Kublai – The Great Man

Few days after, Mongolia is going to commemorate 800th anniversary of Kublai Khaan (a first emperor of Yuan Dynasty). His reign started 1260 and ended in 1296. Great Khaan was born on 23rd of September in 1215, which is exactly 800 years ago. During those majestic years the world had seen common (parvenu) nomadic people became the rulers of this world, the largest empire of its history. If one counts the Mongol Empire at that time as a whole, his realm reached from the Pacific to the Black Sea, from Siberia to modern day Afghanistan – one fifth of the world’s inhabited land area. Ruling all over Mongolia, overcoming the last resistance of the Southern China, was being worshiped by Koreans are only few examples of his power.

Kublai was a son of Tului, a youngest son of Chinggis Khaan. His mother was a Sorhagtani Bekhi, a daughter of Jahakhamba who is a brother of Khan Tooril (Van Khan), either a friend and an enemy to Chinggis Khaan.  On his way home after the conquest of the Khwarizmian Empire, Genghis Khan performed a ceremony on his grandsons Munkh and Kublai after their first hunt in 1224 near the Ili Rive. Kublai was nine years old and with his eldest brother killed a rabbit and an antelope. His grandfather smeared fat from killed animals onto Kublai’s middle finger in accordance with a Mongolian tradition. At that time, Chinggis Khaan was very fond of Kublai, wishing that one day he may become a great king. As it happened, Kublai truly became a great man. From the reign of his brother Munkh, descendants of Tului, a youngest son of Chinggis Khaan were played an enormous role as political leaders of Mongolian Empire. In the Middle East, his brother Hulegu declared a kingdom of Il-Khante, non-directly a part of Kublai`s empire. World was now under the control of Kublai.Kublai KhaanHis attitude toward government was formed under the influence of these learned Chinese, who convinced him of the necessary interdependence of ruler and ruled and reinforced his innate tendency toward humanity and magnanimity. At home, in the fief allotted to him in the Wei River valley (in modern Gansu and Shaanxi provinces), he established a competent administration and a supply base. In the field, he stressed to his generals the precepts of his mentors—the importance and effectiveness of clemency toward the conquered. This was a great advance in civilized behaviour compared to the methods of Genghis Khan and those of Kublai’s contemporaries in Central Asia, where the massacre of the population was still the expected sequel to the capture of a city.

Kublai took Song China in the flank, subjugating the Dai kingdom of Nanzhao in present-day Yunnan before handing over command to his general Uriyangqadai. In 1257 Möngke assumed personal charge of the war, but he died in 1259. When Kublai, who with another army was besieging a city, heard that his brother, Arigböge, who had been left in charge of the homeland because he was younger, was planning to have himself elected `Khaan`, he patched up a truce with the Song. In April 1260 he arrived at his residence of Shangdu, in southeastern Mongolia. Here his associates held a kuriltai (a parlament), or “great assembly,” and on May 5 Kublai was unanimously elected khan in succession to Munkh. His brother Arigbukh was very furious about this decision. He thought this assembly was not legally capable, with some very powerful supporters, held a kuriltai at Karakorum and had himself declared khan, ignoring Kublai’s action. Brother are no more brothers, in the end King cannot be a same person as an individual, they can be only related to the law, state and power. On the other hand, it is not about family affair, it was indeed about the world affair.

In 1264 Kublai defeated Arigböge in battle and forced him to submit. He died two years later. But the family feud, of which this was one manifestation, continued throughout Kublai’s reign. Against him were ranged those who resented the abandonment of the old ways of the steppe and the adoption of an alien, China-centred culture. The split was all the deeper because the leader of the opposition was Khaidu, who, as a grandson of Ögödei, who had been designated personally by Genghis as his successor, represented the cause of legitimacy. The throne had passed from the line of Ögödei to that of his brother Tolui in 1250 as a result of a coup d’etat. Khaidu never relaxed his hostility toward Kublai and remained master of Mongolia proper and Turkistan until his death in 1301.

Kublai’s achievement was to reestablish the unity of China, which had been divided since the end of the Tang dynasty. This achievement was that much greater because he was a barbarian, nomadic conqueror. Even in Chinese official historiography the Mongol Kublai is treated with respect. As early as 1260 he instituted a reign period, in the Chinese manner, to date his reign; and in 1271, eight years before the disintegration of the Song, he proclaimed his own dynasty under the title of Da Yuan, or Great Origin. He never resided at Kharakhorum, Ögödei’s short-lived capital in northern Mongolia, but set up his own capital at what is now Beijing, a city known in his time as Dadu, the Great Capital.

