Khubilai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty, 1261-1368
A New Khan
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
fig. 3). 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).
Figure 3. The Mongol Empire, ca. A.D. 1280
Source: Based on information from John K. Fairbank, Edwin O.
Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, East Asia: Tradition and
Transformation, Boston, 1978, 172-73; and Charles J.
Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on
Medieval Russian History, Bloomington, Indiana, 1985, vi,
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.
Data as of June 1989