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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 22, 2021

The  weight of years will bear down on each of us heavily, from the humblest farmer to the most august monarch. And Khubilai Khan, mighty even among the mighty, over his nearly forty year reign found even his immense energies sapped by this burden. Age, grief, the rigours of government, and military defeats ground down the vision of Khubilai, and in reaction he directed his energies to drink and food. In the vacuum left behind, corruption grew like mold on the young Yuan Dynasty, sowing problems neither Khubilai nor his successors would be able to solve. Today, we look at the last years of Khubilai Khan, the end of an era in the Mongol Empire: I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals, Ages of Conquest.


    For the past few episodes, we have dealt with Khubilai’s long reign. First, we dealt with his conflict with his brother Ariq-Boke for the Mongol imperial throne. Khubilai was victorious by 1264, but in his victory was left with hardly even a nominal mastery over the western Khanates of the empire: the Golden Horde, Chagatai Khanate, Ilkhanate and Ogedeid Khanate under Qaidu were all effectively independent powers by the time of Khubilai’s victory. As a result, Khubilai focused his attention on China. Over three episodes we detailed Khubilai’s renewed effort to end the long war with the Song Dynasty, a victory finalized by 1279 which marked the conquest of China, almost 60 years since Chinggis Khan had first attacked the Jin Dynasty. Then, we looked at Khubilai’s efforts to build his administration from 1264-1279, the period of his greatest energy and vision. By all standards, Khubilai was an impressive monarch, merging Mongolian and Chinese imperial traditions into a carefully balanced new system which, in many areas, seems to have genuinely sought to reduce the burdens upon Khubilai’s subject population. Our following episodes dealt with the beginning of the end of Khubilai’s good fortune. In Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar and Java, Khubilai’s military forces met with either inconclusive, or outright diastrous results. A stunning expenditure of resources and lives for little  in the way of strategic gains, the efforts to meet these costs required imaginative efforts on the part of Khubilai’s finance ministers- the topic of our previous episode, looking at the so-called Three Villianous ministers, Ahmad, Lu Shih-jung and Sangha, and the animosity they inspired from the top levels of Khubilai’s government to the subject population. 


For Khubilai, the successive defeats were not just a shock in comparison to the overwhelming victories over the previous decades, but were more alarming in a personal manner. In both the Mongolian and Chinese imperial traditions, the right to rule rested on the support of Heaven. Heaven’s support always manifested itself in bountiful harvests, good climates, good governance and military victories. For the Mongols, the many amazing conquests of the thirteenth century had demonstrated Eternal Blue Heaven’s desire for the Mongols to rule the whole of the world.  Khubilai had firmly believed that the ultimate destiny of the Mongols, and his destiny, was that his rule would include everything beneath the blue sky. There  simply could not have been an alternative to this. So to be met with the alternative; that is, successive rounds of wasteful defeats in foreign countries from the late 1270s through the 1290s, must have come not just as an immense shock, but  a blow to Khubilai’s own psyche. Coupled with the knowledge of his loss of control over the Khanates in the west of the empire, and the rebellion he faced within and along his borders, Khubilai would have struggled with a sense of failure; his failure to complete the mission begun by his grandfather, great Chinggis Khan. Aside from defeats and failure in his foreign policy, the internal matters of Khubilai’s realm  also saw the failure of many of his efforts to actually run his empire, and failures in his personal life.


    After 1276, the seizure of the Song Dynasty’s capital at Hangzhou, and especially after 1279, with the final defeat of the Song holdouts on the island of Yaishan, Khubilai Khan began to steadily reduce his role in the governance of his empire. By the end of the 1270s, Khubilai was already in his sixties. His efforts over the 1260s and 70s had been physically draining on him, having thrown himself in military campaigns, restructuring government and administration. By the end of the 1270s, a largely successful decade marred only by the failure of the first invasion of Japan, Khubilai was in essence high on his accomplishments, but burned out from the pressures of ruling. From the turn of 1280 onwards marked a significant change in Khubilai’s method of rulership. The hands-on monarch in weekly and daily discussions with his advisers on the running of the empire making sweeping plans turned into a man steadily withdrawing and becoming disinterested with the actual running of the government. The causes of this were multi-faceted, and we shall address them in turn. First will be Khubilai’s personal losses, and then the rigours of government causing his disillusionment, which only exacerbated the problems the Yuan realm faced.


