Kublai: Yes, He Khan



This article first appeared in Gafencu magazine, September, 2015


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree. Most schoolchildren will have heard of Kubla – or to be more accurate, Kublai – Khan through Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem (or, if you’re of a certain age, Frankie Goes to Hollywood). But who was KK, and what, exactly, is a pleasure-dome? Where can you find one? Is membership required?

Coleridge conceived ‘Kubla Khan’ as a 200 to 300-line work that apparently came to him in a dream after reading up on the Mongol warlord one night. Oh, and after smoking a load of opium. Legions of school children who have been forced to learn the poem are probably grateful that he only managed to recall and set down 54 lines before Thomas De Quincey popped round for a hair of the dog, disturbing Coleridge in mid-flow and consigning the remaining 250 lines to oblivion.

Kublai, however, was no figment of Coleridge’s imagination. In fact, he’s a larger-than-life figure on the Asian and world historical map and one who bears further assessment, especially with the 23rd September this year marking the 800th anniversary of his birth. This, after all, is the Mongolian general and warlord who conquered and united the whole of China, founding and becoming the first emperor of the country’s Yuan Dynasty. It’s no exaggeration to claim he changed the face of history.

Back in the 13th century, Mongolian expansionist policy was pretty much based solely on brute force – invade, conquer, rape, pillage and then slaughter anyone left who wouldn’t fetch much at the slave auctions. Kublai’s grandfather, Genghis, had little time for nation building. For him, diplomacy, economics and infrastructure were for wusses, and nobody was going to tell The Big G what to do.

Genghis died in 1227 when Kublai was just 12, but the youngster would have to wait 40 years before assuming the title of Khan. This was partly due to his father, Tolui, being Genghis’ fourth son, and Kublai himself having three brothers ahead of him. His prospects were boosted, however, by a Mongol succession policy that entailed the current ruler nominating an heir.

It could be argued that Kublai’s long apprenticeship was the making of him, something that set him in good stead when he eventually assumed overall control. When he first took over an estate of 10,000 households in the Hebei province, following the Mongol-Jin war of 1236, he was quite content to allow his officials free rein. As their corruption and aggressive taxation soon became apparent, he was forced to step in and impose himself. Around the same time, he also became attracted to contemporary Chinese culture and Buddhism, twin influences that never deserted him.

After Kublai’s elder brother, Mongke, became Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1251, Kublai was sent to Northern China as viceroy. Here he managed his responsibilities with aplomb, boosting agricultural output and increasing social welfare. On Mongke’s death in 1259, Kublai’s younger brother, Ariq Boke, was recognised by the family as the anointed heir. Despite this, and urged on by his charges, Kublai pressed his own candidacy. The ensuing war between the two brothers lasted five years, only ending when Ariq Boke conceded. Kublai magnanimously spared his brother’s life, though, less generously, he executed everybody else who’d had the audacity to support him.

Now, as undisputed ruler, Kublai set about attempting what none of his predecessors had ever achieved – the establishment of a long-lasting empire rather than a series of vassal khanates (small local fiefdoms). He was finally in a position to act on the profound advice he’d received from a Chinese adviser: “One can conquer the empire on horseback, but one cannot govern it from horseback.”

Such enlightenment didn’t see Kublai curtail the stock Mongolian tactics of invading, slaughtering and pillaging, but it did change how he applied post-pillage order and rule. It was a philosophy that saw him expand the Mongolian domain of the Golden Horde right into Korea, before beginning to eye up both Burma and Japan.

Despite their belligerent and incessant warmongering, the Mongolians, however, had never quite managed to dislodge the Song Dynasty in China’s south, the only obstacle to their domination of the entire Middle Kingdom. This, then, became Kublai’s ultimate objective – total unification. He was so keen on the idea he optimistically gave his planned dynasty a name – Da Yuan (or the Great Origin). He coined the term in 1271, eight years before actually achieving his goal.

It was now that he put the wisdom he’d acquired over the years into implementing a systematic approach to governance across all of his domains. This was based on two principles – diplomacy and an avowed policy of divide and rule. This saw his conquered Chinese and central Asian lands effectively allowed to run themselves: the only way in which truly stable unification could be assured.

Distrustful of the Chinese and fully aware that your typical Mongol of the era was not up to the task of holding down a desk job, Kublai preferred to appoint foreigners to important posts. According to some historians, this created a distinctly rigid class system, with the military elite – the Mongols – at the top, supported by foreign Arab and Central Asian auxiliaries (neither of whom paid any tax). Propping up both of these layers were the poor northern Chinese and Koreans and, at the very bottom, the even less fortunate Southern Chinese, who effectively formed the labouring class.

