the old order, the Song, gave way for the new, the Yuan dynasty. Baghdad fell after a fire fight, though pestilence accounted for most of the appallingly high death rate, whereas Hangzhou fell without a fight and there was a peaceful transition of power. In Iran Hulegu was generally welcomed and the only military confrontation was with the despised Ismaʿilis. Song China went down fighting, but not to the degree that has often been portrayed. In fact, other than some very famous confrontations, such as the battle for the city of Xiangyang, the gateway to the Yangzi plain, which was defended by the Song general Cao Youwen until it capitulated in 1236, and the battles in Sichuan province, many of the Mongols’ victories were the result of defections. The timely collaboration of the Song chancellor, Jia Sidao (1213–75), led to the final submission of Chengdu, which opened the road to Dali.25 Political in-fighting, peasant revolts and uprisings in the region of modern Fujian and Hunan, and the importation of new military technology from Persia expertly deployed by Qubilai led inexorably to the slow collapse of the Song. With the establishment of the Ilkhanate following the fall of Baghdad in 1258, Persian opportunists and adventurers, as well as administrators, merchants and technicians, had flocked to the east and eagerly signed up to assist Qubilai in his wars with the Song and the Ogodaid traditionalists under Qaidu fighting for Turkestan and fomenting unrest in Khorasan.

Bayan Noyan (1236–95)

Bayan Noyan,26 a young general and court favourite who had a string of military victories to his name, was awarded the prestigious task of overseeing the surrender of the Song capital. He had been born and raised in Turkestan and had accompanied his father, the great amir Kokochu of the Ba’arin tribe, when he moved west with Hulegu’s armies. He served Hulegu in Iran until dispatched east by Abaqa at the request of Qubilai. After the success of his campaign against Xiangyang, he was appointed commander of Qubilai’s imperial forces, coinciding with the official founding of the Yuan dynasty in 1273. After dispatching the Empress Dowager northward to Khanbaliq in 1276, he was faced with the problem of appointing a city administration for the Yuan’s cultural capital. It is probable that he recruited some Khitans and possibly Iranian notables to positions of power and influence in the city as the establishment of the Phoenix Mosque in 1281 and a number of Persian tombstones would seem to suggest27 and he would have built a strong network of friends, colleagues and contacts from his youth and early manhood in Turkestan and Iran.


If Qubilai achieved comparative success at home, his adventures abroad did not reflect this flush of triumph. As early as 1256 his entanglement in the jungles of Annan spelt early disaster just as his concurrent absorption of the Kingdom of Dali into the Yuan state became an enduring success. The other success, often overlooked, was the absorption of Goryeo into the Empire and the use of the Korean Peninsula as a springboard for naval missions and as a source of manpower. Goryeo became a vassal state in 1260 but after a further intervention in 1273, the Koreans became more fully integrated into the Yuan state. Three raids on Pagan, in 1277, 1283 and 1287, eventually saw Mongol rule in the Irrawaddy Delta, and a puppet king in Bagan, the capital of the Pagan Kingdom. Failure to even land successfully on the Japanese mainland became a costly humiliation and a perceived defeat that undermined the cultivated image of the Chinggisid military machine as an almost irresistible force of nature. Both attempts to attack Japan, in 1274 and in 1281, failed, and even though the reasons for these failures – the use of flat-bottomed river boats and the appearance of the Kamikaze winds – were understood, avoidable and easily correctible, no third attempt was mounted.


Fig. 10: Qubilai twice attacked Japan but was defeated by the Kamikaze winds and bad planning

The erosion of that image of invincibility had begun with the defeat by the armies of the Mamluk commander Qutuz on 3 September 1260 at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. Although the battle did not involve Hulegu’s main military forces and the defeat in no way altered the military balance in the area, the symbolic impact resounded globally and the image of a vanquished Chinggisid army was powerful and compelling. Syria quickly became a battlefield as it was evident that the unstoppable had now been stopped.

Ayn Jalut coincided with the Chinggisid civil war, pitting brother against brother as those deeply entrenched ideologies that had long been maturing erupted in violence. Crowned by a quriltai hastily convened in Qaraqorum and encapsulating the aspirations, traditional beliefs, values and practices of the steppe, Ariq Buqa, the youngest of the Toluid brothers, had the backing of the Jochid Golden Horde of Russia and the disgruntled and vengeful Chaghadaids and Ogodaids of the Eurasian steppe and Turkestan. Against these reactionary forces, Qubilai was able to call forth the wealth and might of China. Even in these early years, the Chinese were able to recognise where their interests lay and that a victorious Ariq Buqa would be disastrous for China’s future. Once again the Song lent their support to the Chinggisids, and Qubilai was soon able to accept the surrender of his brother with apparent magnanimity.

