Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-Five


Kublai Khan

Between 1273 and 1294, Kublai Khan conquers China, tries to subdue Champa, fails to conquer the Dai Viet and Japan, and becomes the first Yuan emperor

THE GREAT KHAN had lost three-quarters of his empire, but the quarter that remained to him was vast: the Mongol homeland, with Karakorum at its heart and the enormous sweep of plateaus north and west; the land seized from the Western Xia and the Jin and from Goryeo; the entire north of the Song.

The rich fields in the Yangtze river valley, and the lands below it, were still unconquered.

Those southern lands, the last remaining to the Song, were still ruled by the emperor Song Duzong. Few men could have gracefully maintained a court, in the face of the relentless and frightening Mongol aggression; Song Duzong was not one of the few. He turned to wine and feasting, his harem of concubines, gambling and games to distract himself from the coming end.1

For five years, the Mongol armies had been laying siege to the double city of Xiangyang and Fancheng, on the northern and southern banks of the western Yangtze: the gate to the south. In the early years of the assault, the Song managed to resupply the cities by the river. But as time went on, the Mongol blockade strengthened; Song resupply ships could make it through only with massive casualties. Then, in March of 1272, a team of siege engineers arrived from the west, sent to Kublai Khan by his nephew Abaqa of the Il-khanate Mongols as a gesture of goodwill. Led by Ala al-Din of Mosul, they brought with them a new weapon: trebuchets that used counterweights, instead of brute pulling strength, to hurl unusually massive stones at the walls of Fancheng. The walls began to crumble. By early February of 1273, they were breached; the Mongols stormed in and executed over ten thousand of the city’s inhabitants, stacking the bodies up where the defenders in Xiangyang could see them. When the trebuchets began to systematically break down the walls of Xiangyang, the city’s commander surrendered. The river basin now lay in Kublai Khan’s hands; the gate was opened.2

Shortly after the seizure of Xiangyang, Kublai Khan issued a declaration of war to Duzong.

Since the time of Genghis Khan, we have communicated diplomatically with the Song . . . [asking for] a cessation of hostilities and respite for the people. . . . This could have provided a plan for all humanity. Yet [you] . . . continued to dispatch troops year after year. The dead and injured now pile up while prisoners and hostages grow. This all suggests that the Song has brought peril to its own people.3

The Mongols had, of course, been at war with the Song for four decades, and Kublai himself had already spent fourteen years trying to conquer the south. But the formal declaration of war signaled a shift. He was no longer the Great Khan of a vast rough-hewn nomadic empire, built by invasion; he was one king pointing out the faults of another. He was defending the legitimacy of his attack.

He had changed.

Already, he had begun to designate the years of his reign with a Chinese dynastic title. He had moved away from the Mongol capital Karakorum, and built himself dual capital cities in China, north and south, in imitation of his predecessors. The northern capital was his summer home; to the Mongols it was known as Shangdu, “Supreme Capital,” and it was a luxurious and settled king’s city. “In Xaindu did Cublai Can build a stately pallace,” an anonymous traveler had written, after touring Shangdu, “encompassing sixteene 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 sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.” Five hundred years later, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would fall into a drug-induced sleep while reading the traveler’s memoirs and dream of Shangdu; when he awoke he would write,

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man,

Down to a sunless sea.4

Kublai Khan’s second capital, two hundred miles to the south, was built right next to the burned remains of Zhongdu. He called this city Dadu, “Great Capital”; today, its ruins still survive in the northern suburbs of Beijing. The Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who visited Dadu sometime after 1270 and wrote of his journey some thirty years later, describes a minutely planned city: “perfectly square,” surrounded by white battlements, with arrow-straight streets and carefully laid-out allotments of land for each family and clan chief:


55.1 Kublai Khan.
Credit: The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

In this manner the whole interior of the city is disposed in squares, so as to resemble a chess-board, and planned out with a degree of precision and beauty impossible to describe. The wall of the city has twelve gates, three on each side of the square . . . every gate being guarded by a thousand men.5

The security of the city reflected Kublai Khan’s strengthening grasp on the lands around him. He had reduced Goryeo to complete submission; the Crown Prince who had surrendered to Mongke in 1259 had passed the rule of Goryeo to his son Chungnyeol, and Kublai had forced the young man to accept the lesser title of king, rather than the traditional Goryeo title of emperor. He had also given Chungnyeol a Mongol princess for his wife. This was not as great a privilege as it might seem. Kublai Khan, says Marco Polo, had twenty-two sons by his four wives, twenty-five by his concubines (who numbered at least a hundred), and an untold number of daughters; he used them to tie his vassals close to him.6

