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  • James Houser

December 18, 1271 - Kublai Khan & the Yuan Dynasty

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 18, 1271. The Mongols have gone native. After decades of conquest and exploitation ranging from Korea to Poland, from Iran to Vietnam, the former nomads are starting to get used to this whole “civilization” thing. On this date, one of the Mongol rulers takes the unprecedented step of declaring himself Emperor of China, and the progenitor of the brand-new Yuan Dynasty. His name is Kublai Khan.

The Mongol Empire was the largest land empire the world had ever seen. From the moment that a local warlord named Temujin united the disparate tribes of the Eurasian wastes and declared himself to be Chinggis (Genghiz) Khan, something like a human avalanche exploded out into the civilized lands of the world. By the time of Chinggis’s death in 1227, the Mongols had overrun most of northern China and Central Asia and were already planning further conquests. The Mongol hordes had already built themselves up as a force to be feared, but it was after their founder’s death that the war machine would swallow up much of the world.

The Mongol military system was a combination of two powerful factors: the natural fighting ability of steppe nomads and the revolutionary organization of Chinggis Khan. Steppe nomads were always dangerous opponents for the more civilized peoples of the world simply due to their environment and way of life. The nomads were expert horsemen, with Mongol children famously learning to ride almost before they learned to walk, and due to years of hunting on the open plains were able to cast powerful arrows from their strong composite bows.

The Mongols had another large advantage in their ability to mobilize almost their entire male population for war. Whereas a society like, say, China or Germany had many men working in fields, mills, and blacksmith shops to support one soldier, the Mongols had no fields to till and no businesses to run. Their women and children were equally capable of herding their livestock and gathering berries from the scrubland. In short, the Mongols weren’t just natural fighters but were able to fight in much larger numbers than their civilized targets.

But the tribes of the steppe were not a naturally united people. The things that made them dangerous made them just as threatening to each other, and hundreds of small tribes vied for dominance over the desolate, dry scrublands to the north of China. It took a figure like Temujin, the outcast son of a dead war chief, to use diplomacy, persuasion and military brilliance to forge a coherent nation out of these diverse and scattered tribes. This was a process that took most of his adult life, and he was only launching raids into the lands of the city-dwellers when he was well past middle age.

Chinggis Khan was not the first or last strong war chief to lead an alliance of tribes. What made him unique among the great nomad warlords was in the revolutionary changes he brought to the Mongol organization. Chinggis Khan took the unprecedented step of erasing old tribal organizations and blood ties, grouping the Mongols into squads of 10, companies of 100, regiments of 1000, and divisions (tumen) of 10,000 households. Each household would supply its warrior with what he needed, and the commanders of the tumen were Chinggis Khan’s personally loyal subordinates. All the old tribal confederations had broken apart due to ethnic or inter-tribal conflict. Chinggis Khan’s erasure of these outside loyalties made the Mongols personally loyal to him and his family, as well as turning them into a highly organized and efficient system for war.

With this system of control, Chinggis Khan also created a command and planning network that rivaled anything until the modern era – maybe unmatched even until Napoleon’s own staff 600 years later. (Napoleon took great inspiration from Chinggis Khan’s organizational methods.) Chinggis appointed loyal and capable generals to lead his tumens, and assigned broad objectives while allowing his subordinates maximum freedom in carrying them out. This allowed the Mongol army to operate on a much broader front with more complicated maneuvers than any other force of the Medieval era, displayed when Chinggis Khan destroyed the Khwarezmian Persian Empire in 1219. Large, widely separated armies moved and coordinated across hundreds of miles, using a complex system of signal flares and advance planning to stay in contact. Chinggis Khan went so far as to INVENT the Mongol written language to better enable the carrying of orders and dispatches.

