In the almost 40 years from the death of Khubilai Khan in February 1294, to the ascension of Toghon Temur Khan in July 1333, nine Khans of the Yuan Dynasty had been enthroned, with only Temur Oljeitu Khan reigning over a decade. It was a period of treachery, political infighting, civil wars, fraticide, economic mismanagement and inflation and environmental crises upon environmental crises. It was for Toghon Temur, the final Yuan ruler in China, to have the longest reign, sitting for 35 years in the two capitals of Dadu and Shangdu. His long, passive reign saw the disintegration of Mongol rule in China and the expulsion of the Yuan court in 1368- despite some energetic efforts to save the dynasty. Today, we present to you the final years of the Yuan Dynasty, and the last, but doomed, efforts to save it from total ruin by a series of energetic chancellors, none more famous than Toghto of the Merkit. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Toghon Temur was only 13 years old when he became Khan of Khans in July of 1333. A great-great-grandson of Khubilai Khan, Toghon Temur was a son of Qoshila, who had briefly reigned as Khan in 1329 before being murdered by his brother, Tuq Temur. The young Toghon Temur had been exiled from the Yuan court by Tuq Temur Khan and his chancellor, El-Temur, first to Korea, then to Guangxi province in China’s far south. It was unlikely he’d ever see the throne, and aside from some time with a Buddhist teacher in his exile, he received no training for governance. But when Tuq Temur Khan’s designated heir died in 1331, the reigning Khan had a crisis of conscience, evidently from his guilt in the murder of his brother Qoshila. On his deathbed, Tuq Temur indicated he wanted the throne to go to the line of Qoshila; not to Toghon Temur, but his younger half brother, the six year old Irinjibal. There was a major obstacle to this, in the form of El-Temur, the real power in the Yuan Dynasty. It was El-Temur who had engineered the coup which placed Tuq Temur on the throne in 1328, and Tuq Temur Khan had been a puppet for El-Temur throughout his reign. Of Qipchaq descent, El-Temur was from the fourth generation of a celebrated family of Qipchap servants to the Khans. His great-grandfather and grandfather had both served Khubilai Khan in his campaign against the Dali Kingdom in the early 1250s, and since then the family had been among the most prominent in the Yuan realm, controlling one of the empire’s key military units, the Qipchaq Guard. El-Temur and his father had loyally served Qaishan Khan, but after his death in 1311 had lost wealth and prestige. The coup El-Temur orchestrated in 1328 was not just to restore the line of Qaishan and place Tuq Temur on the throne, but restore his family’s power.
Alongside another non-Chinggisid powerbroker named Bayan of the Merkit, El-Temur controlled the Yuan court and married into the imperial family. Before his death, Tuq Temur Khan had entrusted his youngest son El-Tegus into Chancellor El-Temur’s care, and El-Temur wanted the young boy to succeed his father. But Tuq Temur’s widow Budashiri rallied the court into supporting her husband’s final wish, and the aging and ill El-Temur reluctantly agreed to make Qoshila’s six year old son Irinjibal Khan… until Irinjibal died of illness not even two months later. Once again El-Temur wanted El-Tegus to become Khan of Khans, but resistance from the court was too great; they wanted the throne to go to Qoshila’s 13 year old son Toghon Temur. Even El-Temur’s number 2, Bayan, was convinced of it by Empress Budashiri, and after several months of argument over early 1333, a declining El-Temur acquiesced, in part due to agreement to marry his daughter Danashirin, to Toghon Temur. With that, El-Temur died soon after.
In July 1333, a little over a century since the death of Chinggis Khan, Toghon Temur was enthroned as the Khan of Khans. The boy was, as to be expected, a puppet. This time, for Bayan of the Merkit, who after serving as second fiddle to El-Temur, wanted to implement his own designs. Part of this was by securing power. In 1335 he unleashed a bloody coup which killed the members of El-Temur’s family and loyalists still in government. Even the daughter married to Khan Toghon Temur was killed. That year, Bayan made himself the sole chancellor of the Yuan Dynasty, the maximum power and authority he could ever hope to attain.
Bayan was not in the office simply for the sake of authority and killing his former coworkers. He actually had a dream. A rejuvenation of the Yuan Dynasty, desiring a restoration to the way things had been in Khubilai’s time; the good old days, when Mongols and Chinese were separated, the racial hierarchy and ensuing privileges clearly enforced. Bayan changed Toghon Temur’s reign title to Chih-yuan, which Khubilai had used from 1264 until his death, a clear symbolism, but there were much more overt and practical methods to Bayan’s plan. Chinese were banned from a great number of government offices, forbidden from learning Mongolian and other west Asian languages, and the Chinese population was to be disarmed and their horses confiscated. The examination system to choose officials reinstated by Ayurburwada 20 years prior was to be again cancelled. Yet Bayan also wanted to make government more efficient by cutting court expenditures, and reduce stress on the empire’s population by decreasing the high fees on the salt monopoly, encouraging agriculture, and improving and speeding up the government relief system. The environmental crisis we spent so much of the last episode discussing had not abated by any means, and Bayan saw it as governmental duty to provide for the people hurt by it. Of course, that couldn’t mean he wasn’t allowed to enrich himself with wealth, honorifics, titles and positions along the way.
A man who had cut his teeth in the wars of the steppes against Qaidu, Bayan had a tendency to overreact to threats violently. Toghon Temur was said to have complained how he spent his first years as Khan in fear for his life due to Bayan. His political enemies were violently persecuted, as seen when he eradicated the allies and family of his former partner El-Temur, and whenever plots were discovered against him. Bayan even had the gall to execute a Chinggisid prince outside the gates of Dadu. News of uprisings, and even the revolt of a city in 1339, led to Bayan believing in a wide conspiracy against him, seeing assassination plots around every corner. He responded with rounds of investigations, charges and violent purges to anyone he suspected involved. His enemies were convinced of the need to bring him down, and in spring 1340 a coup was launched against Bayan, with the support of Khan Toghon Temur and led by Bayan’s own nephew, the rising star Toghto. While Bayan was out hunting, the court stripped him of titles and positions and banished him. Returning from the hunt to find himself jobless and exiled, Bayan died less than a month later. With him died the last of those who tried to bring the court back to the ‘old ways,’ succeeded by those who recognized, and even celebrated, the sinicization of the Mongol dynasty.
The new generation of court leadership was symbolized by Toghto. Only 26 years old at the time of Bayan’s ouster, Toghto had been well educated and raised to prominence by his uncle. Unlike Bayan, Toghto had no misconceptions about restoring things to the time of Khubilai Khan. Raised in China, Chinese culture and Confucianism was something to be appreciated. Believing all government problems could be solved with a steady hand and powerful government, Toghto wanted to centralize and strengthen the Dynasty, with a variety of reforms to tackle the empire’s problems. His first period as Chancellor saw removal of the last of Bayan’s allies, the restoration of the civil service examinations, greater incorporation of Confucian scholars into government than ever before, and actual visibility to Toghon Temur Khan. The Khan finally was able to give a decree denouncing his uncle Tuq Temur for murdering Qoshila, and banished many of the handlers Bayan had placed on him. His cousin El Tegus was almost certainly put to death on his order, removing this claimant to the throne. Toghon Temur’s own son Ayushiridara was entrusted to Toghto’s household to be raised, fed and educated, the boy’s welfare being some Toghto took very seriously.
Luckily for the historians among us, one of Toghto’s most important tasks for posterity was providing the funding to finally complete the official histories of the Liao, Jin and Song Dynasties by 1344. On his encouragement, the Liao and Jin Dynasties were recognized as legitimate, a debate which had in part slowed the completion of these histories in the first place: the Confucian-Chinese editors had rather thoroughly argued against recognizing the Khitan ruled Liao or the Jurchen ruled Jin as proper dynasties, but Toghto, with an eye for the future representation of the Mongol ruled Yuan, pushed for it. So the Liaoshi, Jinshi and Songshi were finally completed and presented to the court, though the quality of the Liao Dynastic history in particular has been lamented by later scholars. As you can imagine, Toghto has always earned a warm reception from historians for this effort, though it does not mean all his efforts in his first Chancellorship were successful. His expensive proposal to cut a new waterway to transport grain to Dadu was a spectacular failure, though it was a problem he would not stop in his efforts to resolve.
Toghto’s bright plans were cut short in the emerging crisises of the 1340s. This was a decade of almost annual earthquakes, unseasonal snowstorms in Mongolia eradicating entire herds, severe flooding in central China, accompanied by widespread famine, drought and epidemic. There has been suggestion that bubonic plague began spreading in China in the 1340s, moving west with Mongol armies to reach Europe in 1347. However, from the beginning of the most severe phase of epidemic in 1344 to having reached the armies of the Golden Horde two years later is a rather tight schedule to cross all of Asia. There has not been enough evidence to identify the epidemics in China as the Black Death, and a great number of other viral epidemics remain likely culprits. After years and years of these environmental issues, the field of frustration finally began to bloom into violent uprisings in the 1340s. In 1341, there were more than 300 bandit uprisings across central China. And among these revolts was the emerging Red Turban Movement.
To quote Frederick Mote’s chapter “the Rise of the Ming Dynasty,” in part 1, Vol. 7 of the Cambridge History of China: The Ming Dynasty, page 18, the Red Turbans were “loosely Manichean within folk Buddhist religion and were millenarian in their impulses. They defied the normal sources of authority and displayed capacities for conspiratorial cohesiveness and for uncompromising relations with the government, thus making their behaviour more extreme than that of conventional rebels. All the important movements of this kind in this period have been loosely grouped under the designation of the Red Turban (Hung-chin) rebellions.” The Red Turbans, so called for their red headbands, were a large and loosely connected group which espoused a sectarian, millenarian Confucianism, calling for radical change of society through military means, returning to an older, ‘purer’ China. Having began in the late 1330s as a respeonse to the environmental and financial crisis blamed on the foreign barbarians ruling China, the movement steadily picked up steam with each year and with each successive trouble and crisis. The Yuan had greatly overlooked this social aspect of their rule and constant attempts to restrict Confucianism and Chinese rights. The Red Turbans were going to provide a framework for many looking for an excuse to fight back, or just to fight. We’ll return to them soon enough.
Toghto’s reaction to the country wide problems in 1344 was to resign his post. For the next five years, the chancellorship was largely dominated by a man named Berke Bukha. He was also genuinely reform minded, but in the other direction from Toghto. Having experienced firsthand the slowness of government relief, Berke sought to decentralize the government, and make each region more able to effectively respond to local problems, be they environmental or banditry. Corresponding and getting permissions with the Central Government in Dadu took too long, especially for the most distant provinces. By the time aid or relief arrived, it could have been much too late to do any good. Essentially, Berke Bukha wanted to cut government red tape, to use a modern parlance. It was a good idea, and one about two decades too late to avert the oncoming catastrophes. The problem of uprisings, economy and environment piled ever higher regardless of Berke Bukha’s efforts, and in 1349 Toghon Temur Khan recalled Toghto to the court to resume his post.
Toghto got back into the saddle with great energy. He was said to have wanted to dazzle his contemporaries and make his name immortal in the historical record, and immediately set about trying to do just that. One problem Toghto had been stumped by in his first chancellorship was how to pay for his great schemes, and in 1350 finally stumbled on an absolutely fool-proof idea: why not just print more money? The fact it was entirely unbacked by the depleted silver reserves in no way would be a problem. With a firm central guiding hand, Toghto got to work on his grandest scheme yet: forcing the Yellow River back into its former course, in order to once more enter the sea south of the Shandong peninsula. This was not a mere vanity project. The annual flooding of the Yellow River had become disastrous, and in 1344, 20 days of nonstop rain had caused the River to rise to 6.7 metres, break its banks and flood 18 districts and 17 cities, cutting of the Grand Canal, and draining into the Huai River, which in turn caused it to rise and threaten the salt fields in Shandong and Hebei provinces, before entering the ocean south of the Shandong peninsula, whereas before it had come out to the north. The threat to the salt fields was a particular concern for the court: as the salt trade and its associated taxes was worth six-tenths of Yuan yearly revenue, it was vitally important to ensure its protection. This was also necessary in order to restore the flow to the Grand Canal, the north-south canal which carried the rice and grain of south China northwards to feed the capital of Dadu every year. This had already been in trouble due to a pirate, Fang Guozhen, having taken control of a portion of the canal and blocking shipments of supplies to Dadu, refusing peace offers, titles and resisting a military operation by Toghto in 1350.
There was intense opposition to the project to reroute the Yellow River, but Toghto had firmly taken control of government and forced the plan through. Printing 2 million ingots worth of the new currency to pay for it, from May to December 1351, 150,000 labourers, and 20,000 soldiers dug a 140 kilometre long channel to reroute the river; and it worked! Once more the Grand Canal was fed, the salt fields were protected and the Yellow River exited into the ocean north of the Shandong peninsula.
Toghto’s genius engineering project was designed to protect the producers and economy of the Yuan Dynasty, but it accidentally became one of the events which sparked off the dynasty’s ultimate collapse. The large gathering of workers, hungry and weak from years of famine, being punished by cruel overseers trying to meet a strict timetable, and paid in a currency that was only a little above worthless, was fertile soil for the Red Turbans. Even as work continued on the canal, a massive revolt erupted in the Huai River valley, which spread rapidly. The Yuan were taken aback, the sheer size of the uprising causing cities to fall in quick succession- few city walls had been rebuilt after the initial Mongol conquests, after all. In the first engagements, the government forces were poorly prepared and beaten back, including an army commanded by Toghto’s brother Esen-Temur. This was not the highly mobile, horse archer forces of the conquest period, but generally local Chinese militias commanded by Mongols and Central Asians. The actual cavalry forces made up of Mongols and Turks were kept close to the capital.
But this was the time for Chancellor Toghto to shine. He seemed almost custom made for this crisis. He immediately organized the defense, raised new armies and conscripted militias. New training and command structures were implemented. He knew he had to tread carefully, lest mismanaged and underpaid troops join in the revolts. In a dizzying juggling effort, Toghto organized and reorganized the larger military units, transferred and reappointed commanders around the dynasty, all to stop this sudden mobilization of troops from creating an opportunity for individuals and regions to form alternate powerbases to resist the government. And it worked shockingly well. With his so-called Yellow Army, named for the colour of their uniforms, this newly raised force of mostly Chinese volunteers under Mongol and Turkic commanders became Toghto’s “nationwide apparatus of pacification,” as historian John Dardess termed it. Leading the most important campaigns himself, Toghto began to halt, then push back, and finally overrun the rebellion. By the end of 1352 Toghto had brought the Huai River valley back under government control. Methodically, they retook the cities which had fallen to the Red Turbans. By the end of 1354, Toghto was effectively about to crush the final major figure of a largely broken movement.
At the city of Gao-Yu on the Grand Canal, in the closing months of 1354 Toghto had surrounded and was advancing on Zhang Shicheng, a former salt worker turned warlord who had declared himself an emperor in 1353. Zhang Shicheng’s control of the strategic city of Gao-yu cut off much of the grain shipment to Dadu and starved the capital, particularly dangerous when epidemics was swirling around the metropolitan region and killing thousands. Toghto had a two-fold plan to overcome Zhang and the liability of the Grand Canal. One was obviously for Toghto to advance with a large army and crush Zhang, but the second was to make the north, for the first time in Chinese history, a rice producing region. 2,000 dyke builders and paddy farmers were transported into central Hebei, Honan and even southern Manchuria to instruct them on how to cultivate rice, and make the north less reliant on southern producers. Given that for most Yuan rule, some of the most important grain and rice producing regions of the south had been depdendent on outside relief efforts due to excess typhoons, floods and droughts, it was a sensible, though expensive plan, one paid for by the unbacked paper currency he continued to print huge quantities of.
In the last days of 1354, Grand Chancellor Toghto had Zhang Shicheng’s city of Gao-yu isolated and on the edge of collapse. The starving Zhang Shicheng, the final figure of the rebellion of any power, was about to crushed beneath the boot of Toghto, and order restored through the Yuan, when Toghon Temur Khan made the spectacular, and by far the worst, single decision of any Yuan Emperor: he dismissed Toghto in January 1355, and Toghto, as loyal servant, accepted. If any single decision could be pointed to as the moment the Yuan lost China, it was this one. The dismissal of Toghto was the dismissal of the last, and only figure, who could have held the dynasty together.
The exact reasons for this short sighted decision are unclear. Toghto’s power had grown considerably from 1350 through 1354, and had developed a system granting him great control of government, finances and the military. It is feasible his enemies at court simply had enough of his might, and led by a former ally of Toghto named Hama of the Qangli, they wanted to act before Toghto had his final victory over the rebellion. They very reasonably asked where might his energies and intentions have gone once the crisis was over? Would all foes of Toghto be wiped away, and Toghto rule in total dictatorship? With the rebellion about to be crushed, they may have felt it safe to remove him and simply finish the work themselves. Toghon Temur Khan may have wanted Toghto’s removal due to the attention and power Toghto had been giving to the Khan’s son and likely successor, Ayushiridara. Toghto had raised the boy in his household, grown close with him and saw to it that he was finely educated, trained for governance and prepared for rulership. Even in the midst of the rebellion, Toghto had given the lad his own palace in Dadu, his own staff, power to choose officials, an allowance and in late 1354, power to review all business conducted by his father the Khan. The young Ayushiridara was on his way to becoming a power within his own right, and Toghon Temur could have worried Toghto was going to replace him with his own son.
We should of course comment on this point on Toghon Temur Khan himself. Usually, Toghon Temur is presented as a Khan who specialized in debauchery and all sorts of sexual perversions, holding his own one-man saturnalias and all that. This isn’t what he spent his entire reign doing, to be sure. His first years as Khan when he was in his early teens were spent living in fear of Bayan, but after the 1335 coup, especially with Toghto’s encouragement, Toghon Temur actually began to take a bit of a role in government. But by the start of the 1350s, the Khan had started to grow tired of the work and began to abandon even the small list of duties he was given. At this point he really started to enter this phase of “party-mode,” as it were, though the level of debauchery is almost certainly overstated by largely hostile Ming Dynasty sources. “Semi-retirement,” as historian John Dardess described it, is probably better to imagine. Certainly, there was excessive eating, drinking and such. You can probably guess what his “participation” was in the “all-female dance ensembles and orchestras'' that he enjoyed. But he had other interests too, such as Buddhism, and sponsored a circumambulation of the imperial palace grounds of Dadu by 108 monks. He had engineering interests, designing his own pleasure barge for the lake in the imperial gardens, and taking part in the construction of a rather clever water clock. He enjoyed his yearly sojourns to the summer capital of Shangdu, spending almost two months of every year simply on the move between Dadu and Shangdu. Really, a lot of interests other than governance.
Toghon Temur was shortsighted, a poor governor, and absolutely not up to the task of stepping into the vacuum left by Toghto’s dismissal. The Khan and the Central Government assumed they could operate the carefully built apparatus Toghto had, somewhat precariously, balanced around his person. Of course, this was not the case in the slightest. With the loss of their leader, Toghto’s army deserted, joining the rebel movements which spread once more, while Zhang Shicheng saw this as divine intervention and expanded his realm onto the Yangzi River. Toghto had been the last credible leader of the Yuan, for no one else in Dadu had the foresight or ability to assuage the dynasty’s fall. In the months following Toghto’s dismissal rebellion reignited, and a lead member of Red Turbans in the north, Liu Futong, declared Han Lin-erh emperor of a restored Song Dynasty. The years of strengthening the regional governments followed by mass mobilization of resources by Toghto resulted in the provincial commanders essentially becoming completely autonomous warlords in at best loose allegiance to the Yuan government. The Yuan Dynasty’s effective area of administration became limited to an area around Dadu in the north, a regional power among a number of competing warlords. Some maintained a nominal adherence to the Yuan government, but were more concerned in fighting for survival against Red Turban and other upstart Chinese warlords than imperial unity. A number of Chinese warlords popped up in loose connection with the Red Turbans, using them as basis to build their own power networks and legitimacy- Zhang Shicheng, Chen Youliang, and of course, the former peasant from Anhwei, Zhu Yuanzhang.
Toghto would not see the end of the dynasty- he was assassinated by his enemies while in exile in Yunnan at the start of 1356. Neither did he live long enough to see that his excess printing of the currency and the ensuing hyperinflation resulted in it becoming totally worthless, ceasing to be circulated within months of Toghto’s death. Toghon Temur Khan would sit almost idly as the Chinese warlords fought amongst each other, eventually snowballing under the authority of Zhu Yuanzhang- though you might know him better by his era name, the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. For the final decade of Yuan rule in China, the Yuan were practically bystanders to their final fate. Our next episode is not a fall of the Yuan, as much as it is the rise of the Ming- so be sure to subscribe to the King and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
After Khuiblai Khan’s death in 1294, his successors ruled over the most powerful kingdom on earth, the Yuan Dynasty, controlling all of China and Mongolia. Yet not even one hundred years after the declaration of the Yuan in 1271, the Dynasty was pushed from China, their rulers a shadow of the men Chinggis Khan and Khubilai had been. In our first episode on the Yuan Dynasty, we take you through the first 40 years of their rule after Khubilai, and introduce you to ten Khans, from Temur Oljeitu to Toghon Temur, and the manner in which they lurched from crisis to crisis in the fourteenth century. It was an age of political chaos and bloodthirsty brothers, scheming bureacrats, overbearing mothers and misplaced Khans, and a century where every other person was seemingly named a variation of Temur. It was a period to have strangled even the greatest of rulers and most robust of dynasties; and these were not the greatest of rulers. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Our first of ten Khans for today is Temur Oljeitu, Khubilai’s grandson and first successor. Khubilai, as we demonstrated rather thoroughly, had outlived his chosen heir, Jinggim, as well as a plethora of other sons and grandsons. After Jinggim’s death, Khubilai had vacillated on who should succeed him. It was much more traditional Chinese custom for chosen heirs and the like, as opposed to the Mongolian method of ‘to the strongest,’ and declarations of quriltais. Seemingly reluctantly, only in the very twilight years of his life almost a decade after Jinggim’s death, did Khubilai move to make Temur Oljeitu, one of the late Jinggim’s younger sons, his heir. In 1293 Khubilai gave Temur Oljeitu the jade seal of the heir apparent, but had not provided him the full titles and honorifics that Jinggim had held. Thus, when the old Khubilai finally did die in February 1294, Temur Oljeitu was the favourite candidate, but not the only one. He was challenged by his older brother, another son of Jinggim named Kammala. It came to the quriltai in April 1294, where both made their speeches, each demonstrating their knowledge of the maxims of Chinggis Khan, aiming to convince the elite and each other of their fitness for the Grand Khanate.
Of course, it wasn’t really just a matter of speeches which determined the outcome. Being the selected heir of Great Khan Khubilai was obviously a powerful boost, but Temur Oljeitu had a number of powerful allies backing him. His mother, Kokejin, was well respected and beloved by Khubilai; military leaders, especially Bayan of the Baarin, the great conqueror of the Song Dynasty, backed Temur Oljeitu; and prominent members of the bureaucracy, such as the Chancellor of the Right, Oljei. This was to be a heralding of the future of the succession Yuan Khans, where the bureaucracy and military elite became the decision makers. Kammala was convinced to accept Temur Oljeitu, who on April 15th, 1295, was duly enthroned as Khan of Khans and Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.
Temur Oljeitu was a respectable choice. Conservative minded, both he and Chancellor Oljei, as well as Oljei’s successor Harghasun, aimed to consoldiate and stabilize the Yuan Dynasty after the struggles of Khubilai’s final years. Open minded regarding Chinese culture, respecting Confucianism but not enmeshed in it, while also having connections to the military elite in the Mongolian steppe, Temur Oljeitu was very much a Khan in the mold of his grandfather Khubilai, though lacking his physical and intellectual vigour, while also keeping one of Khubilai’s worst vices, a penchant for alcoholism. In order to stabilize the government and economy, reconciliation of various branches of the family was favoured and great invasions abandoned. Lavish gifts to princes on his accession helped affirm their loyalty and quiet some of the Mongols in Manchuria who had been so problematic in Khubilai’s last years. Plans to invade Annam and Japan were cancelled; the only foreign ventures were to be brief excursions into Burma and northern Thailand which, though largely failures, were not on the scales of any of Khubilai’s efforts. Tax debts from Khubilai’s reign were cancelled, and Temur Oljeitu sought to reduce the tax burden on the people, forbidding the collection of anything beyond established quotas.
Diplomatically, Temur enjoyed a significant triumph over his father. In 1301 his armies under his nephew Qaishan finally defeated Qaidu Khan, the master of central Asia. When Qaidu died of his wounds in September 1301, Qaidu’s puppet Chagatai Khan Du’a decided he had enough of fighting the Yuan. With Qaidu’s son Chapar, Du’a contacted Temur Oljeitu indicating his willingness to recognize Temur Oljeitu’s overlordship. Temur Oljeitu was delighted and immediately accepted. Their representatives were sent to the Khan of the Ilkhanate, also called Oljeitu, and the Khan of the Golden Horde, Toqta. By 1304, peace had reached between the Khanates. For the first time since 1259, there was a recognized Great Khan, something Khubilai had never achieved. Though Temur Oljeitu wielded no authority over them, he sent patents to affirm each Khan, and in turn received gifts and tribute from them, a process largely carried out by his successors. And in 1306, when Du’a went to war with the heirs of Qaidu, Temur Oljeitu provided him with an army. For a few years at the start of the fourteenth century, we can finally speak of a proper pax Mongolica, when there was peace between all of the Khanates across Eurasia. It would not last very long.
In internal matters, Temur Oljeitu did not quite have the same success. For one thing, the Yuan Dynasty permanently hemorrhaged money. In 1295, less than a year after his enthronment, the imperial treasury was reporting to him that nearly all of the wealth Khubilai had accumulated over his reign had been spent in gifts to the princes. The financial policies of Temur Oljeitu and the Chancellors Oljei and Harghasun had brought stability after the “Three Bad ministers,” but was not bringing in new revenue. Temur Oljeitu had to cover government costs by paying out from the silver reserve. This was the silver needed to back the paper currency, and with less silver reserve, inflation would rise and rise, a problem we will keep coming back to. Government corruption was intense. The set quota for the number of court and capital officials was set at 2,600 persons. In the first year of Temur Oljeitu’s reign, it was found to be over 10,000. In 1303, a corruption trial revealed bribery going to the very highest levels of Temur Oljeitu’s government. A furious Khan pushed for further investigation, resulting in over 18,000 convictions of officials and clerks on bribery and other corruption charges. Rather typical of Temur Oljeitu though, was that he lacked the energy to carry out these charges and sweeping changes implied by such convictions. Most officials were let off with hardly as much as a warning, and many simply returned to their posts within the following years.