In 1274, he suffered an unexpected failure. Past Goryeo lay the island of Japan, governed by the Kamakura shogunate in the hands of the shikken (“Regent of the Shogun”) Hojo Tokimune. Several years earlier, Kublai Khan had sent a curt demand for tribute and submission to the Kamakura shogun; Hojo Tokimune ignored the message, plus several follow-ups. With Goryeo firmly under his control, Kublai Khan now organized a two-fleet invasion force, one setting sail from the coast of China, the other from the southern shores of Goryeo, converging on Japan.7

The Mongols were not good on the water, but Kublai was able to press thousands of watermen and hundreds of ships from China and Goryeo into service; the entire force probably numbered just over twelve thousand men and perhaps three hundred vessels, a reconnaissance force rather than a full-blown invasion. The ships swept by the smaller outlying islands, dispatching their garrisons without too much difficulty, and on November 19 the fleet arrived at Hakata Bay, on the northern end of the island of Kyushu itself.8

Samurai warriors hastily assembled to fight off the invasion, but when the Goryeo contingent scented bad weather, they talked the Mongol commanders into withdrawing after a single day of fighting. Even so, the ships were caught by a storm on their way out of the bay, and perhaps a third of them were lost.

The armies on the Chinese mainland had better fortune. The war against the Song began to draw to an end. Kublai’s general Bayan led his armies along the Yangtze river; city after city fell to them; and by the end of 1275, they had reached the southern Song capital of Hangzhou.

By then, the emperor Duzong was dead; his five-year-old son had been aclaimed as the Emperor Gong, with the child’s mother as regent. In the face of the Mongol horde, she agreed to surrender the city. In January of 1276, the city’s gates were thrown open and the Mongols marched in. The boy emperor and his mother surrendered; Bayan treated them well and sent them to Shangdu, where Kublai Khan’s empress settled them into new quarters; Gong would live the rest of his life as a Buddhist monk in the north of China.9

Even then, Southern Song resistance did not end. The little boy had two brothers, both of whom were offered, by various partisan groups, as emperor in exile. The middle son, Duanzong, died not long after his acclamation. The youngest, six-year-old Bing, had been concealed in a Buddhist temple far to the south. Guarded by his mother (a younger concubine of Duzong), her father, and the mother of the dead Duanzong, Bing survived until 1279. Pursued by a Mongol detachment, his guardians finally dragged him with them into the sea, drowning the child as they committed suicide to avoid capture. His death brought a final end to the Southern Song; Kublai Khan’s dynasty, the Yuan,* now controlled China.10

Kublai had not forgotten about Japan.

Two years after the initial invasion, he had sent another embassy demanding surrender. The shikken Hojo Tokimune beheaded them and began to prepare for war. He summoned samurai from across western Japan to defend the coast. They built eight-foot stone walls along the beaches of Hakata Bay and other likely ports, to trap landing Mongol troops between the water and the fortifications; they assembled a special navy of small, very fast boats.

At the same time, Kublai Khan had recruited an admiral from the Song prisoners and begun construction of nine hundred new warships. Once again, the navy launched from both Goryeo and the southeastern Chinese coast; this time, 140,000 men on over four thousand ships sailed towards Japan in early June.11

The defending samurai were hugely outnumbered, but the stone walls temporarily halted the Mongol advance. The first men on the beach were stalled by the samurai defense, with the main bulk of the navy still anchored off Kyoto. The small Japanese ships launched constant quick strikes against them, keeping them on perpetual alert. Packed together, the soldiers on board began to suffer from an epidemic that killed thousands and weakened more.

For seven weeks, the samurai defenses held. And then, on August 15, a typhoon blew down on the Mongol fleet. For two full days, it battered the anchored ships. According to some accounts, 90 percent of the vessels sank. Nearly a hundred thousand more men were drowned. Thirty thousand soldiers, left stranded on the beach, were massacred.12

The great Buddhist monk Eison, who spent the invasion praying earnestly in the Otokoyama Shrine near Kyoto, chalked the storm up to divine intervention: it was a kamikaze, a divine wind sent to protect the island. Others were less certain. The philosopher Nichiren Shonin, a fierce critic of Japan’s government, snapped, “An autumn gale destroyed the enemy’s ships, and . . . the priests pretend that it was due to the efficacy of their mysteries. Ask them whether they took the head of the Mongol king?”13

Kublai Khan’s head was still firmly on his shoulders. He contemplated a third invasion, but he had lost too many of his Goryeo seamen; he decided instead to turn his attention back the mainland.


