Khubilai Khan and the New Mongol Empire – Genghis Khan

KHUBILAI KHAN’S GENIUS DERIVED from his recognition that he could not conquer all of China by mere force, no matter how large his army or sophisticated his weapons. Even without the military skills of his grandfather, he had clearly outsmarted everyone in his family. He possessed a keen strategic talent and the ability not merely to have good ideas but to implement them as well; he applied these skills to the management of his territory and, most important, to its expansion toward the south. In the end, he proved able to achieve through public politics what his grandfather had not been able to achieve through brute force—the conquest and unification of all China, the most populous country on earth. He won over the population by skillful manipulation of public opinion, in which martial prowess was an important, but not exclusive, factor. He built a Chinese capital, took Chinese names, created a Chinese dynasty, and set up a Chinese administration. He won control of China by appearing to be more Chinese than the Chinese, or at least more Chinese than the Sung.

For most of its history, China had been a great civilization but not a unified country. While the educated elite shared a written language, classic texts, artistic styles, and other types of high culture, the common people spoke entirely different languages in a constantly changing mosaic of national boundaries and temporary dynasties and ruling families. The educated elite clung to an unfulfilled dream of a united country with all people under a single government. Occasionally a leader or a family temporarily cobbled together several states and then offered, once again, the tantalizing hope of making a unified China a reality. In between these brief periods of unification, the concept of China lingered on as an ideal or a romantic image in the poetry, calligraphy, and essays of the Chinese intelligentsia.

Like no prior leader, Khubilai Khan offered these educated people the enticing opportunity to realize their nationalist desire. Despite his crude origin among steppe barbarians, he proved more capable of fulfilling that ancient dream than the Sung rulers. Everything he did seemed calculated to convince the Chinese people that Heaven had conferred its Mandate unmistakably on him alone, and, in due time, the old dynasty of the Sung would fall since it no longer had the necessary vitality.

Khubilai Khan seemed to recognize that he faced many of the same problems of his grandfather at the time of the original unification of the steppe tribes; namely, how to organize a large number of disparate people into a single cohesive political entity. Although Genghis Khan had faced the problem with a collection of tribes smaller than a hundred thousand each, Khubilai Khan faced the same problem with countries of many millions each. Like Genghis Khan two generations earlier, Khubilai Khan began the arduous process of state building around a core ethnic identity, but for Khubilai that core cultural identity would be Chinese, not Mongol. He had to win the loyal support of the Chinese people, and he had to rebuild or, in many cases, invent institutions to unify disparate people into a viable and strong working whole.

In his struggle for supremacy against his brother Arik Boke in 1260, Khubilai had taken a Chinese title that was a translation of a Mongol one, but in 1264 he modified his reign name to Zhiyuan or Chih-yuan, meaning “complete beginning,” and later in 1271, he used this to become the basis of the dynastic name of Da Yuan, meaning “great origins” or “great beginnings,” by which the Mongol dynasty became officially known in Chinese history. The new name meant not only a new beginning for his Chinese subjects, but it also signified a new beginning for his Mongol ones as well. Khubilai was no Genghis Khan, but he had embarked upon a venture no less daunting than his grandfather’s.

As emperor and founder of a new dynasty, Khubilai sought to sinicize his image and thereby make it not merely acceptable, but alluring, to his Chinese subjects. In 1263, Khubilai ordered the building of an ancestral temple for his family. He commissioned his ministers to conduct traditional Chinese ceremonies honoring the family’s ancestors, but, perhaps indicative of the usual Mongol reluctance to avoid anything associated with death, he personally stayed well away from them. By the following year, he erected a series of Chinese-style ancestral tablets to his ancestors. In 1277, after declaring the new Mongol dynasty, he posthumously conferred Chinese names on his ancestors and built a larger temple with eight chambers: one for the founders of the family, Yesugei Baatar and Hoelun, another for Genghis Khan, one for each of Genghis Khan’s four sons, and one each for Guyuk Khan and Mongke Khan. In the new official version of the family history, Jochi, whose family had been the most loyal ally to Khubilai’s lineage, was fully recognized as a legitimate family member. Just as Mongke had posthumously elevated their father, Tolui, to the office of Great Khan, Khubilai conferred the office of Chinese emperor on him. He ordered portraits made of all of them in Chinese style so that they looked more like Mandarin sages than Mongol warriors.

Khubilai acknowledged the utility of both a strong army and good propaganda, but the third element of his strategy came from good administration and policy. Without necessarily following Confucian principles, that had high appeal to the Chinese upper class but less importance to the common people, he strove to install an orderly system of efficient government that could help him build popular support and de-emphasize the foreign origin of his rule. Toward this goal, he appointed Pacification Commissioners to help restore good relations with Han Chinese in newly conquered territory. The commissioners began by repairing the damage of war and prior neglect to public buildings such as temples, shrines, and structures of deep emotional or symbolic value to the population.

To appear as a powerful Chinese leader, Khubilai needed an impressive court located in a real city, not a peripatetic tent court nor the ad hoc structures erected at Shangdu (Xanadu), in modern Inner Mongolia. The place held special importance for him because he had first been proclaimed Great Khan at the khuriltai there, but it had no obvious advantages. Not only was that capital located in a nomadic zone, which the Chinese found quite alien and barbaric, but it had also been the traditional staging area used by his grandfather in the raiding and looting of Chinese cities. Khubilai sought to disassociate himself from the less desirable aspects of that history.