    Over the 1270s and 80s, Khubilai suffered rounds of losses among his family and in his closest advisers. Perhaps the greatest of these was the deaths of wife Chabi  and his favourite son and heir Jinggim by the mid-1280s. Chabi was not Khubilai’s first wife; she had alreadydied some years prior. But Chabi had been the one with whom he placed the greatest trust and love into, setting her opinion above nearly all others. Of all his wives, it is her that we know the greatest detail of, and her official portrait is the only one of Khubilai’s wives to survive. Her counsel had been an important pillar of support throughout their marriage; it was likely on her urging that Khubilai made the decision to challenge his brother Ariq Boke, the apparent favourite, for the throne. She pushed Khubilai towards Buddhism, her own religion, and brought Khubilai’s attention to individuals who became key members of his government, such as a certain Ahmad Fanakati. Not coincidentally, it was their son Jinggim who was groomed to succeed Khubilai, recieving an education from the finest minds of  Khubilai’s advisers. Indicative of the influence of his Chinese advisers and in an attempt to prevent the succession crisis like those which followed the deaths of the previous Great Khans, in 1273 Khubilai made Jinggim his heir apparent, the crown prince. Having been groomed for the role since a young age, Jinggim played a major role in the government over these years, heading the Ministry of War and granted jurisdiction over other Secretariats. Indeed, Jinggim’s favour was necessary in the 1280s for anyone wishing to maintain their power in the Yuan government; both Ahmad Fanakati and Lu Shih-Jung fell afoul of him before their ultimate demise. Chabi and Jinggim were in many respects the cornerstones of Khubilai’s personal life. Chabi’s death in 1281 struck Khubilai particularly hard and did much to advance his withdrawal from politics. In the first half of the 1280s, Khubilai seems to have left Jinggim in the role of arbitrator; it is here that we see his major actions against both Ahmad and Lu Shih-Jung. It was directly with his instigation that Lu Shih-Jung was removed from office, and likely his permission had been granted, perhaps indirectly, for the powerful Ahmad to be murdered. So great was this process that some courtiers were advising that the ever-more distant Khubilai should abdicate in favour of the more energetic Jinggim. It seemed to anger Khubilai, but the confrontation between father and son was avoided when Jinggim suddenly died in 1285, aged only 43. Not only did this upend his plans for his dynasty, not only was it an emotional blow to lose his favoured child, but it left him with no other son prepared as Jinggim had been to step up to the position. Khubilai could not abdicate now even if he wanted to, forcing the Yuan realm to be anchored to the distraught Khubilai. Neither were Chabi and Jinggim the only members of his family to predecease him; a number of his sons such as Dorji, Manggala, Hugechi and Qutluq-Temur, as well as grandsons, died before Khubilai as well. His brothers had all died in the 1260s. Despite a great number of wives and children, Khubilai must have been feeling a deep loss and loneliness throughout his final years, something which manifested his focus on drinking and eating his pain away.

    Khubilai had over the 1250s and 60s cultivated, to paraphrase his modern biographer Morris Rossabi, a veritable kitchen cabinent of advisors to help him deal with the grand effort to rule China. These were Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist scholars and monks who knew the problems the Chinese population faced well, and were able to press upon Khubilai the need for moral government. They were able to demonstrate Khubilai the necessary steps to help legitimize his rule to the Chinese and therefore ease the acceptance of Mongol overlordship. Under their encouragement Khubilai had declared the Yuan Dynasty and adopted many of the trappings of a Chinese dynasty, portaying himself as a successor to the Song and heir to the great Tang Dynasty. Reliable companions and advisers for years, many of these men had also educated Khubilai’s children, and helped restrain some of Khubilai’s worst impulses.  So it was to Khubilai’s rulership a great losses when his chief advisers died with a shocking consistency over the 1270s; Liu Ping-Chung in 1274, Shih Tienzi in 1275, Chao Pi in 1276, Yao Shu in 1279, and Tou Mo and the ‘Phags-Pa Lama in 1280. The effect was two fold. These men had been the best source of advice for dealing with the Chinese and balancing the religions of his empire. Without them, Khubilai’s handling of the relationship with the Chinese population and religious matters became noticably clumsier over the 1280s. The other consequence of their losses was an ever greater reliance on non-Chinese and Central Asians in the government. With less connection to the Chinese, they became the faces of stiffer treatment to the Chinese of the Yuan realm and further widened the gap between the Mongol rulers and the majority of the subject population- a matter best personified by the so-called “three villainous ministers,” who we addressed in our previous episode.


