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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Nov 16, 2020

“Now I wish to tell you [...] all the very great doings and all the very great marvels of the very great lord of the Tartars, [...] who is called Kublai Khan, which [...] means to say in our language the great lord of lords, emperor, and [...]this great Khan is the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world, or that now is from the time of Adam our first father till this moment; and under him all the peoples are set with such obedience as has never been done under any other former king. And this I shall show you quite clearly in the course of this our second book, that it is a true thing which I have told you so that each will be sure that he is, as we say without contradiction, the greatest lord that ever was born in the world or that now is.”


    So Marco Polo introduces Kublai Khan in his Description of the World, as per the classic translation of Moule and Pelliot. Having now taken you through the successful Mongol conquest of China and fall of the Song Dynasty, we’ll now look at Kublai’s reign itself, and his efforts to build a new dynasty in China. Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and simultaneously Emperor of China, Kublai Khan was one of the single most powerful men in human history, rumours of his vast wealth and might spreading across the world. Kublai Khan’s long reign will be dealt with in two halves; a first one today covering 1260 to 1279, followed by a look at Kublai’s foreign ventures, then another episode detailing his last years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Kublai’s name has popped up in several episodes even before his war with Ariq Boke, but we’ve dealt little with the man directly. Born on the 23rd of September, 1215, Kublai was the second son of Tolui and Sorqaqtani Beki, and a grandson of Chinggis Khan. Indeed, Kublai was the last of the Great Khans to have ever personally met Chinggis, though Kublai was little more than 12 years old at the time of Chinggis’ death. It was never likely that Kublai would have come to the throne: while all of Sorqaqtani’s son received the same extensive education, learning to read and write the Mongolian script, take lessons in governance and even had Chinese advisers, Kublai was the only one of her four sons who really found himself attracted to Chinese culture. In time, Kublai even came to speak some Chinese, though never learned the characters. While Sorqaqtani’s eldest son Mongke led armies on the Great Western Campaign across the steppe in the 1230s, Kublai was beginning to govern Chinese for the first time, having been given an appanage in North China by Ogedai Khaan in 1236. Like many Mongols granted territory in China, Kublai did not actually rule from China, staying in Mongolia proper. As with much of North China, Kublai’s appanage was left to the whims of tax farmers and merciless officers demanding extraordinary levies. By the time Kublai learned of it, thousands of tenants had already fled their lands. Perhaps on the council of his Chinese tutors, Kublai sought assistance and local knowledge. The tax farmers in his lands were dismissed and replaced with dedicated officials. A regular taxation system enforced, burdens lessened and by the 1240s Kublai had succeeded in encouraging a number to return. The episode was an important one for Kublai. Leaving government to operate without oversight would allow all manner of corruption and abuse into the system, depreiving the lord of his tribute and putting increased pressure onto the peasanty and farmers at the bottom. Given the chance, they would flee, leaving those petty officials to now increase the pressure on remaining tenants and continue the cycle. By curbing abuses and encouraging growth, Kublai reasoned, the lord would reap even greater rewards over time.


    For most of the 1240s, Kublai was a minor figure. He was a grandson of Chinggis and thus a high ranking prince, to be sure, but one of little importance without a military record to his name- the only kind of record which mattered, as far as the Mongols were concerned. Just before 1240 Kublai married his second and most famous wife, Chabi of the Onggirat. A wise and outspoken woman, Chabi would, for most of Kublai’s long life, be one of his most significant advisers and supporters, a calming and motivating voice when he needed it most. Chabi was also a devout Buddhist, and certainly must have encouraged Kublai’s own interest in Buddhism. It’s no coincidence their first son was given a rather classically Tibetan Buddhist name, Dorji. She may very well have been a driving force in bringing more Buddhist advisers into Kublai’s fledgling court in the 1240s. In 1242, the Buddhist monk Hai-yun was summoned to Kublai, who further educated Kublai on Buddhism. In 1243, Hai-yun helped Kublai choose the Chinese Buddhist name of Zhenjin, “True Gold,” for Kublai’s second son, rendered in Mongol as Jingim. Hai-yun introduced Kublai to another Buddhist, Liu Ping-chung, who would become one of Kublai’s most prominent advisers in the years to come. While Kublai was personally more inclined to Buddhism, he did not limit himself to it. Confucian scholars such as Chao Pi, Tou Mo and most famously, Yao Shu, came to Kublai in these years. Yao Shu was highly trusted by Kublai, and the Chinese sources are replete with examples of Yao Shu turning ancient Chinese parables and stories into practical advice for Kublai as a general and in time, ruler. These  men were made responsible not just for informing Kublai of the ancient Confucian classics, but of tutoring Kublai’s sons as well. The oldest boy, Dorji, died early, and Jingim became the focus of their teaching efforts, receiving an education in Buddhism, Confucianism and even Taoism.