While it has been common to attest the Yuan Dynasty’s economic failings to corruption and lavish gift giving- which to be sure, there was no shortage of- recent research has highlighted a significant problem overlooked in such a presentation. The fourteenth century was the start of the Little Ice Age, a global climatic shift towards generally cooler and wetter temperatures, not counting for regional variations. Some variations in temperature and weather of the thirteenth century can be attributed to the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano of Samalas in the late 1250s, with the Little Ice Age entailing more long term shifts. Cooler temperatures in general strongly affect the Asian monsoon season, which in the 14th century manifested into a general trend of intense colds and snowfall in Mongolia and the steppe, droughts in North China and unending rains and typhoons in southern China. These began to be felt in the very first years of Temur Oljeitu’s reign. In 1295, the year after he became Khan of Khans, typhoons struck the Yangzi River delta, his empire’s most densely populated region; the Yellow River broke its banks in multiple places and caused repeated flooding, and a dry spell from the previous years resulted in plagues of locusts that eradicated crops. Flooding, typhoons and locust plagues were annual problems for most of the 1290s. In Mongolia and the steppes, the winters turned harsh, and unexpected and high volumes of snow fell even in spring and summer, starving entire herds and forcing many to flee south to seek support for the Khan. So intense were these problems that in 1297 Temur Oljeitu changed his reign title from Yuanzhen, “Primary allegiance” to Dade, “great virtue.” Usually reign titles were held for decades, so to change it after two years was a last-ditch attempt to appease the heavens.
It was not just an ecological problem though. Khubilai Khan had continued the policy of huang zheng from the Song Dynasty. This was government-provided disaster relief, in the form of cash, food, normally grain or rice, farm tools, animals and other supplies to help the given stricken population through this period. It was a duty of the ruler of China, and fit well into Khubilai’s policy of reconstruction after the Mongol conquest and relieving the burdens of the lower classes. None of Khubilai’s heirs dared repeal such a law, for it became a basis of Yuan legitimacy. However, in a century that was to prove one of unprecedented, and worsening, climatic terrors over a vast geographic area, from the forests of Siberia, mountains of Tibet, Korea, Manchuria across all of China and its southern coast, this was to prove an impossible burden to meet. The detailed Chinese records reveal a dynasty facing a crisis every year. From 1272 until 1357, there was a major famine somewhere in China on average once every two years; over 56 earthquakes were recorded; super typhoons on the southern coast coincided with supersnowstorms in the steppe. Exceptionally cold winters and unexpected frosts meant certain crops could no longer be reliably grown in the north. The densely populated Yangzi River Delta, home to one of the most economically and agriculturally vital areas of the empire, was almost yearly suffering droughts, flooding, epidemics, starvation and typhoons which wiped away entire towns. For more than a third of the Yuan era, the empire experienced at least seven distinct natural calamanities within the same year! People died in the disasters by the thousands, and survivors died in the hundreds of thousands in the ensuing famines and destruction of farmland. Survivors needed to be brought onto government relief. Grain and rice shortages caused the Yuan to try and cover costs only with cash, and to provide more cash, more had to be printed, to the point it outstripped government revenues. Inflation was the result, and Yuan paper money became ever more worthless over the 1300s. Further, waves of natural calamanities always appear to symbolize the given dynasty had lost the support of heaven, and that the time was come for them to be overthrown.
Temur Oljeitu’s reign saw the beginning of these problems. In 1301, a spring drought in the Yangzi Delta was followed by a massive typhoon; arable farmland was destroyed for 50 kilometres along the coast line, and a 30-40 metre high wave pushed 280 kilometres inland! 17,000 were killed by storm by the storm itself, and 100,000 by the ensuing starvation. Only a month later, there was flooding displacing people in Manchuria, a freak August snowstorm in Mongolia, flooding around the imperial capital of Dadu, and a locust plague in Hebei province. From this year onwards, flooding somewhere in the Empire became an almost annual problem: in 1302, 50 days of torrential rain caused flooding in 14 prefectures in southern China, and in 1303 and 1305 severe earthquakes rocked the Central regions. And these problems would only become worse over the rest of the dynasty’s history.
The Khan was simply not equipped to handle this. The conservative-minded Temur Oljeitu and his chief ministers, Oljei and Harghasun, could not invigorate the dynasty for such an immense task as this. After the death of chief and favourite wife in 1299 and mother in 1300, and onset of illnesses from his years of heavy drinking, Temur Oljeitu lost much of his energy for governance, allowing another wife, the empress Buluqan, to overpower him. She sought to ensure the succession of their son, Deshou, a process in which she made many enemies, though even her hostile biography in the Yuan Shi recognized her as a just and able minister. Exiling and removing possible challengers to Deshou’s accession, she was able to have Temur Oljeitu confirm him as heir in 1305… only for Deshou to die unexpectedly early in 1306. When Temur Oljeitu died in February 1307, he had no heirs and no surviving children, and was given the posthumous temple name of Chengzong. One Khan down, nine to go.
Temur Oljeitu’s death saw factions form immediately. Empress Buluqan had her allies, and sought to make Temur Oljeitu’s cousin, Ananda, the next Great Khan. A Muslim and prince ruling over the former Tangut territories, Ananda had a powerful army and seemed a likely candidate.. Until Ayurburwada, a son of Temur Oljeitu’s older brother Darmabala, led a coup in Dadu, arresting Ananda and Empress Buluqan and their allies. They died in prison soon after. Ayurburwada wanted to be Khan, but faced a challenge from his older brother Qaishan and his powerful and experienced army. A veteran of wars against Qaidu and their enemeis in the steppe, Qaishan was a fearsome foe, and war was only averted with the intervention of their mother, Targi. Agreement was reached, making Qaishan the Khan of Khans, and Ayurburwada his heir. So we have our second Khan of the episode, Qaishan, known also as Külüg Khan and by his posthumous temple name, Wuzong.
Unlike Khubilai and Temur Oljeitu, Qaishan was a man of the steppe with no love or understanding for Chinese culture. He immediately changed course with Temur Oljeitu. Where his predecessor sought continuation of Khubilai’s policies and maintained ministers, Qaishan removed most of Temur Oljeitu’s adherents. Instead of seeking to rule through the Secretariats, Qaishan wanted to rule like a steppe nomad in the vein of Chinggis Khan, via his personal retainers and keshig. Lavish gifts were spent on his friends and allies, even building a palace for them. Princely titles were handed out like candy. And for this, only four months into his reign, Qaishan found he effectively spent well over a year’s worth of government revenue: he found himself able to pay less than half of what he had promised in gifts to the aristocracy. In a panic, he spent the rest of the reign trying to address this. The price on salt licenses, one of the most important industries in the Yuan realm, was raised by 35%; prohibition on liquor production was lifted in order to collect taxes there. The tax debts that Temur Oljeitu had cancelled were now to be collected again. Most famously was Qaishan and his allies’ currency program. New copper coins were minted, golder and silver were demonetarized and new paper bills put into circulation. The new currency was based on an exchange of 1:5 with the old, and the volume of currency printed in 1310 was 7 times higher than the three previous years!
Qaishan’s efforts did little good other than expand the bureaucracy needlessly and grow inflation. His sudden death in April 1311 after only a 4 year reign brings us to our third Khan, Qaishan’s younger brother Ayurburwada Buyantu, posthumous temple name Renzong. This was the first fully peaceful transition of power in the Yuan Dynasty’s history. It went according to their agreement, and once comfortably in power, Ayurburwada violently purged the government of Qaishan’s allies and appointees. Unlike the steppe raised Qaishan, Ayurburwada was a man with a good Confucian education, could read and write Chinese and appreciated Chinese art and culture. Most of Qaishan’s policies were immediately reversed, the new currency abolished, the building projects halted, and good Confucian scholar-officials placed into power. Ayurburwada wanted a more traditionally Chinese-Confucian government, and reinstated the civil service examination system to choose officials, for instance, with a distinct Neo-Confucianism curriculum which stayed for the Ming and Qing dynasties. He promoted the translation of Chinese classics in Mongolian, and began the codification of the Yuan legal system, a process that took until 1323. But he could not address the real problems facing the dynasty. The environmental crisis only grew worse, with more severe snow storms in Mongolia increasing the northern refugees crisis, while the flooding problem grew exponentially worse in 1319 onwards, all in addition to the varied economic troubles associated with this, from destruction of farmland to government support of refugees. Ayurburwada could reverse Qaishan’s disastrous currency but could not find new revenue sources to alleviate the problems that Qaishan had tried to fix, and government expenditure was not trimmed. After a brief effort, Ayurburwada found he could not change the privileges of the aristocracy or interfere in the administration of their appanages, though he tried to lesson the number of new princes made and reduce the level of annual gifts. He needed the support of the Mongol and military elite, and reducing their gifts was not a good way to do this.
His greatest political challenges came from his own mother, Dowager Empress Targi, and her favourite, the Chancellor of the Right Temuder. Both were ntrenched supporters of the status quo- that is, enriching themselves and their followers at the expense of the Chinese. Ayurburwada found himself continually harassed, always combating them and their allies who resisted his reform efforts. Temuder bullied and fought with Ayurburwada’s ministers and was openly corrupt. The Khan could not even arrest him. The most he could do was remove Temuder from office, only for Dowager Empress Targi to make Temuder the Grand Preceptor to the Heir apparent, Ayurburwada’s son Shidebala. Unable to stand up to his mother, the reform minded Ayurburwada died in March 1320, aged only 35, without having really made any true reforms to the Yuan state or government, other than add a coat of Confucian-coloured paint to the dynasty for a brief period. He was peacefully succeeded by his 18 year old son Shidebala, known also as Gegeen Khan or by his posthumous temple name of Yingzong. So starts the reign of our fourth Khan of the episode.
Only three days after Ayurburwada’s death, Dowager Empress Targi reinstated Temuder as the Grand Chancellor of the Right, and began a veritable reign of terror. The officials who stood up to them during Ayurburwada’s life were severely punished, exiled or executed. Appointing his own allies and family members, Temuder ran roughshod over the young Khan. But well educated, sinicized and with a strong spirit, Shidebala Khan did not long sit idle. He appointed a fine choice to the second government position, Chancellor of the Left, in Baiju, a grandson of Antung, a popular chancellor under Khubilai, and a descendant of the heroic Mukhali, great general and viceroy of Chinggis Khan. A friend to Confucians and of proud Mongol heritage, Baiju was an excellent choice for any enemy of Targi and Temuder to flock to. Together, Baiju and Shidebala Khan became staunch allies, and the Empress Dowager is said to have complained of the young Khan, “we should not have raised this boy!”
Only two months into his reign, a conspiracy was discovered to replace Shidebala with his younger brother. Baiju urged Shidebala to act quickly, and they unravelled the conspiracy, discovering it was associates of Targi and Temuder behind the plot. Weakening their support network, the Khan and his Chancellor gradually began to repulse the Dowager and her Chancellor. The aging pair were only overcome when they died of old age in the fall of 1322. After that, Shidebala and Baiju could finally carry out their reforms, pushing out more of Temuder’s associates from government and continuing policies of the late Ayurburwada. Shidebala supported Confucians, but he loved Buddhism. An ardent and devout Buddhist, Shidebala ordered a Buddhist temple honouring the ‘Phags-pa lama to be constructed in every prefecture in the empire, with the stipulation that they all had to be larger than their Confucian counterparts. The Khan did not apparently see the hypocrisy in such an expensive program when he was supposed to be dealing with the financial crisis. He also showed open disdain for Islam, having the mosque in Shangdu, the summer capital, destroyed in order to make room for the ‘Phags-Pa temple there.
If Shidebala would have strengthened or weakened the Khanate without the presence of his grandmother or Temuder, it will never be known. In September 1323, a conspiracy made up of a number of princes, allies of the late Temuder and part of the Imperial Asud Guard killed Shidebala and Baiju at Nanpo. Immediately they reached out to prince Yesun Temur, a son of Temur Oljeitu’s older brother Kammala. A month after Shidebala’s murder, Yesun Temur was declared Khan on the Kerulen River, the very birthplace of Chinggis Khan, and became our fifth Khan of the episode.
Yesun Temur was almost certainly involved in the plot against Shidebala, and moved quickly to secure himself against charges of illegitmacy. First rewarding the conspirators, once he was firmly entrenched in the two Yuan capitals, he had the conspirators violently purged, the princes involved exiled to far corners of the empire. Yesun Temur worked hard to distance himself from the means of his enthronement. The official version of events became that he had learned of the plot only days before it happened, and had tried to warn Shidebala Khan. He just happened to be very convientenly placed to immediately become Khan.
The new Khan had spent many years in the steppe and had a powerful military backing, and in some respects was a proponent of returning things to “the old ways.” Only a single Chinese minister was carried over into the new adminsitration, and was routinely ignored. Muslims gained their most prominent status in the Yuan under Yesun Temur. His chancellor of the Left, Dawlat Shah, was a Muslim and a firm ally throughout his reign. However, he understood that the means of his ascension left a bad taste in some mouths, and therefore reached out to accomodate them. Supporters of Ayurburwada and Shidebala who had been wronged by Temuder were posthumously pardoned or restored to their posts; Baiju’s son was given his father’s old military position. Two sons of Qaishan who had been exiled by Shidebala, including one Tuq Temur, were allowed to return. More princely titles and appanages were granted, gifts were made- another addition to the expenditure, but arguably necessary given the means by which he had ascended the throne. Despite his origins, Yesun Temur showed respect to Confucians, refused to scrap the state exam system and encouraged the further translation of Confucian classics and teaching to Mongols, though these had little effect on government. Like Shidebala, Yesun Temur was a Buddhist, and spent great sums on Buddhist temples throughout the empire.
The environmental crisis only worsened though. The flight of Mongols and other peoples of the north and northwest grew so bad that in the first year of his reign, 39% of the money printed that year was spent on trying to send the refugees back and put them onto their feet. This was so ineffective that he then ordered any Mongol trying to migrate south without express permission was to be executed, and in 1326 forbid steppe princes from sending their wives to the court to complain about famine in Mongolia. Intense flooding every year of the 1320s annihilated cropland and worsened the problem, and inflation only continued to rise. These troubles showed no signs of abating when Yesun Temur died of illness in August 1328, aged 35. Our fifth Khan of the episode was succeeded by his 8 year old son Ragibagh at Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. Dawlat Shah and the party enthroning the new Khan were taken aback when news reached them of a coup already underway in Dadu.
Dadu, the imperial capital, had been seized by a Qipchap officer named El Temur. A compatriot of the late Qaishan, who had fought beside him in the wars against Qaidu, El Temur seized the capital in order to restore it to the line of Qaishan. Inviting both Qaishan’s sons Tuq Temur and Qoshila to Dadu to take the throne, El Temur deftly outmanuevered the supporters of young Ragibagh Khan. El Temur’s ally Bayan of the Merkit brought Tuq Temur to Dadu and in October 1328, made him the seventh Khan of the episode- with a promise to abdicate once his older brother, Qoshila, arrived from his exile in the Chagatai Khanate. This was the so-called “War of the Two Capitals,” with the two factions based in each of the capitals founded by Khubilai Khan, Dadu, where sits modern Beijing, and Shangdu, in the steppes in what is now Inner Mongolia. The two sides fought across the border, but El Temur and Tuq Temur’s armies had the better of the encounters. They advanced on Shangdu which surrendered in November 1328. Dawlat Shah and his allies were captured and executed; the young Ragibagh, the sixth Khan of the episode, was never found.
Qoshila was excited at the news, and with the Chagatai Khan Eljigidei, declared himself Khan at a quriltai north of the old imperial capital of Karakorum, declaring Tuq Temur to be his heir. The Chagatai Khan returned to his Khanate, and Qoshila marched southeast.The eighth khan of the episode met the seventh at a palace built by their father, Qaishan, in August 1329. The reunion of Qoshila and Tuq Temur was warm. Four days later, Qoshila Khan was found dead, and Tuq Temur was enthroned once more as Khan of Khans.
Despite being enthroned twice and having killed his brother for the throne, Tuq Temur was a puppet. He sat on the whim of the real powermakers, El Temur and Bayan of the Merkit. They were the ultimate bureaucratic kingmakers, having built their own wealth and support networks independent of the Khan. Unlike Temuder who was loyal to Targi Khatun, or civil servants like Oljei or Harghasun, El Temur and Bayan were their own dynamic duo controlling government, granting themselves titles, imperial wives, honorifics and fiefdoms. Tuq Temur Khan contented himself with his studies of the Chinese classics and Confucianism, which he adored, practicing his calligraphy, collected art and was haunted with guilt over murdering his older brother. The khan founded an Academy to help instill Confucian morals on the Mongols and government. El Temur, who had no care for Confucians, took over this Academy to restrict access of its members to the Khan.
The nakedly illegal reign did no favours for a Dynasty struck with financial and ecological chaos. In the three years Tuq Temur was Khan of Khan, 21 rebellions broke out requiring great resources to be crushed. It would not be until 1332 that the final holdouts of Yesun Temur loyalists would be militarily crushed. No new revenues could be found while the costs of relief, war, the court and corruption continued to soar alongside inflation. In 1328, 343,420 ding of paper money was printed. The next year, 1.232 million was printed, which almost covered the 1.35 million in cash and nearly 1 million tonnes of grain spent on famine relief, a full 20-30% of government revenue in that year.
Tuq Temur Khan obsessed with legitimacy: other claimants were exiled, including the sons of Qoshila. One, the 13 year old Toghon Temur, was sent to Korea. Tuq Temur and his empress had their eldest son Aratnadara declared heir in 1331… one month before Aratnadara died. Beset with grief and guilt, Tuq Temur changed the name of his eldest son, entrusted him to the care of El Temur, and died in September 1332 with the succession undecided. On his deathbed, overcome with shame, he apparently declared that a son of Qoshila was to succeed him in order to make amends. And so, El Temur carried out Tuq Temur’s will, installing the late Qoshila’s six year old son Rinchinbal as the ninth Khan of the episode. El Temur envisioned many happy years watching over this malleable child ruler, only for the lad to die of illness a full 53 days into his reign.
El Temur desired to place Tuq Temur’s young son on the throne, but court resistance was led by Tuq Temur’s widow, the empress Budashiri, who wanted to hold to her husband’s final will. And so, El Temur invited Qoshila’s older surviving son, the thirteen year old Toghon Temur, to come take the throne, our tenth and last Khan of the episode- and the last Chinggisid Khan to rule the Yuan Dynasty in China. The long reign of Toghon Temur will be the subject of our next episode, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast in order to follow. To help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals, and providing us a kind review on a podcast site of your choice, or sharing with your friends. All are appreciated. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we will catch you on the next one.
The history of the Mongol Empire is not just a history of the Mongols, but the people they interacted with. In today’s interview, our series historian, Jack Wilson, talks with Dr. John Latham-Sprinkle on one of those peoples affected by the Mongol Conquests, the Alans of the North Caucasus. Dr. John Latham-Sprinkle is a historian based at Ghent University in Belgium, whose work focuses on the history of the North Caucasus region, which today is part of the Russian Federation. He researches the Medieval kingdom of Alania, the formation of political power in imperial borderlands, and the history of slavery
“There was a certain man who was a believer, and he was a nobleman and a fearer of God. He was rich in the things of this world, and he was well endowed with the qualities of nature; he belonged to a famous family and a well-known tribe. His name was SHIBAN the Sa'ora. He dwelt in the city which is called [...] KHAN BALIK , [...] the royal city in the country of the East. He married according to the law a woman whose name was KEYAMTA. And when they had lived together for a long time, and they had no heir, they prayed to God continually and besought Him with frequent supplications not to deprive them of a son who would continue [their] race. And He who giveth comfort in His gracious mercy received their petition, and He showed them compassion. For it is His wont to receive the entreaty of those who are broken of heart, and-to hearken unto the groaning of those who make supplications and petitions [to Him]. [....]
Now God made the spirit of conception to breathe upon the woman Keyamta, and she brought forth a son, and they called his name " SAWMA.” And they rejoiced [with] a great joy, neighbours of his family and his relations rejoiced at his birth.’
So begins the history of Rabban bar Sauma, as translated by E. Wallis Budge. There were a number of travellers, missionaries, diplomats and merchants who made journey from Europe to China during the height of the Mongol Empire. While Marco Polo is the most famous of these, we have also covered a few other travellers in previous episodes. Yet, there were also those who made the harrowing journey from China to the west. Of these, none are more famous than Rabban bar Sauma, the first known individual born in China who made the journey to Europe. Rabban bar Sauma was a Turkic Christian monk who travelled from Khanbaliq, modern-day Beijing, across Central Asia, the Ilkhanate, the Byzantine Empire, Italy, all the way to the western edge of France, visiting Khans, Emperors, Kings and Popes. Our episode today will introduce you to Rabban Sauma and his incredible journey across late 13th century Mongol Eurasia. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Sauma was born around 1225 in the city of Yenching, on which Beijing now sits. Yenching of course, we have visited before, when it was known as Zhongdu, the capital of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. The Mongols took the city after a bloody siege in 1215, which we covered back in episode 7 of this season. Sauma was born to Turkic parents, either Onggud or Uighur, two groups which had long since recognized the supremacy of Chinggis Khan. Sauma’s parents were Christians of the Church of the East, often called, rather disparagingly, Nestorians. Nestorius was a 5th century archbishop of Constantinople who had argued, among other things, the distinction between Christ’s humanity and his divinity, and that Mary was mother of Jesus the man, but not of Jesus the God. For if God had always existed, then he could not have had a mother. For this Nestorius was excommunicated at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and his followers scattered across the east. From the Sassanid Empire they spread across Central Asia, reaching China during the Tang Dynasty. By the 12th century, the adaptable Nestorian priests converted several of the tribes of Mongolia, from the Naiman, the Kereyit to the Onggud, to which Sauma likely belonged. These Eastern Christian priests stayed influential among the Mongols for the remainder of the 13th century, with a number of prominent Mongols adhering to their faith. Sorqaqtani Beki, the mother of Great Khans Mongke and Khubilai, was perhaps the best known of these.
The young Sauma took his Christian faith seriously; so seriously, his parents sought to dissuade him, fretting the end of their family line if their son became a monk. Refusing fine meats and alcohol, Sauma instead hungered for ecclestical knowledge and purity. Accepted into the Nestorian clergy of Yenching in 1248, at age 25 he donned the tonsure and garb of the monk. Developing a reputation for asceticism beyond even his fellow monks, he largely secluded himself in his own cell for 7 years before leaving the monastery for the mountains. His devotion to Christ made him famous among the Nestorians of North China and Mongolia, attracting the attention of a young Onggud Turk named Markos. From the Onggud capital of Koshang in modern Inner Mongolia, Markos was mesmerized by the stories of the holiness of Sauma. The 15 year old Markos marched by himself to Sauma in 1260. Impressed by the youth’s tenacity even as he attempted to dissuade him from joining the monastery, Sauma eventually took Markos under his wing. Markos proved himself an excellent student, and within three years was accepted into the Nestorian monastic life.
Sauma and Markos became fast friends and pillars of the Nestorian community around Yenching, which by then was the capital of the new Great Khan, Khubilai, and renamed to Dadu, “Great City,” or Khanbaliq, “The Khan’s City,” to Turkic and Mongolian speakers. Khanbaliq is the origins of Marco Polo’s somewhat distorted version of Cambulac. While Sauma was happy to spend his life in the mountains near Dadu, Markos was much more energetic, and sought to convince his friend to partake in the most difficult of journeys; to the holy city of Jerusalem to be absolved of their sins. Sauma tried to scare Markos off this goal, and it was not until around 1275 that Sauma was convinced to accompany his friend. They went to Khanbaliq for an escort and supplies, and here news of their mission came to the most powerful monarch on the planet, Khuiblai Khan. Several sources, such as the Syriac Catholicos Bar Hebraeus, attest that Sauma and Markos were sent west by Kublai to worship in Jerusalem or baptize clothes in the River Jordan. Such a task is similar to the orders Kublai gave to Marco Polo’s father and uncle, instructed to bring back Catholic priests and sacred oil from Jerusalem for Yuan China. Khubilai often tried to appear a friend to all religions within his realm, and may have felt the need to honour his own mother’s memory, as she had been a Christian. That Sauma and Markos went with the blessings of the Great Khan holding his passport (paiza) would explain the favoured treatment they received over their voyage. Interestingly though, the main source for Bar Sauma’s journey, a Syriac language manuscript compiled shortly after his death from notes and an account he had made in his life, makes no mention of Khubilai’s involvment. Historian Pier Giorgio Borbone suggests it was deliberately left out, instead playing of the religious aspect of the pilgrimage as emerging from Markos and Sauma themselves, rather than imply they only made the journey on the order of Khubilai.
Setting out around 1275, Sauma, Markos and an escort began their journey to the west. Through the Yuan Empire they were met by ecstatic crowds of Nestorians coming out to see the holymen, showering them with gifts and supplies. Two Onggud nobles, sons-in-laws to the Great Khan, provided more animals and guides for them, though they warned of the dangers now that the Mongol Khanates were at war. They followed one of the primary routes of the Silk Road, via the former territory of the Tangut Kingdom, the Gansu Corridor, to the Tarim Basin, cutting south along the desolate Taklamakan desert, the harshest stretch of their journey. After staying in Khotan, they moved onto Kashgar, shocked to find it recently depopulated and plundered, a victim of Qaidu Khan. Passing through the Tien Shan mountains to Talas, they found the encampment of that same Khan. Here they minimized any connections they had to Khubilai, instead portraying themselves on a mission of personal religious conviction and prayed for the life of Qaidu and his well being, asking that he provid supplies to assist in their journey. Qaidu let them through, and Sauma and Markos continued on a seemingly uneventful, but strenuous trip through Qaidu’s realm, the Chagatai Khanate and into the Ilkhanate.
Sauma and Markos’ journey to Jerusalem halted in Maragha, chief city of the Ilkhanate. There, the head of the Nestorian Church, Patriarch Mar Denha, found use for these well-spoken travellers affiliated with the Khan of Khans. Mar Denha had not made himself many friends within the Ilkhanate, in part for his hand in the violent murder of a Nestorian who had converted to Islam. As a result the Il-Khan, Hulegu’s son Abaqa, had not provided letters patent to confirm Denha in his position, wary of alienating the Muslims of his kingdom. Mar Denha believed monks sent from Abaqa’s uncle Khubilai would be most persuasive. Abaqa Il-Khan treated Sauma and Markos generously, and perhaps influenced by his Christian Byzantine wife, on their urging he agreed to send Mar Denha his confirmation. In exchange, Mar Denha was to provide an escort for Sauma and Markos to reach Jerusalem, but the roads were closed due to war between the Ilkhanate and the Mamluk Sultanate. When Markos and Sauma returned to Mar Denha, he told them visiting his own Patriarchate was just as good as visiting Jerusalem, and gave them new titles. Both were made Rabban, the Syriac form of Rabbi. Markos was made Metropolitan of the Nestorians of Eastern Asia, essentially a bishop, and given a new name: Yabhallaha, by which he is more often known, while Rabban bar Sauma became his Visitor-General. Suddenly promoted but unable to return east due to a breakout of war between the Central Asian Khanates, Rabban Sauma and Mar Yabhallaha stayed in a monastery near Arbil until the sudden death of Mar Denha in 1281.
