“In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.” — Samuel Purchas (1614) paraphrasing Marco Polo (1299).
Kublai, the youngest son of Genghis Khan’s youngest son, nominally ruled the entire Empire, but specifically, he ruled China. Northern China had been conquered in Genghis Khan’s time, but Kublai and his brothers pushed Mongolian rule until it encompassed all of China. As we’ve seen before, Mongolian war tactics couldn’t survive the tropical climate of Southern China, so Kublai had to innovate. He conquered China by becoming “more Chinese than the Chinese,” according to Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World).
The Chinese were consciously proud of their culture, but they had been torn apart by civil war countless times. Kublai made his government appealing by adopting all of the cultural markers of former Imperial courts. He named his new dynasty the Da Yuan (“Great Beginnings”) Dynasty and created a back-dated Chinese history: Chinese names and Imperial portraits for his Mongolian ancestors four generations back. They needed an ancestral temple, so he built one. If you’ve ever looked at a portrait of Kublai or Genghis Khan and thought to yourself, “He looks very Chinese,” you were right. It’s effectively the equivalent of medieval portraits of Biblical characters dressed like medieval townsmen.
Kublai began with a palace in Shangdu (Xanadu), but to extend his power, he built the new city of Beijing; he called it Khanbalik and his subjects called it Daidu. He created it as a modern city, somewhat like Karakorum with its right-angle intersections and wide streets. Main streets had to be wide enough for 9 mounted men to ride abreast! Because the streets were straight, guards could see from one city gate to the other. Both of these traffic details would make it easier for a Mongolian army to subdue a rebellious citizenry. Like Karakorum, the new city had specific quarters for Muslim, Christian, and Mongolian nomadic residents.
Here’s the most interesting part: the new city was designed around the open land that Mongols prized most. The origin of the Imperial “Forbidden City” was apparently as an enclosed parkland complete with Mongolian gers/yurts. Just as Xanadu had a large enclosed forest, Beijing’s inner enclosure had an artificial lake and a small mountain. There was plenty of grazing space for horses and sheep, and the park may have been stocked with wild animals for hunting, too. Mongolian children of Kublai’s officials were born in gers and grew up speaking Mongolian while riding ponies. Mongolian customs were kept alive, especially the ones that shocked the Chinese.
For example, in Chinese Imperial culture, the knife was a kitchen tool, not a dining utensil. Food came to the table ready to eat (and nicely spiced as well). But in Mongolian “cuisine,” big chunks of meat were roasted or boiled, then brought to the table (actually a white felt rug on the ground) where the diner used his own knife to cut it up. Inside the Forbidden City, they could wipe their mouths on their sleeves and eat unseasoned legs of mutton. The Chinese subjects were not allowed to watch. Anywhere they were permitted, the Mongolian rulers followed Chinese etiquette.
The Forbidden City’s secret culture eventually turned out very important, when the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown and the survivors came back to Mongolia as refugees. They were spoiled rotten (and terrible hunters) by Mongolian standards, but at least they knew the language and customs so they could try to fit back in.
Perhaps Kublai’s most brilliant achievement was to reform Chinese law to make it both uniform and compatible with the laws laid down by Genghis. Contrary to what we think of the Mongols’ wild cruelty, Kublai’s laws shifted away from whippings and execution, toward fines and encouraging repentance. His legal code required officials to use logical analysis to figure things out and only resort to torture after other avenues were exhausted. The Chinese had often tattooed a criminal’s forehead, but the Mongols believed this too cruel because the forehead was the seat of the soul. They discouraged the practice of tattoos at all, and transitioned the locals instead to a system of placing a billboard in front of a criminal’s house to shame him.
The Chinese had pioneered printing paper money, an innovation that the Mongols enthusiastically adopted and expanded. Yuan Dynasty China floated almost entirely on paper currency. Of course, Genghis Khan’s emphasis on a good postal system continued too, so the Chinese were the first to send paper money to each other, carried by paid riders.
Officials in Kublai’s China were always a mix of ethnicities, the way Genghis Khan had mixed them in his armies. He promoted Muslims from the west, Europeans like Marco Polo, and a quota-based mix of regional Chinese. During the Yuan Dynasty, the rigid Chinese system of mandarin exams was suspended. Instead, Kublai began a system of licensing other professions, ensuring some minimal level of competency. Local governments were also pushed to create councils that operated somewhat like the Mongolian kurultai assemblies. Peasants were organized into administrative groups to solve problems and promote literacy. Kublai’s China even had some basic public schools, about 20,000 of them according to Mongol court records.
Kublai also put on public shows of theater, which had been neglected in previous dynasties. He wanted acrobats, bright colors, and action. At one point, Weatherford reports, he staged an epic retelling of Mongolian history with thousands of actors, going on for days. The Yuan Dynasty became a period of rapid growth in Chinese literature; if there is a Chinese Shakespeare, he lived during the Yuan years.
Effectively, Kublai’s Mongolian-China became the place anyone and everyone would want to live. He competed with the old Song Dynasty so effectively that it eroded from within, as officials, peasants, and regions deserted to serve the Yuan. He always had an army operating in the southern region, picking off towns and winning small battles. In 1276, this Mongol army finally entered the Song capital of Hangzhou. The heir to the Song throne was sent to Tibet (another Mongolian holding) to become a monk.
Kublai did make an attempt to conquer Japan, at last. When he had taken over a unified China as well as Korea, his empire had the ship building power to invade islands. Japan ignored the usual Mongolian demand for surrender, and they even took the tried and true way of executing envoys, always sure to launch an invasion. In 1274, a naval operation set out from Korea and easily conquered Takashima Island, which lies between the mainland and big islands. In a grand battle against samurai knights, the Mongolian-Chinese-Korean force won a huge victory.
However, conquest of the Japanese islands did not follow. The Mongolian forces took ship again that night, probably intending to sail to another port and attack. But a huge storm came up and the entire fleet was destroyed. In 1281, a newly-built fleet tried again, with the same result. The most important lasting effect from Kublai’s invasions seems to be that Japan began to take foreigners more seriously. Its loose government started to turn into the centralized, militarized power that so awed Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Had Kublai never invaded, perhaps history would have gone differently.
Kublai tried one more naval invasion: Indonesia in 1291. In a direct battle, the Mongolian-Chinese-Korean forces killed the king and appeared to win, but they could not parlay this into actual conquest. The Mongolian genius had been for horseback warfare, and while ships looked at first like so many floating horses, in fact, they weren’t.
Jack Weatherford says that it was during Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty that Chinese culture started to influence the rest of South-east Asia. Until then, its culture had been Hindu or Buddhist, influenced from India (you can see this in Cambodia’s and Bali’s most ancient ruins). Kublai’s government encouraged Chinese migration to what we now call Indo-China. In tribute-paying places like Thailand and Vietnam, Chinese officials probably represented the Yuans, since they had a core competency in bureaucracy and the Mongols were all about borrowing the competencies of other cultures.
Mongolian expansion had reached its maximum territorial limits.