    Confucians and Buddhists were not his only advisers; Uighurs, Turks and Central Asians served Kublai in a vareity of roles as interpeters, translators, officials and financial advisers. For military matters of course, Kublai relied on his Mongolian kinsmen. Over the 1240s and into the 1250s, Kublai cultivated what historian Morris Rossabi has termed the “kitchen cabinet,” of advisers, a wide collection of opinions and experiences which he could draw upon, men he knew for years and trusted, backed up by his wife Chabi. 

    As we’ve covered before, when his older brother Mongke became Grand Khan in the 1250s Kublai was thrust into the international spotlight. We needn’t go into this in great detail again; how Kublai was for the first time given a military command, against the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. How Kublai returned to Northern China to oversee matters for Mongke there, only to annoy his brother with possible aspirations to greater autonomy and perhaps independence, an overconfidence brought on by a successful military campaign and fruitful years as a governor which saw him construct his own capital, known as Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. Mongke greatly reduced Kublai’s influence in the aftermath, and Kublai only managed to crawl back into Mongke’s favour in time to be given command of an army in a massive assault on the Song Dynasty. The sudden death of Mongke in August 1259  brought the campaign to a screeching halt. Mongke and Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, stepped up into the regency. Kublai ignored requests to return to the imperial capital at Karakorum in Mongolia, and continued to campaign for a few more months, until his wife Chabi sent word of rumour that Ariq was going to put his name forward for the Khanate. But Kublai had already been aspiring for the throne. He may have intended to keep campaigning and build up his rather lacklustre resume as a commander, but now had to rush north earlier than he had hoped. In May of 1260, at his residence in Shangdu, Kublai declared himself Khan of the Mongol Empire, precipitating a four year civil war between himself and Ariq. Though Kublai had Ariq’s surrender by 1264, over those four years the princes in the western half of the empire took their independence, leaving Kublai ruler of a realm much reduced in size. As our previous episodes have demonstrated, Kublai sent his armies on the colossal effort to conquer southern China and its Song Dynasty, a task only completed by 1279. Kublai though, did not lead these armies himself, instead focusing on building his new empire, as we’ll go into today.


    After declaring himself Khan in early 1260, his early efforts were directed at the war with Ariq Boke. Once the conflict quieted by 1261 and 62, as Ariq was pushed from Mongolia, Kublai could begin to consolidate his empire. Though he still perceived of himself as ruler of the Mongol Empire, he understood that his powerbase was in China. From the beginning, Kublai could not have merely co-opted Mongke’s administration. Since the reign of Ogedai, the Mongol imperial organization functioned through Secretariats, influenced by yet unique from the Chinese system. The Central Secretariat, based in the imperial capital, was the central government, the head of which served as a sort of Prime Minister, consulting with the Great Khan to carry out his will and laws. For Ogedai, Guyuk and Mongke, the Central Secretariat had been staffed by members of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard. The Central Secretariat delegated authority to the various Branch Secretariats, the regional offices overseeing imperial government. Branch Secretariats for North China, Central Asia  and Western Asia were the three main offices, with a Secretariat for the Rus’ Principalities in the process of being organized at time of Mongke’s death. The Secretariats struggled to carry out their will, for they were operating alongside various regional Mongol princes who had been allotted these lands as well. The conflict over whether the Secretariats or the Princes carried out administration or taxation, among other responsibilities, was a key component of government ineffiencies over the century. 