His experience with the Mongols and knowledge of their language made Yabhallaha a prime candidate to succeed Mar Denha, and the other Metropolitans anointed him Patriarch of the Nestorians. Wisely, Rabban Sauma encouraged Yabhallaha to immediately seek confirmation from Abaqa Il-Khan, who appreciated the move and rewarded Yabhallaha and the Nestorians of the Ilkhanate with gifts, such as a throne and parasol, as well as tax privileges. Abaqa soon died in 1282, and Yabhallaha and Sauma faced scrutiny under Abaqa’s successor, his Muslim brother Teguder Ahmad. Accusations were made that the Nestorians were defaming Teguder Il-Khan in letters to Khubilai. Placed on trial before the Il-Khan, the two friends fought for their innocence and outlasted him. In 1284 Teguder was ousted and killed by Abaqa’s son Arghun. Mar Yabhallaha immediately paid homage to Arghun, in him finding a firm supporter. With Arghun’s backing, Yabhallaha removed his enemies from within the Nestorian church and strengthened his power. Desiring to complete the war with the Mamluk Sultanate, under Arghun efforts to organize an alliance with Christian Europe against the Mamluks reached new heights. Since the days of Arghun’s grandfather Hulegu, the Il-Khans had sent envoys to Europe in an effort to organize a Crusader-Mongolian alliance against the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt. Despite some close attempts, there had not yet been successful cooperation. Arghun was determined to change this and organize the coalition which would finally overcome the Mamluks.
Desiring the most effective envoy possible, Arghun turned to Mar Yabhallaha to suggest an influential, well travelled and respectable Christian to send to spur Crusading fervour, aided by promises that Arghun would restore Jerusalem to Christian hands. Yabhallaha had just the man. Turning to his longtime friend, Yabhallaha asked Rabban bar Sauma to carry the Il-Khan’s messages westwards. Provided letters for the Kings and Popes, as well as paizas, gold, animals and provisions, in the first days of 1287, after a tearful goodbye with Mar Yabhallaha, the 62 year old Rabban Sauma set out, accompanied by at least two interpreters from Italy in his escort. The first steps of his route are unclear, likely taking the caravan routes from northern Iraq to somewhere along the southeastern Black Sea coast. From there they took a ship to Constantinople and met the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II. As recorded in the Syriac history of Rabban Sauma, quote:
“And after [some] days he arrived at the great city of CONSTANTINOPLE, and before they went into it he sent two young men to the Royal gate to make known there that an ambassador of [Khan] Arghon had come. Then the [Emperor] commanded certain people to go forth to meet them, and to bring them in with pomp and honour. And when RABBAN SAWMA went intothe city, the [Emperor] allotted to him a house, that is to say, a mansion in which to dwell. And after RABBAN SAWMA had rested himself, he went to visit the [Emperor, Andronikos II] and after he had saluted him, the [Emperor] asked him, "How art thou after the workings of the sea and the fatigue of the road?" And RABBAN SAWMA replied, "With the sight of the Christian king fatigue hath vanished and exhaustion hath departed, for I was exceedingly anxious to see your kingdom, the which may our Lord establish!"
Emperor Andronikos II politely welcomed the embassy, dining them and providing a house for their stay. Giving the gifts and letters from Arghun, Rabban Sauma met his first frustration as efforts to broach military aid led nowhere. The Emperor Andronikos provided gifts, excuses, and promised exactly no military aid for the Il-Khan. Whatever disappointment Rabban Sauma felt was offset with a tour of the sites of Constantinople, especially the great church of Hagia Sophia. In his homeland churches were small buildings or even mobiles tents; in Ani, in Armenia, he saw a city famous for its many churches. But nothing could compare to the majesty of the Hagia Sophia, the quality and colour of its marble, its 360 columns, the great space and seemingly floating roof. The mosaics, the shrines and relics alleged to date to the earliest days of Christianity, all captured Sauma’s heart. Of the church’s famous dome, Sauma wrote: “As for the dome of the altar it is impossible for a man to describe it [adequately] to one who hath not seen it, and to say how high and how spacious it is.” In his often laconic account of his travels, it is these icons of Christianity which earn the greatest description, and stood out to him more than his usually unsuccessful diplomatic efforts.
Departing Constantinople, by sea he set out for Rome. The voyage was rough, and on 18th June 1287 he was greeted by a terrifying spectacle, the eruption of Mt. Etna where fire and smoke ascended day and night. Passing Sicily he landed at Naples, where he was graciously welcomed by Charles Martel, the son of the Napolese King Charles II, then imprisoned in Aragon. From the roof of the mansion Sauma stayed at, on June 24th he watched Charles’ forces be defeated by the Aragonese fleet in the Bay of Sorrento. Sauma remarked with surprise that the Aragonese forces, unlike the Mongols, did not attack the noncombatants they came across. European chroniclers attest that later in June, after Sauma had moved onto Rome, the Aragonese began ravaging the countryside anyways.
In Rome later in 1287, Sauma’s hopes to meet the Pope were dashed as Pope Honourius IV had died in April that year. Finding the Cardinals in the midst of a long conclave to choose his successor, Sauma was welcomed before them as the envoy of the Il-Khan. Unwilling to commit to any alliance without a Pope, the Cardinals instead asked where Sauma came from, who the Patriarch of the East was and where he was located. Avoiding Sauma’s attempts to get back to his diplomatic purpose, the Cardinals then shifted to theological matters, grilling Sauma on his beliefs. The Nestorian impressed them with his knowledge of the early church, and managed to deftly slide past the disputes which had caused the excommunication of Nestorius some 860 years prior. Finding no progress on the diplomatic mission, Sauma engaged in a more personal interest, exploring the ancient relics and monuments to Christendom. The account of Sauma’s journey indicates he visited “all the churches and monasteries that were in Great Rome.” At times, he misunderstood the strange customs of the locals, believing the Pope enthroned the Holy Roman Emperor by using his own feet to lift the crown onto his head.
With no progress to be made in Rome until the new Pope was elected, Sauma searched for Kings of the Franks most known for Crusading. After a brief tour of Tuscany, by the end of September 1287 Sauma was in Paris, there greeted with a lavish reception by King Phillip IV, who hosted a feast for this illustrious envoy. In Rabban Sauma’s account, he wrote”
“And the king of France assigned to Rabban Sawma a place wherein to dwell, and three days later sent one of his Amirs to him and summoned him to his presence. And when he had come the king stood up before him and paid him honour, and said unto him, "Why hast thou come? And who sent thee?" And RABBAN SAWMA said unto him, "[Khan] ARGHON and the Catholicus of the East have sent me concerning the matter of JERUSALEM." And he showed him all the matters which he knew, and he gave him the letters which he had with him, and the gifts, that is to say, presents which he had brought. And the king of FRANCE answered him, saying, "If it be indeed so that the MONGOLS, though they are not Christians, are going to fight against the Arabs for the capture of JERUSALEM, it is meet especially for us that we should fight [with them], and if our Lord willeth, go forth in full strength.”
Moved by the willingness of the Mongols to restore Jerusalem to Christian hands, Phillip promised to send a nobleman alongside Rabban Sauma to bring his answer to Arghun. With at least one king seemingly onboard, Sauma spent the next month touring Paris, visiting churches and impressed by the great volume of students within the city. Phillip showed Sauma the private relics of the French Kings, including what Phillip claimed was the Crown of Thorns, sold to his grandfather by the Emperor of Constantinople in 1238.
Around mid-October 1287, Rabban Sauma had moved across France to Gascony, where the King of England Edward I, old Longhsanks himself, was staying at Bordeaux. Edward was known to the Mongols, having gone on an inconclusive Crusade to Syria in 1271. Abaqa Il-Khan had attempted to coordinate movements with Edward during his campaign, but neither side had been able to line up their forces. Edward, then just the crown prince of England, had succeeded in doing little more than carry out small raids, assist in organizing a treaty between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Mamuk Sultan Baybars. and survive an assassination attempt. Abaqa had sent envoys in 1277 apologizing to Edward for being able to provide sufficient aid and asked for him to return, but to no avail. Edward, by then the King of England, was by then rather more concerned with France and the conquest of Wales.
Ten years in early 1287, Edward had promised to take up the Cross again, and was excited by the arrival of Rabban Sauma late that year. Promising assistance, he invited Rabban Sauma to partake in the Eucharist with him, gave him leave to visit the local churches, and provided gifts and assistance when Sauma went back on the road to Rome. Feeling himself successful, by the time he returned to Rome in early 1288 a new Pope had been elected, Nicholas IV. The first Pope from the Franciscan Order, Nicholas was a man keenly interested in missionary efforts and the restoration of the Holy Land to Christian hands. It was under his aegis that John de Monte Corvino would travel to Dadu to establish a Catholic archbishopric there. Having interacted with each other during Sauma’s first visit to the Cardinals, Sauma and the new Pope got on splendidly. Kissing the hands and feet of Pope Nicholas, Sauma was provided a mansion for his stay in Rome and invited to partake in the feasts and festivities around Easter. Sauma on occasion led in the Eucharist beside the Pope, drawing crowds from across Rome eager to see how this foreign Christian undertook Mass. Though the language differed, the crowds were ecstatic that the rites themselves seemed the same.
Despite their friendship, no promises of organizing a crusade against the Mamluks were forthcoming. The Pope lacked the influence to send a large body of armed men on yet another disatrous journey. The crusades of the 13th century to the Holy Land had been catastrophes. The most thoroughly organized crusades of the century were those organized by King Louis IX of France. The first had ended in his capture by the Mamluks in Egypt in 1250, while the second had resulted in his death outside of Tunis in 1270. If even this saintly, highly prepared king had been met with failures, then what chance would any other force have? Nicholas wanted to convert Muslims and retake Jersualem, yes, but was very aware of the practicalities involved by this point.
And so, Rabban Sauma decided to return to the Ilkhanate. Nicholas asked Sauma to stay in Rome with him, but Sauma insisted he was only there as a diplomat, and it was his duty to return east. The Nestorian did convince the Head of the Catholic Church to give him, somewhat reluctantly, holy relics: a piece of Jesus’ cape, the kerchief of the Virgin Mary, and fragments from the bodies of several saints. Along with those were several letters for the Il-Khan, Mar Yabhallaha and Rabban Sauma. Copies of these letters survive in the Vatican archives, and though the letter to Yabhallaha confirms him as head of the Christians of the East, it is surprisingly condescending, explaining basic tenets of Christianity. Embracing Rabban Sauma one final time, he was dismissed and by ship, returned to the Ilkhanate.
On his return, he was warmly welcomed by his longtime friend Mar Yabhallaha and the Il-Khan Arghun. Arghun hosted a feast for them, personally serving them and richly rewarding the old man for his great efforts. Yet his efforts came to naught. The Pope had provided no assurances, and despite continued correspondence neither Phillip nor Edward committed men to the Holy Land, too preoccupied with their own conflicts. Arghun sent an embassy in 1289 telling the two monarchs that he would march on Damascus in January 1291 and meet them there. Distracted by turmoil on his borders, Arghun instead died of illness in March 1291. Acre, the final major Crusader stronghold, was taken by the Mamluks two months later, ending the Crusader Kingdoms and the possibilities of European-Mongol cooperation. Despite some outrage in connected circles in Europe, the fall of Acre merited no revival of any Crusader spirit for the region.
Rabban Sauma largely retired to his own church for his last years, but along with Mar Yabhallaha continued to visit the court of the Il-Khans, particularly Geikhatu who continued to patronize minority religions of the Ilkhanate. Perhaps in 1293 they met another international traveller; Marco Polo, who spent much of that year in the Ilkhanate during his return from China. We have no way of confirming this, though we can imagine Geikhatu Il-Khan introducing two men who had both travelled across the continent, humoured by the individuals brought together by Mongol rule. Polo had arrived in China around the same time that Rabban Sauma and Markos had begun their own western journey. As Marco had spent much of his time in China in Bar Sauma’s city of birth, perhaps Polo told him of the things he had missed in the last twenty years, what had changed in Dadu and what had stayed the same, stirring memories in Rabban Sauma of land and family that he never saw again.
Rabban Sauma died in January 1294, leaving his friend Mar Yabhallaha alone in an Ilkhanate that, after the death of Geikhatu and conversion of the Ilkhans to Islam, grew increasingly mistrustful and hostile to non-Muslims. By the time of Mar Yabhallaha’s death in 1317, the brief flourishing of the Nestorian church under Ilkhanid patronage was over, and their influence across Central Asia dissipated with the continued conversion of Mongols across the region. The journey of Rabban Sauma was forgotten. His persian diary on his voyages was translated into Syriac not long after his death but was lost until its rediscovery in the 19th century. Translated now into several languages, Sauma’s journey shines another light on the integration of East and West under the Mongols, when for the first time a Christian Turk from China could travel to the Pope and Kings of Europe. Our series on the Mongol Empire in the late thirteenth century and fourteenth century will continue, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals, or consider leaving us a review on the podcast catcher of your choice, or sharing this with your friends. All your efforts help immensely. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
The weight of years will bear down on each of us heavily, from the humblest farmer to the most august monarch. And Khubilai Khan, mighty even among the mighty, over his nearly forty year reign found even his immense energies sapped by this burden. Age, grief, the rigours of government, and military defeats ground down the vision of Khubilai, and in reaction he directed his energies to drink and food. In the vacuum left behind, corruption grew like mold on the young Yuan Dynasty, sowing problems neither Khubilai nor his successors would be able to solve. Today, we look at the last years of Khubilai Khan, the end of an era in the Mongol Empire: I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals, Ages of Conquest.
For the past few episodes, we have dealt with Khubilai’s long reign. First, we dealt with his conflict with his brother Ariq-Boke for the Mongol imperial throne. Khubilai was victorious by 1264, but in his victory was left with hardly even a nominal mastery over the western Khanates of the empire: the Golden Horde, Chagatai Khanate, Ilkhanate and Ogedeid Khanate under Qaidu were all effectively independent powers by the time of Khubilai’s victory. As a result, Khubilai focused his attention on China. Over three episodes we detailed Khubilai’s renewed effort to end the long war with the Song Dynasty, a victory finalized by 1279 which marked the conquest of China, almost 60 years since Chinggis Khan had first attacked the Jin Dynasty. Then, we looked at Khubilai’s efforts to build his administration from 1264-1279, the period of his greatest energy and vision. By all standards, Khubilai was an impressive monarch, merging Mongolian and Chinese imperial traditions into a carefully balanced new system which, in many areas, seems to have genuinely sought to reduce the burdens upon Khubilai’s subject population. Our following episodes dealt with the beginning of the end of Khubilai’s good fortune. In Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar and Java, Khubilai’s military forces met with either inconclusive, or outright diastrous results. A stunning expenditure of resources and lives for little in the way of strategic gains, the efforts to meet these costs required imaginative efforts on the part of Khubilai’s finance ministers- the topic of our previous episode, looking at the so-called Three Villianous ministers, Ahmad, Lu Shih-jung and Sangha, and the animosity they inspired from the top levels of Khubilai’s government to the subject population.
For Khubilai, the successive defeats were not just a shock in comparison to the overwhelming victories over the previous decades, but were more alarming in a personal manner. In both the Mongolian and Chinese imperial traditions, the right to rule rested on the support of Heaven. Heaven’s support always manifested itself in bountiful harvests, good climates, good governance and military victories. For the Mongols, the many amazing conquests of the thirteenth century had demonstrated Eternal Blue Heaven’s desire for the Mongols to rule the whole of the world. Khubilai had firmly believed that the ultimate destiny of the Mongols, and his destiny, was that his rule would include everything beneath the blue sky. There simply could not have been an alternative to this. So to be met with the alternative; that is, successive rounds of wasteful defeats in foreign countries from the late 1270s through the 1290s, must have come not just as an immense shock, but a blow to Khubilai’s own psyche. Coupled with the knowledge of his loss of control over the Khanates in the west of the empire, and the rebellion he faced within and along his borders, Khubilai would have struggled with a sense of failure; his failure to complete the mission begun by his grandfather, great Chinggis Khan. Aside from defeats and failure in his foreign policy, the internal matters of Khubilai’s realm also saw the failure of many of his efforts to actually run his empire, and failures in his personal life.
After 1276, the seizure of the Song Dynasty’s capital at Hangzhou, and especially after 1279, with the final defeat of the Song holdouts on the island of Yaishan, Khubilai Khan began to steadily reduce his role in the governance of his empire. By the end of the 1270s, Khubilai was already in his sixties. His efforts over the 1260s and 70s had been physically draining on him, having thrown himself in military campaigns, restructuring government and administration. By the end of the 1270s, a largely successful decade marred only by the failure of the first invasion of Japan, Khubilai was in essence high on his accomplishments, but burned out from the pressures of ruling. From the turn of 1280 onwards marked a significant change in Khubilai’s method of rulership. The hands-on monarch in weekly and daily discussions with his advisers on the running of the empire making sweeping plans turned into a man steadily withdrawing and becoming disinterested with the actual running of the government. The causes of this were multi-faceted, and we shall address them in turn. First will be Khubilai’s personal losses, and then the rigours of government causing his disillusionment, which only exacerbated the problems the Yuan realm faced.
Over the 1270s and 80s, Khubilai suffered rounds of losses among his family and in his closest advisers. Perhaps the greatest of these was the deaths of wife Chabi and his favourite son and heir Jinggim by the mid-1280s. Chabi was not Khubilai’s first wife; she had alreadydied some years prior. But Chabi had been the one with whom he placed the greatest trust and love into, setting her opinion above nearly all others. Of all his wives, it is her that we know the greatest detail of, and her official portrait is the only one of Khubilai’s wives to survive. Her counsel had been an important pillar of support throughout their marriage; it was likely on her urging that Khubilai made the decision to challenge his brother Ariq Boke, the apparent favourite, for the throne. She pushed Khubilai towards Buddhism, her own religion, and brought Khubilai’s attention to individuals who became key members of his government, such as a certain Ahmad Fanakati. Not coincidentally, it was their son Jinggim who was groomed to succeed Khubilai, recieving an education from the finest minds of Khubilai’s advisers. Indicative of the influence of his Chinese advisers and in an attempt to prevent the succession crisis like those which followed the deaths of the previous Great Khans, in 1273 Khubilai made Jinggim his heir apparent, the crown prince. Having been groomed for the role since a young age, Jinggim played a major role in the government over these years, heading the Ministry of War and granted jurisdiction over other Secretariats. Indeed, Jinggim’s favour was necessary in the 1280s for anyone wishing to maintain their power in the Yuan government; both Ahmad Fanakati and Lu Shih-Jung fell afoul of him before their ultimate demise. Chabi and Jinggim were in many respects the cornerstones of Khubilai’s personal life. Chabi’s death in 1281 struck Khubilai particularly hard and did much to advance his withdrawal from politics. In the first half of the 1280s, Khubilai seems to have left Jinggim in the role of arbitrator; it is here that we see his major actions against both Ahmad and Lu Shih-Jung. It was directly with his instigation that Lu Shih-Jung was removed from office, and likely his permission had been granted, perhaps indirectly, for the powerful Ahmad to be murdered. So great was this process that some courtiers were advising that the ever-more distant Khubilai should abdicate in favour of the more energetic Jinggim. It seemed to anger Khubilai, but the confrontation between father and son was avoided when Jinggim suddenly died in 1285, aged only 43. Not only did this upend his plans for his dynasty, not only was it an emotional blow to lose his favoured child, but it left him with no other son prepared as Jinggim had been to step up to the position. Khubilai could not abdicate now even if he wanted to, forcing the Yuan realm to be anchored to the distraught Khubilai. Neither were Chabi and Jinggim the only members of his family to predecease him; a number of his sons such as Dorji, Manggala, Hugechi and Qutluq-Temur, as well as grandsons, died before Khubilai as well. His brothers had all died in the 1260s. Despite a great number of wives and children, Khubilai must have been feeling a deep loss and loneliness throughout his final years, something which manifested his focus on drinking and eating his pain away.
Khubilai had over the 1250s and 60s cultivated, to paraphrase his modern biographer Morris Rossabi, a veritable kitchen cabinent of advisors to help him deal with the grand effort to rule China. These were Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist scholars and monks who knew the problems the Chinese population faced well, and were able to press upon Khubilai the need for moral government. They were able to demonstrate Khubilai the necessary steps to help legitimize his rule to the Chinese and therefore ease the acceptance of Mongol overlordship. Under their encouragement Khubilai had declared the Yuan Dynasty and adopted many of the trappings of a Chinese dynasty, portaying himself as a successor to the Song and heir to the great Tang Dynasty. Reliable companions and advisers for years, many of these men had also educated Khubilai’s children, and helped restrain some of Khubilai’s worst impulses. So it was to Khubilai’s rulership a great losses when his chief advisers died with a shocking consistency over the 1270s; Liu Ping-Chung in 1274, Shih Tienzi in 1275, Chao Pi in 1276, Yao Shu in 1279, and Tou Mo and the ‘Phags-Pa Lama in 1280. The effect was two fold. These men had been the best source of advice for dealing with the Chinese and balancing the religions of his empire. Without them, Khubilai’s handling of the relationship with the Chinese population and religious matters became noticably clumsier over the 1280s. The other consequence of their losses was an ever greater reliance on non-Chinese and Central Asians in the government. With less connection to the Chinese, they became the faces of stiffer treatment to the Chinese of the Yuan realm and further widened the gap between the Mongol rulers and the majority of the subject population- a matter best personified by the so-called “three villainous ministers,” who we addressed in our previous episode.
In addition to these personal losses, by the 1280s Khubilai good luck in governance and wars was coming to an end. As our previous episodes have dealt with, after 1279 Khubilai’s military ventures were generally inconclusive or outright disasters. One of the most significant consequences of this was the cost. The war against the Song Dynasty had entailed an immense mobilization of men and resources and a construction of a massive fleet of river ships. The costs of the Song war were offset from the victory and massive growth of the taxpayer base and access to the southeast Asia trade. The other military efforts did not see such a balance. The invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 for instance were catastrophic failures. Huge warships, vast numbers of men, horses and supplies were simply lost to the waves. The Korean peninsula had provided much of the ships, men and grain for the fleets, and particularly after the long and destructive Mongol war to capture the peninsula, the result was an economic disaster and starvation throughout the peninsula. Korea required yearly grain shipments well into the 1280s to avoid the collapse of the fragile Korean monarchy, which had spent most of the last century as puppets for military dictators.
Even for the Mongols, war had to be paid for. The wars launched by Khubilai over his reign were far cries far from nomads and their herds travelling across the Eurasian grasslands. An attempt to cover this was made by employing that one trick economists ‘love:’ printing more money. Khubilai used paper money his entire reign, and careful management had kept the value up. But the extraordinary demands of the military efforts, court, government upkeep, construction of his capitals at Dadu and Shangdu, and general corruption kept the government’s costs only ever increasing, and over the 1270s the issuance of paper money increased in an attempt to accommodate this. The result of this, as any basic economics class will tell you, is inflation. Printing increased in 1276 to cover the cost of the Song War and failure of the first invasion of Japan, and in the 1280s inflation became a real problem. The pressure became ever-greater on the finance ministers like Ahmad Fanakati to solve or abate this, but their efforts resulted in anger from a population feeling over-taxed and taken advantage of. Facing stiff opposition from other members of the government, Ahmad and the other men tasked with solving the issue of inflation, such as Lu Shih-Jung and Sangha, had a thankless job which only ended in their early and very bloody retirements- you can revisit our previous episode on them to learn more about their troubles attempting to carry out the will of Khubilai.
While the Three Ministers may not have actually been dastardly, villianous men, their court conflicts, and immense influence, speak to Khubilai’s ever increasing dissociation with the task of governance over the 1280s. Khubilai by then was simply assigning demands and leaving it up to these ministers to deal with them. Without guidance or oversight on his part, he usually only involved himselfonce it came time for these men to be arrested and executed on whatever pretence was necessary. Khubilai was more preoccupied with hunting- or rather, lounging from his palanquin built on the back of four elephants, while hundreds of riders ran before him. The main area in which Khubilai still showed the greatest interest was foreign policy. He continued to demand invasions and retaliatory raids. As we saw over the previous episodes, over the late 1280s and early 1290s he sent attacks and fleets against Vietnam, Burma and Java. Even Sakhalin Island, the large island off Russia’s east coast and north of Japan in the Sea of Okhtosk, saw attacks by Yuan troops almost every year in the 1280s. Yet none resulted in the great victories he wanted to assauge his ego and sense of failings.
While Khubilai was dealing with foreign ventures, he had a more serious problem in the form of uprisings and rebellions in his territories. From 1279 until 1284, the province of Fujian on the southern Chinese coast saw rebellions which were only put down with difficulty. By 1289, it was to the point that for most of the population southeast of the Yangzi River, it was forbidden for them to own bows and arrows. A rebellion in Tibet in 1280 was swiftly put down by Sangha, but turmoil broke out again in 1285 and was not crushed until 1290; and then, only with a great loss of life. Commanded by one of Khubilai’s grandsons, Temur Buqa, the Yuan army killed at least 10,000 and burned the temples of leaders of the revolt.
Most frustrating was problems to be found among his own family and in Mongolia. His border on the western edge of Mongolia along the Altai mountains, brought him into contact with the Chagatayids and Qaidu, the Ogedeid master of Central Asia. Their long resistance to Khubilai greatly disrupted his attempts to control the Central Asian trade lines, and though they never posed a true danger to Khubilai’s empire, they could threaten the security of Karakorum, the original Mongol imperial capital. For this reason Khubilai stationed many of his Mongolian troops there along the border, from 1271 onwards under the command of his son Nomukhan. Nomukhan’s post was disrupted when a number of his commanders- sons of Khubilai’s late brothers, the Grand Khan Mongke and Ariq Boke- revolted in 1276, captured Nomukhan and handed him over to the Golden Horde, where he would be detained until 1284. The rebellious princes occupied Karakorum, and could not be ousted until 1282, though they failed to coordinate with Qaidu.
The most serious uprisings among his family occurred in Manchuria. Here, many of the descendants of Chinggis Khan’s brothers and half-brothers had been granted territory early in the 13th century, where they were usually overlooked by the Great Khans. They had gotten used to ruling with great autonomy, and Khubilai’s efforts in the 1280s to increase his authority there -coinciding with expansion towards Sakhalin island- prompted dissent and finally revolt among a number of commanders. The most well known and powerful of these was Nayan, a Nestorian Christian and descendant of Chinggis Khan’s youngest brother Temuge. Khubilai’s star general of the conquest of the Song, Bayan of the Ba’arin, was sent to investigate the rumours of Nayan’s dissent, and only narrowly escaped a trap for him Nayan set at a banquet. By early 1287, Nayan was in open revolt against Khubilai Khan, and worry came of cooperation between him and Qaidu; together, it was feared, they could coordinate and cut Khubilai off from Mongolia entirely. In what we might consider Khubilai’s final hurrah, the 72 year old obese, gout and rheumatism riddled Khan of Khans mounted his horse one last time- or might we say, his elephants. Commanding from a tower built on the backs of four elephants, Khubilai and his army set out with surprising speed. Nayan had openly revolted at the start of 1287; by July of that year, Khubilai’s army had fallen upon him, routing his forces, capturing Nayan and killing him. As per custom, Nayan was bound in a carpet and beaten to death. So swiftly had Khubilai moved, that Qaidu, as far as we can tell, never had the opportunity to cooperate with Nayan, though for more on the rest of Qaidu’s history with Khubilai, you’ll have to see our episode dedicated to him.