While keeping Shangdu as a summer home and a hunting preserve, he commissioned the building of another city, a real Chinese-style imperial capital, farther south at a place better situated to exploit the agricultural wealth of the lands along the Yellow River. He chose the site of the former Jurched capital of Zhongdu, which had been conquered by Genghis Khan in 1215, the year of Khubilai’s birth. In 1272, Khubilai ordered the building of his new capital, and he connected it by canal to the Yellow River. The Mongols called the place Khanbalik, the City of the Khan. His Chinese subjects called it Dadu, the Great Capital, and it grew into the modern capital of Beijing. Khubilai brought in Muslim architects and Central Asian craftsmen to design his city in a new style that offered more of a compromise between the tastes of the nomadic steppe dwellers and the sedentary civilization.

In contrast to the maze of winding alleys in most Chinese cities of the era, Khubilai’s capital had broad, straight streets run on a north-south axis with east-west streets perpendicular to them; the guards at one gate could see straight through the city to the guards at the opposite gate. From the imperial palace, they built boulevards, more to accommodate the horses and military maneuvers of the Mongols than the wheelbarrows or handcarts of the Chinese laborers. The boulevards stretched wide enough for nine horsemen to gallop abreast through the city in case the native people rose up against their foreign rulers.

Furthering the Mongol interest in profits from international trade, Khubilai Khan designated sections of the city for Middle Eastern and Mongol populations as well as for people from all over what is today China. The city was host to merchants from as far away as Italy, India, and North Africa. Where so many men lingered, as Marco Polo pointed out in great detail, large numbers of prostitutes gathered in their own districts to serve them. Scholars and doctors came from the Middle East to practice their trades. Roman Catholic, Nestorian, and Buddhist priests joined their Taoist and Confucian counterparts already practicing in China. Muslim clerics, Indian mystics, and, in some parts of Mongol China, Jewish rabbis added to the mixture of people and ideas that thronged the empire. Far larger than Karakorum, but with many of the same internationalist principles, the city was a true world capital and fit to be capital of the world.

Ultimately, at the heart of the city, however, Khubilai created a Mongol haven where few foreigners, including Chinese, could enter. Behind high walls and guarded by Mongol warriors, the royal family and court continued to live as Mongols. The large open areas for animals in the middle of the city had no precedent in Chinese culture. This Forbidden City constituted a miniature steppe created in the middle of the Mongol capital. During the Mongol era, the whole complex of the Forbidden City was filled with gers, where members of the court often preferred to live, eat, and sleep. Pregnant wives of the khan made sure that their children were born in a ger, and the children received their school lessons in the ger as they grew up. While Khubilai and his successors maintained public lives as Chinese emperors, behind the high walls of their Forbidden City, they continued to live as steppe Mongols.

When the Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone visited the Mongol territories in the 1320s, he described the Forbidden City in Khanbalik: “Within the precincts of the said palace imperial, there is a most beautiful mount, set and replenished with trees, for which cause it is called the Green Mount, having a most royal and sumptuous palace standing thereupon, in which, for the most part, the great Can is resident.” In a passage that sounds very close to earlier descriptions of Karakorum, he wrote, “Upon the one side of the said mount there is a great lake, whereupon a most stately bridge is built, in which lake is great abundance of geese, ducks, and all kinds of water-fowl; and in the wood growing upon the mount there is a great store of all birds, and wild beasts.”

The wooden palace built by Khubilai Khan seemed to have the same basic plan as the one at Karakorum. Khubilai Khan installed mechanical peacocks in his palace; they could spread their tails and cry out in a manner reminiscent of Guillaume Boucher’s angel on the Silver Tree in the palace in Karakorum. Khubilai probably brought the magnificent silver tree with him from the Karakorum palace, and he installed at least part of it in Khanbalik. As Marco Polo described it, “in a certain part of the hall near where the Great Kaan holds his table, there is set a large and very beautiful piece of workmanship in the form of a square coffer, or buffet, about three paces each way, exquisitely wrought with figures of animals, finely carved and gilt.” The internal operation also resembled that of the Silver Tree: “The middle is hollow, and in it stands a great vessel of pure gold . . . and at each corner of the great vessel is one of similar size, and from the former the wine or beverage flavored with fine and costly spices is drawn off into the latter.”

Inside the confines of their Forbidden City, Khubilai and his family continued to act as Mongols in dress, speech, food, sports, and entertainment. This meant that they consumed large amounts of alcohol, loudly slurped their soup, and they cut meat with knives at the table, thereby disgusting the Chinese who confined such acts to the kitchen during preparation. With the emphasis on alcohol and rituals of drinking and drunkenness, the scenes at court must have been somewhat chaotic as the free-roaming, individualistic Mongols tried to imitate the complex and highly orchestrated rituals and ceremonies of the Chinese court. In contrast to the Chinese imperial tradition of courtiers lining up according to rank, the Mongols tended to swarm chaotically, and, perhaps most disturbing to the Chinese, the Mongol women mingled freely among the men on even the most important occasions. The ceremonies in the Mongol court became so disorganized that sometimes the khan’s bodyguards had to beat back the crowds of officials and guests with batons.

Like his grandfather, Khubilai recognized the importance of laying down a clear and strong legal code as the center of civil administration. Creating and enforcing new laws was the traditional way that steppe chieftans, as well as Chinese rulers, created legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. In devising a legal code, Khubilai did not replace Chinese law with Mongol so much as reform it to make it compatible with Genghis Khan’s law, and in such a way as to simultaneously win support from both his Mongol and Chinese followers. The law was one more weapon in his struggle for loyalty and support from his subjects, and thus, ultimately, supremacy over the rival Sung dynasty.