With the outbreak of war with Ariq Boke, most of the top members of the former Central Secretariat had sided with Ariq Boke in Karakorum, leaving Kublai to rely on his own men. Among his earliest actions was to get the loyalty of the China Secretariat and local Mongol princes, and prevent them from allying with Ariq. Of these, Qadan was the most significant, a son of Ogedai who ruled on Kublai’s northwest frontier, the border close to Ariq’s territory and the Chagatayids. Key allies like this allowed Kublai to focus on more internal matters. 


The officials of the China Secretariat were naturally brought on into Kublai’s new government. Without access to the old Central Secretariat offices though, Kublai had to establish a new one after becoming Khan. Unlike the Central Secretariats of the previous Khans, Kublai’s was not filled by men of his keshig -though they were present- but civilian administrators and his own advisers. The first to head the new Secretariat was Wang Wen-tung. In structure Kublai’s Secretariat had much more in common with the usual Chinese office, indicative of the influence of Kublai’s Confucian advisers. The head of the Secretariat was assisted by two Chancellors of the Left and Right, often serving as his replacement and primary advisers to the Khan. The Head of the Secretariat and the two Chancellors oversaw what was known as the Six Functional Ministeries, which carried out the day-to-day running of the empire: the Ministry of Personnel, responsible for civilian officials; the Ministry of Revenue, responsible for the census, taxes and tribute; the Ministry of Rites, responsible for ceremonies, sacrifices and embassies; the Ministry of War, responsible for some aspects of military command, colonies, postal stations and supplies; the Ministry of Justice, which managed law and prisons; and the Ministry of Public Works, which repaired and maintained fortifications, dams and public land.


In 1263, Kublai also re-established another Chinese institution, the Privy Council, which managed the Imperial Army and protected the capital. Kublai sought a more centralized control of the army, but in this found resistance from the Mongolian leadership and princes. While Chinggis Khan had largely replaced the traditional military leadership and chiefs, a new hereditary leadership was installed, both from his sons and non-Chinggisids. By Kublai’s time, he was dealing with well-entrenched egos born into these positions. They would answer the Khan’s summons for war, of course, but did not want to be managed in all aspects by officials in a distant capital who may not have been nomads. To compromise, Kublai organized his armed forces into three major branches. The first a “Mongol Army,” under his direct control, and that of the Privy Council. This was stationed close to the Imperial capitals, made up of Mongols, Central Asians and Turks. This was followed by the “Tammachi,” the Mongols who served the Khan, but maintained their own princes and lived out in the steppes. Then there was the “Chinese Army,” the largely infantry force of Chinese who served as garrison troops.


By 1268, in order to watch his growing bureaucracy, Kublai brought on another Chinese institution, the Censorate. The duty of the Censorate was to inspect officials and route out corruption; they would report directly back to the Khan to inform him of the goings-on in his government, of tidings which may not have reached him through regular channels. For Kublai, good governance was a high priority, and he gave his Censorate great resources and power. The Khan wanted to know what happened at all levels of government. Compared to other dynasties, Kublai’s Censorate had great power… on paper. In reality, there is little evidence for its effectiveness outside of the provinces closest to the capital. The Censorate’s first leader, a Confucian named Zhang Dehui, resigned after a dispute with Kublai on how the law applied to the Khan. To put simply, Kublai argued that it didn’t, and Kublai had him replaced with a more pliant Mongol. 