However, when in 1266 Ariq Buqa died in questionable circumstances, many assumed Qubilai to be responsible. Ariq Buqa’s challenge to Qubilai was serious and has been greatly played down by the Toluid historians of Iran such as Mustawfi, Wassaf and Rashid al-Din. After Qubilai’s victory Chinggis Khan’s empire was irrevocably split. The split was not just between ambitious princes greedy for wealth, land and power but had far deeper roots. The war had been for the soul of the Empire, and with Qubilai Khan’s victory it was the progressive, dynamic forces that had been able to wed the cultures of Iran, China, Turan and the steppe into a rich union. The Toluids wove an intricate cultural weft with a commercial warp in a very diverse, dynamic and often sophisticated population. Ariq Buqa had united those reactionary forces who viewed the direction in which their leadership was moving with distaste and alarm. They viewed the sedentary world as being there to service their needs and to be exploited. They believed in the ascendancy of the steppe over the sown and the Great Yasa as supreme. The Toluids saw the Chinese and Persians as partners rather than as expendable subjects. This dichotomy not only divided the greater empire but would remain an issue and a bone of contention within the Toluid ranks as well, finally verbalised by Ghazan Khan at a time when the Yuan and the Ilkhanate were at their closest.

Qaidu Khan (1230–1301)

After Ariq Buqa’s death, the ‘Back to Basics’ banner was raised by a prince from the very much weakened House of Ogodai. Originally Qaidu Khan took up arms against Qubilai not only to challenge his right to be Great Khan and to claim that honour for himself but also to restore the ancestral rights of his humiliated forefathers who had suffered so cruelly at the hands of Qubilai’s brother Mongke. Qaidu Khan wished to claim those honours and rights of which his ‘family’ felt they had wrongly and unjustly been deprived. However, Qaidu’s cause was soon subsumed to the greater cause and all those who resented the ascendancy of the House of Tolui and deemed that the Toluid accommodation with the settled, sedentary empires amounted to a blasphemous betrayal of the ideals and beliefs of Chinggis Khan and the yasa of the Mongols. Qaidu became a major challenge to Qubilai’s moral authority rather than a threat to his throne. In 1289 Qaidu briefly occupied Qaraqorum and some believe that this was the extent of his ambition. The Ogodaid Qa’ans had ruled the lands of the north and their writ had never encompassed China and Iran.

Qaidu’s rebellion effectively split the Toluid Empire in two, separating the Ilkhanate from the Yuan state by a region of instability and lawlessness that was dangerous for merchants and inaccessible to government officials or diplomats. When Marco Polo travelled east to return with his father to the court of Qubilai Khan, he was forced to travel along the high and very inhospitable passes of the Pamir Mountains along the Wakhan Corridor. The mountainous corridor wove a craggy path between the hostile lands controlled by the Chaghadaid khans and to the south the inaccessible valleys which hid the lairs of the Qar’aunas and the lands of the Delhi Sultanate. On his return in 1292, taking with him his valuable human cargo of a princess and blushing bride originally intended for Arghun Ilkhan, Marco Polo, like so many others travelling between the Yuan and the Ilkhanate, was forced to brave the treacherous seas of the Spice Route. Though the Song’s former superintendent of shipping, Pu Shougeng, a Muslim with family connections with the western Islamic world, had happily jumped ship and now served and spread Qubilai’s interests throughout the Indian Ocean, those shipping lanes remained extremely hazardous, time-consuming and an unsatisfactory alternative to the overland Silk Road through Turkestan.


Between 1278 and 1294 Qubilai managed to force commercial cooperation on some parts of the Malay Peninsula, southern India and the Khmer Kingdom. However, Qubilai was preoccupied with the conquest of Java, for which he committed 20,000–30,000 men on a punitive raid against Singhasari (1293). At a cost of 3,000 Yuan fighters’ lives, the Majapahit king forced his withdrawal. Despite the attraction that the historian Wassaf claims Java and Southeast Asia held for the emperor, Qubilai held only the two northern jungle Thai states of Sukhotai and Chiangmai at the time of his death.

It is a portion of the portions of the ocean full of accumulated curiosities and abundant wealth, with plenty of all kinds of treasures and precious jewels, and charming products of ingenuity, and honourable gifts of merchandise, displaying the contrivances of the incomparable one. That country and all around it is fragrant with the odours of aloe-wood and cloves, and plains and precincts are vocal with the notes of parrots, saying, ‘I am a garden, the shrubs of which are envied by the freshness of the garden of Paradise,’ etc., and so forth.28

One reason for the adventures in the southern seas was the ongoing war against his cousins in the north and west. Trade was the lifeblood of the Empire and if one artery was blocked another must be opened. If the merchants could not forge a way through the deserts of Turkestan, then their ships must brave the dangerous seas of the southern oceans. Transoxiana was held by hostile forces who were disrupting trade along the ancient Silk Road. The so-called Pax Mongolica had disintegrated as hostility between the rival Chinggisid factions intensified after the rise to power of Qubilai became a reality. Certainly diplomatic and official missions could not be guaranteed safe passage, but merchants on purely commercial business could often find a way and the yam system could still operate on a commercial basis. Pegolotti’s Merchant’s Handbook pertains to the final decades of the Yuan era c.1340, but it suggests that a sophisticated and established network of traders and merchants had been established by that time. However, the partial fall from grace of the Silk Road enlivened maritime trade.