Khubilai Khan’s administration guaranteed landowners their property rights, reduced taxes, and improved roads and communications. To further garner public support, the Mongols lessened the harsh penal code of the Sung. The Mongols reduced by nearly half the number of capital offenses in China—from 233 to 135. Khubilai Khan rarely allowed the use of execution even for those offenses that remained. The records of executions survive for all but four of the thirty-four years of his reign. The highest number in a single year was 278 executions in 1283. The lowest was only 7 in 1263, but it is possible that the reason that four of the years are missing from the record is because there were no executions at all in those years. In total, fewer than 2,500 criminals were executed in more than three decades of Khubilai’s rule. His annual rate fell considerably short of the number of executions in modern countries such as China or the United States.

Overall, he installed a more consistent system of laws and punishments as well as one that was substantially milder and more humanitarian than the Sung’s. Where practical, he substituted fines for physical punishment, and he installed procedures to grant amnesty to criminals who repented of their wrongdoings. In a similar way, Mongol authorities sought to eradicate torture or, at least, to severely curtail its use. Mongol law specified that before torture could be applied to elicit a confession, the officials had to already have substantial evidence, not mere suspicion, that the person had committed a particular crime. The Mongol legal code of 1291 specified that officials must “first use reason to analyze and surmise, and shall not impose abruptly any torture.” By comparison, at the same time that the Mongols were moving to limit the use of torture, both church and state in Europe passed laws to expand its usage to an ever greater variety of crimes for which there need be no evidence. Unlike the variety of bloody forms of torture, such as stretching on the rack, being crushed by a great wheel, being impaled on spikes, or various forms of burning, in other countries, Mongols limited it to beating with a cane.

The mildness of Mongol law and the customs of steppe culture showed up in some odd ways. Chinese authorities frequently tattooed a criminal’s crimes on his forehead so that he was permanently marked by his crime. Because Mongols considered the forehead the abode of the soul, they maintained that even a criminal’s head could not be thus abused. The Mongol authorities allowed the tattooing to continue, where it was already in practice, but specified that the tattoos be placed on the upper arms for the first two offenses and on the neck for the third, but never on the forehead. The Mongols did not allow the punishment to be extended into new areas or to ethnic minorities who did not already have the practice. Rather than writing the crime on the body, Mongol authorities preferred to write the offense on a wall erected in front of a criminal’s home so that the entire community could watch him carefully. They also used a system of parole in which freed prisoners had to report twice a month to local officials to have their behavior reviewed. In keeping with the Mongol principle of group culpability and responsibility, the freedom of a prisoner depended, in part, on his willingness to join an auxiliary law enforcement agency in order to apply his knowledge or crime to the apprehension of other prisoners. Criminals, and often their entire families, had to sign documents acknowledging receipt of their sentence and to register their disagreement or complaint with the process. To preserve the record of the event, fingerprints were taken and attached to the document. Whenever practical, Mongol administrators preferred to have as many issues as possible settled at the lowest level without the intervention of officials. Crimes within a family could be settled by the family, or disputes within a group of monks of the same religion could be settled by monks within that religion, and crimes within a profession could be settled by councils of those professionals.

Related to dispute settlement, Mongol authorities encouraged the printing of books on criminology so that individual citizens and these small councils had the benefit of proper guidance. In the area of criminal law, they also set minimum requirements for officials visiting crime scenes to collect, analyze, and report evidence. These included instructions on the handling and examination of a corpse in order to collect as much information from it as practical, the reporting of which had to be made in triplicate, including drawings to depict the location of wounds. The Mongol procedures not only improved the quality of law enforcement, but corresponded with the overarching Mongol policy that all people, not just an educated elite, should know and be able to act through the law. For the Mongols, the law was more a way of handling problems, creating unity, and preserving peace rather than just a tool for deciding guilt or administering punishment.

Instead of educating officials in the classic arts of poetry and calligraphy, Mongols promoted more practical training in a variety of ways. They set minimum standards of knowledge for professions from matchmakers and merchants to doctors and lawyers. On every front, the Mongol policy seemed to be the same. It sought to standardize and raise the level of professions, while at the same time assuring a wide range of individuals access to them and to the benefits and services of the profession.

With so few Mongols ruling over so many people in China, Khubilai Khan seemed forced to accept administration through the traditional mandarins selected through a long process of study and exams, but he refused. Rather than perpetuate the old system, he abolished the exams and turned for administrative assistance to a wide variety of foreigners, particularly Muslims, and, when he could get them, Europeans such as Marco Polo. Like his grandfather, who found the educated Muslim administrators to be skilled in “the laws and customs of cities,” Khubilai imported large numbers of such men from his brother’s realm in Persia. He repeatedly sent requests to the pope and European kings asking them to send scholars and learned men, but with no response.

Mindful of overdependence on any single nationality or ethnic group and inclined to play one off against another, however, Khubilai constantly mixed Chinese and foreigners in a diverse set of administrators that included Tibetans, Armenians, Khitan, Arabs, Tajiks, Uighurs, Tangut, Turks, Persians, and Europeans. The Mongols staffed each office with an ethnic quota of the three major groups of northern Chinese, southern Chinese, and foreigners so that each official was surrounded by men of a different culture or religion. Just as Genghis Khan promoted men from the lowest levels of society to the highest ranks of leadership based on their skills and achievements rather than birth, Khubilai’s administration constantly promoted men from the lowest jobs, such as cooks, gatekeepers, scribes, and translators. Both the promotion of low-ranking men and the movement of them into new areas increased their dependence on and loyalty to their Mongol overlords and lessened their connection to the people ruled.