The final conquest of Song China took several years. Kublai might well have been content to rule the North and to leave the Song dynasty nominally in control of South China, but the detention and ill treatment of envoys he had sent convinced him that the declining regime in the south must be dealt with decisively. Military operations opened once again in 1267. The Song emperor was apparently badly served by his last ministers, who are said to have kept him misinformed of the true situation, whereas many Song commanders went over voluntarily to the Mongols. In 1276 Kublai’s general Bayan captured the child emperor of the day, but loyalists in the south delayed the inevitable end until 1279.

With all China in Mongol hands, the Mongol conquests in the south and east had reached their effective limit; but Kublai, seeking to restore China’s prestige, engaged in a series of costly and troublesome wars that brought little return. At various times tribute was demanded of the peripheral kingdoms: from Burma (now Myanmar), from Annam and Champa in Indochina, from Java, and from Japan. The Mongol armies suffered some disastrous defeats in these campaigns. In particular, invasion fleets sent to Japan in 1274 and 1281 were virtually annihilated, though their loss was due as much to storms as to Japanese resistance.

By themselves the Mongols were incapable of ruling China, and, though at the lower levels they made use of Chinese civil servants, posts of importance were allotted to foreigners. Of these Marco Polo is a familiar example. Kublai instituted a “nationalities policy” under which the population of China was divided into four categories. At the top were the Mongols, forming a privileged, military caste of a few hundred thousand, exempt from taxation, and living at the expense of the Chinese peasantry who worked the great estates allocated for their upkeep.

The foreign auxiliaries of the Mongols, natives for the most part of Central Asia, formed the second group, the semu ren, or persons with special status. This class furnished the higher officialdom, and its members, with their worldwide contacts and their privileged status, also formed a new breed of merchants and speculators. Like the Mongols, they were exempt from taxation and enjoyed preferential use of the official postroads and services.

The bulk of the population belonged to the third and fourth classes, the northern Chinese, and the southern barbarians, who lived in what had been Song China. The expenses of state and the support of the privileged bore heavily on these two classes, with Kublai’s continuing wars and his extravagant building operations at Dadu. Peasants were brought in as labourers, to the neglect of their farms. Food supplies in the north were inadequate for the new labour force and the unproductive Mongols, and large quantities had to be brought by sea and, when the sea routes proved insecure, along the Grand Canal. The repair and extension of this canal also demanded much labour.

Kublai, in common with other Mongol rulers, was much preoccupied with religion. His reign was a time of toleration for rival religions and of economic privilege for the favoured religions. Clerics and their communities were exempted from taxation, and Buddhist temples especially were granted generous donations of land and of peasants for their upkeep. The arrogance of the many Tibetan lamas who enjoyed a special status in China was particularly detested.

Such a discriminatory social policy was eventually bound to arouse strong resentment. Moreover, it was only on the surface that Kublai’s China, with its intense commercial activity, was economically strong and wealthy. Trade was mainly carried on in the interests of a privileged, foreign merchant class, not those of the community at large. The common people of China were becoming progressively poorer. The old examination system, which admitted to the civil service only men with a proper knowledge of Confucian philosophy, had lapsed, and customary restraints upon absolutism and arbitrary rule, such as would have been imposed by the censorate (a body that scrutinized the conduct of officials) and a professional public service, were lacking.

The Chinese literati were excluded from public office and responsibility. As a result, adventurers could attain high positions, and even an emperor of Kublai’s unique ability remained for years on end in ignorance of, and unable to check, the depredations of his dishonest foreign financial advisers. The extravagant policies that Kublai had countenanced and the financial ineptitude of later Mongol emperors, provoked, in the 14th century, the economically motivated uprisings that brought the dynasty down.

Kublai is celebrated, mainly because of Marco Polo’s account, for his use of paper money. Paper money had, however, been in use in China under the Song, and Kublai’s innovation was merely to make it the sole medium of exchange. Toward the end of the dynasty, an incapable financial administration stimulated inflation by the overissue of paper money, but in Kublai’s time the use of banknotes was essential. The supply of copper was too small to form a metal currency in a period of expanding trade, and in any case large quantities were diverted to the temples to be made into statues and other cult objects.

Today, Historians believe that Kublai was an emperor of global world which was well civilized and formed a right and unique government. Except for few civil wars, the empire was fully peaceful and controlled by an order at once. Mongolians, we must never forget this great man, who was a `Wise Khaan`, unified our world for the first time under the one order, reprimand those who don`t know the facts but to judge the past.

His interest in art, literature, travel, hunting were making an exclusive individual personally, but politically what he had achieved was not comparable with his brothers and other Royal people ever. For 70-80 years, Mongolians had to deny its history, seeing only its violent side. In the 13th century – 14th century, every kingdom has its own barbaric way to handle issues and decrees. The society itself made it in this way, However, a `Wise Khaan` Kublai made the great difference, that is the reason  why I am writing two words `Great Man` for only him.

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