Kublai’s affinity for the classic Chinese government structures should not be overstated. Employing traditional styles of governance helped placate Confucian elites and scholars, going some ways to convince them that Kublai had ‘stepped past,’ his nomad roots, but he was unwilling to let himself be tethered to it. The most obvious example was in his refusal to restore the Civil Service examination systems. Since the Tang Dynasty, most Chinese bureacrats were selected after completing these exams. The highest men in the empires were scholar officials who were well versed in Chinese history and literary classics, and jealuously guarded access to high office from those who had never completed the exams. Kublai did not want to limit himself in who he could appoint to office, preferring to keep his doors open to anyone he perceived useful or deserving, regardless of their origins. So, the non-Chinese men from his keshig could still staff high positions, and men from Central Asia could be raised to high station. Of these, none were more famous than Ahmad Fanakati, becoming Kublai’s finance minister in the 1260s. Particularly with the rebellion of Li Tan in 1262, a Mongol-aligned warlord in Shandong, Kublai’s desire to place power in the hands of the Chinese lessenged. Though the rebellion was quickly crushed,  Kublai’s chief minister of the Central Secretariat, Li Tan’s father-in-law Wang Wen-tung, was found complicit and executed. The power of Mongol-allied Chinese warlords across North China was greatly curtailed following this, and Kublai found himself far more suspicious of the Confucians in his government.


For Kublai’s empire, the old imperial capital of Karakorum was untenable. Deep in Mongolia, it was a difficult to supply and highly exposed location, now vulnerable to the mobile horsemen of Kublai’s Central Asian kinsmen- first Ariq Boke, the Chagatayids and in time, the young Ogedeid prince Qaidu. Neither could the complex bureaucracy he was building be managed from Mongolia’s Orkhon valley. Karakorum was to be effectively left abandoned,  a garrison outpost of only symbolic value. For a little over 30 years Karakorum had been the administrative centre of most of Eurasia. Never again would it regain its importance. Kublai first made Shangdu, in what is now Inner Mongolia at the edge of the steppe and Chinese frontier, his capital. Shangdu, originally called Kaiping, is most well known through Samual Taylor Coleridge’s poem Xanadu. Though it housed Kublai’s court and was in the steppe, it was built in Chinese style; roughly a square, with low, rammed earthern walls and a palace. But even Shangdu was insufficient for governing the empire. The area was unsuited to housing a great population, and would still have kept Kublai removed from his subjects. Chinese sources assert that Kublai’s Chinese advisers informed him of the need to govern from within China, but Kublai must have seen it himself. Most Imperial capitals were located more centrally, along the lower arm of the Yellow River where it cuts through the North China plain. Of these cities, none were better known than Xian, in Shaanxi province, from which a great many dynasties ruled from. The former Song and Jin capitals of Kaifeng were also located along the Yellow River. Kublai did not wish to abandon his homeland though, desiring to maintain some proximity, both for personal and security reasons. So a more northerly location was chosen: the ruins of the Jin capital of Zhongdu. Fittingly, the city had been taken by the Mongols the same year as Kublai’s birth, in 1215, and now Kublai was the one to restore it… somewhat. His new city was built just northeast of Zhongdu, straddling three rivers to provide ample water for the population. Construction began in 1267. Built in Chinese style but overseen by a Muslim engineer, it was a vast, square shape with walls of rammed earth. Within was a smaller enclosed area, housing the imperial city, palaces and residences of the Khan. This was to be Dadu, meaning great capital. To Mongols and Turks, it was Khanbaliq, the Khan’s city. Marco Polo would interpet it as Cambulac. Today, Beijing sits atop of it.


    Dadu in many ways embodied Kublai’s often roughly mixed Chinese and Mongolian demands. The Chinese wanted Kublai to step into the expectations of a Chinese Emperor and conduct proper rituals to maintain the Mandate of Heaven; constructing a capital within China, building requisite temples to honour his ancestors and donning proper imperial garb helped  to present the necessary image. Yet, Kublai and his sons slept not in Dadu’s sumptuous residences, but in gers in the city’s central park; feasts were decidedly more Mongolian in terms of drunkenness and yelling; his altar sat on top of soil brought from Mongolia. In a sort of quasi-nomadization, Kublai conducted treks between Shangdu and Dadu every year, spending summers in Shangdu and winters in Dadu. Each trek was marked with Mongolian shamanistic ceremonies: flicking airag onto the ground for the departing Khan and calling out the name of his illustrious grandfather. At Shangdu Kublai hunted and feasted, doing a little bit to remind himself of his heritage and escape the demands of office.