Without the rigid hierarchy of the ranked mandarins to administer local areas, Khubilai Khan imposed Genghis Khan’s system of decisions made through large meetings and councils and constant deliberation. Wherever possible and at whatever level, the Mongols replaced the bureaucracy with councils modeled on the small khuriltai of the steppes. The local councils had to meet daily, and any new measure had to come with the seal of approval of at least two officials. The council had to debate the issues and reach a consensus; the decision had to be made by the group, not by a single official. By Chinese standards, this was an extremely inefficient and impractical system that took too much time and energy compared with simply having one official make the decision and the people follow it. The Mongols promoted the use of other small councils, in a variety of ways. Patients displeased with medical service could seek redress from a council composed of representatives of the medical profession and nonmedical officials. Similar groups were formed to settle disputes involving a great variety of professions, from soldiers to musicians.

Whereas the old administrative system relied on unpaid scholarly officials who made a living by extorting money from people who needed their services or stamp of approval, the Mongols hired salaried employees for the lower levels of routine administration. They standardized the salaries throughout Mongol territory with a few regional differentials for the varying cost of living.

The move toward consensual councils and paid civil servants did not take deep root in China, and it failed to outlive the Mongols. As soon as the Ming came to power, they reverted to the traditional institutions of bureaucratic offices and abandoned the council form in favor of rule from above. This experiment in participatory administration was not tried again in Chinese history until the twentieth century, when the founders of the republic and the founders of Communism struggled to reintroduce some of the local councils, debates, salaried administrators, and citizen participation in government.

To further facilitate the speed and safety of commerce through the empire, Khubilai radically expanded the use of paper money. By the time Marco Polo arrived, the system was in full operation. He describes the money as made from mulberry bark in a form that we recognize as paper but which was still largely unknown in Europe. The paper money was cut into rectangles of varying size, marked with its value and stamped with a vermilion seal. The primary advantage of paper money was that it was much easier to handle and ship than the bulky coins then in use. Marco Polo wrote that the money was accepted throughout the empire: “To refuse it would be to incur the death penalty,” but most people “are perfectly willing to be paid in paper money since with it they can buy anything including pearls, precious stones, gold, or silver.” Mongol authorities in Persia tried but failed to institute the Mongol system of paper money because the concept was alien to the local merchants, and their discontent bordered on revolt at a time when the Mongols could not be certain they had the forces to win. Rather than risk a humiliating loss, the authorities withdrew the paper money.

Where there is paper money, there are increased opportunities for credit and financial disaster. In an important innovation designed to bring consistency to the markets, particularly involving the extension of credit, Mongol law provided for declarations of bankruptcy, but no merchant or customer could declare bankruptcy more than twice as a way to avoid paying debts. On the third time, he faced the possible punishment of execution.

While the Mongols consistently rejected some parts of Chinese culture such as Confucianism and foot binding, the refinement of the monetary system shows their great appreciation for other aspects of Chinese culture. Khubilai proved willing to reach far back into Chinese history for ideas and institutions that showed practical value. Khubilai built schools and revived the Chinese Hanlin Academy, which was composed of the brightest scholars in the country, in order to promote some types of traditional Chinese learning and culture. He founded the Mongolian Language School in 1269, and then the Mongolian National University at Khanbalik in 1271. He added new departments and commissioned scholars to record contemporary events, edit and reprint old texts, and tend the archives.

The Mongol court maintained scribes not only for the Mongol language but also for Arabic, Persian, Uighur, Tangut, Jurched, Tibetan, Chinese, and lesser-known languages; still, they experienced perplexing difficulties with the variety of languages. With only their Mongol-Uighur alphabet, the Mongols found it difficult to record all the administrative information they needed from their vast empire. In everyday administration, clerks had to be able to spell names as diverse as those of Chinese towns, Russian princes, Persian mountains, Hindu sages, Vietnamese generals, Muslim clerics, and Hungarian rivers. Because the subjects of the Mongol Empire used so many different languages, Khubilai Khan attempted one of the most innovative experiments in intellectual and administrative history. He sought to create a single alphabet that could be used to write all the languages of the world. He assigned this task to the Tibetan Buddhist lama Phagspa, who in 1269 presented the khan with a set of forty-one letters derived from the Tibetan alphabet. Khubilai Khan made Phagspa’s script the empire’s official script, but rather than force the system on anyone, he allowed the Chinese and all other subjects to continue using their own writing system as well in the hope that the new script would eventually replace the old by showing its superiority. Chinese scholars felt too attached to their own ancient language to allow themselves to be cut off from it by a new, and obviously barbarian, system of writing, and most subject people eventually abandoned the Mongol writing system as soon as Mongol power waned.

Peasants traditionally groveled at the bottom of a long line of government officials who commanded the most intimate aspects of their lives. The Mongols upset that ancient hierarchy by organizing the peasants into units of about fifty households called a she. These local units exercised broad responsibility and authority over their lives. They oversaw local farming, exercised responsibility for improving the land and managing water and other natural resources, and provided food reserves for time of famine. In general, they functioned as a form of local government, combining elements of Genghis Khan’s decimal organization and Chinese peasant tradition.