55.1 The Yuan Dynasty

SOUTH OF THE SONG, Champa and Khmer and the Dai Viet now lay exposed to the Mongol front.

The Khmer king, Jayavarman VIII, decided to act with prudence rather than valor; he sent Kublai Khan tribute and submitted as a vassal to buy peace. The king of Champa, Indravarman V, tried to chart a middle road. He sent an embassy to Kublai’s court to negotiate a treaty, hoping to both avoid war and subjection. Kublai chose to regard the embassy as a surrender, and at once appointed two Yuan vice-regents to rule Champa on his behalf.

When the Champa king refused to recognize their authority, the Khan sent a five-thousand-man invasion force around by sea to storm Champa’s coast. It arrived without difficulty at the capital city of Vijaya, but meanwhile Indravarman and his court had retreated to the mountains. From there, they carried on a forest guerrilla war that the Mongols could not easily resist. The damp unfamiliar heat, so far south from their native lands, did not help; sickness thinned their ranks. In the summer of 1285, a Cham ambush managed to wipe out almost all of the remaining invaders.14

Kublai Khan had no better luck in the land of the Dai Viet. Back in 1258, the Mongols had retreated from Dai Viet without capitalizing on their capture of Thang Long. In 1284, with the Champa expedition still underway, Kublai sent an even larger army under the command of one of his sons, Prince Toghan, by land through the north of the country. He won an initial victory and managed to establish a front close to the capital city, Thang Long. But once again the Mongols were stumped by a guerrilla army, this one led by the fervent nationalist Prince Tran Quoc Toan, cousin of the ruling emperor. Under his guidance, the Dai Viet soldiers tattooed “Death to the Mongols” on their arms and continued the grueling, inch-by-inch repulsion of the invading forces.

When the emperor asked him whether it might not be better to surrender and end the difficult and bloody war, Tran Quoc Toan is said to have answered, “Your Majesty, if you want to surrender, then cut off my head first, for while it remains on my shoulders the kingdom shall stand.” His dogged resistance paid off. In 1287, Prince Toghan was forced to return to his father for reinforcements. When he came back with a massive army of both men and river craft, Tran Quoc Toan lured him into a battle at the Bach Dang river, the site of the great Dai Viet defeat of the Song in 1076.

This time, the Dai Viet army had prepared by staking the bottom of the river with bronze spikes. When the tide began to run out, the Mongol river barges were caught. So many Mongols were slaughtered on the river that the water ran red.15

Prince Toghan fled. Tran Quoc Toan, the hero of the resistance, was later worshipped as divine, under his posthumous name, Tran Hung Dao.

BOTH JAPAN and the southeast remained unconquered when Kublai Khan died in 1294: the last Great Khan, the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty of China.

He had been born the grandson of a nomad, but he ended his life as one of the greatest emperors in the world. He kept a personal guard of twelve thousand horsemen; he could seat forty thousand of his subjects at a festival banquet and serve them all from gold and silver vessels; he could mount a hunt for his friends with ten thousand falconers and five thousand hunting dogs. He printed his own money, accepted by traders from Shangdu to Venice; he could send messages through a network of post offices and riders that webbed his entire kingdom. He welcomed to his court, says Marco Polo, “kings, generals, counts, astrologers, physicans, and many other officers and rulers” from all over the world.16

His grandson inherited his rule, not as Great Khan but as Emperor Chengzong of the Yuan dynasty. Kublai, the last Great Khan, had become the first Yuan Emperor.

But after decades of war with the Mongols, the population of the empire now ruled by the Yuan had shrunk by fifty million. Graves, heaps of corpses, and river-washed skeletons marked the Yuan dynasty’s birthplace.


*The Yuan dynasty, which lasted until 1368, is variously considered to have begun in 1263 (Kublai’s foundation of a new capital city), 1271, 1279 (the death of the last Song heir), and 1280.

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