    As we’ve been iterating, the image of a legitimate emperor of China was a major part of actually ruling China. Each Chinese dynasty, it was believed, ruled with the Mandate of Heaven, the divine support necessary to control the Middle Kingdom. Victory in war meant the conqueror had Heaven’s support. But Heaven needed to be appeased through proper ritual and ceremony. Good governance and climate meant that the Dynasty had Heaven’s support. Corruption and ecological disasters, coupled with military defeats, meant Heaven had rescinded its blessing. The image of being a proper Chinese ruler was therefore necessary for any man wishing to have that divine backing. Kublai would have been reminded of this constantly by his advisers, particularly Liu Ping-chung, who urged Kublai to commit to declaring a dynasty and marking himself as the successor to the Song. In 1271 the Yuan Dynasty was officially declared. Yuan was taken from the Yijing, the Book of Changes, one of the most ancient of all Chinese classics. Yuan has connotations of primal energy and the origins of the universe; all auspicious things to refer to for a man who already had the backing of Eternal Blue Heaven. 


    To Kublai, taking the Dynastic name of Yuan was not an indication he was replacing the Mongol Empire. To him, Da Yuan, the Great Yuan, was another way to express Yeke Mongghol Ulus, the Great Mongol State. It was to help Chinese acceptance of his rule and maintain Heaven’s Mandate. But it was a fine line to try and present oneself as both Mongol Emperor and the Chinese Emperor, and the declaration of the Yuan may have been in part a recognition of his lack of effective power over the western Mongol Khanates. Kublai still very much saw himself as their overlord, but even he would have recognized his actual power over them was limited at best. 


    By declaring the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai was also demonstrating his intention was not just to loot and occupy China, but actually rule there. Now, we’ve talked alot about things Kublai ordered, declared and issued: but what did his rule actually look like? In terms of wanting to be a good ruler, what did Kublai accomplish in this regard? Well, ol’ Kublai was not just a man of ideas, but put things into action. Reconstruction of China both north and south was a primary goal of his. Northern China had hardly recovered from the prolonged Mongol-Jin warfare. Despite efforts in the past to institute regular taxation as proposed by the thanksless Yelu Chucai, much taxatio remained adhoc, local populations still being taken advantage of by Mongol officials. For the success of his Dynasty, Kublai wanted the burdens on the population relieved.


    In 1261, Kublai began to provide funding for the Office for the Stimulation of Agriculture, headed by his friend and adviser Yao Shu. The stated goal of the office was to help peasants restore, develop and advance agriculture. Kublai wanted Northern China to once again reach a state of food security and be able to produce surplus as protection against shortages. A starving and discontented peasantry would pose a risk of massive uprisings, and the surplus was needed for the massive capital at Dadu. Dadu required 58 grainaries, each one holding 2,170,440 kilograms of grain, or  4,785,000 lbs. Kublai needed a reserve just to feed his capital, let alone secure northern China. 


    Kublai also understood it was not just a matter of providing funds and labour; the peasants needed to be protected from the Mongols. In 1262, Kublai forbade Mongols from ranging their animals through peasant fields, protecting vital cropland from becoming lunch for hundreds of goat and sheep. He also sought to abolish, once and for all, the tax farmers who sought to beggar the Chinese. Taxes needed to be simplified, and the power of the princely appanages curtailed in order for the Central Secretariat to retain dominance. For this, princes were denied their ability to collect taxes; rather than pay both the local prince and the Central Government, the taxes would go just to the government. Then, an allotment would be provided to the princes. Simplifying and reducing taxes always goes a long way to reducing stress on the folk on the bottom of the social rung. Taking this further, Kublai also reduced or completely removed taxes on entire regions to help them recover. Funds were provided for farmers to restore lands damaged during the conquest, as was grain for those in need. The Khan regularly met and sought knowledge from his advisers on how to restore the countryside and promote trade, and heaped rewards on those who provided effective ideas.


