May 5

1260 Kublai Khan becomes Mongol Emperor

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. Thus did Samuel Coleridge, in one of the greatest drug-induced poems of the 19th century, describe the summer palace of Kublai Khan, Mongol emperor and founder of the Yuan dynasty that ruled China for for the next century.

Kublai was the grandson of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, born in 1215. Though Mongol military genius would create an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific and encompass a fifth of the land on the planet, its primitive political structure created civil war and fracture every time a ruler died. After a period of strife with rival princes, Kublai achieved pre-eminence in 1260 as Great Khan and set out to add to his empire by conquering China. He defeated the forces of the Song dynasty and made China, sophisticated, populous and rich, his centre of operations — this vexed the western Mongols who complained that Kublai was becoming sinified and forgetting the good old Mongol ways. Rebellions by ambitious Mongol princes were quashed and the leaders were smothered to death in heavy carpets (to avoid the taboo of shedding royal blood).

As a Mongol leader, Kublai was hooked on ever-more conquest; he succeeded in subduing Korea and Burma but his attempts to invade Vietnam, Java, and Japan ended in disaster. His reign in China saw the strengthening of the state, the repair of infrastructure damaged in war, progress in military technology and science, and contact with Europe. He used Muslims, Christians (including the Venetian Polo family) and other minorities in his civil service but he tended to persecute Daoists and forbade some Muslim and Jewish ritual practices.

Kublai died, gouty and obese, in 1294 but the founder of a unified China with its capital at Beijing.

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