The she also had the task of providing some form of education for peasant children; the Mongols promoted general literacy as a way of improving the quality of life for everyone. Khubilai Khan created public schools to provide universal education to all children, including those of peasants. Until this point, only the rich had the time and income to educate their children and thereby maintain power over the illiterate peasantry for generation after generation. The Mongols recognized that in the winter, peasant children had time to learn, and rather than teaching them in classical Chinese, the teachers used the colloquial language for more practical lessons. The record of the Mongol dynasty lists 20,166 public schools created during Khubilai Khan’s reign. Despite possible exaggeration by officials seeking to improve their record, the Mongol achievement is amazing considering that no other country had attempted such an effort for universal education. In the West, it would be another century before writers began to write in the colloquial language, and it would take nearly five hundred more years before governments picked up the responsibility for public education for the children of common people.

In traditional Confucian society, the literary arts had been directed toward the specific kinds of writing used in the national examination system. This meant that literature always fell well within the confines of the bureaucracy and its interests. The Mongols, however, allowed a wider range of literary endeavors, and they encouraged writers to produce material in the colloquial language of the people rather than in the classical style preferred by the scholarly bureaucrats. Mongol tastes coincided more closely with those of the masses than with the refined elite, and they combined folk culture and court culture to create new and more exciting forms of entertainment.

In keeping with the great ceremonies staged at the installation of Genghis Khan in 1206, the Mongols sponsored spectacular ceremonial dramas involving thousands of people for up to weeks at a time. In 1275, they encapsulated Mongol military history in a ceremonial drama performed by the army. It consisted of six parts to symbolize the important phases of the creation of the Mongol Empire from Genghis to Mongke Khan.

With an impresario’s ability to manage public spectacle and to capture the popular imagination, Khubilai enthusiastically supported drama, a much-neglected art in traditional Chinese culture, and he frequently had plays staged in the royal compound. The Mongol courtiers enjoyed plays filled with acrobatic action, emotional music, bright makeup, and colorful costumes. Much like the works of William Shakespeare in Europe, the playwrights of the Mongol era sought to be entertaining while seeking to understand issues such as the relation of power to virtue. It is reported, but impossible to verify, that no play was censored during Khubilai’s reign. The resulting plays were some of the most enduring in Chinese literature, making the Mongol era rank as the golden age for Chinese drama. Estimates place the total number of new plays performed during the Yuan dynasty at around 500, of which 160 survive.

Traditionally in China, the performing artists such as actors and singers ranked as low in respect and prestige as prostitutes, concubines, and other marginal professions. The Mongol rulers raised their social status as professionals and built theater districts so that the performances would not be confined to marketplaces, brothels, and taverns. The combination of Chinese drama and the Mongolian patronage of music laid the basis for what became the Peking Opera.

In their patronage of popular culture to entertain themselves and the masses, the Mongols adhered to their cultural abhorrence of bloodshed. Although they enjoyed wrestling and archery, they developed no counterpart to the gladiatorial games and public slaughter that fascinated the Romans, nor any of the traditional European sports of pitting animals against each other, as in bear baiting and dogfights, or animals against humans, as in bullfighting. Mongols did not permit the execution of criminals to become a public sport, as in the beheadings and hangings common in European cities. The Mongols offered no counterpart to the common public entertainment of burning people alive that occurred so frequently in western Europe wherever the Christian church had the power to do so.

Khubilai did not pursue a short-term strategy of winning transitory popular support; rather, he consistently and systematically pursued a nearly two-decades long policy of winning the allegiance of a continental civilization. The Mongols portrayed themselves as the strong leaders favored by heaven to unite the Chinese, in contrast to the effete and detached Sung leaders who wallowed in decadent luxury and valued ostentatious displays of wealth more than martial power. As different as the Mongols were in many respects, the Chinese masses found more common ground with them in their taste and sensibilities than with their own Chinese court officials.

Year by year, soldiers, officials, and peasants deserted the Sung to live under the Mongols or helped the Mongols to take over their local area. More merchants took their trade to the Mongols, more priests and scholars found protection and greater freedom of movement under the Mongols, and eventually Chinese generals and whole regiments of soldiers and sailors deserted to the Mongol lines. The collapse of the Sung dynasty was not a sudden fall or conquest, but a slow erosion as it fell apart.

Throughout this campaign, the Mongols sustained their military pressure on the Sung. Each small victory reinforced the idea that Heaven willed the future to the Mongols and had abandoned the Sung. Khubilai Khan directed the public relations campaign but not the military one, which he left in the hands of his highly competent generals, such as a man named Bayan, who proved nearly as skillful in fighting the Chinese as Subodei had been in his destruction of the European armies from Russia to Hungary. In 1276, the Mongol troops finally overtook the Sung capital at Hangzhou, and over the next few years they wiped up the small pockets of local resistance. Through patient propaganda and shrewd policies, Khubilai Khan had succeeded in doing what Genghis Khan had not been able to do with his mighty army. In keeping with his new image as the personification of Chinese virtues, Khubilai provided excellent care for the dowager empress and allowed most of the royal family to live in a wonderful palace with all the luxuries to which they had been accustomed. To avoid the heir of the deposed Sung becoming a center for rebellion, he sent the young emperor to study in Tibet, where he became a monk in 1296.

For Chinese scholars and literati, the defeated Sung dynasty became a nostalgic memory of a golden era. The poet Xie Ao (Hsieh Ao) captured the nostalgia in a poem titled “On Visiting the Former Imperial Palace at Hangchow.”

Like an ancient ruin, the grass grows high: gone are the guards and the gatekeepers.

Fallen towers and crumbling palaces desolate my soul.

Under the eaves of the long-ago hall fly in and out the swallows

But within: Silence. The chatter of cock and hen parrots is heard no more.