    In addition to these personal losses, by the 1280s Khubilai good luck in governance and wars was coming to an end. As our previous episodes have dealt with, after 1279 Khubilai’s military ventures were generally inconclusive or outright disasters. One of the most significant consequences of this was the cost. The war against the Song Dynasty had entailed an immense mobilization of men and resources and a construction of a massive fleet of river ships. The costs of the Song war were offset from the victory and massive growth of the taxpayer base and access to the southeast Asia trade. The other military efforts did not see such a balance. The invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 for instance were catastrophic failures. Huge warships, vast numbers of men, horses and supplies were simply lost to the waves. The Korean peninsula had provided much of the ships, men and grain for the fleets, and particularly after the long and destructive Mongol war to capture the peninsula, the result was an economic disaster and starvation throughout the peninsula. Korea required yearly grain shipments well into the 1280s to avoid the collapse of the fragile Korean monarchy, which had spent most of the last century as puppets for military dictators. 


Even for the Mongols, war had to be paid for. The wars launched by Khubilai over his reign were far cries far from nomads and their herds travelling across the Eurasian grasslands. An attempt to cover this was made by employing that one trick economists ‘love:’ printing more money. Khubilai used paper money his entire reign, and careful management had kept the value up. But the extraordinary demands of the military efforts, court, government upkeep, construction of his capitals at Dadu and Shangdu, and general corruption kept the government’s  costs only ever increasing, and over the 1270s the issuance of paper money increased in an attempt to accommodate this. The result of this, as any basic economics class will tell you, is inflation. Printing increased in 1276 to cover the cost of the Song War and failure of the first invasion of Japan, and in the 1280s inflation became a real problem. The pressure became ever-greater on the finance ministers like Ahmad Fanakati to solve or abate this, but their efforts resulted in anger from a population feeling over-taxed and taken advantage of. Facing stiff opposition from other members of the government, Ahmad and the other men tasked with solving the issue of inflation, such as Lu Shih-Jung and Sangha, had a thankless job which only ended in their early and very bloody retirements- you can revisit our previous episode on them to learn more about their troubles attempting to carry out the will of Khubilai.






    While the Three Ministers may not have actually been dastardly, villianous men, their court conflicts, and immense influence, speak to Khubilai’s ever increasing dissociation with the task of governance over the 1280s.  Khubilai by then was simply assigning demands and leaving it up to these ministers to deal with them. Without guidance or oversight on his part, he usually only involved himselfonce it came time for these men to be arrested and executed on whatever pretence was necessary. Khubilai was more preoccupied with hunting- or rather, lounging from his palanquin built on the back of four elephants, while hundreds of riders ran before him. The main area in which Khubilai still showed the greatest interest was foreign policy. He continued to demand invasions and retaliatory raids. As we saw over the previous episodes, over the late 1280s and early 1290s he sent attacks and fleets against Vietnam, Burma and Java. Even Sakhalin Island, the large island off Russia’s east coast and north of Japan in the Sea of Okhtosk, saw attacks by Yuan troops almost every year in the 1280s. Yet none resulted in the great victories he wanted to assauge his ego and sense of failings.


    While Khubilai was dealing with foreign ventures, he had a more serious problem in the form of uprisings and rebellions in his territories. From 1279 until 1284, the province of Fujian on the southern Chinese coast saw rebellions which were only put down with difficulty. By 1289, it was to the point that for most of the population southeast of the Yangzi River, it was forbidden for them to own bows and arrows. A rebellion in Tibet in 1280 was swiftly put down by Sangha, but turmoil broke out again in 1285 and was not crushed until 1290; and then, only with a great loss of life. Commanded by one of Khubilai’s grandsons, Temur Buqa, the Yuan army killed at least 10,000 and burned the temples of leaders of the revolt.