Kublai recognised that the Mongolians – only a century before, a primitive, barbaric and nomadic tribe – could learn a thing or two from the developed civilisation of the Song dynasty. He thus set about absorbing rather than destroying its legacy. Soon he was promoting commercial, scientific and cultural growth, constructing infrastructure uniting the north and south, and opening up relations with the west. Plus ca change.

Marco Polo, an Italian merchant, is probably the best known of the Western visitors who ventured down the Silk Road to Kublai’s court. As great as Kublai’s actual deeds and achievements, it is Polo’s written accounts of the Great Khan himself, the Mongols and their lifestyle that has helped to establish their place in history.

These accounts also spawned a fascination with the Khans that has manifested itself on film and TV throughout the last 100 years – the most recent being Netflix’s 2014 series Marco Polo, which starred Benedict Wong – a UK-born actor of Hong Kong ancestry – as Kublai. More typically, though, Kublai always seems to get second billing to his infinitely more well-known granddad Genghis, a part nabbed, with varying shades of implausibility, by Hollywood actors John Wayne, Omar Sharif, and Charlton Heston over the years.

In truth, there are a lot of historical Khans to get your head around, but that is nothing compared to today where Khan is one of the most common names in the world. Khan literally means “ruler” or “nobleman,” but before any Khans get too carried away about their likely lineage, remember there are also plenty of blue-blood-free Kings, Barons and Knights out there too.

Possibly one explanation for the popularity of the Khan name came in a recent scientific study. This claimed that 16 million men across the world could now trace their ancestry – based on their Y-chromosomes – back to Genghis Khan. Some sources say he was a prolific lover, which, you have to confess, sounds a bit of an understatement. Anyway it wasn’t just him. It seems they were all at it, including a pleasure dome-ensconced Kublai.

In truth, one of the primary tasks on any Mongolian conqueror’s to-do list was the widespread dissemination of his seed, a task made all the easier by the practice of killing any male enemies they came across and raping any women they could lay their hands on. At the more elevated level of the food chain, you could also factor in polygamy, concubines and harems as accelerants to this genealogical wildfire. Imagine placing a single grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, and doubling it for every subsequent square. Then imagine replacing that grain with a priapic Mongol prince. It soon adds up.

Obviously sustaining the empire, as well as the offspring and the concubines, all cost money. In Kublai’s case, though, he came up with the perfect solution to funding his lifestyle – he simply printed his own cash. Paper currency had been in use before the Song dynasty and clearly offered many advantages over coins that were heavy to carry and use. The Yuan Empire, though, was the first to use it as its predominant currency.

Anticipating that some traditionalists may be slow to trust the new notes, Kublai helpfully advised that anyone resisting the new system would be killed. The Eurozone is, apparently, considering adopting similar measures.

As for Xanadu (Shangdu in Mandarin) it really did exist, being the capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty in China before he decided to move his seat of power to present day Beijing, 350 Km south (a move that didn’t particularly go down well with die-hard Mongolians). Xanadu was every bit as opulent as Coleridge’s poem suggests and even after the relocation of the capital to Khanbaliq it continued to be used as the summer capital (especially the ‘sumptuous house of pleasure’, one assumes). Xanadu was destroyed by the Ming dynasty in 1369, but even today the name still manages to conjure up an image of oriental splendour and wonder (despite the collective efforts of Olivia Newton-John and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch to undermine it).

Having united China, KK could have stopped there but, like many a gambler before him, he found it hard to leave the casino. He was unable to resist the temptation to try his luck at invading the neighbouring kingdoms. This saw him embark on a series of costly campaigns against Burma and Indochina, as well as a disastrous one to Japan, racking up a number of defeats along the way.

Some historical reports suggest that this lack of military success late in his reign preyed heavily on Kublai’s mind, so much so that he turned to food and drink for comfort – which may well have helped get him to the stage where he was too chunky to squeeze into any pleasure dome. Grossly overweight, he also started to suffer from gout and diabetes. It’s not known exactly what he died of, but anybody making it to the age of 78 in those days was doing pretty well for themselves.

Ultimately, Kublai’s energies were absorbed by China, almost to the exclusion of his homeland, with his reign effectively isolating the Mongols within their newly conquered nation-state. Ignoring the fact that he probably got to sign off on his own version of history, there is no doubt that, by and large, his legacy and achievements are revered in Chinese accounts from that time and afterwards.

Could Kublai Khan have had such a bearing on history if it hadn’t been for the savagery and barbarianism of his marauding grandfather before him? Probably not, but there’s no doubt that Genghis would never have been able to unify and sustain the lands that fell under the Mongol yoke, and the meeting of East and West would have been delayed for many more centuries. So happy birthday, KK. Maybe, to celebrate, it’s about time there was a bank note with your image on it?