Khubilai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty, 1261-1368

Khubilai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty, 1261-1368

The overwhelming choice of the kuriltai as Mengke's successor was his equally brilliant brother, Khubilai. Khubilai's selection was opposed violently, however, by his younger brother, Arik-Buka. This opposition precipitated a civil war won by Khubilai in 1261. For the next few years, the new khan devoted his attention to administrative reforms of his vast empire. A major development was Khubilai's establishment in 1260 of a winter capital at what is now Beijing but was then called Dadu ("great capital," also called Khanbalik--Marco Polo's Cambaluc) which shifted the political center of the Mongol empire south into China and increased Chinese influence. Khubilai maintained a summer residence north of the Great Wall at Shangdu (the Xanadu of Coleridge).

In 1268 Khubilai was able to turn his full attention to the war in China. A series of campaigns, distinguished by the skill of Bayan (grandson of Subetei), culminated in 1276 in the capture of Hangzhou, the Song capital. It took three more years to subdue the outlying provinces. The last action of the war--a naval battle in Guangzhou Bay, in which the remnants of the Song fleet were destroyed by a Mongol fleet made up of defectors from the Song navy--took place in 1279.

Khubilai did not share Mengke's fierce desire to conquer the world. He had warred against China with determination, but apparently he realized that there was a limit to the Mongol capabilities for consolidating and for controlling conquered territory. It is likely that he recognized that this limit was being approached because of an event that occurred during the interregnum between Mengke's death and his own accession.

Hulegu, who had seized Baghdad and defeated the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 and conquered Mesopotamia and Syria, had returned to Mongolia upon receiving news of Mengke's death. While he was gone, his forces were defeated by a larger, Mamluk, army at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260. This was the first significant Mongol defeat in seventy years. The Mamluks had been led by a Turk named Baibars, a former Mongol warrior who used Mongol tactics.

Neither Khubilai nor Hulegu made a serious effort to avenge the defeat of Ain Jalut. Both devoted their attention primarily to consolidating their conquests, to suppressing dissidence, and to reestablishing law and order. Like their uncle, Batu, and his Golden Horde successors, they limited their offensive moves to occasional raids or to attacks with limited objectives in unconquered neighboring regions. After the failure of two invasion attempts against Japan in 1274 and 1281, Khubilai also gave up his goal of expansion to the east. In January 1293, Khubilai invaded Java and defeated the local ruler, only to be driven off the island by a Javanese ally who turned against him.

After the Song Dynasty had been destroyed, in 1279 Khubilai declared himself emperor of a united China with its capital at Dadu, and he established the Yuan ("first," "beginning") Dynasty (1279-1368). Khubilai, who took the Chinese-style reign title Zhiyuan ("the greatest of the Yuan"), proved himself to be one of the most able rulers of imperial China.

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