The Remarkable Reign of Kublai Khan

Posted by Julian Wymanton on Monday, November 20, 2023

Kublai Khan was the legendary founder and first Emperor of the Yuan dynasty in Mongolia and China. As the second son of Tolui and grandson of the famous Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan cemented his grandfather’s conquests in China and significantly expanded the Mongol Empire. During his long reign from 1260 to 1294, he instituted major reforms and helped bring centuries of prosperity to China. Kublai Khan’s successful rule has cemented his legacy as one of the most powerful and influential rulers in world history.

Kublai Khan portrait

The Early Years and Rise to Power

Kublai Khan was born in 1215, the second son of Tolui, Genghis Khan’s youngest son. As a child, Kublai received the traditional Mongol upbringing – riding horses, hunting, and learning martial arts. His early education gave him the toughness and skills he would need as a leader. In 1235, when Kublai was 20 years old, his eldest brother died, and he was designated as the next in line to rule the Mongol Empire.

Over the next few decades, Kublai gained experience fighting alongside his uncle Ogedei Khan. He also befriended the Chinese monk Haiyun, who taught him about traditional Chinese values and political theory. This unique education served Kublai well, as he was able to understand both Mongol and Chinese culture.

In 1251, Kublai’s wife Chabi convinced him to convert to Buddhism, which helped him connect with the Chinese people he would soon rule over. A few years later in 1259, Kublai’s brother Mongke became Khan of the Mongol Empire. He appointed Kublai as viceroy of China, overseeing their territories there. This set the stage for Kublai Khan to eventually conquer the rest of China and establish the Yuan Dynasty.

Conquest of the Song Dynasty

In 1271, Kublai Khan formally established the Yuan Dynasty and proclaimed himself Emperor of China. However, China was fragmented at the time under the Song Dynasty in the south and the Jin dynasty in the north. Kublai set out on a lengthy military campaign to conquer the rest of China and unify the nation under his rule.

The effort to defeat the Song Dynasty took over 15 years. Kublai used both traditional Mongol cavalry along with a powerful Chinese-style navy. After a long stalemate, a series of naval victories on the Yangtze in 1279 finally led to the surrender of the Song court. By 1279, Kublai Khan had defeated the Song Dynasty and unified China under the Yuan.

Song Dynasty

Ruling as Emperor

As Emperor, Kublai Khan instituted many reforms that helped bring stability and prosperity to China. To help rule his diverse empire, Kublai staffed his bureaucracy with Chinese administrators as well as foreigners. He reopened the Grand Canal between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, enabling efficient transportation and trade.

Kublai also helped improve agriculture, expanding cultivated land and establishing farming colonies for soldiers. This produced bountiful harvests that fed the growing population. Under his rule, China’s population doubled to around 100 million people.

In 1271, Kublai moved the Mongol capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Beijing. The city was renovated with new temples and palaces, including Kublai’s palace called Xanadu. Foreign visitors like Marco Polo wrote glowingly of Beijing as one of the finest and wealthiest cities in the world.

Kublai was known for his strong hunger for knowledge. He promoted education and brought foreign scholars to advise him, including Tibetan lamas, Indian mathematicians, and Nestorian Christian scientists. Kublai also decreed that all major religions would be respected and protected under his rule.

Further Expansion of the Mongol Empire

Not content to just rule China, Kublai Khan also wanted to continue expanding the Mongol Empire built by his grandfather Genghis Khan. Under Kublai, the Mongols launched massive invasions of Burma, Vietnam, Java, and Japan.

In 1274 and 1281, Kublai tried to invade Japan but was stopped both times by bad weather or “divine winds” called kamikazes. The Mongol fleet was wrecked by storms, halting their advances. While ultimately unsuccessful, these attempted invasions showed the incredible reach of Kublai’s ambitions.

At its peak during Kublai Khan’s reign, the Mongol Empire stretched across two continents and covered over 33 million square kilometers of land – the largest contiguous land empire in history. The Pax Mongolica (“Mongol Peace”) enforced by Kublai brought stability for trade and communication all across Eurasia.

Death and Legacy

Kublai Khan died in 1294 at the impressive age of 79. Given traditional Mongol culture, this long lifespan speaks to Kublai’s vitality and the advanced state of medical knowledge in his empire. He was buried deep in the hills north of Beijing, and the location of his tomb was kept secret.

Kublai named his grandson Temür to succeed him, but factional infighting soon led to the decline of the Yuan Dynasty. However, Kublai’s conquests permanently unified China and laid the foundation for its modern-day size and shape. Major institutions established under Kublai like the Grand Canal, Confucian education system, and postal relay routes endured in China for centuries.

In just a few decades, Kublai Khan remarkably transformed Mongolia from a fragmented region of warring tribes into the largest contiguous land empire in history. As Emperor of China, he brought stability and prosperity and helped bridge many aspects of Mongolian and Chinese culture. Kublai set the stage for China’s later emergence as a global power and proved how the vision and leadership of an ambitious ruler could reshape the destiny of a nation.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Kublai Khan.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 24, 2022.

“Kublai Khan.” Accessed November 20, 2023.

Weatherford, Jack. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004.