Khubilai Khan realized what a jewel he had acquired in his conquest of the Sung capital and officials. They represented the height of Chinese civilization, and in the years ahead, he strove to preserve their achievements while reforming and expanding their empire. As the Japanese scholar Hidehiro Okada wrote, “The greatest legacy of the Mongol Empire bequeathed to the Chinese is the Chinese nation itself.” The Mongols united not only all of the areas speaking various Chinese dialects, but they combined with it the adjacent kingdoms of the Tibetans, Manchurians, Uighurs, and dozens of smaller kingdoms and tribal nations. The new country under their administration was about five times as large as the civilization where people spoke the Chinese languages. The official Chinese state culture that emerged was certainly not Mongol; nor was it Chinese. Khubilai Khan had created a hybrid, and, through his efforts, the culture would have a worldwide impact of unanticipated dimensions and importance.

With his control extended to almost everything reachable by land, Khubilai had to look out to sea to find new lands to conquer. The trading missions of his junks had brought back detailed information on the distant spice islands, Java, Ceylon, and the nearby northern islands of Japan. He wanted to incorporate them into the expanding Mongol Empire. In 1268 he sent an envoy to Japan to demand surrender, but the Japanese refused. Khubilai was still too engaged with the final conquest of the Sung dynasty to launch an attack on Japan, so he continued to send more delegations to persuade them to surrender.

As Khubilai incorporated the defeated Sung navy into his own, he acquired the personnel and skills needed to invade the defiant islands. He revitalized and enlarged the Sung navy, and he tried to transform the navy from mere guardians of the coastal and river districts into a bona fide ocean fleet capable of operating on the high seas in both commercial and military enterprises. He turned the Korean Peninsula into a large shipbuilding facility and a military and naval base from which he attempted to conquer Japan. Although the ships were some of the largest in the world of that era, the speed with which they were built compromised their quality. Archaeological evidence reveals shortcuts such as attaching two large stones together to make an anchor rather than carving a single stone and thereby creating a much more stable anchor. The Mongols loaded the ships with food, armor, and ammunition, including large numbers of melon-sized pottery grenades filled with gunpowder and shrapnel to bombard the Japanese defenders.

Khubilai sent several more envoys to persuade the island nation of Japan to submit to Mongol rule, but the military authorities rejected each one. By 1274, Khubilai had assembled an armada of about nine hundred ships to transport an army of twenty-three thousand Korean and Chinese infantry and an unknown number of Mongol horsemen. In November, they sailed out into the treacherous waters that separated Korea from Japan by 110 miles. The Mongols easily captured Tsushima Island about halfway across the strait and then Ika Island closer to Kyushu. The armada sailed into Hakata Bay and landed its forces and animals.

The samurai warriors rode out against the Mongol forces for individual combat, but the Mongols held their formation. As usual, the Mongols fought as a united force, not as individuals. Instead of coming out for duels, the Mongols bombarded the samurai with exploding missiles and showered them in arrows. The Mongols slaughtered the famed Japanese warriors, and the remaining Japanese withdrew from the coastal zone inland to a fortress. The Mongol forces did not chase the fleeing Japanese into an area about which they lacked reliable intelligence. Instead, they left the battlefield victorious but damaged, and they reloaded the men, horses, and supplies on the ship. The plan of the Mongols remains a mystery. Were they going to return the next day to pursue the Japanese? After winning this battle, did they intend to move farther along the coast and attack at another point? Had they been sent as a test probe to assess Japanese reaction and tactics? Were they more badly damaged in the fight than they appeared and therefore sought to retreat?

That night, with all the invaders on their ships, a terrific fall storm blew in across the ocean. The Kamikaze, or Divine Wind, as it was later named by the Japanese, churned up the seas and shattered many of the hurriedly constructed boats against the rocks and shore. In an effort to escape, some thirteen thousand of the invaders died, most by drowning, in the deadly channel that separated them from the safe harbors of Korea. The greatest armada in history had turned into the greatest, but largely bloodless, massacre at sea.

In the mythical explanations that rulers sometimes construct for others but end up believing themselves, Khubilai and his courtiers maintained that the invasion had been a success because the Mongols had defeated the Japanese army in the brief land battle; the subsequent loss of life and destruction of nearly the entire navy seemed less important. So he dispatched envoys back to Japan the following year to demand that the emperor now come in person to the Mongol capital to articulate his submission, after which Khubilai would reinvest him in office as ruler of Japan. The Japanese, equally as convinced that they had won, despite the loss of life on land, rejected the Mongol demands. With new confidence in either themselves or the divine protection of their gods, the Japanese committed the ultimate offense against the Mongols. They executed the envoys by chopping off their heads, spilling their blood, and then displaying the severed heads for public mockery.

Khubilai prepared for another expedition. The Japanese began building a small fleet of ships to fight the invaders on water, and along the shore they erected a stone wall to block the Mongol soldiers and horses from landing. When more delegates arrived from Khubilai in 1279, the Japanese executed them, and both sides prepared for imminent war. This time the Mongols would invade from two directions, with another Korean fleet of about the same size as the first. Following it would come the main fleet from China with 3,500 ships manned by 60,000 sailors to transport 100,000 soldiers; and this time they were coming in summer, instead of sailing in the fall.