This was the last campaign Khubilai took part in. Khubilai had never been in the best shape, and his descent into food and drink and old age in the 1280s took a harsh toll on his body. Hardly able to walk due to gout and rheaumatism, obese and in chronic poor health, Khubilai sought doctors from as far as southern India to bring him relief. None could aid him. Frustrated, alone and depressed, despite being the most powerful monarch on earth he was powerless to fix the problems that plagued him. He had become the Khan of Khans, but had lost authority over the rest of the Mongol Empire. He had conquered China, but struggled to manage with the task of governing it as well. He had lived long enough to ensure his sons would inherit a strong realm and would not face serious challenges from another branch of the family; but he had now outlived his designated heir and allowed corruption to set in in his idleness. Seeking solace in drink and food, Khubilai withdrew from government for the last years of his life. Outliving his friends, closest wife, the morose Khubilai’s health worsened steadily. Few of his old comrades still lived, and their visits to him in the 1290s,such as Bayan of the Ba’arin, brought no pleasure. Falling ill over winter 1293, his courtiers prepared for the final days. On February 18th, 1294, aged 83, Khubilai Khan, son of Tolui, grandson of Chinggis Khan, died in his imperial capital of Dadu. His body was carried north for the customary secret burial on Mt. Burkhan Khaldun, joining his brothers, uncles and illustrious grandfather.
The last Great Khan to have ever met Chinggis, Khubilai must have faced his final days with a sense of doubt and failure for his memory, having failed to complete the conquest of the world and overseen the break-up of their empire. A man of vision and energy, Khubilai had outlived his usefulness. Had he died in 1280, he may have left his dynasty with more vigour with the ascension of his talented and educated son Jinggim. But with the death of his designated heir, Khubilai had chosen Jinggim’s son Temur Oljeitu to succeed him. At a quriltai, the late Khubilai’s choice was confirmed, and in May 1294 Temur Oljeitu was duly enthroned as Khan of Khans, ruler of an empire transformed from the one his grandfather had seized 44 years prior- one we might say, had already slipped past its prime. Little over 70 years after Khubilai’s death, his successors would be pushed from China. Our story of the fate of the Mongol Khanates will continue, so please subscribe to our podcast to continue. To help us keep bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
"You must know that, as we shall tell you later on, the Great Kaan has entrusted to twelve men the task of attending, as seems best to them, to all territories, governments, and everything else. Among these twelve men, there was a Saracen, [Ahmad] by name, a shrewd and capable man, who above all others enjoyed great power and influence with the Great [Khan], who loved him so much that he gave him every liberty, for, as was found after his death, this [Ahmad] laid such a spell over the Kaan with his sorceries that the latter placed absolute faith in his words, paying them the closest attention. Thus he was able to do all that he wished. He it was who distributed all governments and offices, and punished all offenders. And every time he wished to encompass the death of someone he hated, whether justly or unjustly, he would go to the [Khan], and say, “Sire, such a man is worthy of death, for he has offended your Majesty in such a way.” Then the [Khan] would say, “Do what thou thinkest most fitting.” And straightway he would have the man put to death. Hence, seeing the complete liberty he enjoyed, and that the Lord placed absolute trust in his words, no one dared cross [Ahmad] in anything whatsoever.”
So the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, in the Benedetto translation, introduces Ahmad Fanakati, the famous “evil finance minister” of Khubilai Khan. Ahmad, the first of Khubilai’s “Three Villianous Ministers,” as they’re termed in the Chinese sources, is often used to symbolize the decay and corruption of Khubilai Khan’s final years. Where Khubilai had once been a vigourous monarch attending to every detail of state, by the 1280s his interest and energy for governing declined with every year. Having taken you through the inconclusive, expensive and disastrous foreign miltiary expeditions of Khubilai’s last years, we shall now take you to the political and personal failings of Khubilai’s twilight, beginning with the Three Villianous ministers- Ahmad Fanakati, Lu Shih-Jing and Sangha. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals, Ages of Conquest.
Ahmad, the first of the “Three Villianous Ministers,” was a Muslim from Central Asia who had been a favourite of Khubilai’s wife Chabi. Appointed to Khubilai’s Central Secretariat in 1262, Ahmad’s power and influence rapidly rose through his canny ability. For a refresher on the secretariats and government structure of Khubilai, you can check back to episode 37, “Kublai Khan’s Reign.” By 1264, Ahmad was Vice-Chancellor of the Central Secretariat, and in 1271 was even briefly appointed as head of the newly made Supreme Secretariat. His primary responsibility in Khubilai’s service was as a finance minister, tasked with providing the Great Khan more and more revenues. In this position he promoted trade, particularly with Central Asia and sought to increase the number of taxable households in the empire- usually by tracking down those who had escaped prior registration. Ahmad also oversaw further progress on implemention of regular land taxation, one of those ever-present problems of the Mongol administration in China, as well as new taxes on merchants. One of his most noteworthy efforts was the expansion of government monopolies; iron producing regions would have to provide yearly quotas of iron to the government, which would be turned into tools and farm implements to be sold back to farmers. After 1276 Ahmad forbade the private production of copper tools, making it a privilege of the government to produce and sell these, usually in exchange for grain. The yearly revenue from the strictly enforced salt monopoly increased dramatically over the 1270s and early 1280s, and monopolies on tea, liquor, vinegar, gold, silver - all traditional monopolies of the Chinese state- were enforced under Ahmad’s supervision.
None of Ahmad’s financial policies in and of themselves indicated an expectional cruelty on his part or hatred towards the Chinese. Rather, he was enacting the will of Khubilai, who was making ever increasing demands for income. Ahmad had to choose between more state revenues or looking to fail the Great Khan, and judged, rather wisely, it was better to come up with more revenue. Ahmad carried out his mandate thoroughly, and for this earned as much love as any thorough tax collector will- i.e, not very much. If we are to believe the sources, the Chinese at large hated and cursed him for his policies, and the fact that he was a foreignor. Khubilai, as Ahmad’s backer, thus found his own standing harmed in their eyes. However, whatever “public opinion” was regarding Ahmad does not particularly matter: the Mongols never showed themselves really concerned with how the masses viewed their ministers. The fact that Ahmad was bringing in the revenue streams and trying to handle the tricky task of incorporating the former Song territories into the Yuan Empire mattered more to Khubilai than the cursings of merchants.
The reason that Ahmad has become so infamous comes not from his taxation policy and treatment of the lower classes, but his treatment of the elite and other members of government: the ones who wrote the sources we use for learning of Ahmad’s career. Khubilai over the 1270s seems to have given minimal oversight to Ahmad, trusting him to get results and engaging less and less often in meetings. Left to run things how he desired, Ahmad sought to secure his position, placing his friends, allies and family in government positions. One of his sons was placed into the lucrative position as darughachi of Hangzhou, the capital of the late Song Dynasty. He also sought to run his political foes out of the bureaucracy; in at least one case, a political enemy was hounded into execution. Often he butted heads with Khubilai’s other advisers, especially Confucians and Buddhists. The Chancellor of the Right, Antung, blocked an attempt by Ahmad to place a son in prominent position in Khubilai’s capital of Dadu; respected advisers like Shi Tienzi fought Ahmad’s tax policies. Their resistance brought the dissolution of Ahmad’s brief post as Administer of the Supreme Secretariat, and their collective complaints about a lack of oversight over Ahmad forced Khubilai to grant his son Jinggim authority over Ahmad’s actions. But as many of these most stalwart adivsers died off in the 1270s, Ahmad’s power increased, and fewer voices were there to whisper against him. His influence grew so great that Rashid al-Din, a contemporary who served as vizier of the Ilkhanate, described Ahmad as the vizier of Khubilai’s Yuan Dynasty.
. Ahmad accused his remaining foes of embezzlement, adultery and “unbecoming personal conduct,” which succeeded in driving a number from office. Similar accusations were hurled back at Ahmad himself, pointing to cronyism, personal enrichment, taking bribes and manipulating gold and silver rates for his own gain. Detractors accused him of allowing and even promoting abuses in the system, and that his continued issuing of paper money was causing inflation and therefore encouraging the subjects to hoard their own gold and silver. The most famous accusation against Ahmad, repeated in the Yuan Shi, by Marco Polo and Rashid al-Din, is that he was a lechourous pervert, stealing wives, daughters and mothers for his insatiable sexual desires. To quote Marco Polo,
“There was no fair lady whom if [Ahmad] wanted her, he did not have at his will, taking her for wife if she was not married, or otherwise making her consent. And when he knew that anyone had some pretty daughter, he had his ruffians who went to the father of the girl saying to him, What wilt thou do? Thou hast this daughter of thine. Give her for wife to [Ahmad] and we will make him give thee such a governorship or such an office for three years.”
Rashid al-Din for his part, is hardly more subdued in his description of Ahmad’s
“female interests,” stating simply that Ahmad had some forty-one wives and four hundred concubines. There was likely a bit of truth in these accusations: it seems Ahmad was engaging in cronyism, personal enrichment and a bit of adultery on the side, but the scale of the issue was almost certainly overstated by his unsympathetic chroniclers. Further, none of these would be vices unique to Ahmad’s service in government. Regardless, it’s clear that there was a lengthy conflict going on in the upper uchelons of the Yuan bureaucracy over the 1270s and 1280s, one which Khubilai seemed content to turn his gaze away from.
Notably, Ahmad had an openly poor relationship with the crown prince, Khubilai’s son Jinggim. According to Rashid al-Din, Jinggim’s dislike was so open for the finance minister that one day Jinggim struck Ahmad on the head with his bow, causing him to bleed profusely. Ahmad went before Khubilai, who inquired as to what had happened. Attempting to be diplomatic, Ahmad answered that he had been kicked by a horse, to which Jinggim, standing nearby, shouted “art thou ashamed to say that Jinggim hit thee?”, and then proceeded to punch Ahmad a number of times, right infront of Khubilai. Rashid al-Din and Marco Polo both agree that Ahmad lived in fear of Jinggim, which seems rather reasonable.
Interesting for this anecdote, Rashid al-Din is silent on Khubilai’s response to Jinggim’s assault, surprising given his usually pro-Khubilai stance. Rashid may have been uninterested in commenting on Khubilai allowing mistreatment of a long serving Muslim servant, or it may have been that Khubilai, characteristic of this period, offered no response. Khubilai was either ignoring the open disputes rocking the top levels of his government, or completely oblivious to them, and remained content to focus on the revenue Ahmad was bringing in. Either option speaks to Khubilai’s growing disinterest in governance and dereliciton of his duties. Marco Polo, who adored Khubilai, sought to explain away his hero’s inaction by stating that Ahmad had bewitched the Khaan.
The tension with Ahmad and his foes reached a breaking point in April 1282. Every year, Khubilai and most of the royal court, including Jinggim, made the trek to the steppe to spend the summer in his secondary capital, Shangdu, the famous Xanadu of Marco Polo. It’s likely the Venetian accompanied them on the trip this year. While the Khan and crown prince were absent from the imperial capital of Dadu, Ahmad’s foes made their move- possibly with the tacit approval of Crown Prince Jinggim. The conspiracy was led by a Chinese fellow named Wang Zhu, who, if we are to believe Polo, had his mother, wife and daughter all fall prey to Ahmad’s urgings. One night the conspirators sent a messenger to Ahmad, telling him that Jinggim had returned unexpectedly and demanded to see him. The worried Ahmad came forth at once to the palace, where he found the conspirators sitting in a dark room lit by sparse candlelight. Bowing before whom he assumed to be Jinggim, the conspirators swung their swords and removed Ahmad’s head. The guards were quick to the scene and killed the perpators, sending a message at once to Khubilai of what had happened. A furious Khubilai returned quickly to Dadu and unleashed hell upon the conspirators still alive and buried Ahmad with full honours. But the survivors in time finally convinced the Khan of Ahmad’s digressions and lechery, though it seems the defining moment came when one of the “lost” jewels from one of Khubilai’s crowns miraculously turned up in the late Ahmad’s private residence. Marco Polo, who writes that he was at Khubilai’s attendance on his return to Dadu, vividly describes the Khan’s reaction. Roaring with anger, Khubilai had Ahmad’s sons and wives rounded up; those found guilty were flayed alive and their fortune confiscated. Ahmad’s body was exhumed and placed on display, it’s head removed and crushed by a cart; and the rest fed to Khubilai’s dogs.
So ended Ahmad’s tenure as finance minister and a purging of a number of his associates. Ahmad’s actions seem to have furthered an anti-Muslim policy Khubilai had been developing since 1279. The original incident which brought this on, according to Rashid al-Din, was a refusal of Muslim merchants to eat non-halal meat offered to them in Khubilai’s court, an offense which Khubilai took personally. Khubilai ordered that whosoever slaughtered animals in the Muslim fashion would in turn be killed and their family and property given over to whoever informed on them. Circumcisions were likewise forbidden, on pain of death. It also may have been an effort by Khubilai to placate some of the Chinese or even Mongols by making an appearance to restrict the privileges of Muslims in the government, and further encouraged by his anger at Ahmad Fanakati. Regardless of the cause, it resulted in a number of greedy individuals using Khubilai’s decree to kill Muslims and seize their property. Rashid al-Din indicates that a number of powerful and wealthy Muslim merchants in the 1280s chose to flee the Yuan realm, or refused to travel there in the first place, rather than face the Khan’s scruple-less enforcers. This reflects Khubilai’s inability to handle any religious matters carefully in these years. The man who had once headed a famed Buddhist-Taoist debate in the 1250s, now responded to perceived abuses by Taoists in the 1270s and 80s with violence. A conflict between Taoists and Buddhists turned bloody in the streets of the imperial capital, and a group of Taoists attempted to frame Buddhists for a fire attack on a Taoist temple in Dadu. When the plot was discovered, Khubilai had the Taoists involved variously executed, their noses and ears chopped off, and others exiled. Continued circulation of certain Taoist texts banned after the earlier debate resulted, in 1281, with Khubilai ordering all Taoists texts other than Lao Tzu’s Tao Teo Ching to be burned and their printing blocks destroyed. Restrictions were imposed on Taoist charms, incantations, and magic, while some Taoist monks were forcibly converted to Buddhism.
After Ahmad’s death in 1282, Khubilai promoted one of his associates, a Chinese named Lu Shih-Jung, to the post of Chancellor of the Left. In this position, he took over many of Ahmad’s former financial responsibilities, and subsequently earned himself the place as the Second of the Three Villianous Ministers. One may have assumed placing a Chinese in this position was intended to placate some of the anger felt at the Yuan financial system, though it did little good. While vitriol could be hurled at Ahmad for his actions, Ahmad himself was not the source of the problems. The immense revenue demands of Khubilai and the Yuan government were not abating as more military expeditions were launched; the second invasion of Japan was undertaken in 1281, in 1282 Sogetu’s army landed in Champa and in 1283 an attack was launched on the kingdom of Pagan, in addition to the expenses of the court, the government and public works. It was a thankless task to try and cover this, and Lu Shih-Jung found himself no better off than Ahmad. More monopolies were enforced, salt licenses were made more expensive, and rich households that were avoiding monopolies were cracked down on. He increased the issuance of paper money and tried to increase government control of the copper coinage and silver, which only contributed to the inflation. In an attempt to secure his position and actually carry out his policies, Lu Shih-jung sought to place his allies in power and run his enemies out of office. All this succeeded in doing was stiffening resistance against him, until finally Jinggim himself grew frustrated with him. Khubilai was finally forced to interact, having likewise turned a blind eye to the minister and court conflicts as long as the money kept coming in. On Jinggim’s urging, in early 1285 Khubilai dismissed Lu Shih-jung from office, had him arrested and by the end of the year, executed.
The last of the so-called Three Villianous Ministers was a Buddhist named Sangha, either a Uighur or Tibetan. Having supported Lu Shih-Jung and been in the staff of the ‘Phags-Pa Lama, Khubilai had long taken a liking to the experienced and capable Sangha. By 1275 he was placed in charge of the Office of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs, and in 1280 successfully crushed a revolt in Tibet. After the deaths of Ahmad and Lu Shih-Jung his importance increased dramatically, culminating in his appointment as Chancellor of the Right in 1287 and expansion of his influence across the entire government. Like Ahmad and Lu Shih-Jung, Sangha also had the undesirable task of paying for Khubilai’s expenses, and likewise enforced monopolies and new taxes, to the ire of many. He tried to tackle the matter of inflation head on via currency reform instead of just printing more money. In 1287 he persuaded Khubilai to replace the existing paper money with a new unit, which the subjects were to exchange their current paper money for on a five-to-one basis. To put another way, Sangha was seeking to reduce the amount of money in circulation, and thereby reduce inflation. No matter how well meaning it was, it succeeded in angering many who felt they were devaluing themselves for notes of lesser value.
Perhaps the most notable project Sangha oversaw was the expansion of the Grand Canal to the capital of Dadu. Canals had long been a part of Chinese trade networks; as China’s many rivers generally flow west to east, speedier movement could be attained by digging north-south canals to connect them. Under the Sui and Tang Dynasties, when most of China’s north and south were unified, came the first great connections of these canals, tying the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers- China’s two great arteries- together in what came to be called the Grand Canal. After the fall of the Tang, the division of China between Liao, Song and Jin had left little reason for the maintenance of these north-south canals, and the route was largely left to silt up. With unification under the Mongols, there was once again an impetus to restore it. While Khubilai had been quite forward thinking in many respects to the requirements of his great capital of Dadu, he found that supplying it with its necessary grain was proving difficult. Khubilai wanted to use the great production regions of southern China and the former Song territory to supply Dadu, and initially hoped to rely on the coastal route, with ships making the long journey bearing the foodstuffs. While there was some successes here, the route was perilous. Shallow waters and storms off the Shandong Peninsula and Gulf of Bohai brought many of these shipments to the bottom of the sea. Such was the fate of over a quarter of the fleet bearing the grain in 1286. With the sea route too unreliable, it was decided to dig a proper canal to connect north and south- not only better supplying Khubilai’s capital, but tying his empire closer together as well. Some canal projects had started as early as 1283, but it was Sangha who suggested a massive, 217 kilometre, or 135 mile, expansion of a vast Canal to bring supplies right into Dadu. By February 1289 the bulk of the work was completed, with expansions over the 1290s which allowed ships to sail from Hangzhou right into the heart of Dadu. The Canal was an impressive structure- much of the Yuan canal system, with upgrades and expansion, remained in use until the 1850s when flooding irreparably damaged much of it. But it was a massive expense; some three million labourers had to be mobilized for the construction, and it required even further expenditure for basic maintenance to prevent it from silting up. Though it served its purpose in providing for the supply of Dadu, it was another cost that men like Sangha had to try and cover.
Another area Sangha found to help bring in further resources was to try to revitalize the Central Asia trade and increase taxes on merchants. In order to do this, Sangha needed to encourage the travel of Muslims to China, something hamphered by Khubilai’s anti-islamic promulgations. It took until 1287 for Sangha to succeed in getting Khubilai to rescind his bans on halal slaughter and the like- convincing Khubilai not on the basis of compassion, but on the revenues they would provide. In the following years Sangha did receive Khubilai’s support for schools for educating on Muslim languages and scripts to assist in trade contacts. This was rather typical of Sangha, who on a whole favoured many of the men from the ‘western regions,’ of China, what we today would deem ‘non-Han’ peoples. Muslims, Tibetans, Uighurs, all found protection and patronage from Sangha. All of his major-apointees to positions of power came from these non-Chinese groups, which of course did little to endear him to his Chinese enemies. Like his predeceassors, he forced his enemies from their offices and appointed his friends and allies. In the increasingly faction divided Yuan government, with little direct interference from an ever-more out-of-touch Khubilai, removing enemy voices and appointing friendly ones was one of the best means to not just stay in office, but actually enact some policies before they became bound up in intrigues and infighting. Of course, Sangha therefore suffered from the standard accusations of cronyism, enriching himself as well as intense sexual perversions. A particular offence which Sangha was said to have given support to, was when a Buddhist monk in his service descrecated and looted tombs of the former Song Emperors, and turned former Song palaces into Buddhist temples. Here was an issue which angered former Song subjects and literati combined and did little to endear the new Yuan masters in south China. With mounting pressure building against him, Sangha’s enemies conveniently “found” stolen pearls in his private residence. Khubilai had him removed from office, stripped of rank and title and executed over the course of 1291.
So ended the period of the “Three Villianous Ministers.” As the histories of these men were largely written by parties antagonistic to them, we should take many of the accusations with a grain of salt. Ahmad, Lu Shih-Jung and Sangha certainly had a little issue making the same accusations towards their political foes. What these episodes highlight is the ever widening divide between Khubilai Khan had the demands of government and the start of issues which would plague all of Khubilai’s Yuan successors: the seemingly impossible task to govern China while dealing with the costs of a top heavy court and military expenditure. None of them would be up to the task, and it is no wonder that Ahmad, Lu Shih-Jung and Sangha could not find the balance between meeting Khubilai’s demands and placating court opinions, particularly when Khubilai refused to intervene. The Three ministers became scape-goats for the issues of Khubilai’s government and served to illustrate the failures of the last years of Khubilai Khan. Our final episode on Khubilai looks at these years, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, pelase cosnider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsangenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Qaidu was raised in Chinggis Khan’s camp, and after Ogedai Khaan he served in Mongke Khaan’s retinue. After him, he was with Ariq Boke, conspiring and amking efforts to elevate him to the khanate. When Ariq Boke went before Kublai Khaan and submitted to him, Qaidu was wary of Kublai Khaan because it was the law that no creature should change the Khaan’s command or decree, and any who did would be branded as criminals. He had transgressed the law and rebelled, and from that time until present, ona account of his rebellion, many Mongols and Tajiks have been annhilated, and flourishing land has been devastated.”
So our oft-cited friend Rashid al-Din describes, rather negatively, his contemporary Qaidu, Khan of the house of Ogedai and master of Central Asia in the late thirteenth century. Qaidu is best known for his daughter Qutulun, the wrestler-princess, his long resistance against his cousin Kublai, Great Khan of the Yuan Dynasty, and enjoys a popular image as a spirited defender of traditional Mongolian culture- or, for writers like Rashid al-Din, an image of little more than a brigand harassing settled regions. To explore Kublai’s failed attempts to exert power over the western half of the Mongol Empire, we will look at the long life of Qaidu, master of the uluses of Ogedai and Chagatai. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
While Kublai Khan overcame his brother Ariq Boke to become Khan of Khans in 1264, that was not the end of his troubles from his Mongolian kinsmen. Many refused to recognize Kublai’s authority, or actively took up arms against him, most famously Qaidu, a grandson of Ogedai Khan who led a 40 year campaign of resistance against Kublai Khan. While most famous for stories of his warrior daughter Qutulun and for his own personal sternness and military ability, Qaidu’s reign has often been misportrayed as an effort to seize the title of the Great Khan. His main focus however, was securing the position of the descendants of Ogedai within a fragmenting Mongol Empire.
Chinggis Khan had granted parts of eastern Kazakhstan, Xinjiang and western Mongolia as personal ulus, or territory, to his son Ogedai, serving as a base for Ogedai’s family until the 1250s. The Toluid Revolution, which by now you should know very well, saw the seizure of the throne by the sons of Tolui, away from the line of Ogedai following the death of the final Ogedeid Great Khan, Guyuk, in 1248. After Tolui’s eldest son Mongke became Khan in 1251, he discovered an alleged conspiracy against him by Ogedai’s family. This served as pretext for a purge of the Ogedaids, killing many and confiscating their lands and armies, effectively dissolving the Ogedaid ulus, as explained back in episode 21 of this series. Those few who survived, such as the young Qaidu, were granted distant lands to appease them but which were too poor to serve as a base for resistance. Born only around 1235 or 6, Qaidu was only just entering manhood when Mongke carried out his purges, deemed too young to be a threat. In proper Ogedeid fashion Qaidu’s father, Ogedai’s fifth son Qashi, drank himself to an early death shortly before Qaidu’s birth, leaving Qaidu’s early years to quietly rule over what little people, herds, pastures and towns Mongke Khaan had allotted him around Qayaliq, in what is now southern Kazakhstan. We can only imagine Qaidu’s frustration and anger, a sense that everything that was his by right had been taken from him, anger at the theft by the house of Tolui- not of the Great Khanate, which Qaidu was unlikely to have ever inherited, but of the ulus of Ogedai itself, the personal territory Chinggis Khan had granted that line of the family. One tradition from Qaidu’s earliest youth that survives, recorded by Jamal al-Qarshi, is that Ogedai Khaan once held the young boy and was so impressed with the 5 year old, that he stated Qaidu would one day succeed him and ordered his every need to be provided for. Even if the story were true, it must be remembered that Ogedai indicated about half of his sons and grandsons should have succeeded him at various points, and anyways, Qaidu was no mroe than six years old at the time of Ogedai’s death. No, the young Qaidu was not ever destined, nor likely ever considered himself to be, for the throne of the Great Khan.
Qayaliq was too poor to offer a base of resistance on its own, but it did not stop Qaidu from pushing his boundaries. In 1256, Mongke Khaan sent a judge to Qaidu’s territory as an official imperial representative- the exact mission unclear in the sources- and the 20 year old Qaidu promptly captured him, holding him captive for the next two decades. No reaction is recorded from Mongke, who may have been preoccupied with his forthcoming assault on the Song Dynasty to divert attention to an annoying Ogedeid boy. Perhaps Mongke had been planning to deal with him upon his return from campaign, but as we know, he never got the opprotunity: Mongke died on campaign in August 1259, precipitating the conflict between two of his brothers, Ariq Boke and Kublai, for the imperial throne.
Qaidu was initially neutral in the war between Ariq Boke and Kublai, supporting Ariq only when his appointed ruler to the Chagatai Khanate, Alghu, revolted and attacked Qaidu’s territory. It seems Alghu attacked Qaidu for supporting Ariq Boke, which forms the only real evidence for Qaidu’s actual support of Ariq. With Ariq’s surrender to Kublai in 1264, Qaidu turned to the Khan of the Golden Horde, Berke, for support against Alghu. Supposedly Berke found Qaidu’s horoscope favourable, and provided him an army and resources, and a promise for rule over the ulus of Chagatai if he was successful. Winning his first encounter against Alghu, Qaidu suffered a serious defeat in the second and seemed to be placed on the backfoot. But Heaven showed Qaidu its favour when Alghu, Berke, and the Il-Khan Hulegu all died over 1265-1267 and Kublai was focused on the Song Dynasty. This created a sudden power vacuum all across Central Asia; while his neighbours sorted out matters of succession, Qaidu expanded his territory from Almaliq to Taraz to Beshbaliq; in rapid succession, Qaidu successfully reclaimed much of the former territory of Ogedai’s ulus. Many of Ariq Boke and Alghu’s former supporters joined Qaidu, including the brilliant finance minister Ma’sud Beg, whose skills helped with the economic rejuvenation of Qaidu’s ulus. Many of these men were dispossed by the changes in power over these years, and were happy to throw their lot in with a bright-eyed, up and coming warlord showing he had some favour from Heaven. When Kublai summoned Qaidu to him in order to affirm his vassalage, Qaidu refused, claiming the distance was too great to travel. Though Kublai tried to encourage him by sending him revenues from conquered Chinese territory, Qaidu was intent on preserving his independence and fragile ulus. Kublai’s capital was moved from Karakorum in central Mongolia to Shangdu on the border with China, and then into China proper at Khanbaliq, greatly limited his ability to control his kinsmen deep in the steppe. In the next years, Qaidu’s pretensions would increased dramatically.
