Kublai Khan — Founder of the Yuan Dynasty

Kublai Khan (1215 — 1294), the Emperor Shizu of Yuan, was an intelligent politician, and an exceptional militarist. 

 

He won over his brother and announced himself the Khan of the Mongol Empire, defeated the Song Dynasty, established the unified Yuan Dynasty, and respected Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianism as the official ideology of Yuan.

Kublai Khan was also the first nomadic emperor in the history of China, as a unified, national regime. Therefore, he played an important role in integrating Mongol Culture into Han Culture, and national amalgamation.

Portrait of Kublai Khan the Emperor Shizu of Yuan, By Artist Liu Guandao of the Yuan Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Early Life of Insightful Prince Kublai Khan

As one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, Kublai Khan was brave, smart, aggressive, and had participated in many battles, the same as his father, uncles, and brothers. 

However, unlike other of his brothers, Kublai invited and hired many Han scholars to teach him literature, history, and other Confucianism Classics.  

After his big brother, Mongke (1209 — 1259) won the throne and became Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai was trusted with more power and fief. 

Because of his familiarity and close relationship with the Han culture, Kublai was mainly in charge of the southern part of their kingdom and invasion of the Song Dynasty.

As a genius militarist, he successfully expanded their realm southward. 

During this period, Kublai married to his beautiful wife named Chabi, a noble girl that also contributed a lot in establishing the Yuan Dynasty.

Portrait of Queen Chabi, By Artist Liu Guandao of the Yuan Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Contention Over Throne and Establishment of Yuan Dynasty

A few years later, Mongke Khan died in a battle invading a city of the Song Empire. Because of his sudden death, he left no command regarding who should be the next Khan.   

 

At that time, Kublai was leading his army fighting against another city of the Song Empire. 

Soon, his wife Chabi sent him an emergency message saying that his younger brother was deploying troops, and was supported by some ministers to be the next Khan. She strongly suggested Kublai go back to Mongol and claim the throne as fast as he can. 

Therefore, Kublai hurried back to a newly built city in Mongolia and announced himself the new Khan. His younger brother that was strongly against Kublai’s acceptance of Han culture, soon claimed himself another Khan.

Afterward, nobles of the Mongol Empire started to choose sides, when Kublai Khan and his brother kept fighting for their validity.

This war over the throne had lasted for four years. Kublai Khan won in the end, and his younger brother was imprisoned since after. 

Then Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty, moved his capital to Beijing city, and he became the Emperor Shizu of Yuan. 

Painting of Emperor Kublai Khan's Hunting (Yuan Shi Zu Chu Lie Tu), By Artist Liu Guandao of the Yuan Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Emperor Kublai Khan and His Reign

Kublai Khan, now the Emperor Shizu of Yuan, thought highly of Confucianism, inherited many officials, and political systems of Song, and divided the whole nation into some provinces.

 

This Province System that he invented has been applied till today.

His government built many post houses, encouraged agriculture, and refined the transportation system. He also applied religious freedom policy which allowed all religions peacefully existed during his ruling period. 

Emperor Kublai Khan has been criticized for having initiated many invasive wars and slaughtered many lives in his early battles, however, his political talent, administration skills, respect for Confucianism, and freedom of religion were also praised.

He constructed a comprehensive administrative system and set a solid foundation for the big empire that he built. 

Banknote and Its Pringting Plate of the Yuan Dynasty — Tokyo Currency Museum (Photo by PHGCOM)

Dilemmas in Emperor Kublai Khan’s Late Years

In Emperor Kublai Khan’s 60s, his beloved queen Chabi passed away, which was a huge heartbreak for him. 

The first son of Emperor Kublai Khan and Queen Chabi was named Jingim, who was also the crown prince of the Yuan Empire.

Jingim was very talented and brave and was an expert in Confucianism, who had been highly appreciated and loved by his brilliant parents.

In Emperor Kublai Khan’s late years, a minister tried to frame up the crown prince. He pretended to act as a loyal official to Jingim and suggested Kublai Khan abdicate the throne. 

Blue Glaze Plate With Dragon Patterns of the Yuan Dynasty — Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The whole scheme made Emperor Kublai Khan quite angry and suspicious, so he commanded some smart officials to investigate if his beloved crown prince planned to seize power from him. 

The crown prince Jingim was scared and upset since this kind, young man didn’t want his father to doubt his love and loyalty.

Soon, he passed away because of fear and sadness.

Emperor Kublai Khan was quite grieved. Later, he nominated a son of Jingim as the new crown prince, who in a few years later ascended to the throne as Emperor Chengzong of Yuan (1265 — 1307), after Emperor Kublai Khan passed away old and sick. 

Carved Red Lacquer Plate with Narcissus Pattern of the Yuan Dynasty — The Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Frequent Changes of Emperors of the Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty that Emperor Kublai Khan built last for 97 years. In such a short period, however, it had reigned by 11 emperors in total.

Except that Kublai Khan was the emperor for 23 years, and the last emperor Toghon Temür had reigned for 38 years, the rest of the other emperors each ruled for very short terms.

There were many contentions among the ruling class over the throne, since the inherent system was not well established.

After Genghis Khan passed away, his sons had fought for the throne; then Kublai Khan also had to win the throne through wars against his brother. 

Emperor Kublai Khan’s grandson, the Emperor Chengzong of Yuan, passed away without an heir, which led to another round of contentions.

What's worse, some emperors were assassinated very soon after they became monarchs. Those instability and constant changes had been an important reason for the future decline of the Yuan Dynasty. 

Silver Wine Cup (Cha Bei) by Craftsman Zhu Bishan of the Yuan Dynasty — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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