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Mongolian general and statesman Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan. He conquered China, founding and becoming the first emperor of the country's Yuan Dynasty.
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The grandson of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire (1260-1294) and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. He assumed the title emperor of China, and his conquest of South China’s Song Dynasty was the last step in the Mongols’ efforts to rule China wholly. With that conquest behind him, he became the overlord of all the Mongol dominions (the Golden Horde in southern Russia,
the Il-Khanate of Persia and regions inhabited by traditionally nomadic Mongol princes), as well as the ruler of his own territory of China.
Before the time of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, the Mongols had been a group of semibarbaric nomadic tribes, essentially moving through history unnoticed. Their cultural traditions were primitive, and they had little experience with economic activity save for some organized hunting expeditions and herding. Until a few years before Kublai Khan’s birth, in fact, the Mongols had been illiterate and gave little thought to ideas of statecraft or nation building.
With a few exceptions, such as Kublai Khan himself (known to Mongols as Setsen Khan, or “Wise Khan”), Mongol rulers seem to have viewed power as a personal possession to be exploited for personal gain, never giving thought to extending their influence or creating a wide-reaching empire, and so they never succeeded in organizing a long-lasting state. Adding to this issue was that the Mongols had come to power in China, as they had elsewhere, by brute force, never incorporating political savvy into the equation. (As one of Kublai’s advisers later said to the emperor, “I have heard that one can conquer the empire on horseback, but one cannot govern it on horseback,” an axiom that Kublai absorbed and acted upon as khan.) Predictably, this political incompetence greatly contributed to the relatively rapid collapse of the Mongol Empire.
Kublai was the fourth son of Tulë, by his favorite wife, and the grandson of Genghis Khan (c. 1165-1227), founder of the Mongol Empire. Strong, fearless and intelligent, Kublai accompanied his father into battle as a child. By age 12, he was a skilled horseman, and his reputation as a warrior grew with each passing year. Kublai was 17 when his father died, but he didn’t begin to play an important part in the extension and development of the Mongol Empire until around 1251, when he was in his mid-30s. That year, his brother Mngke became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, and Kublai was given control over Chinese territories in the eastern part of the empire.
Once holding the reins of the empire, Mngke resolved to complete the conquest of Song China and to subdue Persia. For his part, Kublai was put in charge of expeditions with the goal of unifying China under the new Mongol emperor. Having an appreciation of Chinese thought, he organized a group of Confucian Chinese advisers to introduce reforms in his territories.
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