In the Chagatai Khanate power was taken by Baraq, who ruled with Kublai’s approval and was almost immediately at war with Qaidu. With the aid of the new Khan of the Golden Horde, Mongke-Temur, Qaidu defeated Baraq near Khojand in 1267, after which Qaidu proposed a joint peace between the Central Asian Khanates. Likely on the Qatwan Steppe, just south of Samarkand, in 1267 or 69, Qaidu, Baraq, and Mongke-Temur’s representatives made agreements to divide the territory of Transoxania between them, Qaidu and Baraq became anda (blood brothers) and agreed to a joint-attack the Ilkhanate in Khurasan. Notable about this meeting was a total disregard for Kublai’s authority. Though Kublai was nominally Great Khan, by the end of the 1260s each Khanate was now an independent state, the Khans all now meeting without his consultation. Recorded in the Yuan shi, the assembled Khans apparently sent a jointly written letter, of questionable veracity, to Kublai decrying his sinicization and ‘adoption of Han laws.’ As mentioned by historian Michal Biran, this is the only direct textual evidence of Mongolian, and specifically Qaidu’s, opposition to Kublai’s adoption of Chinese policy and custom. While often presented as a “defender of the old ways,” Qaidu’s agreements on the Qatwan Steppe and actions over his life were always directed at his own power and independence in the Ogedeid ulus, rather than whatever laws the fat Khan in Khanbaliq tried to pass.
Qaidu did provide forces for Baraq’s assault on the Ilkhanate, but they were instructed to abandon Baraq before battle was met. Baraq’s army was crushed by the Il-Khan Abaqa at Herat in 1270, and his death shortly afterwards was Qaidu’s most important opportunity. Many of Baraq’s commanders and armies fled to Qaidu, and only a month after Baraq’s death Qaidu was declared Khan of the Ogedeid ulus. We must emphasize this: he was declared Khan of the territory belonging to the House of Ogedai. He was never declared Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, or Khan of the Chagatayid ulus. He never made pretensiosn to claim either of those thrones, and his conflict with Kublai was not over who should be the Great Khan, but over Qaidu’s personal autonomy- and his right to appoint the Chagatai Khan after Baraq’s demise. When Qaidu’s first appointee rebelled alongside the sons of Alghu and Baraq, Qaidu overcame them and chose Baraq’s son Du’a as Chagatai Khan in 1282. Du’a would be Qaidu’s right hand man for the next twenty years, and as co-rulers they dominated Central Asia from the Yenisei River to the borders of India, and from Transoxania to the Mongolian Altai, a border keeping Kublai’s control confined to the east.
Kublai’s campaign against the Song Dynasty kept him from interfering with Qaidu’s domination of the Chagatai Khanate, instead relying on defence. As early as the mid 1260s, Qaidu was raiding Kublai’s frontier: in 1268 Kublai’s armies had to push Qaidu’s forces from Beshbaliq and the Uighur lands. By the end of the 1260s, Kublai was posting a large garrison in Mongolia under his son Nomukhan. Nomukhan was not terribly successful: he was betrayed by his subordinates and sent over to the Golden Horde in 1276, and Karakorum fell into the hands of these rebellious princes. Qaidu played no role in this, distracted as he was at that time by trying to exert control over the ulus of Chagatai. In an effort to make the local garrisons self sufficient, Kublai spent considerable amounts attempting to expand agriculture and set up military colonies in the Tarim Basin, Gansu corridor and Mongolia, but only in Mongolia did he see limited success. Qaidu’s raids were too successful and the regions too arid, and Kublai only succeeded in throwing away huge sums of money and resources.
By the 1280s, Qaidu had a firm hold on Central Asia and loyal ally in his appointed Chagatai Khan, Du’a. Finally, they could take advantage of rebellions across Kublai’s frontier, such as that in Tibet in 1285 and of Nayan in Manchuria in 1287, with whom Qaidu tried to coordinate with. Kublai, realizing Mongolia itself was now threatened, took to the field himself. Sending an army west to counter Qaidu and an army into southern Manchuria to distract the other local Mongol dissident, Khadan, the aging Kublai led the third army from a platform mounted on the backs of four elephants. Nayan was swiftly caught and executed. Qaidu had advanced on the old Mongol capital of Qaraqorum as per the suggestion of Ariq Boke’s sons, but the threat of facing Kublai himself led to Qaidu’s withdrawal. This was the closest the two ever came to fighting one another in person. While Karakorum may have held symbolic value, strategically it would be nearly impossible for Qaidu to hold it, and as he was making no claim to the title of Great Khan, its symbolism was useless to him. Karakorum was but a brief flirtation for him, egged on by his allies to take advantage of Kublai’s perceived weakenss, rather than a long awaited goal. The aging Kublai had shown he still had teeth, and Qaidu would not make such an attempt again for the remainder of Kublai’s life.
Qaidu does not seem to have taken advantage of Kublai’s death in 1294, and Kublai’s successor, Temur Oljeitu, abandoned his grandfather’s foreign adventures, focusing greater resources on combating Qaidu along the northwestern frontier. In winter 1298, Qaidu’s Chagatai Khan Du’a attacked the Yuan frontier and captured Temur Oljeitu Khan’s brother-in-law Korguz, who died before he could be rescued. This was an embarrassment and insult for the new Khan of Khans, and Temur Oljeitu sprung into action, ordering his nephew Qaishan to Mongolia, where he assembled a great army and marched west to crush Qaidu in 1300.
In spring 1300, east of the Altai mountains at Kuobielie, Qaishan’s army overtook Qaidu. In a furious assault, they forced Qaidu to retreat west into the Altai mountains in western Mongolia. Qaishan was a cautious commander, only proceeding once he acquired sufficient provisions, which gave Qaidu time to call to Du’a for aid. Du’a initially refused, but did send two armies later that summer, a first to reinforce Qaidu while Du’a himself led a second. The onset of winter halted the campaign, and for most of 1301 Qaishan struggled to locate Qaidu’s smaller, highly mobile force in the Altai. Qaidu needed to hold out for the arrival of Du’a reinforcements, but couldn’t retreat lest he allow Qaishan to overrun his hard won ulus.
Finally in August 1301, Qaishan’s scouts informed him that Qaidu’s army was encamped at Mount Tiejiangu, and that Du’a’s reinforcements were close at hand. On the 3rd of September the Yuan army attacked. The Yuan assault was devastating: Qaidu’s smaller force was overrun, Qaidu himself wounded in the battle. Only nightfall forced the two armies apart, and Qaidu employed a tool of his great-grandfather. He ordered his men to each light several fires, and to the Yuan forces, it appeared that Du’a’s enforcements had suddenly arrived and lit their own campfires. Their enemy refusing to advance, Qaidu used this distraction to pull his forces back. When morning revealed the truth, Qaishan was hesitant to immediately pursue, fearing Qaidu would employ a feigned retreat. This provided Qaidu time to meet with forces sent by Du’a two days later at Qara Qada, along the Irtysh River. Learning of Du’a’s reinforcements, Qaishan split his force: one section would intercept Du’a and his army, while Qaishan took the rest of the Yuan forces to catch Qaidu.
When Qaishan arrived at Qara Qada, Qaidu was prepared. This time, the Yuan army was not as successful, though Qaishan himself broke through Qaidu’s lines, seizing his military supplies, rescuing captive princes and turning about to lead a rear assault on a section of Qaidu’s line. But Qaidu held firm, and his horse archers kept the Yuan back until nightfall once again split them apart. Not far away at an unidentified location called Wuertu, Yuan forces defeated and wounded Du’a, who then seems to have retreated back to his own territory.
The following day was the final confrontation. Qaidu, now approaching 70 years old, held his vetetan forces together against the Yuan’s superior numbers. Arrows filled the air, and the Yuan army was in an inconclusive engagement. An effort to pull the Yuan forces back and redeploy was foiled by a full charge by Qaidu, and the Yuan retreat now threatened to turn into a rout. Qaishan fought bravely as rearguard, and once more broke through Qaidu’s line, forcing them back and allowing the Yuan army to undertake an orderly retreat back to Qaraqorum, Qaishan burning the steppe behind them to hamper Qaidu’s pursuit. But Qaidu did not follow, instead falling back, given pause by his losses and his own injuries sustained, which were likely his cause of death a few weeks after the battle.
The Ogedeid ulus did not long survive Qaidu’s death. Qaidu’s lifetime of carving out a restored Ogedeid state within the Mongol Empire was undermined by his own longtime ally. Almost immediately, Du’a sabotaged Qaidu’s successors. Du’a, it seems, had had enough of war with the Yuan Dynasty, and desired peace in order to resume the Central Asian trade, as well as focus resources on the border with India. To do this though, he would need to break the ability of the house of Ogedai to control the Chagatayids. Qaidu had wanted his youngest son Orus to succeed him, but Du’a maneuvered Qaidu’s ineffective and unhealthy older son Chapar to become Khan, forming rifts within the ulus. Du’a furthered the division of the Ogedeid ulus into appanages, and infighting broke out among Qaidu’s heirs. A brief attempt to unite the Ogedeyid princes against Du’a was crushed in 1306 by Chagatayid troops with Yuan backing, and many of the top princes and generals of the Ogedeyid ulus surrendered to Du’a or to the Yuan. Du’a unleashed his horsemen to track down those Ogedeyids who remained independent, and one such Chagatayid raid even resulted in the death of Qaidu’s famed daughter Qutulun.
Ah yes, Qutulun! She is worth a short digression, as she is most famous among Mongolian princesses of this period, and many of you have likely wondered why we have not yet mentioned her role in her father’s battles. Qutulun is usually most well known as the famed ‘wrestler-princess.’ In the version popularized in Marco Polo’s account, wherein she is called Ay Yaruq, moonshine in Turkic, she refused to marry any man who couldn’t best her in a wrestling match. In fact, she claimed the herds of every man she was able to throw to the ground. She was such a good wrestler that, according to Polo, she had a herd of 10,000 animals she had claimed over her career. To carry on the fable-like nature of his version, Polo has an unnamed prince of quite some wealth attempt to win her hand. Qaidu, having agreed to let Qutulun marry who she wanted but recognizing it was a powerful match, encouraged his daughter to let the man win. Qutulun instead threw the prince to the ground and claimed his horses. Polo also asserts that she would fight beside her father, riding into enemy formations to grab and steal men. It’s a bebrudging respect for evidently a highly skilled and dangeorus woman! What’s more, it’s a depiction of a woman of physical prowess and military capability which is actually backed up by some contemporary writers, such as the Ilkhanid author Rashid al-Din and ‘Abd Allah Qashani. The Ilkhanid vizer Rashid al-Din was less impressed than Marco Polo regarding Qutulun, writing the following:
“Qaidu had a daughter named Qutulun… he loved her the most of all his children. She went around like a boy and often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds. She was listened to by her father, and she handled the administration for him. Her father refused to marry her off, and people accused him of having relations with her… a few years ago, because of shame and the accusations people were making, he was forced to marry her off to a man named Aitqun of the Qorolas clan.”
Rashid al-Din, as we said at the start of the episode, had no fondness for Qaidu. Rashid’s employers, the Toluid Ilkhans, were often at war with him after all. Rashid al-din is too refined to openly say he agreed with such horrendous rumours about father and daughter, but was not above mentioning the fact people were spreading them. Qutulun in the end, but likely of her own choice, married a member of his father’s keshig, one of his royal cooks. That the fellow’s name and lineage differs in the accounts, and Qutulun is still described leading her minghaans, units of a thousand, indicates that her new husband did little to overawe her military ability.
After Qaidu’s death, Qutulun staunchly supported her father’s chosen heir, Orus. She recognized early Du’a effort to undermine the Ogedeyid ulus and spoke out against him at an assembly. Du’a dismissed her concerns thus, saying “Women’s opinions and talk should be about the spindle and spinning wheel, not on the crown and the khanate’s throne. What do you have to do with rulership and government?” The frustrated Qutulun found no support from her brothers and withdrew with her family and followers to the Tien Shan mountains, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, where she guarded her father’s tomb. Though she largely removed herself from the affairs of the Ogedeyid Khanate, when her brothers sought to make a stand against Du’a in 1306, the contemporary author Qashani mentions that Qutulun showed up to assist them, leading her 1,000 men beside them. Even with her assistance, a combined Chagatayid-Yuan army under Du’a defeated the Ogedeyid army. Generals and even her brothers began deserting to the Chagatayids or to the Yuan realm, and as mentioned Du’a sent raiding parties to track down those who escaped. Qutulun returned to her encampment near her father’s tomb, where she held out until 1307. That year, Qashani records, Chagatayid forces found them, drowning her husband and two sons.Qutulun’s final fate is unmentioned, but it is presumed she was killed sometime around then. The Ogedeyid Khanate did not long outlive her. By 1310 when Chapar submitted to the new Yuan Emperor, Qaishan, the Ogedeyid ulus ceased to exist, only some 60 years after Qaidu had restored it.
Du’a died in 1307, but his sons continued to dominate the Chagatayid ulus for the next 30 years, incorporating much of the former Ogedeid territory. After the death of the last of Du’a’s sons, the Chagatai Khanate entered a period of great instability, gradually breaking into two halves, a western based in Transoxania, and another east of the Syr Darya River, which came to be known as Moghulistan. In the western half, the authority of the Chagatai Khan weakened sooner, a power vacuum which led to the eventual rise of Amir Temur in Transoxania, better known in the west as Tamerlane. But that’s a topic for another day, so please consider subscribing to our podcast to follow for future episodes. If you’d like to help us continue bringign you great content, please consider supporting on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
The Mongols were far from the only nomadic peoples to interact with Europe, even in the thirteenth century. Of these, the Cumans are perhaps the most well-known and have left us a considerable legacy in the archaeological record. Today, our series researcher Jack Wilson talks with Dr. Michal Holeščák regarding the archaeological presence of the Cumans and Mongols in 12th and 13th century Eastern Europe. Michal Holeščák is an archaeologist dealing with the material culture of late nomadic peoples, namely the Mongols and Cumans, from Mongolia to the westernmost fringes of the Great Eurasian Steppe in Hungary.
The Mongols were far from the only nomadic peoples to interact with Europe, even in the thirteenth century. Of these, the Cumans are perhaps the most well-known and have left us a considerable legacy in the archaeological record. Today, our series researcher Jack Wilson talks with Dr. Michal Holeščák regarding the archaeological presence of the Cumans and Mongols in 12th and 13th century Eastern Europe. Michal Holeščák is an archaeologist dealing with the material culture of late nomadic peoples, namely the Mongols and Cumans, from Mongolia to the westernmost fringes of the Great Eurasian Steppe in Hungary.
Around 40 episodes ago, we discussed Chinggis Khan fighting for control of the Mongolian steppe. Now, some 90 years later in our chronology, we will discuss his grandson sending Mongol armies across the sea to lands beyond Chinggis’ imagination. While Japan, Vietnam and Burma were all subjects of invasions towards the end of Kublai Khan’s life, all of these were regions relatively close to Yuan China, directly bordering its subject territories. Our discussion today focuses on a much less obvious target: the island of Java in modern Indonesia. The expedition against Java was one of the last military campaigns ordered by Kublai in his long life, and like many of these later invasions, cost the Yuan heavily in men and resources for little gain. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
In the 13th century, Eastern Java and parts of the neighbouring islands of Sumatra and Borneo came under the influence of the Kingdom of Tumapel, named for the city of the same name on the island of Java- or atleast it was the same name until the reign of King Jaya Wisnuhardhana, who changed it to Singhasari. You’ll find this state therefore referred either as the Kingdom of Tumapel, or Singahsari.The Tumapel kings were not absolute rulers, with much of their kingdom made up of loosely controlled vassal kings and chiefs. Rather, their significance for our purposes came from their place on a lucrative position along the maritime trade routes going through Indonesia and across the southern coastline of the Eurasian landmass. By the 12th century, the island of Java was one of China’s chief suppliers of pepper and safflower dye, along with Bali. The island exported rice, and held trade contacts from China to India. In turn, they imported gold, silver, lacquerware, iron goods and ceramics from China. The southeast Asian sea trade was a valuable market which had been expanding considerably since the ninth century- and one which now attracted the attention of a man hungry for conquest and with less and less patience for, well, patience.
By the 1280s, Kublai Khan had completed his conquest of China proper, but good, overwhelming victories were frustraingly eluding him in Central Asia, Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar, and as he advanced in years, the knowledge that he was failing to bring the world under Mongol authority must have weighed heavily on him. Now in his seventies, with his poor health, depression, deaths of his friends and family, increasing removal from affairs of state and awareness of his own impending mortality, Kublai must have been desperate for victories to console his aching spirit. In addition, the economic aspects must not be overlooked -though they were not separate, from Kublai’s point of view, but merely a component of universal rule. Kublai’s Yuan dynasty, while obviously influenced by China’s Confucian norms and traditions, felt no need to bind themselves to it, and kept for instance, the Mongolian practicality regarding merchants. Rather than treat them as inherently lower class, they were invited and rewarded, and trade as a whole encouraged. This took a notable form on the recent completion of the conquest of the southern Chinese coastline. Soon after the imposition of Mongol rule at the end of the 1270s, a new Bureau of Maritime Trade was established as the major port of Quanzhou. The Bureau not only oversaw and taxed the trade in and out of Quanzhou, but sought to actively encourage it as well as the settlement of foreign traders there. Contacts were made across the region- the Southeast Asian coastline of course, but also the Phillipines, Indonesia including Java and Sumatra and to India and Iran’s southern coastline. We, have for instance, south Indian style Hindu temples with Tamil transcriptions in Quanzhou from this period, and knowledge of a significant Muslim population and resettled Persian. To the Islamic world Quanzhou was known as Zayton, by which Marco Polo recorded the name. The Yuan Dynasty had a keen interest in trade, and sought to extend their control over it throughout the region- at the same time extending the Mongols’ heavenly Mandate to rule the whole of the world.
On these considerations, Kublai Khan increased diplomatic missions across the seas of southern Asia, from Malabar to Sri Lanka, ordering the monarchs and peoples across the sea to submit to the Great Khan, as per the wish of Eternal Blue Heaven- something it should be noted, many of these states did do. In fact, for the privilege of trading with China, most regional states already undertook a sort of yearly tribute to whichever Chinese dynasty ruled the requisite ports they wanted access to. The Chinese dynasties were generally content to accept the trade and maintain the image of themselves as the Sons of Heavens, the centre of the world in name even if it wasn’t quite so in practice, and the Son of Heaven did not exercise actual authority in these states. The Mongols, as many a state in eastern Asia rudely learned, generally did not share the same view; to be a vassal to the Great Khan was a complete submission, which required making your resources and peoples available to the Khan’s desires, measured through censuses to catalogue them and make the necessary demands. When Kublai sent his diplomatic missions over the seas, they often were sent to not just reaffirm or increase the tribute, but increase the extent to which these overseas monarchs needed to comply to the will of the house of Chinggis Khan.
One such mission, led by one Meng Qi, arrived in the court of the king of Tumapel, Kertanagara, sometime in the 1280s. Kertanagara had been the King of Tumapel since the 1260s, and had shown himself a haughty individual and firm convert to Tantric Buddhism. Since his ascension he had expanded his kingdom, over the 1270s subduring parts of eastern Sumatra and by the 1280s, most of the island of Java itslf. By all accounts, Kertanagara was quite keen to solidify his control of the local trade and spice routes, and very, very keen on not having to share it with the distant ruler of China. In the various sources, after feeling insulted by the envoy Meng Qi or his demands, Kertanagara’s either insulted him, branded his face with a hot iron, cut his nose off or outright killed him. In either case, he had committed a grievous insult on an envoy of the Great Khan, which you may remember, was not something the Mongols took lightly.
Kertanagara’s calculation was likely a simple one. He did not want to increase the share of tribute sent to China for the privilege of trading. However, in order to maintain that wealth he very much needed to keep trading with China, and it's unclear to what extent trade may have been disrupted during the long war between the Mongols and the late Song Dynasty. It was a reasonable assumption that the island of Java was well outside the range of an actual attack from China, leaving him physically secure from a Chinese repercussion. Once tensions had cooled, Kertanagara could send an apology mission and resume trade, without having provided a greater portion of it to China.
These were reasonable assumptions, but rather incorrect, as they relied on an assumption of reasonable retaliation by the opposing party. By the later 1280s, the deaths of Kublai’s closest confidant, his wife Chabi, chosen heir Jingim and his most important advisers, as well as alcoholism and depression had clouded his judgement, and he was quite beyond being reasonable. Kublai’s earliest campaigns against the Dali Kingdom and Song Dynasty were marked by thorough preparation and intelligence gathering, taking advantage of weaknesses within the enemy to bring the final victory. Now isolated and depressed, surrendered by yes-men who lacked the ability to stand up to him and desperate for victory after the continuous news of defeat across his frontiers, Kublai had come to rely on throwing manpower at a problem, hoping now tactical successes would automatically lead to strategic victories. Kublai’s knowledge of Java must have been minimal, but he was well past the point of caring. The ruler of a puny island somewhere in the sea had no right to insult the Master of the World. And so, Kublai ordered an attack upon the island of Java and Kingdom of Tumapel, to bring its king Kertanagara to heel and resume the tribute payments.
Briefly, we can comment on the rather different version of events which appears in the Javanese sources. In the medieval Javanese and Balinese sources, the incident with Meng Qi the envoy is unmentioned. Instead, Kublai was a friend of the minister Madura Wiraraja, who requested Kublai come provide military assistance to the royal family of Tumapel. In this verison, the throne was usurped by Jayakatwang, whom we shall meet shortly, and Kublai’s forces quite respectfully came, defeated the usurper, placed the rightful heir, Kertanagara’s son-in-law Raden Vijaya, on the throne and took in exchange only a beautiful princess for Kublai to marry. Generally speaking, most reconstructions rely on the Chinese sources instead, though the Javanese sources are interesting for how they justify and depict the Yuan presence.
Regardless of the cause, an invasion fleet and army were prepared in 1292. 20,000 men, mainly from southern China, were mobilizied aboard 1,000 vessels. The army was led by the former Song commander Gao Xing, the navy by the Uighur Yiqmis, and all were under the overall command of the Mongol Shi Bi. Having learned from the disastrous naval assaults on Japan and Dai Viet, onboard they had a year’s supply of grain and 40,000 ounces of silver to purchase more supplies. The commanders met with Kublai himself before their departure: the Khan told Shi Bi to leave naval matters to Yiqmis’ expertise, and that they must proclaim on their arrival they were not an invasion force, but merely there to punish Kertanagara for harming a Yuan envoy. Whether Kublai was serious, or hoping this ruse would allow his forces to snatch victory, we cannot say. Departing in winter 1292-93, they made a short stopover in Champa, now paying tribute and at peace with the Mongols. There, officers were dispatched on diplomatic missions to Lamuri, Samudra, Perlak and Mulayu in Sumatra, seeking tribute and submission. By March 1293 the fleet was off the coast of Java, and preparing to make landfall. It was decided to send a diplomatic force ahead of the main fleet, as by now the Yuan commanders were under no pretensions their army was inherently invincible, particularly as it had only a minor Mongolian component. It was hoped that by diplomacy, and with a good threat of violence, they would convince Kertanagara to submit and avoid having to make landfall in an foreign country with little gathered intelligence. If there was no progress on the diplomatic front in a week, the fleet was to follow up as a show of force.
The diplomatic mission found no success, for matters had changed considerably in Java by the time of their arrival. The haughty king of Tumapel, Kertanagara, was dead. He had been killed by his vassal, Jayakatong of Gelang, based in Kediri. Kertanagara’s son-in-law, Raden Vijaya, based in Majapahit, was resisting him, and the Yuan fleet had arrived in the midst of a civil war. A week after the envoys were sent, the armada landed at Tuban, where part of the army under Gao Xing and Yiqmis disembarked and began to march to Pachekan. The rest of the army was to follow aboard the ships under the command of Tuqudege, sailing through the Straits of Madura to meet the land force in March. At Pachekan, Jayakatong’s navy blocked the Brantas River, but made no move against the Yuan. There, the Yuan commanders landed and set up a banquet, inviting the Javanese to come over and discuss terms. No response was made by the Javanese, and after a while the Yuan fleet and army advanced. Jayakatong’s navy retreated before them and after garrisoning Pachekan, the Yuan forces made their way inland along the Brantas.
As they moved inland, they were greeted by envoys of Raden Vijaya, begging Yuan help: the young prince had only a small force, and Jayakatong’s army was now on its way to attack Vijaya’s base at Majapahit. In exchange, Vijaya would submit happily to the Great Khan. Seeing that this could be the key to gaining the submission of Java by supporting Vijaya, Yiqmis ordered Gao Xing to take a part of the army and intercept Jayakatong, while Yiqmis took the rest of the force to reinforce Majapahit. Jayakatong managed to evade Gao Xing, reaching Majapahit. There, Yiqmis had already assembled his forces to meet the tired forces of Jayakatong. Standing off for the night, when Gao Xing arrived the next day with the rest of the Yuan troops, together they drove off Jayakatong’s army. Raden Vijaya once again promised his total submission to the Great Khan if the Yuan forces helped him secure Java against Jayakatong, and after providing them maps, a week later they set off for Jayakatong’s capital of Kediri.
The Yuan moved in three columns: the fleet on the Brantas River under Tuqudege, with Gao Xing and Yiqmis taking their forces up either bank, while behind them traveled a large force from Majapahit under Raden Vijaya. The army made good time, and only a few days later had reached Kediri, where Jayakatong had a large army prepared for them. The next day, from the morning until early afternoon, Jayakatong’s force advanced three times, and three times they were repulsed with heavy losses by the arms of the Yuan Dynasty and Majapahit. By the end of the day, Jayakatong’s army broke, fleeing across the river or into Kediri itself, where Jayakatong too retreated. The Yuan immediately assaulted the city, and by nightfall Jayakatong had come forward to surrender.
For the next week, the Yuan were the masters of Java. Raden Vijaya’s promised submission now had to come: for this, he desired to return to Majapahit with a small, unarmed Yuan escort to properly witness his formal submission. While that force departed for Majapahit, Shi Bi sent most of the army back to Pachekan, while he stayed in Kediri with a small force, thinking he had handily conquered Java for his Khan.
Unfortunately for Shi Bi, he was not so lucky. Once he saw that the Yuan troops had let their guard down, at the end of the day Raden Vijaya killed the Yuan escorts who followed him back to Majapahit, rallied his armies and urged the people of Java to repel the foreign invaders. Only narrowly did Shi Bi escape the trap for him at Kediri. He fought his way back to Pachekan, losing in one account up to 3,000 men. Back aboard the ships the commanders argued over whether to counter attack Raden, or to retreat, ultimately choosing the latter. Not knowing the country, outnumbered and unlikely to find local support, realistically they choose the best option to secure the lives of the rest of their men.