Finally, the Mongols had to deal with a problem that always vexed nomads: the large, walled cities against which their horses and arrows were useless. While Chinggis got creative during his conquest of northern China – at one point diverting the waters of a local river to flood out a major fortress – this wasn’t exactly a sustainable or repeatable option. So as the Mongols conquered, they absorbed and incorporated conquered peoples into their armies, especially the extremely capable Chinese siege engineers. Chinese engineers, with their knowledge of gunpowder, sapping, trebuchet construction and trench works, would be instrumental in the capture of places like Baghdad, Teheran, Damascus and Kiev. Chinggis Khan’s strategy was simple and brilliant: if I don’t know how to do it, I’ll find someone who does.

All of this combined turned the Mongol military machine into a whirlwind that was the terror of anyone who encountered it. As wonderful as Chinggis Khan’s system was, its consequences were BRUTAL. The day Chinggis Khan arrived at your city was always going to be one of the worst experiences of your life. During the invasion of the Khwarezmian empire, in only a few years, the Mongols probably killed almost two million people. They completely gutted the great Silk Road cities of Urgench, Bukhara, Merv and Samarkand and made a once-vibrant state into a bloody waste.

At the Kalka River a few years later, two of Chinggis Khan’s generals ran into the Russians and began much the same process. Horrific scenes of rape, murder, pillage and destruction rippled out along with the Mongol hordes. To estimate the ultimate human cost of the Mongol conquests is impossible, but it has been pitched as high as 55 million – that is, close to World War II. The violence of the Mongols was one of the great human disasters of the world.

There was one critical flaw to the Mongol steamroller of death. Occasionally, this unstoppable tide of slaughter and horror would…halt. For a time. It was like the machine suddenly powered down. This red, screaming, flashing nightmare would grow dark and still for a time – until someone got their hands back on the controls and it started up again.

Why did the Mongol military juggernaut suddenly stop every once in a while? Why, the bane of all nations in medieval times: the good old SUCCESSION CRISIS. Whenever the Great Khan died, all his sons and brothers and nephews and cousins had to stop whatever they were doing and go back to Mongolia. There, in the heartland of the Mongol Empire, they would hash out who got what. This was a process to which the Mongol women were surprisingly critical; Chinggis Khan’s wife Borte, for instance, was the main reason why the first big crisis – which happened after her husband’s death - went so smoothly. But in the future, things would not be so calm.

Chinggis Khan was on campaign in China in 1227 when he fell ill and died. Though the exact cause is unclear – it is possible he was wounded, or he was poisoned – it’s likely that he was just an old man whose body was worn out from years of hardship. He was probably about 72. So the question is, who can fill the shoes of the Great Khan? No one was WORTHY, not by a long shot, but let’s see what comes out of this.

Chinggis Khan wasn’t ignorant of the possibility of a succession crisis. He had four legitimate sons – Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei, and Tolui. Actually, not so sure about Jochi. Waaaaaaay back during the rise of Chinggis Khan, his wife Borte had been temporarily kidnapped by a rival tribe. After he had fought and rescued her, Chinggis discovered that she was pregnant. While he accepted this fact, and accepted the boy Jochi as his own, the uncertain parentage of Chinggis Khan’s oldest “son” was a potential dividing point for the rest of the Mongol elite, especially the hotheaded Chagatai.

After several ruckuses during his last decade, and many disputes between his sons, Chinggis got his children to accept Ogedei as his successor to the throne of Great Khan. But to placate his contentious sons and prevent further issues from breaking out in the future, Chinggis apportioned each son a section of territory to rule as a Khan, while Ogedei would be the Great Khan over all. This expedient was a solution to the immediate problem of feuding children fighting over Dad’s inheritance, but of course had the potential to cause major issues down the road, which it did. But for now, Jochi received the far west near Russia; Chagatai received Central Asia; and Tolui received Mongolia itself. Ogedei, of course, would be supreme over all.

Chinggis’s death was ill-timed, since Jochi had died only the year before, leaving his lands up for dispute. Nevertheless, Borte was able to corral her rowdy children. It took two years after Chinggis’s death for the hotheaded younger men to sort out their differences, as their armies waited in the heartlands of Mongolia to resume their conquests. By 1229, then, the decisions were made. Ogedei was Great Khan, Jochi’s son Batu would lead the conquest of Russia, and Chagatai and Tolui would receive their agreed-upon territories. The Mongol conquest had been on pause for two years, and now it erupted again.

