Kublai Khan is a towering figure in global history. He was the leader of the Mongol empire from 1260–91, when it was at the very height of its powers – stretching all the way from eastern Europe in the west to the Sea of Japan in the far east, from Siberia in the north, to what is now Afghanistan in the south.


Presiding over the vast empire forged by his grandfather Genghis Khan’s campaign of conquest was an awesome task. Yet what Kublai Khan is arguably most famous for is a campaign of conquest of his own: that of China.

Kublai completed the Mongol overthrow of China begun by Chinggis Khan several decades previously and, in 1271, established the Yuan dynasty, with the city that is now Beijing its capital.

The overthrow was completed with the defeat of the Song dynasty in 1279. For that achievement, he is widely remembered as one of the most significant of all leaders of China.

Who was Kublai Khan?

Kublai Khan was born in 1215 into the Mongol imperial family – and therefore into what was arguably the most powerful dynasty in the world.

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Given his high status, there’s lots we don’t know about his upbringing. However, according to Nicholas Morton, associate professor of history at Nottingham Trent University, we can assume that Kublai Khan “would have been raised in a fair degree of luxury, but he would also have been raised with the traditional nomadic skills of riding, hunting, shooting. These would have served him well, and had natural military applications.”

A portrait of Kublai Khan
Woodcut portrait of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol empire and one of the most successful conquerors in history.

Kublai’s father was Tolui, a prominent Mongol general and the youngest son of Genghis Khan and his first wife, Borte. As such, explains Nicholas Morton on the HistoryExtra podcast, Kublai “will have been raised not believing but knowing that the Mongols have a right to rule every human being on the entire planet because they feel they have a mandate from heaven to do that”.

Tolui was heavily involved in Mongol military campaigns in China. His son Kublai therefore gained experience as a warrior in a Chinese context, says Morton. This would have a huge bearing on his policies once he became leader.

When did Kublai Khan rule?

Kublai Khan became the fifth emperor of the Mongol dynasty in 1260. Today, he is widely remembered as the greatest of Genghis’s successors, but there was nothing inevitable about his rise to power – he was, after all, just one of many grandsons of the founder of the Mongol dynasty.

Kublai’s break came when his brother Mongke became Great Khan. Mongke died while on campaign in 1259, leaving a power vacuum that Kublai – able to deploy the significant resources provided by his powerbase in China – was all too willing and able to fill.

What is Kublai Khan most famous for?

Kublai Khan is best remembered for masterminding the unification of China, establishing a dynasty (the Yuan) that would endure deep into the 14th century.

The Mongols had been attempting to subdue China – with its enormous population and vast resources – since the days of Genghis Khan.

But it was Kublai who made that dream a reality, first conquering Yunnan in northern China on the orders of his brother Mongke, and then, as Great Khan, conquering the Song dynasty in the south.

The conquest of China was a mighty achievement. Yet how did a leader who immersed himself in what was an incredibly sophisticated Chinese culture – and based himself in the city that’s now Beijing – stay true to his nomadic background? It was a circle that, says Morton, Kublai Khan struggled to square.

“Kublai Khan wanted to try to achieve some legitimacy with his Chinese subjects. But at the same time his Mongol peers were concerned that he was moving too far away from his Mongol roots. That caused tensions. And those tensions didn’t go away.”

Life changed dramatically for many Chinese people under Kublai Khan. The Mongols overhauled the tax system, undertook huge construction projects (such as expanding the Grand Canal that snaked across the country) and brought a number of intellectuals from the Muslim world to China.

Yet there were losers as well as winners in Mongol China. “Many of Kublai Khan's leading ministers were deeply unpopular because of the taxation demands made on the population,” says Morton.

“And there’s evidence of a substantial loss of life during and after the Mongols’ conquest of China. While this wasn’t solely due to military action – disease may well have been another factor – historians have concluded that China's population went down steeply during this era.”

The Fleet of Kublai Khan
The Fleet of Kublai Khan Passing Through the Indian Archipelago by William Henry Drake. (Photo by Getty images)

What happened when Kublai Khan attempted to invade Japan?

Conquering China was the crowning achievement of Kublai Khan’s reign as Great Khan. Yet he wasn’t able to replicate such success everywhere. He attempted to invade Japan twice – and both campaigns ended in failure.

The first assault, in 1274, ended when its land invasion ground to a halt and heavy storms forced the withdrawal of Kublai Khan’s fleet.

Many leaders would have given up there. But, says Morton, “because the Mongol dynasty is founded on the ideology that it must conquer the world, it cannot accept defiance of its claims to rule the world. It therefore becomes an ideological imperative that it should achieve Japan’s full–scale subjugation.”

And so, in 1281, Kublai Khan attempted to invade Japan again – with an even bigger fleet, and an even more formidable army.

Yet, for all its size, the Mongol invasion of 1281 fared no better than its predecessor. Fierce Japanese resistance repelled the army, while a typhoon wreaked havoc on its navy. Kublai Khan had no choice but to concede defeat.

How did Kublai Khan command loyalty over such a vast empire?

Kublai Khan may have presided over one of the largest empires in world history, yet some parts of that empire displayed more loyalty than others.

Across China and Mongolia, he was very much master of all he surveyed. Beyond these areas, says Morton, his authority was less absolute.

“The Jochid dynasty in Russia and what today would be eastern Europe did not really acknowledge his rule,” he says. “In the Middle East and Persia, you had an area of the Mongol empire that became known as the Ilkhanate. They acknowledged Kublai Khan's position as Great Khan but he had no genuine power over the area.

“And there was another major region within central Asia called the Chagatai Khanate, and they didn’t even go as far as to acknowledge Kublai Khan's rule.”

Portrait of Venetian traveller Marco Polo
An engraved portrait of Marco Polo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Why did Marco Polo travel to Kublai Khan’s court?

Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant. Like all good merchants, he followed the money – and few courts across the globe had access to greater wealth than the one presided over by Kublai Khan.

Polo famously journeyed across Asia, first arriving in modern-day Beijing – Kublai Khan’s powerbase – in the 1270s. The merchant was introduced to Kublai on that first visit and was clearly impressed by the Mongol leader, writing that he was “the wisest and most accomplished man, the greatest captain, and best to govern men and rule an empire, as well as the most valiant, that ever existed among the tribes of Mongols”.

The feeling was, it seems, reciprocated, for Kublai Khan sent Polo on numerous diplomatic missions across the empire and south-east Asia. Polo’s accounts of his experiences on these missions would captivate his contemporaries in western Europe.
“The thing that stands out about Marco Polo,” says Morton, “is that he – and merchants like him – were basically travelling to blank places on the map from his perspective. They had no idea what was there. And so Marco Polo returned with stories about cultures and cities and peoples that were totally unfamiliar in western Christendom.”

When did Kublai Khan die?

Kublai Khan was rocked by the deaths of his favourite wife, Chabi, in 1281 and his oldest son in 1285, and was increasingly plagued by gout and obesity in his final years.

By the time he died on 18 February 1294 – at the age of 79 – he had begun to withdraw from the day-to-day administration of his empire, and there is some evidence that his decision-making abilities – once considered razor-sharp – had become blunted.


Yet there is little doubt that, at the height of his powers, Kublai Khan was a truly formidable leader. And his greatest achievement – the Yuan Dynasty of China – would survive until 1368.


Spencer MizenSenior Production Editor, BBC History Magazine

Spencer is senior production editor of BBC History Magazine