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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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Armies from such lands as Burma, Indochina and Japan dealt disastrous defeats to the Mongols. The Japanese campaign was particularly catastrophic, as severe weather and the Japanese resistance nearly annihilated Kublai’s forces. Despite the definitive losses in these battles, Kublai was never terribly discouraged, and the campaigns came to an end only when his successor ended them.
Domestically, the khan’s efforts paid off, and transitions went relatively smoothly. With Kublai as their khan,
the Mongols adopted divide-and-rule diplomacy, with the Mongols and central Asians living separately from the Chinese; in many ways, life for the Chinese was left unchanged. The unification was especially impressive because Kublai was a barbarian, nomadic conqueror, which means that he overcame both the historical successes (or lack thereof) of his predecessors and a possible problem with perception. But even in official Chinese historiography, Kublai Khan is treated with great respect.
Like previous Mongol rulers, Kublai was preoccupied with religion, and he was well known for his acceptance of different religions and for bestowing certain economic privileges on favored sects. Religious figures were exempted from taxation, and Buddhist temples especially were granted lucrative parcels of land and peasants to maintain them. ??Secularly, the Mongols were the minority group, so they maintained power by dividing the general population into four social classes: the Mongols, the central Asians, the northern Chinese and Koreans, and the southern Chinese. The first two classes, at the top of the power pyramid, enjoyed extensive privileges; the third class held a nearly neutral position; and the southern Chinese, the most numerous and representing those from the toppled Song Dynasty, were essentially barred from state offices and were used as laborers in public works projects and the like. Those in this fourth class became progressively poorer under Kublai, as trade was chiefly carried on in the interests of a privileged, usually foreign, merchant class, not those of the community at large. Also, separate systems of law were upheld for Chinese and for Mongols, so those held down by poverty were equally held down by law. ??Ironically, while the masses suffered in poverty, Kublai is celebrated for his use of paper money. Always the innovators, the Song had previously used paper money, but Kublai’s contribution to its evolution was to make it the sole method of currency exchange. His innovation was born of necessity, because copper was too scarce to form a metal currency in an era of expanding trade, and large quantities were used to make statues and other objects.
Though celebrated as a Chinese emperor, Kublai also helped form the political backbone of his own Mongol people. For instance, the development of the political theory known as the “dual principle,” representing the parity of church and state in political matters, is attributed to Kublai and an adviser. This theory formed the foundation of the constitution of the theocratic monarchy proclaimed some 630 years later, in 1911, when Mongolia gained its independence from China.?
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