This, in the end, was the issue that would fragment the Mongol Empire. Every time a Great Khan died, the descendants of Chinggis Khan would return to the heart of Mongolia to decide who the new Great Khan would be. They would bring their armies with them, too; no one wanted to go back to Mongolia only to be the ONLY dude who hadn’t brought his own army back. You were never going to get selected as Great Khan then. While the female descendants of Chinggis Khan carefully stewarded the process, it only went smoothly as long as everyone agreed, and in some cases it could take years. You had to wait for all the claimants to get back from the frontiers of the empire, where in many cases they were in the middle of a war, to start the long diplomatic and ceremonial process and divide up the empire once again.

Again, it only worked as long as everyone was happy. But as there were more and more Mongol princes, the odds that would someone would be left out in the cold grew each time a Great Khan passed away. So while the world breathed a sigh or relief when the hellish lights of the Mongol steamroller went dark, the Mongol Empire held its breath. Would this be the moment when the succession crisis tore them apart?

And I mean it. The death of a Great Khan at the wrong moment could change history forever! In 1241, Batu Khan – the son of Jochi – had crushed the armies of Poland and Hungary in Eastern Europe and was planning a campaign into Germany and Italy to see this man who called himself Pope. He was on the verge of steamrolling the Mongol hordes into Europe at the height of the Middle Ages. Then news arrived that Ogedei Khan had died, and Batu had to stop his invasion, turn around, and send his army racing to Mongolia to take part in the great haggling that was to come. Only the inopportune death of Ogedei stopped the Mongol conquest of Europe – no army of knights ever put together could have halted the horde of militarized nomadic warriors.

The system finally broke with the death of Mongke Khan in 1259. By now, the succession of Great Khan had fallen to the sons of Tolui: the deceased Mongke, Kublai, Hulegu and Ariq Boke. The leading candidate was Mongke’s brother and Chinggis Khan’s grandson, the thoughtful and complex Kublai. Kublai Khan was unlike most other Mongols due to his fascination and passion for Chinese culture, and had spent most of his formative years leading the Mongol campaigns in that country. China had always been the chief focus of the Mongol conquest, but due to its size and the resistance of its population had still not been fully conquered after fifty years of warfare.

But now the Mongol succession system had finally broken down. Ariq Boke, the brother of Mongke and Kublai who had been left in charge in Mongolia, decided that he should be the Great Khan instead. In the absence of his brothers on the frontier with their armies (Kublai was in China, and Hulegu was conquering Iraq and the Middle East) Ariq had ingratiated himself to the court nobles and administrators of the Mongol Empire. Despite both Kublai and Hulegu being more experienced and older than Ariq Boke, his political skills had won over the Mongol elite.

In 1260, Ariq Boke had himself declared Great Khan – just as a few miles away, Kublai’s supporters did the same. Hulegu and Kublai both declared war on Ariq Boke, and soon a full-fledged Mongol civil war had begun. It would continue for four years, with Ariq Boke finally defeated in 1264.

But this was the breaking point. By being forced to ally with the descendants of Jochi to the west and Hulegu to the south, Kublai Khan had virtually lost control over much of the Mongol Empire. While the other Khans still acknowledged his supremacy, he could no longer rely on them as a base of power. Indeed, this was probably always going to happen at one point or another. The Mongol Empire was certainly impressive for its size, but this very size made it nearly impossible to rule from a single location. While Kublai Khan still ruled over the whole Mongol Empire in theory, in practice the various Khans ruled semi-independently, and they would only grow apart as time went on.

In the west, the real divergence came when the sons of Jochi converted to Islam. Berke Khan ruled the Mongol-conquered lands of Russia, presided over what became known as the “Golden Horde,” and had taken it personally when Hulegu’s Mongols had sacked and destroyed the great Islamic cultural center of Baghdad. Soon these two Khans were at war over religious and territorial issues, beginning the final fracturing of the Mongol Empire.