Most frustrating was problems to be found among his own family and in Mongolia. His border on the western edge of Mongolia along the Altai mountains, brought him into contact with the Chagatayids and Qaidu, the Ogedeid master of Central Asia. Their long resistance to Khubilai greatly disrupted his attempts to control the Central Asian trade lines,  and though they never posed a true danger to Khubilai’s empire, they could threaten the security of Karakorum, the original Mongol imperial capital. For this reason Khubilai stationed many of his Mongolian troops there along the border, from 1271 onwards under the command of his son Nomukhan. Nomukhan’s post was disrupted when a number of his commanders- sons of Khubilai’s late brothers, the Grand Khan Mongke and Ariq Boke- revolted in 1276, captured Nomukhan and handed him over to the Golden Horde, where he would be detained until 1284. The rebellious princes occupied Karakorum, and could not be ousted until 1282, though they failed to coordinate with Qaidu.


The most serious uprisings among his family occurred in Manchuria. Here, many of the descendants of Chinggis Khan’s brothers and half-brothers had been granted territory early in the 13th century, where they were usually overlooked by the Great Khans. They had gotten used to ruling with great autonomy, and Khubilai’s efforts in the 1280s to increase his authority there -coinciding with expansion towards Sakhalin island- prompted dissent and finally revolt among a number of commanders. The most well known and powerful of these was Nayan, a Nestorian Christian and descendant of Chinggis Khan’s youngest brother Temuge. Khubilai’s star general of the conquest of the Song, Bayan of the Ba’arin, was sent to investigate the rumours of Nayan’s dissent, and only narrowly escaped a trap for him Nayan set at a banquet. By early 1287, Nayan was in open revolt against Khubilai Khan, and worry came of cooperation between him and Qaidu; together, it was feared, they could coordinate and cut Khubilai off from Mongolia entirely. In what we might consider Khubilai’s final hurrah, the 72 year old obese, gout and rheumatism riddled Khan of Khans mounted his horse one last time- or might we say, his elephants. Commanding from a tower built on the backs of four elephants, Khubilai and his army set out with surprising speed. Nayan had openly revolted at the start of 1287; by July of that year, Khubilai’s army had fallen upon him, routing his forces, capturing Nayan and killing him. As per custom, Nayan was bound in a carpet and beaten to death. So swiftly had Khubilai moved, that Qaidu, as far as we can tell, never had the opportunity to cooperate with Nayan, though for more on the rest of Qaidu’s history with Khubilai, you’ll have to see our episode dedicated to him.


    This was the last campaign Khubilai took part in. Khubilai had never been in the best shape, and his descent into food and drink and old age in the 1280s took a harsh toll on his body. Hardly able to walk due to gout and rheaumatism, obese and in chronic poor health, Khubilai sought doctors from as far as southern India to bring him relief. None could aid him. Frustrated, alone and depressed, despite being the most powerful monarch on earth he was powerless to fix the problems that plagued him. He had become the Khan of Khans, but had lost authority over the rest of the Mongol Empire. He had conquered China, but struggled to manage with the task of governing it as well. He had lived long enough to ensure his sons would inherit a strong realm and would not face serious challenges from another branch of the family; but he had now outlived his designated heir and allowed corruption to set in in his idleness. Seeking solace in drink and food, Khubilai withdrew from government for the last years of his life. Outliving his friends, closest wife, the morose Khubilai’s health worsened steadily. Few of his old comrades still lived, and their visits to him in the 1290s,such as Bayan of the Ba’arin, brought no pleasure. Falling ill over winter 1293, his courtiers prepared for the final days. On February 18th, 1294, aged 83, Khubilai Khan, son of Tolui, grandson of Chinggis Khan, died in his imperial capital of Dadu. His body was carried north for the customary secret burial on Mt. Burkhan Khaldun, joining his brothers, uncles and illustrious grandfather. 


The last Great Khan to have ever met Chinggis, Khubilai must have faced his final days with a sense of doubt and failure for his memory, having failed to complete the conquest of the world and overseen the break-up of their empire. A man of vision and energy, Khubilai had outlived his usefulness. Had he died in 1280, he may have left his dynasty with more vigour with the ascension of his talented and educated son Jinggim. But with the death of his designated heir, Khubilai had chosen Jinggim’s son Temur Oljeitu to succeed him. At a quriltai, the late Khubilai’s choice was confirmed, and in May 1294 Temur Oljeitu was duly enthroned as Khan of Khans, ruler of an empire transformed from the one his grandfather had seized 44 years prior- one we might say, had already slipped past its prime. Little over 70  years after Khubilai’s death, his successors would be pushed from China. Our story of the fate of the Mongol Khanates will continue, so please subscribe to our podcast to continue. To help us keep bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.