At the end of May 1281 the Korean fleet sailed, and despite heavy Japanese resistance, within a few days, they again conquered the island in the channel. Mongol planning at sea, however, was not as accurate and easily executed as on land. The Chinese ships encountered numerous difficulties and delays. The Korean fleet sailed into Hakata Bay expecting to be backed up by their Chinese counterparts from the south, but they never came. The Japanese wall prevented a successful landing, and the invaders remained cramped in their ships in the sweltering heat of June, quickly becoming ill as small epidemics of unknown diseases broke out. At night, the small Japanese boats came out to attack the large ships under cover of darkness, their intention being to spread panic and confusion more than to inflict decisive military harm. Unable to land and harried by the night attacks, the Korean fleet withdrew on June 30 to return to Takashima Island and await the southern fleet, which finally arrived two weeks later. Disorganized, sick, and already at sea much longer than prepared or supplied to do, the entire armada sailed for Japan in mid-August. Again, a storm churned the seas, capsizing and smashing boats, and perhaps more than one hundred thousand men died. Few ships survived to relate the story of the disaster.

Khubilai’s invasions of Japan had failed, but they left a tremendous impact on Japanese social and political life by pushing them toward cultural unification and militaristic government. The Mongols, meanwhile, turned away from Japan, pretending the failures never happened as they looked elsewhere for what they hoped would be easier targets.

The Mongol conquests on land continued. Despite the extreme difficulty of the tropical heat and the unfamiliar landscape, the Mongol army had success in Burma, Annam in northern Vietnam, and Laos. Several of the Southeast Asian kingdoms, including the rulers of Champa in southern Vietnam and Malabar on the coast of India, voluntarily submitted to Mongol rule. In some regard, these acts of submission were more ceremonial than real, and the Mongols lacked the personnel to administer them. The new subjects did, however, send tribute on to the Mongol court, including elephants, rhinoceroses, and a tooth reportedly from the Buddha himself. The exchange of tribute and gifts served as a thin ceremonial disguise for commercial trade that gradually increased in volume and value.

The Mongols not only succeeded in building a unified Chinese state; at the same time, their influence exerted the same pressure on the small states around them. Early on, the Mongols had pushed for the unification of the culturally similar but constantly warring states of the Korean Peninsula into a unified nation. Similarly, in Southeast Asia, which remained beyond direct Mongol administration, the Mongol forces forged together new nations that laid a basis for Vietnam and Thailand. Prior to the Mongol era, the area that today composes the countries of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia had been decisively Indian in culture and followed the architectural styles, religious practices, and mythology of Hindu India. The Mongols and the Chinese immigrants whom they had brought created a new hybrid culture that thereafter became known as Indo-Chinese.

The Mongols had less success in the islands that are today Indonesia. In 1289, Khubilai dispatched an envoy to Java to request the same submission he had received from the rulers of nearby kingdoms, but the king feared that the Mongols might be planning on taking away Javanese control of the valuable spice trade from the Molucca Islands. The Javanese king defiantly branded the face of the envoy and sent him back to Khubilai, who ordered the preparation of an armada to capture Java and exact revenge on its king, just as he had done in the similar episode in Japan. In 1292, the newly constructed fleet of one thousand ships and boats with twenty thousand soldiers set sail with a year’s supply of provisions. When they arrived in 1293, the Mongols met with easy success, soon killed the offending king, and apparently conquered the island with apparent ease. But then they fell into a trap. Believing that they were preparing for a ceremonial submission by the new king, the Mongol leaders were lured into an ambush, where many of the leaders were killed, and the remaining troops retreated in humiliation from the island.

Khubilai had failed to adapt the successful Mongol strategies to the sea. The ancient techniques of the mounted hunter that his grandfather had used as the basis for his campaigns on land, did not translate to campaigns on ships. In contrast to former sea powers such as Rome and Athens, which had operated in small confined areas of the enclosed Mediterranean Sea, the Mongols had made China into an oceanic power. In this regard, the Mongols portended a new type of imperial power based on naval armadas that would rise in Spain, England, and the Netherlands in the coming centuries.

For the time being, however, Khubilai’s defeats in Japan and Java had drawn the eastern limit of the Mongol Empire which would never extend across the water, not even to closer islands such as Taiwan or the Philippines. Similarly, the defeat by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1260, at the start of Khubilai’s rule, had marked the southwestern border, just as precisely as the voluntary abandonment of Poland and Hungary had marked the northwestern point twenty years earlier. Thus, between 1242 and 1293, the Mongol expansion reached its maximum, and four battles marked the outer borders of the Mongol world—Poland, Egypt, Java, and Japan. The area inside those four points had suffered devastating conquests and radical adjustments to a markedly different kind of rule, but they were about to enjoy an unprecedented century of political peace with a commercial, technological, and intellectual explosion unlike any in prior history.

Every spring when flocks of cranes passed over northern China headed north to breed around the shallow lakes and rivers of Mongolia, Khubilai Khan awaited them in the countryside, stretched out on his silk couch covered with tiger skins in a beautiful gilded pavilion mounted on the backs of four elephants brought to him as part of the plunder from Burma. Too fat to ride a horse and pained by gout, he hunted from the more comfortable confines of this special and elaborately mounted chamber. When he was ready to hunt, the roof of the room rolled back to reveal the white and gray cranes so dense overhead that they appeared as clouds against the crisp blue sky. At the signal from Khubilai, hundreds of falconers lined up on either side of the elephants, removed the leather hoods from their birds, and the gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, and eagles took flight. They raced after the cranes and, one by one, tore them out of the sky, and brought them back to their handler.

Although his grandfather codified the Mongol preference for hunting only in winter and never in spring, Khubilai did not enjoy hunting in the cold of winter and changed the law. Even with his white ermine coat, sable blankets, and tiger skin rugs on the floor and walls around him, he found the temperature uncomfortable and the wind biting; as a result, he pushed the hunting season into the early spring when the weather proved more agreeable.