    Kublai also promoted what he saw as useful professions. Generally, Chinese dynasties looked down on craftsmen and doctors, but Kublai carried on the Mongol practice of favouring those with skills. Craftsmen and doctors were exempted from certains taxes and corvee labour. For craftsmen and merchants, Kublai encouraged trade, especially from Central Asia  and on the South Asia sea routes.  In 1268 he opened the General Administration for Supervision of the Ortogh, which provided government loans to merchants taking part in caravans from Central Asia. In southern China, kilns were registered and supported by the government to aid the production of porcelains, a valuable part of the Southeast Asian sea trade.  Taxes were lowered on commercial transactions, roads and routes were improved to facilitate movement. Foreign merchants were encouraged to come to China in order to advance the overseas trade, bring their knowledge and even serve in the government: owing their work to the Khan was thought to make them more useful. It is in such a capacity that Marco Polo would work, serving it seems in Kublai’s keshig, as we’ll explore in a future episode.


For doctors and physicians, Kublai established and funded academies and hospitals for them to work in, and to learn from Muslim medical knowledge Kublai imported- a full 31 volumes of Muslim medical practices were collected for the court library. As Kublai was often in poor health and suffered terribly from gout, he was keen to support this industry and whatever relief they might bring him. Expensive drugs, ingredients and doctors were collected from across the Islamic world and even southern India and brought to China. Exempted from many tax obligations and corvee labour, and often serving upon the elite and government, medical leaders reached a very high, and very lucrative, social standing they had not previously enjoyed. By encouraging the growth in numbers of physicians and hospitals, this brought greater access of their services to people at large as well.


    Within his first years as Khan, Kublai had also organized the printing of new paper currencies. The first of these was backed by silk, and the later by the silver reserve. Earlier Khans had encouraged payment in coinage over kind, and Kublai took this to the next level. He hoped to employ the same currency throughout his realm to ease trade and aid in economic stability. The earlier paper mony printed by his predecessors and the Song emperors was invalidated, though in the former Song territory the people were given a period of years to hand in the old money, including gold, silver and copper coins,  in exchange for the new. Until the late-1270s, Kublai kept tight control on how much was printed in order to prevent inflation, and the system worked quite well. Only with costs endured from the failed attack on Japan and the last years of war with the Song, did the printing of paper money escalate, though not yet to disastrous levels.


In science too, Kublai promoted cross-continental contacts. Astronomy was always of interest to Chinese monarchs and diviners, and a good mark of any emperor was formatting a new calendar. For this, considerable Muslim knowledge was imported. In 1271 the Institute of Muslim Astronomy was founded, allowing Chinese astronomers to study translated Islamic texts and instruments to design their own, and eventually provide Kublai a new, more accurate calender. Kublai also ordered the establishment of a new legal code which began to take effect in the early 1270s. It was actually more lenient than previous dynastic legal codes: only 135 crimes were punishable by death in the Yuan legal code, less than the preceeding Song, or succeeding Ming, legal codes. Executions per year during the 13th century rarely exceeded 100, with the Khan personally reviewing these cases, preffering to send them to labour or to pay a fine. The latter was an uniquely Mongol addition to the Chinese legal system. For the Mongols, such fines were regular compensation for punishments, and now too would become standard practice in China.


    Kublai also gave China the basis for the provincial organization it holds today. As the first man to unite all of China in 300 years, he was able to order a country-wide provincial reorganization. Unlike previous dynasties, Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan were now part of China; Yunnan, for instance, had never been under Chinese suzerainty before, and has never left it since. Kublai reorganized China into 12 provinces, each governed by regional versions of the Central Secretariat. In much of the south, former Song officials were brought to staff the lower levels of government, but a system of Mongol and Central Asian daruqachi supervised and managed them.


