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Kublai Khan: His vision of power came from his grandfather Genghis

We all know that 1215 is an important date. Not many know that it is also important for two events that had nothing to do with King John, and with far wider significance. In 1215, the Mongols took the city we now call Beijing, the key to a much wider empire. And 1215 — September 23 to be precise — also marks the 800th birthday of the man who took the Mongol Empire to its peak and defined modern China: Kublai Khan.

Kublai is well-known to English speakers, because of Coleridge’s poem about Kublai’s “stately pleasure dome”, as decreed in his first capital Xanadu. His opium-induced vision sounds too weird to be true. But Shang-du (Upper Capital), to give it its Chinese name, is a real place a few hours drive north of Beijing, and anyway it is not Kublai’s prime claim to fame. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan, who had taken Beijing on his way to what would become the greatest land empire in history. At the time of Genghis’s death in 1227, it stretched from north China to today’s Iraq. Under Kublai, it doubled again, until one family held nominal sway over a good deal of Eurasia, perhaps one-fifth of all humanity.

I gave a talk recently at which someone asked: “Why didn’t they tell us about this in school?” Well, they should, because it is one of history’s most startling truths, and because it explains so much about Asia, particularly China, today.
It started with young Genghis as a teenager fleeing rivals in northern Mongolia in the late 12th century, when the feuding Mongol clans were hardly known at all outside their homeland. He survived, and thrived because he was a leader of genius. It took him 20 years to unite his clans, join with other Turkic groups, and found a nation. That was in 1206, at which point Genghis’s genius began to emerge. To rule a nation is different from ruling clans. He needed the trappings of government, with bureaucrats and laws and tax receipts, and filled the need by ordering a script from a captured scribe. This “Uighur writing” is still in use in Inner Mongolia, now part of China.  

Herding is a tough way of life, even today, with winter temperatures plunging to 40 below (the point at which Celsius and Fahrenheit coincide), ice-storms that kill animals by the million and few luxuries. Back then, the only currency was loot, and it was Genghis who provided it, by turning outwards. His first target was China, then divided into four substantial empires: the Tanguts, Jin, Song, and Tibet, with several other smaller areas, Yunnan being one. Genghis led his new army across the Gobi to achieve something unprecedented for nomadic cavalry, namely the taking of cities. Chinese cities were well defended by walls, engines of war and big armies. For the Mongols, the main difficulty was taking the first city, which was today’s Yinchuan on the Yellow River, in 1209. Genghis learned fast, displaying remarkable leadership, which is why he still fascinates historians, most recently Frank McLynn, whose Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World is published next month (Bodley Head, £25). With one city taken, the Mongols acquired new recruits by the ten thousand, loot to pay them, and siege technology in the form of huge bows and catapults. After taking the Jin capital, Beijing, Genghis’s army became a juggernaut, an unrivalled, multi-disciplinary force of Mongol cavalry and Chinese weapons.

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