Meanwhile, in the east, Kublai was able to concentrate on the conquest of China. While his armies were made up of Mongols, so they were never going to be exactly merciful, Kublai had a lighter hand than his cousins and ancestors, and his reign was *less bad* than theirs. Plus, he had a much more difficult task. The dense and complex terrain of southern China had so many walled cities, large rivers and high mountains that the Mongols could no longer use their old tactics. Soon Kublai’s armies had as many infantry as cavalry, and increasingly came to rely on Chinese expertise and administration in planning campaigns and governing conquered provinces.

As Kublai conquered China, it is fair to say that China conquered him. Kublai had always nursed a soft spot for the fascinating brilliance and complexity of China, even taking the time to write his own works of Chinese poetry. Though they’re apparently not very GOOD poetry, to be fair, he was trying. Kublai’s growing infatuation with the China he ruled made him a much more diplomatic and cunning Great Khan than any of his predecessors, and marked him out from other Mongol rulers as a tolerant and passionate ruler, a promoter of learning and culture.

Kublai’s personal beliefs and inclanations aside, there is a strong argument that the Mongols had to become Chinese to conquer China. With millions of citizens in extremely dense and complex agricultural systems and cities, only the Chinese themselves had the ability or education to staff Kublai’s bureaucracies. To supply and support the Mongol military machine on its campaigns in China also required logistics and transportation over rivers and from large agricultural regions, areas in which the Mongols had almost no expertise. The result of all this was a growing Chinese influence on the Mongol government structure. Of course, there was also the problem of effectively governing the millions of Chinese.

With his power base effectively reduced to China and Mongolia itself, and the Chinese administrators and farmers becoming increasingly important to the foundations of his rule, Kublai Khan soon followed his impulses and surrendered to the allure of China. On December 18, 1271, Kublai declared the foundation of a new Chinese dynasty: the Yuan Dynasty, with himself as the King of All Under Heaven.

It was a momentous occasion. Kublai was no longer just a Mongol ruler, but also a Chinese Emperor. By 1279, his armies had completed the conquest of China, and there were no more competitors to his new title. Kublai set his new capital in the ruins of old Zhongdu, a city his grandfather Chinggis Khan had destroyed almost 70 years ago. Chinggis had not founded cities, but destroyed them. By founding a great Chinese city, Kublai showed how much the Mongol practices of rule had changed since the days of his grandfather. Though Kublai always kept a patch of Mongolian steppe grass in his palace garden to remind him where he came from, there was no mistaking the new Khanbaliq as anything other than a Chinese city. Khanbaliq, before long, became the power center and great trade port of northern China. Even the Chinese would never abandon the city of Kublai Khan, and in 1402 they would rechristen it as Beijing.

Though the Yuan Dynasty would last a hundred years before its overthrow by the ethnic Chinese, Kublai Khan’s embrace of China marked a sharp break from his Mongol past. All over the world, the Mongol dynasties went native. The descendants of Hulegu in Persia would convert to Islam and become more and more Persian as time went on, while the Golden Horde of southern Russia would find much more in common with its Tatar subordinates than their Mongol ancestors. The Mongol Empire did not collapse, or fall to conquest, or even destroy itself. It simply moved on, enjoying the fruits of conquest.

In a way, this was always the inevitable result of the Mongol conquests. As the Russians say, “You can build a throne of bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long.” Eventually, the conquering has to end, and you have to rule. But the Mongols had never existed to do anything but conquer. They had come into existence as Chinggis Khan’s instrument of military power, and he had reconfigured their whole society into a powerful killing machine. Thus, ruling a settled land – something their society was never designed for - meant losing something of themselves in the process. It was necessary, but it cost them their fighting edge.

The Mongols, in the end, were conquered in the spirit by the lands they had conquered with the sword.

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