While they did bring back some trophies, maps of Java, population registers, spices, gold, silver, rhino horn and prisoners, this did little to offset the costs of the campaign. Not as disastrous as the invasions of Japan or Vietnam, the Yuan had been unable to turn a tactically well executed campaign into a strategic victory, and paid for it with a humiliating retreat. Kublai was furious, punishing Shi Bi, Yiqmis and Gao Xing, stripping them of a third of their property and rewarding them with 50 blows from the rod. Once Kublai Khan died in early 1294, there was no stomach to avenge that defeat, or those others suffered in Southeast Asia. By contrast, Raden Vijaya was able to found a new empire based in Majapahit, which would come to dominate much of modern Indonesia and Malaysia and was perhaps the most powerful empire to ever be based in the region, a Golden Age founded in large part due to Mongol assistance. By the end of the 1290s, after Kublai’s death, Vijaya sent missions to the Yuan Dynasty to resume the valuable trade contacts. Despite their reputation for destruction across much of Eurasia, in the Javanese chronicle there is but a single reference to the Mongols destroying towns and sending people running in flight- perhaps due to the mainly Chinese origin of the army. Consider how the memory of the invasion was that of Kublai coming to assist his friends in exchange for a beautiful princess; to excuse, perhaps, their attack on their erstwhile allies or Kertanagara’s murder of the envoy, always a heinous act, the Yuan troops turned into a helpful, legitimizing force, in a way. A rather different view than their forces earned in many other places.
The Java campaign marked the end of the Yuan Dynasty’s overseas expansion, capping off Kublai’s life with one last failed campaign. The campaigns of the 1280s and 90s served as stark reminders for Kublai’s successors, whose attention would mostly turn inwards with rare exceptions. The huge costs of all these campaigns served to burden the Yuan economy, filling its offices with corruption and mismanagement that would never be shed. Further, these campaigns did little to endear the recently taken former Song territories, who provided much of the manpower for these invasions, to their new masters, laying seeds for later troubles for the Yuan, to be discussed in future episode, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
On a thickly humid day, flanked by dense forest of a deep green, rows of archers astride skittish horses struggle to control their mounts. Their local allies, armed with bows and tightly clutched spears, have their eyes focusing on a mass of men surging forward towards them. Infront comes a vanguard of the beast terrifying the Mongol horses; elephants, adorned in gold, armour and broacde, their tusks spiked and decorated, tall towers on their backs housing archers and spear throwers. The Mongol commander is afraid but refuses to show it; it would do no good to show fear before the men and the vassal troops. As calm as he can, he orders the cavalry to retreat to the treeline and dismount; they would stand before the oncoming host of the King of Pagan, modern Myanmar onfoot, armed with nothing but their bows and the will of Eternal Blue Heaven. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Of all the foreign ventures ordered by Kublai Khan in his later years, it was the invasions of Burma, or rather,, Myanmar, which are among the most poorly known in the west. While not as overtly disastrous as the more famous campaigns against Japan or Vietnam, which we have previously covered, the fighting in Myanmar still showcased the limits of the Mongol military, where tactical victories could not always translate into strategic success.
By the 13th Century, the Kingdom of Pagan [pronounced somewhere between Bagan, Pakam, Pokam] had dominated Myanmar since the mid 9th century. Considered a golden age, from its strategic position on the Irrawadday River, the city of Pagan was the capital of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic kingdom straddling both upper and lower Myanmar. Military conquests backed by expanding infrastructure, irrigation and administrative systems laid the groundwork for a stable and regionally dominating empire. Population growth and infrastructure led to the increased development of Lower Myanmar, coupled with the expansion of arable lands to support it. To legitimize themselves, the Kings of Pagans patronized Thereavdic Buddhism and built monumental architecture to celebrate themselves. Huge donations of arable land to the Buddhist monasteries gradually put more and more of the kingdom’s wealth and resources in the hands of the monks; by the thirteenth century, the Pagan kings found themselves in a more and more desperate economic situation, struggling to reclaim lands from the entrenched powers but continually needing to build monuments to legitimize themselves and maintain Buddhist support for their power. Skillful kings like Kalancacsa, reigning 1084-1111 were able to balance all the elements of the Pagan kingdom, its various ethnic groups and traditions and the Buddhist clergy, but the kings of the thirteenth century lacked this ability- particularly Narathihapade, who took the throne in 1254. By then, long held tensions were bubbling beneath the surface, and the once un-developed Lower Myanmar was becoming a major population and political centre that the king in Pagan struggled to control.
And with so many kingdoms of the thirteenth century, this crockpot of troubles was aggravated by the addition of an extremely potent ingredient; the Mongol Empire.
Pagan, separated from China and the Song Dynasty by the Kingdom of Dali in Yunnan and Dai Viet in Northern Vietnam, had escaped the attention of the Mongols during their first forays into these kingdoms in the 1250s, as we have covered in previous episodes. With the initial submission of these regions in that decade, the Mongol Empire now shared a border uncomfortably close to Pagan’s northeastern-most outposts. It was in 1271 that the Great Khan Kublai’s first envoys reached the Kingdom of Pagan, requesting the submission of its monarch, King Narathihapade, as well as the necessary trade and tribute demanded upon all subjects of the Mongol Emperor. History has not been kind to Narathihpate, often presented as a vain and greedy ruler. Usually, you’ll be pointed to this incrisiption he place on the Mingalar Zedi Pagoda in 1274, “King Narathiha Pati, supreme commander of 36 million soldiers and who is the consumer of 300 dishes of curry daily, enshrined fifty-one gold and silver figurines of kings, queens, nobles and maids of honour, and over these a solid silver image of Lord Buddha Gautama one cubic high, on Thursday the Full Moon of Kason of the year 636.”
Of course, Narathihapade did not command 36 million soldiers, though his ability to consume curry in prodigious amounts is outside the realm of our discussion today. This is however an example of the earlier mentioned needed for Narathihapade and the Burmese kings to legitimize themselves through large monuments and inscriptions. His kingdom facing an economic problem undermining the very power of its monarchy and his own ancestry and position on shaky ground, Narathihapade had to shore up his position with boasts and monuments, wasting valuable resources but lacking options. The political system he inherited demanded he put on a show of nearly supernatural power regardless of the reality- a problem hardly unique to the Pagan kingdom, mind you- but one which contributed to the spurning of Kublai’s envoys. The next year Narathihapade followed this up by attacking one of Kublai’s vassal tribes in Yunnan, the Jin Chi, who Marco Polo calls the Cardanan, meaning ‘gold teeth.’ In 1273, Narathihapade completed his trifecta of antagonizing the single most powerful man on earth by killing Kublai’s envoys sent to demand recomponense. By doing so, Narathihapade ensured Kublai, in order to maintain the requisite show of supernatural power and invincibility around the Chinggisid monarchy, would need to react with miltiary force. Kublai’s miltiary response was delayed by the final push against the Song Dynasty and the first invasion of Japan in 1274. Troops could not be deployed to the frontier with Myanmar for some time, and perhaps in recognition of, Narathihapade struck first.
The King of Pagan sent an army into Yunnan in early 1277, though this was probably more of a raid than a full scale invasion. The local Mongol garrison was relatively small, as low as 700 or as many as 12,000, depending on the source. Under their commander, a fellow named Qutuq, the garrison was enlarged by rallying a number of local Achang and Jin Chi tribesmen. It should be noted in general when we discuss the conflicts with the Mongol-Yuan troops and regional powers in this period, we are mainly talking about forces like this: a small Turkic and Mongolian core around a commander, sometimes a Mongolian, sometimes a Central Asian Muslim or Turk, and the majority of the forces between locally raised troops or perhaps even southern Chinese. The reasons for this were manifest. Firstly, truly Mongolian troops were rarely assigned for garrison duty, being at their greatest use on actual campaign or protecting Kublai’s steppe frontiers. The climate, generally hot and humid, was extremely difficult on both the Mongols and their horses, and the often rugged, densely forested or riverine terrain itself made the preferred wide-ranging horseback warfare less effective, while also minimizing available pasturelands to feed the horses in the first place. A small Mongolian garrison would be maintained in Yunnan’s highlands and small pasture for the remainder of Mongol rule in China, and indeed, there are people of Yunnan today who claim descent from the Mongols- the Khatso, who in the last decades have sought to make contact with Mongolians to “reclaim” some of their “ancient customs.”
Anyways, it was a small body of Mongols and many more locally raised troops under the command of Qutuq who set out to repel the army of Narathihapade in 1277. One of the main descriptions of the ensuing engaement comes from that famous Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, who at the time of the battle was a new arrival in Kublai’s distant court at Khanbaliq. In Polo’s account, command of the Yuan forces is given to the general Nasir al-Din, the son of Yunnan’s governor, a Central Asian Muslim named Sayyid Ajall Shams ad-Din. Polo’s mis-attribution to Nasir al-Din is an easy enough mistake to understand; it’s likely Polo never had in his notes or memory the name of a minor commander like Qutuq, but did recall an association between the well known Nasir al-Din and an exciting battle again the King of Mien, as Polo refers to Narathihapade. For our reconstruction today, we will agree with the scholarship and place Qutuq in command of the Mongol troops.
The site where Qutuq and the Pagan King met is contradicted in the sources, either in the Vochang Valley in Baoshan, or at a site the called by the Burmese Nga-caung-khyam [Ngasaynggyan- sorry David] in modern Yingjiang. The two sites are approximately 100 kilometres apart, though Nga-caung-khyam is the more commonly given location. It seems that Narathihapate led the invasion force himself, a mixed force of infantry and cavalry spearheaded by a contingent of elephants: on their wide backs were towers built to house archers.
Qutuq was worried and outnumbered, but chose the site of battle carefully. Entering on a level plain early in the morning, he ensured the Yuan flanks and rear were protected by trees, while the ground before them was bare. Qutuq likely arranged his forces in a standard formation for steppe armies, a center and two wings, while Narathihapade’s force advanced in two large, extended wings of cavalry and infantry, staggered behind the line of elephants in the vanguard- 2,000 of them, if we blindly accept Polo’s numbers, along with 60,000 men on foot and horse. It would be shocking if Narathihapade brought even half as many as this.
According to Marco Polo, the Yuan commander rallied his seemingly outnumbered men through a short speech:
“And calling to him all his hrosemen, he exhorted them with most eloquent words that they would not be of less might than they had been in the past, and that strength did not consist in numbers but in the valour of brave and tried horsemen; and that the people of Mien were inexperienced and not practised in war, in which they had not been engaged as they themselves had been so many times. And therefore they must not fear the multitude of the enemy but trust in their own skill which had already been long tried in many place in so many enterprises that their name was feared and dreaded -not only by the enemy but by all the world; so that they must be of that same valour as they had been. And he promised them certain and undoubted victory.”
After loudly playing their instruments, Narathihapde’s army advanced. The Mongols tried to hold firm, but the scent and sight of the elephants frightened their horses. Once he saw this, Qutuq acted quickly. He ordered his men into the forest beind them, dismounting and tying the horses’ reins to trees, then advancing on foot back onto the plain. Once in the open, the Mongols- and their local allies- began firing volley after volley of arrows into the elephants. The Burmese archers shot back, but clumped as they were in their towers they could not compete with the powerful Mongol bows. Though the elephants’ thick hides could not be penetrated, they panicked under the concentrated barrage of arrows. Before the elephants could meet the Yuan line, they became uncontrollable, and tried to escape: either through the trees, destroying the towers on their backs, or through the Burmese lines.
With this break in Narathihapade’s advance, sections of the Mongols began remounting their horses while the remainder provided covering fire, until the whole force was once more on horseback. Further details of troops movements are scarcer, but the lines finally met and fighting continued until noon. King Narathihapade worked his way up and down his lines encouraging his men, ordering fresh forces from his reserve, but, as per Marco Polo’s account, they were frustrated by the superior armour of the Mongols and their skills with the bow. Finally, Narathihapade and his men began to withdraw, but the Mongols pushed the advantage and it turned into a rout. Losses on both sides were heavy, but the smaller Yuan force had had the better of the day.
The sudden attack and flight of its King made Pagan a more pressing matter to the Yuan court, which finally ordered Nasir al-Din bin Sayyid Ajall against the kingdom in winter 1277. Provided a force of 3,800 Mongols, Cuan and Musuo peoples, Nasir al-Din reached the important fort of Kaung Sin along the Irrawaddy River. Nasir’s force was however too small to progress far into the country, and the onset of hotter weather encouraged him to withdraw back to Yunnan early in 1278. Before he did so, a seemingly humbled Narathihapade agreed to pay tribute to the Great Khan and allowed 100,000 households along the Yunnanese-Burmese border to be placed under Yuan control. When Narathihpate was slow providing tribute, Nasir al-Din returned later in 1278 to enforce the treaty terms. Little is revealed about this expedition, but in July 1279 Nasir returned to the Yuan capital of Dadu with captured Burmese elephants in tow.
By 1279 the Song Dynasty had been destroyed, yet Kublai Khan’s appetite for conquest was not sated, and his attention was increasingly drawn to the kingdoms across southeast Asia where Song loyalists could flee: Dai Viet, Champa, and Pagan. Once Narathihapade again lapsed on the treaty terms, Kublai had little difficulty ordering a proper invasion of Pagan while an invasion of Vietnam was already under way. The Great Khan must have imagined his rule would soon extend right into the Indian ocean. In December 1283, a full invasion of Pagan was launched, with 10,000 soldiers from Sichuan and Miao tribal auxiliaries under the command of Mongol prince Sang’udar. Sang’udar’s army travelled jointly by land and on vessels on the Irrawaddy, taking Kaung Sin, Biao-dian and even the ancient Burmese capital of Tagaung in 1284, before withdrawing around May before the onset of the summer heat.
So quick was the Mongol movements that Narathihpate fled the capital of Pagan in a panic: it was for this flight that he earned the epithet Taruppye [also written Tarukpliy], “he who fled from the Chinese.” Tarup is the Burmese term for the Chinese, but was at this time used to refer to the Mongols- as such, some have argued it’s possibly a corruption of tujue, or Turk, in reference to Turks among the Mongol army, although the etymology is too difficult to pin down precrisely.
Narathihapade sent one of his top ministers to Khanbaliq to talk terms, and discuss making Pagan into a Mongol protectorate, but these were protracted and went nowhere- or atleast, nowhere fast enough to improve Narathihapade’s position. His flight from the Mongols following his earlier defeat and the sudden overrunning of much of Upper Myanmar greatly diminished his authority, augmenting the existing crises his kingdom was facing- particularly a revolt among the Mon in Lower Myanmar, ongoing since 1273.
Perhaps realizing the opportunity provided by the erosion in Narathihpate’s power, the Yuan rapidly ordered another march into Burma, this time under Kublai’s grandson and the Prince of Yunnan, Esen-Temur- not to be confused with another of Kublai’s grandsons, Yesun-Temur, who reigned as Great khan from 1323-1328. With 6,000 Yuan troops and 1,000 Jin Chi auxiliaries, Esen-Temur forced his way through Burma in late 1286, taking Taguang again and Mong-Nai-Dian before possibly reaching the city of Pagan itself in spring 1287- it should be noted that some historians like Michael Aung-Thwin are not convinced the Mongols ever reached Pagan itself. Compounding the chaos, the broken and humiliated Narathihapade was murdered by his own son in 1287.
In this breakdown, the Yuan seemed poised to finally bring Pagan under Chinggisid authority. Yet for all the Mongols’ military might, there was little they could do to stop disease from ravaging many of their troops and summer heat punishing the rest. Kublai’s grandson Prince Esen-Temur was forced to abandon Myanmar by 1289 with considerable losses. For troops used to less tropical climates, the rigours of campaign in Myanmar’s hot, humid summers and the quick spread of disease made them particularly deadly.
Diplomacy was sought as alternative; in the aftermath of the fighting after King Narathihapade’s death, one of his sons, the 16 year old Klawcwa, managed to claim the throne with the aid of the famous “Three Shan Brothers.” These brothers were members of the Pagan elite with military backgrounds, rising in stature for valiant efforts against the Mongols. It should be noted that, despite the popular description of the brothers as members of the Shan people, a Thai-speaking people in the region, there is no evidence whatsoever for what their background was; as noted by Michael Aung-Thwin, the description of them as Shans does not appear until the first English language comprehensive history of Burma, written by Sir Arthur Phayrie in 1883! The contemporary sources simply describe them as princes and a part of Pagan’s elite. Yet this single, perhaps accidental, description of them as Shans in a single secondary source from the nineteenth century has become part of their image in the literature ever since- an interesting example of why we should not blindly keep citing and reciting secondary literature, but revisit the primary sources as much as possible, and how modern boundaries of ethnicity are not useful or applicable when discussing events centuries in the past. What is more significant for our purposes today than their ethnic origins is that by the time of Klawcwa’s ascension, they were among the most powerful men in the kingdom.
King Klawcwa managed sought to reverse the disastrous policy of his father with diplomatic appeasement of the Yuan. In order to regain control over the lower reaches of Pagan and increasingly powerful vassals like the Three Brothers, Klawcwa needed to not fear another disruptive Mongol attack. In 1297 he sent his son-in-law, Kumārakassapa to Khanbaliq, a clear sign of submission- one wasted as the Three Brothers revolted the next year, killed Klawcwa and placed his 13 year old son Sawnit on the throne as a puppet. This was the casus belli for the final Mongol attack on Pagan. On the order of the new Great Khan, Kublai’s grandson Temur Oljeitu Khan, Klawcwa’s son-in-law Prince Kumārakassapa was sent with a Mongol army to avenge the fallen king. Over winter 1300-1301, the Yuan army besieged the heavily fortified Myin-saing, defended by the Three Royal Brothers, which held out and ultimately bribed the Mongols into withdrawing, taking Prince Kumārakassapa with them- an anti-climactic end to the final attempt to extend Mongol authority over Myanmar.
For the Three Brothers, their prestige after another successful repulsing of the Yuan was immense. The King in Pagan was a puppet as the three brothers essentially divided the old kingdom among themselves, each ruling as a de facto monarch in their own rite, until the last surviving brother, Sihasura, declared himself the King of Pagan in 1309. The descendants of one of Sihasura’s brothers would found the Ava Dynasty in 1364. While the Mongols failed to conquer Pagan, they did for a few years collect tribute from its monarchs; while they did not destroy the kingdom themselves, their attacks ruined irrigations systems and paddyfields, undermined the power of the Pagan kings and helped bring about the dissolution of the kingdom by the fourteenth century. Despite winning most of the field engagements, climate forced Mongol withdrawals and tactical successes could not be turned into strategic victories. With the retreat of the army in 1301, Myanmar essentially left the attention of the Yuan, though many of its princes would continue to pay tribute to the Great Khans for decades to come.
Our next episode will take us to one of the least known of all Kublai’s failed expeditions, the attacks on Java, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
“In the West there is a province called Kafje-Guh, in which there are forests and other places of difficult access. It adjoins Qara-Jang and parts of India and the coast. There are two towns there, Lochak and Hainam and it has its own ruler, who is in rebellion against [Kublai Khaan]. Toghan, the son of the [Khaan], who is stationed with an army in Lukin-fu in the [south of China], is defending [China] and also keeping an eye on those rebels. On one occasion, he penetrated with an army to those towns on the coast, captured them, and sat for a week upon the throne there. Then all at once their army sprang out from ambush in the sea[shore], the forest, and the mountains and attacked Toghan’s army while they were busy plundering. Toghan got away safely and is still in the Lukin-fu area.”
So the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din, writing in the first years of the 1300s, describes events less than twenty years prior but very far away. Rashid al-Din transcribed a very brief, but recognizable sketch, of the Mongol invasions of Vietnam in the 1280s. Having covered for you the first half of Kublai’s reign up until the end of the 1270s and his conquest of China, we will now take you to the beginnings of his failures. Back in July we already presented the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, so now we’ll turn our gaze southwards, to the efforts to extend Mongol suzerainty over the kingdoms of what is now Vietnam. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Before we discuss the military operations, it’s useful to set the scene and establish Vietnam’s 13th century status. As has been so often over this series, for context we must go back to the fall of China’s Tang Dynasty in 907. For roughly a thousand years, starting from the Han Dynasty in 111 BCE, the northern half of what is now Vietnam was under Chinese dominion, broken up by a few decades of revolts and brief independence here and there. Of course, the Chinese Dynasties were not dominating a ‘Vietnam’ in any modern sense. Rather, they were exerting control or tributary relationships with the Viet, or Kinh, peoples around the Red River, or Hong River, Delta. This delta is usually described as the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, the most densely populated and fertile part of the country even today. Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, sits in this region. The long period of Chinese rule and influence left an undeniable mark upon Vietnamese conceptions of state, and every succeeding Viet dynasty has born obvious echoes of it.
With the collapse of the Tang in 907, the Chinese presence in the north of Vietnam weakened, and local groups began to exert independence. Some of the Tang’s successors in Southern China invaded and briefly brought the Red River Delta back under Chinese rule. But by the middle of the tenth century, the first fully independent Vietnamese Dynasty in centuries, the Ngô Dynasty, was established… and collapsed into feuding warlords by 965. It was not until the Lý Dynasty, founded in 1009, was stability reached. Under the Lý Emperors- though only Kings, if you asked the Chinese- the recognizable aspects of medieval northern Vietnam were built. The capital was moved to Thăng Long, modern day Hanoi. Buddhism was adopted as the state religion, and in 1054 a new emperor declared a new name for their state; Đại Việt,, meaning ‘great Viet,’ by which we most commonly know the medieval and early modern state. Administrative and military reforms made it the most stable and powerful Vietnamese kingdom yet, and the state expanded both north and south. Agricultural expansion and land reclamation fueled population growth and a steady Viet colonization southwards.
Good times for the Lý Kings did not last. By the start of the thirteenth century their rule had weakened, local warlords exerted their independence and the monarchs were generally inept with few heirs. In a series of political alliances and marriages, the Trần family gathered power and began to try to force the Lý Kings to be their puppets. Warfare broke out. The Lý Kings maintaned the throne, but with the Trầns the power behind it. The final ailing Lý King abdicated the throne in 1224 with only two daughters. His 7 year old daughter, Lý Chiêu Thánh, was enthroned as the only queen-regent in Vietnam’s history. Throught the machinations of the Trần “mayor of the palace,” Trần Thủ Độ married the young queen to his nephew, Trần Cảnh. The queen soon abdicated the throne, making Trần Cảnh the reigning monarch- the first ruler of Vietnam’s prestigious Trần Dynasty, known by his temple name Thái Tông, the Vietnamese rendition of that classic Chinese temple name, Taizong. His father was posthumously made Taizu, and the scheming uncle Thủ Độ became the chancellor and the major powerbroker within Đại Việt until his death in 1264.
The powerful new Trần Dynasty of Đại Việt centralized power and continued the expansion begun the Lý Dynasty. Further reclamation efforts and dykes to control the flooding of the Red River continued to increase the agricultrual production of the north. Adminsitration, territories, taxes, the army, the law code, all were reorganized under the Trần. Confucianism influenced the government but did not replace Buddhism, and Chinese was the official language of the court. Relations were stabilized with their most important neighbours; the Song Dynasty to the northeast, to which Đại Việt paid tribute and nominal allegiance in exchange for expensive gifts and lucrative trade; to the northwest, trade flowed with the Dali Kings in Yunnan; to the south, a cordial period began with the Chams.
The Chams are a part of the far flung Austronesian people, inhabiting central and southern Vietnam for millenia. For most of their history they were a collection of small, competing Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, but in the 12th century entered a new period of unity in the face of an invasion by the Khmer Empire of Cambodia, the builders of the famed Angkor Wat. United under a ‘king of kings,’ the Chams repulsed both the Khmer and Đại Việt when it attempted to take advantage of perceived Cham weakness. Though not unified or centralized in the manner of Đại Việt, from the mid-12th century onwards there was a King of Kings based out of Vijaya who wielded more influence over the other Cham kings and princes- the kingdom of Champa, as it’s sometimes called. And hence, by the 13th century we can say that Vietnam was divided into two states; Đại Việt in the north, ruled by the Trần Dynasy and known as Annam to the Chinese, and Champa in the south. You can get your references to twentieth century North and South Vietnam out of the way now.
Đại Việt was the first of the two to encounter Mongol armies in the 1250s. As we’ve discussed a few times before, in 1253, on the orders of his brother the Grand Khan Mongke, prince Kublai marched into Yunnan and conquered the Dali Kingdom. Though Kublai quickly returned north, his general Uriyangqadai stayed in the region and continued to subdue the local peoples. Uriyangqadai, the son of the illustrious Sube’edei, led a series of wide ranging campaigns across Yunnan, the edges of Tibet to the small kingdoms on the western edge of the Song Dynasty. In this process, Uriyangqadai came right to the northern border of Đại Việt. At this point Mongol imperial ideology was well entrenched: of course Đại Việt would become subject to the Grand Khan. The more immediate strategic concern though was to prevent the Trần kings offering any sort of support to the Song Dynasty, against which Mongke was planning a massive assault upon for 1258. With Đại Việt’s trade and tribute contacts with the Song, the Mongols were not willing to allow a possible enemy in their rear. With his envoys to the Trần court at Thăng Long illicting no response, in the winter of 1257 Uriyangqadai and his son, Aju, led the army over the border, some 10-30,000 men, Mongols supported by locally raised troops from Yunnan.
Splitting his forces into two, Uriyangqdai ordered the vanguard to cross the Thao River, north of Thăng Long, but not engage the Việt forces; Uriyangqadai knew of the river fleets used by Đại Việt, and desired to draw them into an ambush and thus neutralize their mobility. The vanguard commander did not listen and immediately engaged with the enemy, and a frustrated Uriyangqadai then advanced to support him. Despite the insubordination and the Vietnamese fielding war elephants, the Mongols had the better of the battle; Aju is said to have ordered archers to shoot into the eyes of the elephants. However, a defiant rear guard allowed the Trần leadership to escape the battle on the ships, and the always strict Uriyangqadai ensured the foolish vanguard commander paid for this with his life.
The Trần forces again attempted to stop the Mongol advance, occuping a bank of the Phù Lỗ river at the start of 1258 and cutting down the bridge. The Mongols cleverly found a ford; shooting arrows into the sky, when they fell and disappeared -meaning they had sunk into the mud- that indicated an area shallow enough to cross. They met and routed the Trần army, and now they rushed onto the capital, Thăng Long- only to find it abandoned. The Trần King, government and most of its population had evacuated before the Mongol arrival, taking most of the foodstuffs with them.
Vietnamese and the Chinese sources differ on the precise details of what followed, but generally it can be said that Uriyangqadai withdrew, and was harassed by local forces as went, and the Trần King offered tribute to keep the Mongols at bay. It may have been that the heat, humidity and tropical disease wreaked havoc on Mongolian men, bows and horses and he wanted out of there as quickly as possible, only escaping with heavy losses. It may have been that due to the timetable Mongke had set for the assault on the Song, Uriyangqadai simply did not have time to stay in Đại Việt any longer. Indeed, upon his return to Mongol occupied Yunnan, he was almost immediately leading forces into the Song Dynasty’s southwestern border.
The Trần Kings now sent tribute to the Mongols, expecting it would be a continuation of the relationship they had had with the Song: tribute once every three years, a nominal submission to keep the peace. For almost two decades, this was essentially what followed, as the Mongols were too preoccupied with the succession struggle after Mongke’s death and Kublai’s ensuing war with the Song Dynasty to press the matter further. Likewise, Champa began to send tribute to the Khan. With the Song still a buffer between them, the kingdoms of Vietnam felt some security from the Mongols.
