The fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and the grandson of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan was born in 1215. He was the son of Genghis Khan’s fourth son, Tolui. Kublai Khan is also credited with establishing the Yuan Dynasty in China when he became the first non-Chinese emperor to conquer all of China. Kublai Khan achieved legendary status for his many accomplishments, but his welcoming of Marco Polo to China at Xanadu ranks among his most famous acts.
Before attaining the title of Great Khan, Kublai was given immense responsibility ruling over most of China. He immersed himself in Chinese culture and studied its customs—behavior that was pleasing to the conquered Chinese, but not to traditional Mongols. Kublai helped to support his elder brother Mongke Khan, but he died during a battle between Taoists and Buddhists. Kublai was next in line to rule the empire, but his younger brother Ariq Boke tried to seize the title for himself. Civil war ensued, but eventually Kublai Khan achieved the throne; he pardoned his brother, but executed his brother’s supporters.
Kublai Khan was greatly respected in China in spite of his outsider status. He worked to repair China’s roadways and buildings. He introduced paper currency and safeguarded religious freedoms. Kublai Khan also had his Mongolian capital moved to the present-day city of Beijing. His summer capital was at Xanadu and historians believe that is where he welcomed Marco Polo to China. Polo’s reports of China helped to open the door to the East and increase trade between Europe and Asia.
Like his grandfather, Kublai Khan used his military might to increase his empire. He gained more lands in present-day Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet so that his empire stretched across two continents. Under his rule, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Ural Mountains of Russia to the Pacific Ocean and incorporated much of Persia and even Afghanistan. His leadership was considered sophisticated for the times as evidenced by his religious tolerance and wisdom. Some of his failures included the eventual devaluation of his paper currency system as well as two failed invasions of Japan.
Kublai Khan’s reign lasted for thirty-four years. He died in 1294. His successor was his grandson Temur Khan. His divide and rule system of governance was successfully employed throughout the empire. Considered one of the great world leaders, Kublai Khan is also considered one of the Mongol Empire’s last great rulers as the empire began to decline and split up after his death. Kublai Khan’s life, religious tolerance, and his friendship for Marco Polo have been subjects of study for both history and art.