The Legacy of Kublai Khan

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Genghis Khan is a historical figure that is famous throughout the world; of all the nomad peoples who emerged from the steppes of Central Asia, none have left an impact as that of the fierce Mongols and their fearsome leader. However, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (also spelt Kubilai Khan) left a legacy just as important as his grandfather’s.

In around 1260 CE, the Mongol Empire had begun to divide itself into several different areas, although it was theoretically all one state. Kublai, the son of Tolui, was sent to China and became, effectively, a Chinese emperor, whereas his brother, Huleggu established an independent state in what is modern day Iran.

It is here in China that Kublai’s legacy can be felt. In China, Kublai became involved in a prolonged conflict with the Sung rulers. By 1279-80, the entire country surrendered itself to his rule and Kublai made his capitol at Beijing (Peking). The Mongol (or Yuan) Dynasty did not last for long, less than a hundred years from I280 to I368, and they were the last foreigners to rule China.

However, Kublai encouraged the Chinese to preserve their culture and traditions and advocated for Chinese artists and scholars to join his court. Some accepted this invitation, others refused, not wanting to serve a foreign master. Those that accepted were known as the innovators whilst those that refused and lived in retirement were named the traditionalists, thus representing the two principal trends of Yuan artworks.

Kublai had also tried to invade and conquer Japan. According to Marco Polo, who visited the Mongol court, Kublai had heard of the great wealth the Chipango and assembled many ships and sent the expedition under two commanders named Abacan and Vonsanichin. Unfortunately, they only found villages and plains but no cities. On returning to Kublai, they were shipwrecked and the Japanese surrounded them.  The Mongols, unable to send any message to Kublai, surrendered after seven months on condition that their lives be spared, and the Japanese agreed on the condition that they had to spend the rest of their lives in Japan.

On return to China, two of the commanders that had managed to avoid the Japanese, were beheaded. The other was sent to an unknown island where the hide of a recently skinned buffalo was sewn tightly around his hands. As the hide dries it becomes so tight that it cannot be removed. The commander was then abandoned to die an excruciating death. With this, he cannot help himself in any way and can take sustenance only by throwing himself face down on the earth to eat the grass. Kublai had tried several times to send ambassadors to the Japanese court before his invasion, and afterwards, but met with no success. His ambassadors were either killed or scorned.

In 1259, Kublai succeeded his brother Mongke as the Great Khan. In 1294 Kublai died, but he left a great legacy to his descendants; unlike other rulers he encouraged that the traditional institutions should continue, cities were built and new technologies exploited for the benefit of his subjects. He proved himself to be a fair and just ruler, even while ruling with an iron fist.


Chow, Fong (1968) A Dragon-Boat Regatta, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, The Metropolitan Museum.

Herriott, J. Homer (1945) Folklore from Marco Polo: Japan, California Folklore Quarterly, Western States Folklore Society.


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