However, Kublai began asking for both monarchs to submit to him in person and confirm their allegiance, which both put off in favour of continued tribute missions. Other demands had to be met as Mongol vassals, such as censuses, allowing daruqachi to be posted in their cities and demands for labour and materials- all were requirments neither kingdom had yet to meet. The end of Song resistance at Yaishan by 1279 to Kublai’s Yuan Empire removed the buffer between them, and now the excuses of the Trần and Cham kings was far less acceptable, as was their housing of fleeing Song officials. In 1280 Kublai demanded that if the Trần king could not come in person, then he must send a massive golden likeness of himself with pearls for eyes, as well as increased amounts of tributes, as well as demanding the kingdom’s most skilled doctors and artisans, most virtuous scholars and most beautiful women every three years. The Great Khan’s demands grew ever greater, the intention clear: the submission of Đại Việt and Champa must be total.
Kublai’s eyes were also going further afield. Dreaming of completing the conquest of the world, the fall of the Song, the greatest single independent power not subject to the Mongols, seemed to open up access to valuable maritime trade routes. It has been speculated that Kublai saw Champa as key to controlling the south-east Asian trade, essentially a landing strip jutting out into the trade routes darting from India, Indonesia and China. After years of perceived insubordination, once the Chams imprisoned Yuan envoys in 1282, Kublai had his pretext for war and a chance to seize the sea trade. Striking at Champa first had the added benefit of putting Đại Việt in a vice grip between Yuan China and an occupied Champa, and hopefully bring it to heel as well. Having overcome the formidable Song Dynasty, the often politically fragmented Champa would have seemed an easy target in comparison. Officials in Guangxi province had sent encouraging messages to the court, saying less than 3,000 men would be needed to overrun the Chams. After the failure of the second invasion of Japan in 1281, Kublai was also hungry for a quick and easy victory. Though the 1270s had been successful, they had worn Kublai out; by the 1280s, he was no longer the patient man he had been in the 1250s, planning out every detail of the Dali campaign with his experienced generals and advisers. His most loyal and critical advisers had died over the 1270s, and Kublai had outlived the most veteran commanders. Having come to expect total victory regardless, Kublai now demanded it immediately.
In December 1282, Sogetu, a hero of the final war against the Song Dynasty and governor of Fujian, departed with 5,000 men drawn from former Song territory aboard a hundred transport ships, arriving near the Cham capital of Vijaya in February 1283. After brief resistance, Vijaya fell to Sogetu, who found that the Cham leadership, its King Indravarman V and Prince Harijit, had fled into the mountains. After wasting a month in fruitless negotiation with Cham envoys, once Indravarman executed his envoys, in March 1283 Sogetu set out on the attack. In the jungle his men were ambushed and driven back, and Sogetu retreated to the coast where he cleared land to plant rice to feed his men. There, he sent envoys to the Khmer Empire (who were detained) and sent messages to the Yuan court for aid.
Initially, the court’s response was slow, still planning for a third invasion of Japan. Ariq Khaya, the Uighur commander who had helped crush the last of Song resistance, was ordered to raise thousands of Jurchen, Northern Chinese and former Song troops to aid Sogetu, but failed to do so. It was not until March 1284, after plans for the third Japanese invasion were finally abandoned, when an army of 20,000 was dispatched to aid Sogetu. Setting out by sea and delayed by a brief mutiny, they arrived the next month to link up with a campaigning Sogetu, who had begun sacking Cham cities along the coast. The Cham King Indravarman sent word he was willing to submit, but would be unable to offer tribute due to the plundering. Such concerns did not really bother the Mongols.
By August 1284 the Yuan court had received maps showing the land routes through Đại Việt to Champa, and it was declared that Kublai’s eleventh son Toghon would lead a force overland to assist Sogetu. Đại Việt was ordered to help supply this army, but they refused: it was immediately apparent in the Trần court that this was almost certainly a pretext for a Yuan conquest of Đại Việt. At that time, the reigning Trần King was Trần Khâm, temple name Trần Nhân Tông. His father, the previous king Trần Thánh Tông, was still alive: the Vietnamese had a similar institution to the Japanese, wherein the previous monarch would ‘retire,’ abdicating the throne for their heir and as ‘emperor-emeritus,’ tutor their successor while stepping out of all that strict court protocol. So it was in 1284 that the 15th century chronicle the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt, records a famous episode. The ‘emperor-emeritus’ Trần Thánh Tông, once it was apparent that the Mongol attack was forthcoming, summoned elders and advisers from across Đại Việt to discuss the best course of action and strategy. Supposedly, they all shouted in unison, “Fight!”
So the Trầns began to prepare for the assault, readying officers and men. Of these, one man is the most famous for his preparations, Trần Quốc Tuấn, though you may know him better by his later title, Prince Hưng Đạo. Part of Hưng Đạo’s long standing popularity in Vietnamese history was his character, worth a small digression. Hưng Đạo’s rise to prominence was an unexpected thing. He was the nephew of the first Trần King, the son of his rebellious older brother. While his father died disgraced and as a traitor, Hưng Đạo made himself a shining beacon of loyalty and filial piety- two very good traits to have if you want to have Confucian inspired historians write nice things about you. Hưng Đạo actively made himself appear the most loyal of all the Trần King’s servants, perhaps to overcompensate for his father’s actions. His charisma, natural talent and skill made his life an exemplary subject for chroniclers to fawn over, with one notable exception: when he was around 20 years old, Hưng Đạo had an affair with an imperial princess already engaged to another man. It was a scandal resolved by marrying the two, but was nonetheless an embarrassment. When it became apparent that war was coming, Hưng Đạo marked himself out by preparing and training men and officers, before taking a leading role in the strategy himself.
In January 1285, Prince Toghon and Ariq Khaya led some eight tumens over the border from Yunnan into Đại Việt. He had with him an ousted member of the Trần royal family, Trần Ích Tầc, who the Yuan had declared the new King of Đại Việt and were going to place onto the throne. In addition, another column came further west, led by Nasir ad-Din, the Khwarezmian appointed by the Mongols to govern Yunnan; he was the son of the first Mongol appointed governor of the province, a skilled figure named Sayyid Ajall. The forces sent against Toghon, Ariq Khaya and Nasir ad-Din were quickly overcome, and captured ships allowed them to cross the Phu-luong River in February. Meanwhile, Sogetu was marching north, a great pincer movement on Đại Việt. Prince Hưng Đạo divided his forces to try and prevent Sogetu from linking up with Toghon, but Sogetu overwhelmed them, capturing 400 renegade Song officials. By the time Sogetu linked up with Toghon, the Prince had constructed a full river fleet and placed them under the command of Omar, one of the Yuan’s top naval commanders and Nasir ad-Din’s son. Together, they undertook a full offensive against Đại Việt, Omar driving the King out to sea while Toghon and Sogetu captured the capital of Thăng Long. Armies sent against them were annhilated and many Trần generals defected to the Yuan forces.
With Thăng Long’s seizure, the Yuan experienced their final success of this campaign. Again, Thăng Long had been skilfully evacuated to deny the Mongols access to supplies or the royal family, thus preventing the city’s occupation from being a true strategic gain. In Thăng Long, Yuan forces and supply lines were overextended, running low on food while heat and disease took their toll. In June one of the Yuan commanders, Li Heng, was killed by poisoned arrows and his force decimated by ambushes. A former Song Dynasty officer and his entourage, fighting alongside the Vietnamese, donned their old Song style uniforms and armours, which panicked the Yuan detachments thinking they were now facing long-lost Song reinforcment! The fallen Vietnamese were found to have tattooed “kill the Tatars!” on their own bodies, angering, frustrating and frightening the Yuan forces- many of whom, it should be noted, were not Tatars but conscripted Chinese and others who would be forced to share their fate. All bodies with such tatoos were ordered to be decapitated. Toghon, seeing their position was untenable as morale crumbled, decided to call a full retreat back to Yuan territory. So swiftly was this done that Toghon failed to inform Sogetu of the retreat, who suddenly realized he was left isolated deep in enemy territory. Hurriedly he forced his way north, but the Vietnamese harried him. Sogetu was captured and killed in battle, and the remainder of his force was largely surrounded and destroyed at Ssu-ming on the Yuan border.
This was a disastrous end to the campaign. The Mongols had suffered reversals, loss of commanders and had to turn back from campaigns before. Battles had been lost of course, but major defeats like the Japan invasions could be explained away as the interventions of nature and the heavens. But the Vietnam campaign was a direct military fiasco, one of Kublai’s own sons failing to deliver victory. Kublai was so furious he refused to allow Toghon back to the capital. Frustrated by failures and his mind increasingly clouded by drink and depression, Kublai ordered a third invasion of Đại Việt. Special care was taken for this invasion. The Trần pretender Trần Ích Tầc was once again to be promoted, to hopefully encourage dissension, and great effort was taken to prevent the logistical issues of the previous campaign. Supply ships were ordered from all along the southern Chinese coast to ferry troops and provide the food necessary for the great army being assembled: 70,000 Mongol, Jurchen and Northern Chinese, 6,000 troops from Yunnan, 1,000 former Song soldiers, 6,000 local troops from Guangxi and 17,000 Loi people from the island of Hainan, for a total of 100,000 men not including the crews of the 500 warships and transports. Toghon was placed in overall command again, his final chance to redeem himself before his aging father.
While it is easy to focus on the Yuan losses, it must not be thought it was an easy experience in Vietnam. As per custom, the Mongols had metted out savage reprisal on cities; we know from elsewhere that when frustrated, as when denied a chance to meet the foe directly in battle, it only resulted in increased devastation on those they fell across. Crops and rice patties were destroyed by the tred of armies and horses, and we cannot imagine what starvation and horrors greeted the population caught in the middle of this conflict. Many thousands fled into the wilderness to escape the Yuan armies, and few could have been prepared for the experience. Their suffering from disease, lack of water and resources goes unmentioned in the sources. The capital of Thăng Long had been looted and occupied for the second time in thirty years. In Champa the evidence is less clear, but it seems Sogetu burned his way through many of the most prominent city’s along the coast in his march north. In the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt, in the entry for the year 1286 Prince Hưng Đạo provides this assessment to the King:
“Our kingdom has been at peace for a long time. The people do not know about military matters. Previously when the Yuan came and raided, there were those who surrendered or fled. By relying on the potent awe of the imperial ancestors, Your Highness’s divine [perspicacity] and martial [awe] wiped clean the dust of the nomadic barbarians. If they come again, our troops are trained at fighting, while their army fears a distant campaign. They are also dejected by the defeats of Heng and Guan. They do not have the heart to fight. As I see it, they are sure to be defeated.”
Hưng Đạo, as fitting his character, comes across optimistic and eager to fight. Yet, he recognized that many had quickly defected or routed before the Mongols. The Vietnamese needed to prepare to meet the Mongols again ahead on, rather than simply rely on the ‘awe’ of the King.
In October 1287, the third invasion began. The army into three major forces: Toghon took the main army overland, 6,000 traveled west of the main army to act as a diversionary force and 18,000 were taken by Omar and Fan Yi aboard war ships sailing along the coast to find and neutralize the Việt navy. The large transport fleet followed some days behind Omar’s armada, anticipating that Omar would have cleared the way of enemy ships for them. In December the main army crossed the border in two columns and defeated several Đại Việt forces, marching to Vạn Kiếp on the Bạch Đằng River to await the arrival of Omar’s fleet, who arrived after fighting off a Vietnamese navy. Despite early success, neither force had brought much for food supplies, expecting to be supplied by the transport fleet.
Toghon waited for the supply fleet until the end of January 1288, but unbeknownst to him much of the supply fleet was blown off course by a storm, and the rest were attacked by the Việt navy. The commander Trần Khánh Dư held his fleet in secret up a river near the coast at Vân Đồn, and allowed the Yuan warships under Omar to pass by. Once Omar and the warships were beyond reach, Trần Khánh Dư fell upon the unguarded, slower moving Yuan supply ships. By seizing and scattering these, he ensured the breakdown of the massive Yuan army. With food supplies running low, Toghon marched onto Thăng Long, hoping to resupply there. The city fell without opposition in February 1288, but to their horror they found there wasn’t a grain of rice left within: the defenders had once again stripped it in their flight. The increasingly desperate Yuan forces went to great effort to gather food until learning of the disaster which befell the supply fleets at Vân Đồn. Toghon ordered the army back to stockades they had constructed at Vạn Kiếp, and by the end of March, once his men were on the verge of starvation, he ordered a general retreat back to China. It was now the Việt forces sprung their trap. The Yuan army’s route north was harried by continual ambushes and the destruction of roads and bridges to hamper their movements. Arrows flew out from the trees to strike men down. Tropical diseases the Mongols were unused to spread among them, humidity warped their bows and the trees howled with the sounds of alien creatures ensuring sleepless nights. Toghon, great-grandson of Chinggis Khan, showed his pedigree by hiding in a copper tube on the march, then abandoning the troops to board a warship and sail back to the Yuan realm.
On April 9th, 1288, Omar’s fleet was sailing past the mouth of the Bạch Đằng river when a group of Vietnamese ships, commanded by Prince Hưng Đạo, sailed out to meet him at high tide. Eager for some sort of victory, Omar took a portion of the fleet and attacked. The Vietnamese routed before the Yuan warships, fleeing back up the river whence they had come. When the Yuan fleet pursued up the river, the trap was sprung: while the smaller and lighter Vietnamese craft had cruised by in safety, wooden stakes placed along the river bottom impaled the larger Yuan vessels, holding them in place as the tide receded. With the Yuan ships immobilized, the Vietnamese turned about and attacked: helpless, many Yuan soldiers jumped into the river, drowning or picked off by the arrows of Đại Việt, and Omar was captured. The other fleet commander, Fan Yi, attempted to rescue Omar, but his vessels were surrounded and boarded, Fan Yi himself killed in the fighting. Some 400 ships were captured, capping off a campaign which saw most of its land forces destroyed in the wilderness.
1288 proved to be a total fiasco for the Yuan. Only a few years after the destruction of the great armada off the shores of Kyushu, another fleet and army were destroyed with little to show for it. Toghon was sent into political exile after both disastrous campaigns, his son another disgrace to add to Kublai’s troubles of the 1280s. Unlike earlier, thoroughly planned and prepared campaigns, the Mongol leadership was unable to gather the information they needed to properly orchestrate their attacks. The destruction of the cities did not sway or put adequate fear into the Vietnamese monarchs, the sufferings of the population could not move them and unable to capture the enemy leadership, the Mongol were denied many of the strategic tools they had commonly employed to disable the enemy defense. In the dense and rugged jungles and mountains, the Mongols’ greatest tactical advantage, the mobility and range of their horse archers, was neutralized, while the heat, humidity and diseases wrought havoc upon troops and horses unused to such a climate. While victorious in the primary field engagements, the Yuan were unable to transform these battles into strategic successes. And crucially, the Mongols struggled to supply themselves. Small foraging parties could be picked off by the locals, supply lines could more be secured and larger armies were dependent on those supply fleets. When the supply fleets of the third invasion were destroyed by Trần Khánh Dư at Vân Đồn, the massive army commanded by Toghon became a huge, unreadable, liability. All of these were compounded by the fact the Yuan leadership totally underestimated Vietnamese resilience and the Yuan commander, Toghon, was an inept and inexperienced general: in contrast, the military leaders of Đại Việt were able to maximize their strengths and strike at the Yuan when they were their most vulnerable.
While Bạch Đằng was a masterfully executed victory by Prince Hưng Đạo, Đại Việt and Champa had suffered terribly over both campaigns, and both kingdoms, to avoid another invasion began sending tribute and recognized Kublai’s authority. Still, their resilience and refusal of either monarch to come before him left Kublai wanting another invasion, the Trần pretender Trần Ích Tầc again readied to be put onto the Trần throne, but as with much else, such thoughts were abandoned on Kublai’s death in 1294. After Kublai’s death, relations were eased between Yuan, Đại Việt and Champa. The kingdoms in Vietnam paid their tribute, and they were spared another Mongol assault. Relations between Đại Việt and Champa improved, and a marriage alliance was organized. The former Cham Prince Harijit, now King Simhavarman III, married the daughter of the Trần King, only to die suddenly in 1307. The death of the Cham king brought a new round of tension between the two states, eventually turning into a continuous conflict between them that ultimately culminated in the Viet seizure of Vijaya in 1471.
Today, Bạch Đằng is a highly celebrated episode in Vietnam’s history, the tactics and strategy of Hưng Đạo studied by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. The introduction of the idea of the nation-state to Vietnam has seen Hưng Đạo turned into a symbol of the nation, a single person embodying the ideals of resistance to powerful, foreign foes.
But for Kublai, the disasters in Vietnam were only the start to a rough decade, which we will explore over our next episodes, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. To help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This script was written and researched by Jack Wilson, with the kind assistance of Phú Võ for accessing Vietnamese and Chinese materials. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
“Now I wish to tell you [...] all the very great doings and all the very great marvels of the very great lord of the Tartars, [...] who is called Kublai Khan, which [...] means to say in our language the great lord of lords, emperor, and [...]this great Khan is the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world, or that now is from the time of Adam our first father till this moment; and under him all the peoples are set with such obedience as has never been done under any other former king. And this I shall show you quite clearly in the course of this our second book, that it is a true thing which I have told you so that each will be sure that he is, as we say without contradiction, the greatest lord that ever was born in the world or that now is.”
So Marco Polo introduces Kublai Khan in his Description of the World, as per the classic translation of Moule and Pelliot. Having now taken you through the successful Mongol conquest of China and fall of the Song Dynasty, we’ll now look at Kublai’s reign itself, and his efforts to build a new dynasty in China. Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and simultaneously Emperor of China, Kublai Khan was one of the single most powerful men in human history, rumours of his vast wealth and might spreading across the world. Kublai Khan’s long reign will be dealt with in two halves; a first one today covering 1260 to 1279, followed by a look at Kublai’s foreign ventures, then another episode detailing his last years. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Kublai’s name has popped up in several episodes even before his war with Ariq Boke, but we’ve dealt little with the man directly. Born on the 23rd of September, 1215, Kublai was the second son of Tolui and Sorqaqtani Beki, and a grandson of Chinggis Khan. Indeed, Kublai was the last of the Great Khans to have ever personally met Chinggis, though Kublai was little more than 12 years old at the time of Chinggis’ death. It was never likely that Kublai would have come to the throne: while all of Sorqaqtani’s son received the same extensive education, learning to read and write the Mongolian script, take lessons in governance and even had Chinese advisers, Kublai was the only one of her four sons who really found himself attracted to Chinese culture. In time, Kublai even came to speak some Chinese, though never learned the characters. While Sorqaqtani’s eldest son Mongke led armies on the Great Western Campaign across the steppe in the 1230s, Kublai was beginning to govern Chinese for the first time, having been given an appanage in North China by Ogedai Khaan in 1236. Like many Mongols granted territory in China, Kublai did not actually rule from China, staying in Mongolia proper. As with much of North China, Kublai’s appanage was left to the whims of tax farmers and merciless officers demanding extraordinary levies. By the time Kublai learned of it, thousands of tenants had already fled their lands. Perhaps on the council of his Chinese tutors, Kublai sought assistance and local knowledge. The tax farmers in his lands were dismissed and replaced with dedicated officials. A regular taxation system enforced, burdens lessened and by the 1240s Kublai had succeeded in encouraging a number to return. The episode was an important one for Kublai. Leaving government to operate without oversight would allow all manner of corruption and abuse into the system, depreiving the lord of his tribute and putting increased pressure onto the peasanty and farmers at the bottom. Given the chance, they would flee, leaving those petty officials to now increase the pressure on remaining tenants and continue the cycle. By curbing abuses and encouraging growth, Kublai reasoned, the lord would reap even greater rewards over time.
For most of the 1240s, Kublai was a minor figure. He was a grandson of Chinggis and thus a high ranking prince, to be sure, but one of little importance without a military record to his name- the only kind of record which mattered, as far as the Mongols were concerned. Just before 1240 Kublai married his second and most famous wife, Chabi of the Onggirat. A wise and outspoken woman, Chabi would, for most of Kublai’s long life, be one of his most significant advisers and supporters, a calming and motivating voice when he needed it most. Chabi was also a devout Buddhist, and certainly must have encouraged Kublai’s own interest in Buddhism. It’s no coincidence their first son was given a rather classically Tibetan Buddhist name, Dorji. She may very well have been a driving force in bringing more Buddhist advisers into Kublai’s fledgling court in the 1240s. In 1242, the Buddhist monk Hai-yun was summoned to Kublai, who further educated Kublai on Buddhism. In 1243, Hai-yun helped Kublai choose the Chinese Buddhist name of Zhenjin, “True Gold,” for Kublai’s second son, rendered in Mongol as Jingim. Hai-yun introduced Kublai to another Buddhist, Liu Ping-chung, who would become one of Kublai’s most prominent advisers in the years to come. While Kublai was personally more inclined to Buddhism, he did not limit himself to it. Confucian scholars such as Chao Pi, Tou Mo and most famously, Yao Shu, came to Kublai in these years. Yao Shu was highly trusted by Kublai, and the Chinese sources are replete with examples of Yao Shu turning ancient Chinese parables and stories into practical advice for Kublai as a general and in time, ruler. These men were made responsible not just for informing Kublai of the ancient Confucian classics, but of tutoring Kublai’s sons as well. The oldest boy, Dorji, died early, and Jingim became the focus of their teaching efforts, receiving an education in Buddhism, Confucianism and even Taoism.
Confucians and Buddhists were not his only advisers; Uighurs, Turks and Central Asians served Kublai in a vareity of roles as interpeters, translators, officials and financial advisers. For military matters of course, Kublai relied on his Mongolian kinsmen. Over the 1240s and into the 1250s, Kublai cultivated what historian Morris Rossabi has termed the “kitchen cabinet,” of advisers, a wide collection of opinions and experiences which he could draw upon, men he knew for years and trusted, backed up by his wife Chabi.
As we’ve covered before, when his older brother Mongke became Grand Khan in the 1250s Kublai was thrust into the international spotlight. We needn’t go into this in great detail again; how Kublai was for the first time given a military command, against the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. How Kublai returned to Northern China to oversee matters for Mongke there, only to annoy his brother with possible aspirations to greater autonomy and perhaps independence, an overconfidence brought on by a successful military campaign and fruitful years as a governor which saw him construct his own capital, known as Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. Mongke greatly reduced Kublai’s influence in the aftermath, and Kublai only managed to crawl back into Mongke’s favour in time to be given command of an army in a massive assault on the Song Dynasty. The sudden death of Mongke in August 1259 brought the campaign to a screeching halt. Mongke and Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, stepped up into the regency. Kublai ignored requests to return to the imperial capital at Karakorum in Mongolia, and continued to campaign for a few more months, until his wife Chabi sent word of rumour that Ariq was going to put his name forward for the Khanate. But Kublai had already been aspiring for the throne. He may have intended to keep campaigning and build up his rather lacklustre resume as a commander, but now had to rush north earlier than he had hoped. In May of 1260, at his residence in Shangdu, Kublai declared himself Khan of the Mongol Empire, precipitating a four year civil war between himself and Ariq. Though Kublai had Ariq’s surrender by 1264, over those four years the princes in the western half of the empire took their independence, leaving Kublai ruler of a realm much reduced in size. As our previous episodes have demonstrated, Kublai sent his armies on the colossal effort to conquer southern China and its Song Dynasty, a task only completed by 1279. Kublai though, did not lead these armies himself, instead focusing on building his new empire, as we’ll go into today.
After declaring himself Khan in early 1260, his early efforts were directed at the war with Ariq Boke. Once the conflict quieted by 1261 and 62, as Ariq was pushed from Mongolia, Kublai could begin to consolidate his empire. Though he still perceived of himself as ruler of the Mongol Empire, he understood that his powerbase was in China. From the beginning, Kublai could not have merely co-opted Mongke’s administration. Since the reign of Ogedai, the Mongol imperial organization functioned through Secretariats, influenced by yet unique from the Chinese system. The Central Secretariat, based in the imperial capital, was the central government, the head of which served as a sort of Prime Minister, consulting with the Great Khan to carry out his will and laws. For Ogedai, Guyuk and Mongke, the Central Secretariat had been staffed by members of the keshig, the imperial bodyguard. The Central Secretariat delegated authority to the various Branch Secretariats, the regional offices overseeing imperial government. Branch Secretariats for North China, Central Asia and Western Asia were the three main offices, with a Secretariat for the Rus’ Principalities in the process of being organized at time of Mongke’s death. The Secretariats struggled to carry out their will, for they were operating alongside various regional Mongol princes who had been allotted these lands as well. The conflict over whether the Secretariats or the Princes carried out administration or taxation, among other responsibilities, was a key component of government ineffiencies over the century.
With the outbreak of war with Ariq Boke, most of the top members of the former Central Secretariat had sided with Ariq Boke in Karakorum, leaving Kublai to rely on his own men. Among his earliest actions was to get the loyalty of the China Secretariat and local Mongol princes, and prevent them from allying with Ariq. Of these, Qadan was the most significant, a son of Ogedai who ruled on Kublai’s northwest frontier, the border close to Ariq’s territory and the Chagatayids. Key allies like this allowed Kublai to focus on more internal matters.
The officials of the China Secretariat were naturally brought on into Kublai’s new government. Without access to the old Central Secretariat offices though, Kublai had to establish a new one after becoming Khan. Unlike the Central Secretariats of the previous Khans, Kublai’s was not filled by men of his keshig -though they were present- but civilian administrators and his own advisers. The first to head the new Secretariat was Wang Wen-tung. In structure Kublai’s Secretariat had much more in common with the usual Chinese office, indicative of the influence of Kublai’s Confucian advisers. The head of the Secretariat was assisted by two Chancellors of the Left and Right, often serving as his replacement and primary advisers to the Khan. The Head of the Secretariat and the two Chancellors oversaw what was known as the Six Functional Ministeries, which carried out the day-to-day running of the empire: the Ministry of Personnel, responsible for civilian officials; the Ministry of Revenue, responsible for the census, taxes and tribute; the Ministry of Rites, responsible for ceremonies, sacrifices and embassies; the Ministry of War, responsible for some aspects of military command, colonies, postal stations and supplies; the Ministry of Justice, which managed law and prisons; and the Ministry of Public Works, which repaired and maintained fortifications, dams and public land.
In 1263, Kublai also re-established another Chinese institution, the Privy Council, which managed the Imperial Army and protected the capital. Kublai sought a more centralized control of the army, but in this found resistance from the Mongolian leadership and princes. While Chinggis Khan had largely replaced the traditional military leadership and chiefs, a new hereditary leadership was installed, both from his sons and non-Chinggisids. By Kublai’s time, he was dealing with well-entrenched egos born into these positions. They would answer the Khan’s summons for war, of course, but did not want to be managed in all aspects by officials in a distant capital who may not have been nomads. To compromise, Kublai organized his armed forces into three major branches. The first a “Mongol Army,” under his direct control, and that of the Privy Council. This was stationed close to the Imperial capitals, made up of Mongols, Central Asians and Turks. This was followed by the “Tammachi,” the Mongols who served the Khan, but maintained their own princes and lived out in the steppes. Then there was the “Chinese Army,” the largely infantry force of Chinese who served as garrison troops.