As soon as word of the fall of Hangzhou and the surrender of the seals of the Song emperors had reached the south, the superintendent of the imperial fleet, Pu Shougeng, offered his fleet and his services to the Chinggisid khans, and his vessels opened up the Spice Route to the eager ortaqs and merchants of Qubilai Khan.


Qubilai probably oversaw the apex of his dynasty’s rule and unfortunately his successors had a hard if not impossible task to follow. Qubilai not only built the dynasty’s new capital, Khanbaliq, but with the help of Persian hydraulic engineers, he also created a new water supply for the city, which eventually became the Grand Canal between Khanbaliq and Hangzhou, linking north and south China in a very real sense and allowing trade to flourish along its 1,700 kilometres, the transport of rice in particular. But the slow descent into chaos and unravelling of Yuan rule allowed much of the Chinggisid legacy to be absorbed and assimilated with the Chinese psyche. Qubilai’s final years were marred by ill-health and depression brought on by family tragedy. In the 1280s there were two tragic deaths: the death of his beloved wife Chabi Khatun in 1281, which led to the emperor’s retreat from social contacts; and the premature death of his heir apparent, Zhenjin, in 1286 while the two were involved in an acrimonious and unresolved squabble. On Chabi’s suggestion Qubilai had married her younger niece, Nambui, who subsequently became Qubilai’s mouthpiece to the outer world while he sank into an alcohol-fuelled depression haunted by his military failures in Japan and Vietnam. The traditional Mongol diet, so rich in meat, combined with heavy drinking and his general despondency and lack of any exercise, resulted in gout and chronic obesity. A famous painting from 1280 by the Chinese court artist Liu Guandao captures the emperor dressed in distinct Mongolian-style furs over Chinese silk brocades showing early signs of the weight problems that would later contribute to his death from ill-health.


Fig. 11: Hangzhou’s Fengshan water bridge, the only standing remains of the Yuan city walls

Qubilai appreciated the fine arts and retained court painters, the most famous of whom is Zhao Mengfu, who initially resisted attempts to co-opt him to the Yuan court. Like others of the intellectual elite who considered themselves Song loyalists, Zhao Mengfu was fortunate that the Yuan emperors were very liberal and tolerant as far as the intellectual elite were concerned and the literati were generally free to develop and express themselves without government interference. The Yuan century saw landscape painters and the dramatic arts in particular as experiencing what has been described as a cultural golden age. There are some who credit this spirit of tolerance and liberalism to disinterest and plain ignorance, but this is not borne out by the evidence. Qubilai himself was a generous and appreciative patron of the arts, while such avowed Song loyalists and passive resisters as Zhou Mi, the art collector and journalist of Hangzhou, included Yuan administrators, Muslims and Semuren among his closest intimates. Though he sacrificed his family’s fortune for his principles, Zhou Mi made a comfortable living and pursued his collecting of art while cultivating friendships among the Yuan elite and maintaining devotion to Song loyalism at the same time.29

Qubilai was succeeded by his grandson, Zhenjin’s son Temur. The Empire had enjoyed its heyday under Qubilai, and after his death the Yuan went into a gradual, slow decline. When the Mongol army withdrew and retreated north to Qaraqorum, this armed camp did not comprise all the descendants, defenders and core administration of the Yuan state. It comprised merely the core upholders of the emperor’s power, while the vast majority of those who had defined themselves as subjects of the Chinggisid khans had long reconciled themselves to serving whoever would best serve their interests. It is revealing that one of the earlier rebellions that shook Quanzhou, the Empire’s gateway to the Indian Ocean, was instigated by local Persian malcontents.

The image of the Mongol hordes pouring from the steppe in the early 1200s and devastating the country over the next six decades prior to settling like a giant parasite and bleeding the country dry, before, finally, the heroic Chinese peoples rose up and expelled these loathsome barbarian invaders, driving them back to Mongolia from whence they had come c.1369, bears no resemblance to any reality. As we have seen, the conquest of China was gradual and involved diplomacy, negotiation, defection, changing alliances and political intrigue, as well as limited force of arms. The Yuan, as the Chinggisid dynasty was universally known, was accepted as a legitimate imperial Chinese dynasty and much of the vaunted cultural and spiritual resistance, whose support and numbers have been greatly overestimated, was ineffective and self-promoting. The Yuan imploded because the centre could not hold, but its fall was more a change of the guard than any kind of social, cultural or military upheaval. Certainly, there was no vast exodus of armies and people, no ‘retreat from St Petersburg’, and the new Ming masters were quick to honour the memory of their departed kings with the writing of the Yuanshi, the official recording of the previous dynasty by the new rulers, in keeping with ancient Chinese tradition.

Though Qubilai Khan’s successors could not achieve his stature or authority, the Yuan Qa’ans continued to exercise great power and political reach. Their influence was worldwide, the wealth of their courts legendary and their rule continued for over seven decades.

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