When Did Kublai Khan Die?


Posted by James DeFalkin on Thursday, November 30, 2023

When Did Kublai Khan Die?

Kublai Khan portrait Kublai Khan Portrait by Araniko

Kublai Khan was the legendary founder and first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China. As a grandson of the famous Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan greatly expanded the Mongol Empire until it covered much of Asia. During his long and eventful life, he left an indelible impact on Asian history. But when did this larger-than-life figure finally breathe his last?

A Conqueror from a Young Age

Kublai Khan was born in 1215 as the second son of Tolui, the youngest of Genghis Khan’s four sons. As a child, he received an excellent education from his mother Sorghaghtani Beki, an extremely intelligent and competent woman. She personally supervised his instruction in subjects like military tactics, politics, and economics. This set the stage for Kublai’s later career as a ruler (“Kublai Khan,” 2022).

From an early age, Kublai accompanied his family on military campaigns. He got his first taste of battle in 1235 at the age of 20 when he rode alongside his brother Möngke. They successfully besieged the Jin stronghold of Fengxiang in Shaanxi province. This paved the way for the complete destruction of the Jin Dynasty within the next 15 years (Beckwith, 2015, p. 94).

After their uncle Ögedei Khan died in 1241, a major succession crisis broke out in the Mongol imperial family. Möngke emerged victorious with Kublai as one of his key supporters. In return, Möngke named Kublai as viceroy over the Mongol conquests in China. This launched Kublai on the path toward future greatness (Allsen, 2001, p. 24).

Conquering Song China

As viceroy and then Khan, Kublai spent decades fighting the Southern Song Dynasty to complete the Mongol conquest of China. Major campaigns included:

  • 1252: Kublai attacked Song garrisons in Sichuan province (Rossabi, 2013, p. 54).
  • 1258: He besieged Diaoyu Castle, the last Song stronghold in Sichuan (Rossabi, 2013, p. 69).
  • 1263: Mongol gunpowder bombs and fire lance flamethrowers helped smash the Song defenses at Xiangyang (Lorge, 2015, p. 110).
  • 1273: A Mongol fleet sailed down the Yangtze while three armies converged on the Song capital at Hangzhou. This forced the Song court to surrender on the 19th day of the 12th lunar month (Gong, 2014, p. 124).

Mongol siege of a city After 30 years of struggle, the Mongols had finally reunited all of China proper under Yuan Dynasty rule.

Ruling the Largest Land Empire

As khan, Kublai governed his enormous realm from a new capital called Khanbaliq, known today as Beijing. At its peak size, the unified Mongol Empire stretched across nearly 12 million contiguous square miles, making it the largest contiguous land empire in world history (Man, 2009, pp. 284-285).

Key events during Kublai Khan’s long rule as Great Khan included:

  • 1260: Civil war between himself and his younger brother Ariq Böke, which Kublai eventually won.
  • 1264: Establishment of the Council of State and other Confucian-style government bodies.
  • 1271: Official proclamation of the Yuan Dynasty, with Kublai as emperor.
  • 1274: Introduction of the Yuan Dian Zhang as an empire-wide legal code.
  • 1279: Failed invasions of Japan launched from Korea. The returning fleets were wrecked by deadly kamikaze typhoons called “divine winds.”
  • 1287: Successful invasion of Vietnam after three previous failed attempts.
  • 1293: Suppression of a major uprising by Nayan, a Mongol imperial prince. This was the last major civil war during Kublai’s reign (Chan, 2013, pp. 93-109).

In domestic affairs, Kublai encouraged foreign trade and strongly supported public works like expanding the Grand Canal between north and south China (Rossabi, 2013, p. 81). He welcomed the input of traditional Chinese advisers at court. But he also employed many foreigners and Muslims in high-ranking positions (Allsen, 2001, pp. 134-136).

The Final Years

In his old age, Kublai Khan reportedly suffered from gout, rheumatism, and alcoholism. He may have contracted dropsy, leading to heart failure near the end. Marco Polo, the famous Venetian visitor to Kublai’s court, wrote that “his hips and legs were very gross and swollen” due to health issues (“Kublai Khan,” 2022).

Kublai designated his grandson Temür as the Crown Prince and heir apparent in 1282. But Kublai did not give Temür and his faction real power until late 1293 after suppressing Nayan’s rebellion.

Marco Polo traveling to meet Kublai Portrait of Marco Polo

On December 17, 1293, about two months before his death, Kublai made his last major decision: agreeing to a peace treaty with the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia. His realm would now officially recognize Chagatai control over Transoxiana (present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan).

Kublai Khan finally passed away just before dawn on February 18, 1294. He was 79 by the traditional Chinese counting of age. One later source claimed his last words as he slipped into a coma were “I regret only that my life was too short to accomplish everything I wished” (Chan, 2013, p. 109).

The Verdict of History

Seven centuries after his death, Kublai Khan remains one of the most famous and impactful rulers in Asian and world history. He drastically transformed China with long-lasting changes like reunification, greater cosmopolitanism, and integration into world trade networks.

Modern opinions remain split on how positively to judge such an imposing, larger-than-life figure who conquered half of Asia yet also championed the arts and learning. But none can question the massive historical significance of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor who died on that February dawn in 1294 after living through so many momentous decades.


Allsen, T. T. (2001). Culture and conquest in Mongol Eurasia. Cambridge University Press.

Beckwith, C. I. (2015). Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian origins of science in the medieval world. Princeton University Press.

Chan, H.-L. (2013). The Chien-Wen, Yung-Lo, Hung-Wu, and Hsüan-Te reigns, 1260–1435. In D. Twitchett & J. K. Fairbank (Eds.), The Cambridge History of China (Vol. 6, pp. 93–152). Cambridge University Press.

Gong, Y. (2014). The Standard Histories of China: A Study and Translation of the Basic Annals of the Twenty Four Histories. Paths International Ltd.

Kublai Khan. (2022). In Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kublai-Khan

Lorge, P. A. (2015). Chinese martial arts: From antiquity to the twenty-first century. Cambridge University Press.

Man, J. (2009). Genghis Khan: Life, death, and resurrection. Thomas Dunne Books.

Rossabi, M. (2013). Khubilai Khan: His life and times. University of California Press.