    As part of his hope to tie the various disparate regions of his empire together, Kublai sought a writing system all could use. He did not want to rely on Chinese, a script few Mongols had ever learned. But neither was the Uighur script the Mongols used for their own language fully adequate. Adopted by Chinggis Khan in 1206, it only barely covered the sounds of spoken Mongolian, and was simply incapable of representing Chinese. For this task, Kublai turned to one of his best known advisers, the ‘Phags-pa Lama. Born in 1235, in the 1240s he accompanied his uncle, the Sakya Pandita, one of the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism’s Sa-Skya sect, to the court of Ogedai’s son Koten. Basically growing up in Mongol courts, in the 1250s he found himself attached to prince Kublai, and in time Khan Kublai. Made Kublai’s personal chaplain after he became Khan, in 1264  the ‘Phags-pa Lama and his brother were appointed to govern Tibet on behalf of the Mongols. Having spent comparatively little time there, they did not do a great job. His brother died in 1267, which was soon followed by an uprising from a rival Buddhist sect, crushed with a forced reimposition of Mongol rule. With the Mongols now ruling Tibet directly, the ‘Phags-pa Lama returned to Kublai’s court, where he was given a new task: designing for Kublai a new universal script for the empire. Completing it by 1269, this was the famed Yuan square script, or ‘Phags-pa script, as named for its designer. Based on the Tibetan script, it was 41 square shaped letters written vertically and designed to capture sounds of both Chinese and Mongolian. Kublai was delighted and heaped rewards onto the ‘Phags-pa Lama, making him Imperial Perceptor and Head of all monks in Kublai’s empire, in addition to further tutoring Kublai’s son Jingim. Kublai ordered the script to be taught to all officials, and all government documents were to be issued in the new script. Surviving stone inscriptions, paper money, porcelain and state paizas from the Yuan period all feature the characteristic blocks of the ‘Phags-pa script. But aside from official and decorative purposes, the script never caught on even within the government, despite repeated proclamations from Kublai for his officials to learn it. 


    In keeping with the precedent of previous Khans, Kublai’s early reign encouraged the respect of religions. The legal code did not set out to prohibit any religion, and religious communities, especially Muslims, were often self-governing as long as they paid taxes. Respect was shown to Confucians, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Shamanists and even those Christians in China. Like Mongke, there were members of these religions convinced that Kublai was about to, or had already, converted to their faith, so effective was Kublai at protraying himself as a friend to all. The ‘Phags-pa Lama, for instance, presented Kublai as the Buddhisatta of Wisdom to Tibetans while Marco Polo portrayed Kublai as a fine Christian monarch in his accounts. Tax exemptions were provided to religious orders, financial aid to help in rebuilding and constructing new temples, representation at court and other privileges were granted to these various communities. In exchange, they convened with the Heavens and Gods on Kublai’s behalf to bring good fortune onto the Yuan realm and maintain the Mandate of Heaven.


    It should not be thought that Kublai set out to create an idealized utopia-  he was still Mongol Emperor after all, and the Mongols were only a small minority among tens of millions of Chinese. Kublai issued proclamations to keep Mongols and Chinese separate; the Chinese could not learn Mongolian or wear Mongolian clothing, and it was illegal to sell Mongolian horses to them. Marriage and intermingling were dissuaded. Most famously, Kublai organized a racial heirarchy to determine favours and certain rights. Obviously, Mongols were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the semuren, referring to Central Asians, Muslims, various Turks and even Tangut. Below the semuren was the hanren, the northern Chinese and former denizens of the Jin Empire. Khitans and Jurchen were included among them. After 1279, another category was added, the nanren, the Southern Chinese of the late Song Dynasty. The cateogrization though was vague, subject to change and often ignored. Yet it underlined a key fact: despite all Kublai did to look like a Chinese monarch, neither he nor his successors would ever be Chinese, and that divide would not disappear after Kublai’s death. For those Mongols still in Mongolia though, Kublai certainly looked too much like a Chinese monarch for their tastes. This was not a dynamic that would promote the longevity of the Yuan Dynasty.


    From 1260-1279, Kublai Khan’s reign was marked by numerous accomplishments, with the notable exception of the invasion of Japan in 1274, and of course, his loss of control over the western Khanates. He set about creating a new government structure to run his empire, utilizing talent from across Eurasia and rebuilding China after decades of war. For the first time since the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907, China was united under one ruler. But 1279 was to be, in many ways, the high water mark of his reign. The effort it took to manage the Yuan government was considerable, and needed tremendous personal energy on the part of the monarch to keep it running as effectively as possible. As age, health and personnal losses took the energy out of him, the 1280s ultimately marked a series of failures for Kublai, which we will explore in forthcoming episodes, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at This script was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.