In the hunting procession, soldiers rode the horses. Camels transported the goods, and other elephants carried smaller individual pavilions in case the khan wanted to chase the game into more confined areas than his four-elephant mobile palace could fit. The caravan followed the imperial banners of Khubilai and was festooned with brightly colored silks. The procession included hunting tigers riding in mobile cages pulled by powerful oxen, as well as leopards and lynx riding on the hind quarters of horses, alone or seated behind their trainers. When prey appeared, Khubilai dispatched one of his trained predators to bring it down. Dogs sufficed for the bears and smaller game, leopards for the deer, and tigers for the large wild asses or bulls. A phalanx of archers stood ready to shoot at whatever target their master might command if it could not be reached by the hunting animals.

Khubilai’s processions across the countryside included a large number of astrologers, diviners, Mongol shamans, and Tibetan monks, whose work, vaguely reminiscent of Genghis Khan’s use of shamans before battle, consisted of clearing the path of clouds, rain, and any other form of inclement weather that might hamper the mighty hunter. With the sounds and smells of such a massive caravan, animals had ample warning and opportunity to flee. It was hard for them to be taken by surprise, so Khubilai’s caravan moved like the traditional Mongol army. While the emperor, his court and menagerie moved as the center or pivot of the caravan, he kept a tumen (nominally of ten thousand men, but in this case perhaps less) spread out to his forward left, and another spread out to the forward right. To show their wing assignment, one side wore scarlet, and the other wore blue. According to Marco Polo, they spread the distance of a whole day’s journey in both directions. Accompanied by mastiffs and hunting birds, the retainers drove the animals before them and toward the center so that they would be correctly positioned when the elephants arrived with Khubilai in his portable palace.

In order to cater to the needs of the hunting party after an exhausting day on the backs of the elephants, a vanguard of servants preceded them to erect a camp that resembled a portable city. The largest pavilion held a thousand guests for the rowdy Mongol celebrations. Adjacent tents provided sleeping quarters. A troupe of musicians accompanied the court to perform with singers, acrobats, jugglers, and the contortionists so enjoyed by the court.

At each evening’s celebration, everyone wore a deel of the same style and assigned color for the day; but lest they appear too egalitarian, rank and power were symbolized in the number and value of the jewels and pearls worked into the costume. They wore golden belts and silver embroidered onto their boots. In the midst of all the celebration, one of the trained tigers entered the pavilion, proceeded slowly among the guests to the khan, bowed, and then took its place seated beside the throne for the evening. The meals were served in dishes of gold and silver. Each servant wore a silk napkin trimmed in gold as a veil across his nose and mouth to prevent his breath, or any other essence, from contaminating the food. The recipes of the dishes served Khubilai Khan still survive. They include a variety of foods but maintain the traditional Mongol emphasis on meat and dairy products. The members of the Mongol court ate such delicacies as strips of mutton tail fat dusted with flour and baked with leeks. Bull testicles fried in hot oil, basted with saffron paste, and sprinkled with coriander. Mutton boiled with cardamom and cinnamon and served with rice and chickpeas. Young eggplant stuffed with chopped mutton, fat, yogurt, orange peel, and basil.

Like true Mongols, they gorged themselves on their favorite drink of fermented mare’s milk, but this milk originated from the special imperial herd of pure white mares that had been impregnated by pure white stallions to produce a special milk restricted exclusively for Khubilai and his court. When it came time to retire to his chamber for the night, the khan had his pick of beautiful young women, all of whom had been tested to make sure that they did not snore, have bad breath, or discharge any unpleasant body odors. The next morning, to recover from the excessive drinking, eating, and indulging of every appetite, the khan’s mobile unit of doctors and pharmacists served him a tea made from orange peel, kudzu flowers, ginseng, sandalwood, and cardamom. Sipped on an empty stomach, the tea was guaranteed to overcome a hangover and make the khan fit for another day of hunting, eating, and drinking.

Only a few generations earlier, Khubilai’s ancestors had used the hunt as the primary means of acquiring food. His great-grandfather Yesugei had been out hunting with his gyrfalcon when he saw the bride Hoelun, whom he seized to make his own wife. Khubilai’s grandfather Genghis Khan fed his family by hunting after his father’s death, and he had killed his half brother Begter in an argument ostensibly following a hunting quarrel about a bird and a fish. Later in life, Genghis Khan, with the aid of Subodei and other good hunters, adapted the extensive hunting strategies, techniques, and weapons to the task of warfare by treating his enemies as objects of prey to be trapped and stalked, and he thereby conquered his vast empire.

The hunt combined a recreational pastime enjoyed by Khubilai with the imperial needs of ceremonial pomp and wasteful spectacle. Khubilai still participated in some of the traditional features of the Mongol hunt and lifestyle—the emphasis on archery, trained raptors, enjoyment of mare’s milk, sleeping in tents, and organization of the Armies of the Left and the Right. But he turned it into a decadent and luxurious recreation that provided costly, if vapid, amusements for the Mongol elite and himself. His great procession was more show than substance. Its meaning came from the public spectacle that it made and the impression it created on his subjects and foreign visitors.

Like the frequent relocation of camp on the Mongol steppe, Khubilai’s caravan followed a rider carrying his Spirit Banner before him. The Spirit Banner led him on a frivolous round of entertainments that ultimately meant nothing and ended nowhere. The Mongol Empire would continue on for another century, but already, only three generations after its founding, it had lost its way. It was clear to anyone that the Spirit Banner of Genghis Khan no longer led his descendants and the people who claimed to be his followers.

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