By 1268, in order to watch his growing bureaucracy, Kublai brought on another Chinese institution, the Censorate. The duty of the Censorate was to inspect officials and route out corruption; they would report directly back to the Khan to inform him of the goings-on in his government, of tidings which may not have reached him through regular channels. For Kublai, good governance was a high priority, and he gave his Censorate great resources and power. The Khan wanted to know what happened at all levels of government. Compared to other dynasties, Kublai’s Censorate had great power… on paper. In reality, there is little evidence for its effectiveness outside of the provinces closest to the capital. The Censorate’s first leader, a Confucian named Zhang Dehui, resigned after a dispute with Kublai on how the law applied to the Khan. To put simply, Kublai argued that it didn’t, and Kublai had him replaced with a more pliant Mongol.
Kublai’s affinity for the classic Chinese government structures should not be overstated. Employing traditional styles of governance helped placate Confucian elites and scholars, going some ways to convince them that Kublai had ‘stepped past,’ his nomad roots, but he was unwilling to let himself be tethered to it. The most obvious example was in his refusal to restore the Civil Service examination systems. Since the Tang Dynasty, most Chinese bureacrats were selected after completing these exams. The highest men in the empires were scholar officials who were well versed in Chinese history and literary classics, and jealuously guarded access to high office from those who had never completed the exams. Kublai did not want to limit himself in who he could appoint to office, preferring to keep his doors open to anyone he perceived useful or deserving, regardless of their origins. So, the non-Chinese men from his keshig could still staff high positions, and men from Central Asia could be raised to high station. Of these, none were more famous than Ahmad Fanakati, becoming Kublai’s finance minister in the 1260s. Particularly with the rebellion of Li Tan in 1262, a Mongol-aligned warlord in Shandong, Kublai’s desire to place power in the hands of the Chinese lessenged. Though the rebellion was quickly crushed, Kublai’s chief minister of the Central Secretariat, Li Tan’s father-in-law Wang Wen-tung, was found complicit and executed. The power of Mongol-allied Chinese warlords across North China was greatly curtailed following this, and Kublai found himself far more suspicious of the Confucians in his government.
For Kublai’s empire, the old imperial capital of Karakorum was untenable. Deep in Mongolia, it was a difficult to supply and highly exposed location, now vulnerable to the mobile horsemen of Kublai’s Central Asian kinsmen- first Ariq Boke, the Chagatayids and in time, the young Ogedeid prince Qaidu. Neither could the complex bureaucracy he was building be managed from Mongolia’s Orkhon valley. Karakorum was to be effectively left abandoned, a garrison outpost of only symbolic value. For a little over 30 years Karakorum had been the administrative centre of most of Eurasia. Never again would it regain its importance. Kublai first made Shangdu, in what is now Inner Mongolia at the edge of the steppe and Chinese frontier, his capital. Shangdu, originally called Kaiping, is most well known through Samual Taylor Coleridge’s poem Xanadu. Though it housed Kublai’s court and was in the steppe, it was built in Chinese style; roughly a square, with low, rammed earthern walls and a palace. But even Shangdu was insufficient for governing the empire. The area was unsuited to housing a great population, and would still have kept Kublai removed from his subjects. Chinese sources assert that Kublai’s Chinese advisers informed him of the need to govern from within China, but Kublai must have seen it himself. Most Imperial capitals were located more centrally, along the lower arm of the Yellow River where it cuts through the North China plain. Of these cities, none were better known than Xian, in Shaanxi province, from which a great many dynasties ruled from. The former Song and Jin capitals of Kaifeng were also located along the Yellow River. Kublai did not wish to abandon his homeland though, desiring to maintain some proximity, both for personal and security reasons. So a more northerly location was chosen: the ruins of the Jin capital of Zhongdu. Fittingly, the city had been taken by the Mongols the same year as Kublai’s birth, in 1215, and now Kublai was the one to restore it… somewhat. His new city was built just northeast of Zhongdu, straddling three rivers to provide ample water for the population. Construction began in 1267. Built in Chinese style but overseen by a Muslim engineer, it was a vast, square shape with walls of rammed earth. Within was a smaller enclosed area, housing the imperial city, palaces and residences of the Khan. This was to be Dadu, meaning great capital. To Mongols and Turks, it was Khanbaliq, the Khan’s city. Marco Polo would interpet it as Cambulac. Today, Beijing sits atop of it.
Dadu in many ways embodied Kublai’s often roughly mixed Chinese and Mongolian demands. The Chinese wanted Kublai to step into the expectations of a Chinese Emperor and conduct proper rituals to maintain the Mandate of Heaven; constructing a capital within China, building requisite temples to honour his ancestors and donning proper imperial garb helped to present the necessary image. Yet, Kublai and his sons slept not in Dadu’s sumptuous residences, but in gers in the city’s central park; feasts were decidedly more Mongolian in terms of drunkenness and yelling; his altar sat on top of soil brought from Mongolia. In a sort of quasi-nomadization, Kublai conducted treks between Shangdu and Dadu every year, spending summers in Shangdu and winters in Dadu. Each trek was marked with Mongolian shamanistic ceremonies: flicking airag onto the ground for the departing Khan and calling out the name of his illustrious grandfather. At Shangdu Kublai hunted and feasted, doing a little bit to remind himself of his heritage and escape the demands of office.
As we’ve been iterating, the image of a legitimate emperor of China was a major part of actually ruling China. Each Chinese dynasty, it was believed, ruled with the Mandate of Heaven, the divine support necessary to control the Middle Kingdom. Victory in war meant the conqueror had Heaven’s support. But Heaven needed to be appeased through proper ritual and ceremony. Good governance and climate meant that the Dynasty had Heaven’s support. Corruption and ecological disasters, coupled with military defeats, meant Heaven had rescinded its blessing. The image of being a proper Chinese ruler was therefore necessary for any man wishing to have that divine backing. Kublai would have been reminded of this constantly by his advisers, particularly Liu Ping-chung, who urged Kublai to commit to declaring a dynasty and marking himself as the successor to the Song. In 1271 the Yuan Dynasty was officially declared. Yuan was taken from the Yijing, the Book of Changes, one of the most ancient of all Chinese classics. Yuan has connotations of primal energy and the origins of the universe; all auspicious things to refer to for a man who already had the backing of Eternal Blue Heaven.
To Kublai, taking the Dynastic name of Yuan was not an indication he was replacing the Mongol Empire. To him, Da Yuan, the Great Yuan, was another way to express Yeke Mongghol Ulus, the Great Mongol State. It was to help Chinese acceptance of his rule and maintain Heaven’s Mandate. But it was a fine line to try and present oneself as both Mongol Emperor and the Chinese Emperor, and the declaration of the Yuan may have been in part a recognition of his lack of effective power over the western Mongol Khanates. Kublai still very much saw himself as their overlord, but even he would have recognized his actual power over them was limited at best.
By declaring the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai was also demonstrating his intention was not just to loot and occupy China, but actually rule there. Now, we’ve talked alot about things Kublai ordered, declared and issued: but what did his rule actually look like? In terms of wanting to be a good ruler, what did Kublai accomplish in this regard? Well, ol’ Kublai was not just a man of ideas, but put things into action. Reconstruction of China both north and south was a primary goal of his. Northern China had hardly recovered from the prolonged Mongol-Jin warfare. Despite efforts in the past to institute regular taxation as proposed by the thanksless Yelu Chucai, much taxatio remained adhoc, local populations still being taken advantage of by Mongol officials. For the success of his Dynasty, Kublai wanted the burdens on the population relieved.
In 1261, Kublai began to provide funding for the Office for the Stimulation of Agriculture, headed by his friend and adviser Yao Shu. The stated goal of the office was to help peasants restore, develop and advance agriculture. Kublai wanted Northern China to once again reach a state of food security and be able to produce surplus as protection against shortages. A starving and discontented peasantry would pose a risk of massive uprisings, and the surplus was needed for the massive capital at Dadu. Dadu required 58 grainaries, each one holding 2,170,440 kilograms of grain, or 4,785,000 lbs. Kublai needed a reserve just to feed his capital, let alone secure northern China.
Kublai also understood it was not just a matter of providing funds and labour; the peasants needed to be protected from the Mongols. In 1262, Kublai forbade Mongols from ranging their animals through peasant fields, protecting vital cropland from becoming lunch for hundreds of goat and sheep. He also sought to abolish, once and for all, the tax farmers who sought to beggar the Chinese. Taxes needed to be simplified, and the power of the princely appanages curtailed in order for the Central Secretariat to retain dominance. For this, princes were denied their ability to collect taxes; rather than pay both the local prince and the Central Government, the taxes would go just to the government. Then, an allotment would be provided to the princes. Simplifying and reducing taxes always goes a long way to reducing stress on the folk on the bottom of the social rung. Taking this further, Kublai also reduced or completely removed taxes on entire regions to help them recover. Funds were provided for farmers to restore lands damaged during the conquest, as was grain for those in need. The Khan regularly met and sought knowledge from his advisers on how to restore the countryside and promote trade, and heaped rewards on those who provided effective ideas.
Kublai also promoted what he saw as useful professions. Generally, Chinese dynasties looked down on craftsmen and doctors, but Kublai carried on the Mongol practice of favouring those with skills. Craftsmen and doctors were exempted from certains taxes and corvee labour. For craftsmen and merchants, Kublai encouraged trade, especially from Central Asia and on the South Asia sea routes. In 1268 he opened the General Administration for Supervision of the Ortogh, which provided government loans to merchants taking part in caravans from Central Asia. In southern China, kilns were registered and supported by the government to aid the production of porcelains, a valuable part of the Southeast Asian sea trade. Taxes were lowered on commercial transactions, roads and routes were improved to facilitate movement. Foreign merchants were encouraged to come to China in order to advance the overseas trade, bring their knowledge and even serve in the government: owing their work to the Khan was thought to make them more useful. It is in such a capacity that Marco Polo would work, serving it seems in Kublai’s keshig, as we’ll explore in a future episode.
For doctors and physicians, Kublai established and funded academies and hospitals for them to work in, and to learn from Muslim medical knowledge Kublai imported- a full 31 volumes of Muslim medical practices were collected for the court library. As Kublai was often in poor health and suffered terribly from gout, he was keen to support this industry and whatever relief they might bring him. Expensive drugs, ingredients and doctors were collected from across the Islamic world and even southern India and brought to China. Exempted from many tax obligations and corvee labour, and often serving upon the elite and government, medical leaders reached a very high, and very lucrative, social standing they had not previously enjoyed. By encouraging the growth in numbers of physicians and hospitals, this brought greater access of their services to people at large as well.
Within his first years as Khan, Kublai had also organized the printing of new paper currencies. The first of these was backed by silk, and the later by the silver reserve. Earlier Khans had encouraged payment in coinage over kind, and Kublai took this to the next level. He hoped to employ the same currency throughout his realm to ease trade and aid in economic stability. The earlier paper mony printed by his predecessors and the Song emperors was invalidated, though in the former Song territory the people were given a period of years to hand in the old money, including gold, silver and copper coins, in exchange for the new. Until the late-1270s, Kublai kept tight control on how much was printed in order to prevent inflation, and the system worked quite well. Only with costs endured from the failed attack on Japan and the last years of war with the Song, did the printing of paper money escalate, though not yet to disastrous levels.
In science too, Kublai promoted cross-continental contacts. Astronomy was always of interest to Chinese monarchs and diviners, and a good mark of any emperor was formatting a new calendar. For this, considerable Muslim knowledge was imported. In 1271 the Institute of Muslim Astronomy was founded, allowing Chinese astronomers to study translated Islamic texts and instruments to design their own, and eventually provide Kublai a new, more accurate calender. Kublai also ordered the establishment of a new legal code which began to take effect in the early 1270s. It was actually more lenient than previous dynastic legal codes: only 135 crimes were punishable by death in the Yuan legal code, less than the preceeding Song, or succeeding Ming, legal codes. Executions per year during the 13th century rarely exceeded 100, with the Khan personally reviewing these cases, preffering to send them to labour or to pay a fine. The latter was an uniquely Mongol addition to the Chinese legal system. For the Mongols, such fines were regular compensation for punishments, and now too would become standard practice in China.
Kublai also gave China the basis for the provincial organization it holds today. As the first man to unite all of China in 300 years, he was able to order a country-wide provincial reorganization. Unlike previous dynasties, Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan were now part of China; Yunnan, for instance, had never been under Chinese suzerainty before, and has never left it since. Kublai reorganized China into 12 provinces, each governed by regional versions of the Central Secretariat. In much of the south, former Song officials were brought to staff the lower levels of government, but a system of Mongol and Central Asian daruqachi supervised and managed them.
As part of his hope to tie the various disparate regions of his empire together, Kublai sought a writing system all could use. He did not want to rely on Chinese, a script few Mongols had ever learned. But neither was the Uighur script the Mongols used for their own language fully adequate. Adopted by Chinggis Khan in 1206, it only barely covered the sounds of spoken Mongolian, and was simply incapable of representing Chinese. For this task, Kublai turned to one of his best known advisers, the ‘Phags-pa Lama. Born in 1235, in the 1240s he accompanied his uncle, the Sakya Pandita, one of the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism’s Sa-Skya sect, to the court of Ogedai’s son Koten. Basically growing up in Mongol courts, in the 1250s he found himself attached to prince Kublai, and in time Khan Kublai. Made Kublai’s personal chaplain after he became Khan, in 1264 the ‘Phags-pa Lama and his brother were appointed to govern Tibet on behalf of the Mongols. Having spent comparatively little time there, they did not do a great job. His brother died in 1267, which was soon followed by an uprising from a rival Buddhist sect, crushed with a forced reimposition of Mongol rule. With the Mongols now ruling Tibet directly, the ‘Phags-pa Lama returned to Kublai’s court, where he was given a new task: designing for Kublai a new universal script for the empire. Completing it by 1269, this was the famed Yuan square script, or ‘Phags-pa script, as named for its designer. Based on the Tibetan script, it was 41 square shaped letters written vertically and designed to capture sounds of both Chinese and Mongolian. Kublai was delighted and heaped rewards onto the ‘Phags-pa Lama, making him Imperial Perceptor and Head of all monks in Kublai’s empire, in addition to further tutoring Kublai’s son Jingim. Kublai ordered the script to be taught to all officials, and all government documents were to be issued in the new script. Surviving stone inscriptions, paper money, porcelain and state paizas from the Yuan period all feature the characteristic blocks of the ‘Phags-pa script. But aside from official and decorative purposes, the script never caught on even within the government, despite repeated proclamations from Kublai for his officials to learn it.
In keeping with the precedent of previous Khans, Kublai’s early reign encouraged the respect of religions. The legal code did not set out to prohibit any religion, and religious communities, especially Muslims, were often self-governing as long as they paid taxes. Respect was shown to Confucians, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Shamanists and even those Christians in China. Like Mongke, there were members of these religions convinced that Kublai was about to, or had already, converted to their faith, so effective was Kublai at protraying himself as a friend to all. The ‘Phags-pa Lama, for instance, presented Kublai as the Buddhisatta of Wisdom to Tibetans while Marco Polo portrayed Kublai as a fine Christian monarch in his accounts. Tax exemptions were provided to religious orders, financial aid to help in rebuilding and constructing new temples, representation at court and other privileges were granted to these various communities. In exchange, they convened with the Heavens and Gods on Kublai’s behalf to bring good fortune onto the Yuan realm and maintain the Mandate of Heaven.
It should not be thought that Kublai set out to create an idealized utopia- he was still Mongol Emperor after all, and the Mongols were only a small minority among tens of millions of Chinese. Kublai issued proclamations to keep Mongols and Chinese separate; the Chinese could not learn Mongolian or wear Mongolian clothing, and it was illegal to sell Mongolian horses to them. Marriage and intermingling were dissuaded. Most famously, Kublai organized a racial heirarchy to determine favours and certain rights. Obviously, Mongols were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the semuren, referring to Central Asians, Muslims, various Turks and even Tangut. Below the semuren was the hanren, the northern Chinese and former denizens of the Jin Empire. Khitans and Jurchen were included among them. After 1279, another category was added, the nanren, the Southern Chinese of the late Song Dynasty. The cateogrization though was vague, subject to change and often ignored. Yet it underlined a key fact: despite all Kublai did to look like a Chinese monarch, neither he nor his successors would ever be Chinese, and that divide would not disappear after Kublai’s death. For those Mongols still in Mongolia though, Kublai certainly looked too much like a Chinese monarch for their tastes. This was not a dynamic that would promote the longevity of the Yuan Dynasty.
From 1260-1279, Kublai Khan’s reign was marked by numerous accomplishments, with the notable exception of the invasion of Japan in 1274, and of course, his loss of control over the western Khanates. He set about creating a new government structure to run his empire, utilizing talent from across Eurasia and rebuilding China after decades of war. For the first time since the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907, China was united under one ruler. But 1279 was to be, in many ways, the high water mark of his reign. The effort it took to manage the Yuan government was considerable, and needed tremendous personal energy on the part of the monarch to keep it running as effectively as possible. As age, health and personnal losses took the energy out of him, the 1280s ultimately marked a series of failures for Kublai, which we will explore in forthcoming episodes, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/Kingsandgenerals. This script was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
Series researcher Jack Wilson and historian Stephen Pow discuss Pow's explanation for one of the most vexxing issues of Mongolian studies: what is the relation between the terms Mongol and Tatar, and why do so many people across Eurasia consistently use Tatar over Mongol?
“In the world there is the spirit of righteousness, taking many forms,
bestowed on the ever-changing things.
Below they are the rivers and mountains; above they are the sun and stars,
With people it is called the spirit of honour and fearlessness, so vast it fills the universe.
When the empire is tranquil one pours forth harmony in the splendid court.
When times are extreme true fidelity is seen, and goes down in history case after case.”
So goes a poem written by one of the last defenders of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang, as translated by Feng Xin-ming. Held prisoner by Kublai Khan after the fall of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang wrote this poem as a part of his refusal to accept to Mongol rule before his ultimate execution. Such defiance was a surprising hallmark of the final years of the fugitive Song court, reduced to a collection of hardliners and loyalists unwilling to peacefully surrender the Mandate of Heaven to the house of Chinggis Khan. Today, we look at the flight of the fugitive Song court after the fall of their capital of Hangzhou in 1276. We will follow brave men like Wen Tienxiang, Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu in the final days of the Song Dynasty, a hopeless struggle culminating in the bloody waters of Yaishan in 1279. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Our previous episode brought us to the early months of 1276 with the surrender of the Song capital city of Linan, modern day Hangzhou. The child emperor, Gong of Song, and the elderly Empress Dowager, were brought into the hands of Mongol general Bayan, who escorted them north to bow before Kublai Khan. Organized Song resistance seemed broken, and while the Mongols would need to ensure the official submission of the southernmost regions of Song China, such actions were a mere formality compared to the effort needed to seize the Yangzi River cities. Most of the Mongolian army returned northwards soon after, intent on sparing Mongols and their horses from the worst of the south’s summer heat and humidity. There was but one issue: two of the Song Emperor’s young half-brothers had been smuggled out of Hangzhou under a small guard of soldiers. Bayan had sent riders to pursue them, but the fugitives escaped them in the mountains south of Hangzhou. Fleeing to southern Zhejiang province, they made it to Wenzhou, a city on the coast. From there, they took ships to Fuzhou, just across the straits from Taiwan, where they were joined by other loyalists who had abandoned Hangzhou in the days leading up to Bayan’s arrival. These included the general Zhang Shijie, who had repeatedly fought with the Mongol fleet on the Yangzi in the last episode; Chen Yizhong, the former Song chancellor who had succeeded Jia Sidao; Wen Tienxiang, Yizhong’s brief successor who was temporarily held captive by the Mongols before escaping; and other courtiers and generals, like Li Xiufu and Xia Gui. News of the gathering at Fuzhou spread across the south and brought other hiding loyalists to come out of the shadows in early summer 1276, encouraged by the Mongol withdrawal back over the Yangzi River.
By June 1276, the older of the two half brothers, the five year old Zhao Shih, was declared the 17th emperor of the Song Dynasty, temple name Duanzong of Song. The enthronement prompted a wave of loyalist uprisings in the south and over the summer, growing into an actual offensive against the Mongols. Citizen armies retook cities in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces. Most of the south and southwest of the Song realm were still outside of Mongol control, and in Sichuan those still resisting found new heart. At Fuzhou, the court built a new navy from those ships which had escaped destruction on the Yangzi, some provided by patriotic ship owners in the south, and some which were forcibly seized from private hands. For a few weeks, there was actual momentum against Mongol rule.
By the fall of 1276, this momentum had largely burnt itself out. The infighting which had been endemic to the Song court reared its head in this fugitive court. Chen Yizhong, who had only come out of hiding after the royal boys had arrived in Fuzhou, had again been made Chancellor, despite the fact his performance as Chancellor in Hangzhou was generally ineffective. Once more the Song Chancellor, Yizhong immediately fought with the others for influence over the young emperor, a stupendously stupid act when all of their energies should have gone against the Mongols. His conflict with Wen Tienxiang forced the latter to abandon the court to fight on his own in his home region of Jiangxi, raising troops there to resist the Mongols. From his base in Jiangxi, Wen Tienxiang led hit and run attacks against the Mongols as far as Lake Poyang. With Tienxiang out of the way, Yizhong butted heads with the most important and capable military leaders left in the fugitive court, Zhang Shijie and Xia Gui. Xia Gui grew so frustrated that he defected to the Mongols, bringing with him a number of districts in Huainan. The infighting predictably hamstrung the already limited capabilities of the Song court. With a mere boy as emperor, there was no one to mediate over Yizhong’s actions, causing them to hemorrhage much needed men they couldn't afford to lose.
And of course, the Mongols were not keen to allow these fugitives to claim legitimacy or strike at such newly taken territory; though they held by now no hope of truly overthrowing Mongol rule. News came of the fall of the Yangzi cities of Yangzhou and Chenzhou after prolonged resistance to the Mongols, soon followed in the autumn with a Mongol invasion of the south. More accurately, we should describe this as a Yuan invasion. While serving the Mongol Khaghan, often commanded by Mongols and Central Asians and with a core Mongol cavalry, the main body of these troops were Chinese, largely northerners but a great number of former Song soldiers and levied southerners. In large part, this was due to the conditions and environment; the climate of the south was difficult on those used to the drier and cooler north, and much of the geography was simply unsuited to large scale cavalry warfare, though Mongol horsemen were employed when appropriate. Under the command of the Uighur, Ariq Khaya, the armies of Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty came in a great pincer movement towards Fuzhou late in 1276. By the end of the year, the boy emperor and his court took to the sea to escape Fuzhou, which soon fell to the Yuan armies.
The young emperor and court had begun what was to be a dreadful pattern. Their ships would find some coastal city to make their new sanctuary, only to be forced to flee in a matter of days, weeks or months as Yuan armies or ships converged on their position. From the last days of 1276 to until 1278, this was the wretched life the court lived, a constant fear for when the banners of the Yuan would arrive on the horizon. From Fuzhou they stayed in Quanzhou, perhaps the wealthiest port in the world and a gateway to the seatrade of southeast Asia. Here, the court sought to ally with their former subject, Quanzhou’s Superintendent of Maritime Trade, the immensely wealthy Fu Shougeng. A highly talented fellow, Fu Shougeng was a descendant of Arab traders, his wealth, influence and veritable armada of ships making him a powerful ally for anyone seeking to control the southern Chinese coast. Both Kublai and the Song court sought to gain his support, but the Song had little patience for carefully cultivating a relationship. The Song general Zhang Shijie attempted to sidestep Fu Shougeng and just commandeer ships and resources for their purposes. Alienated, Fu Shougeng tried to trick the boy emperor into following him in order to capture him for the Mongols, but the ruse was spotted and the court escaped. With their flight, Fu Shougeng officially declared for Kublai, who rewarded him by making him the military governor of much of Fujian and Guangdong provinces. As revenge, Zhang Shijie blockaded Quanzhou’s port late into 1277 until Yuan ships drove him off. Fu provided his ships and resources to the Yuan, enlarging their growing presence on the South China sea, while Fu encouraged other holdouts in the region to submit to the Khan.
As the Song court moved from port to port along the southern coast over 1277, the Yuan continued to strengthen their hold on the mainland. Ariq Khaya focused on holdouts in the south in a methodical campaign; not a great tidal wave of destruction like Chinggis Khan had unleashed upon Khwarezm nearly 60 years prior, but a thorough effort which instituted civilian administration as he went. The area Ariq Khaya took was immediately brought into the Yuan Empire, rather than left a ruinous buffer. Another general, Sogetu, meanwhile pursued the Song along the coast, mirroring their movements from the land and falling upon any city which gave shelter to the emperor. The Mongol advance even encouraged local uprisings against the Song; one fellow leading such an uprising in the interior of Fujian was caught and executed by the loyalist Wen Tienxiang, but it was a minor success as the Yuan hold on the south grew. Wen Tienxiang and his army was forced to the coast, and over 1277 and 1278 Song territory along the southeast was reduced to a few well fortified but isolated coastal holdouts.
In the first month of 1278, while in the midst of once again sailing to a new port, the Song fleet was caught in a storm, sinking several ships. The young emperor was among those who fell into the cold waters. Though he was rescued, the poor lad fell ill. The stress of the flight coupled with illness rapidly eroded his strength. In May of 1278, Zhao Shih, temple name Duanzong of Song, succumbed, not even 9 years old by the European reckoning. The fact the disillusioned Song court did not immediately dissipate is due to Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu, who rallied them around the late-emperor’s even younger half brother, the 6 year old Zhao Bing, who they quickly enthroned. It was not enough for some, and no one was happy to fight for the third child-emperor in a row, when most of China was now in Mongol hands. Chancellor Yizhong suggested the court could find refuge in Dai Viet in northern Vietnam, the kingdom known to the Chinese as Annam. Yizhong offered to go himself as an envoy, but the reception among the court was cool. He left for Vietnam anyways; judging by summons by the Song for him to return, this may have just been him abandoning the cause. Yizhong never returned to the fugitive Song court, spending a few years in Dai Viet before fleeing to the Kingdom of Sukhothai in Thailand for the last years of his life.
In June 1278, the Song imperial fleet, now largely under the thumb of Zhang Shijie, settled on Yaishan, some 120 kilometres west of modern Hong Kong. Yaishan was a difficult to reach island nestled in the Chinese coast; surrounded by rivers, mud flats sides and mountains. The island has access to the sea via a narrow waterway, a lagoon on its south side which cuts between two steep cliffs, from which the area’s name is derived. It was a defensible base and large enough to hold the considerable population they brought with them. The sources speak of 200,000 aboard over 1,000 ships: soldiers, ships crews, families, court officials. Zhang Shijie ordered them onto the island, where they immediately built a small city, cutting down trees for palaces and barracks. The river systems around Yaishan led deeper into Guangdong province and to the city of Guangzhou, from which the Song court was supplied. Zhang Shijie had had enough of running, and was intent on making Yaishan the location from which they would retake the Song realm, or make their final stand.
As the Song settled on Yaishan, the remnants of their empire fell to the Mongols. The western end of the Yangzi River in Sichuan was, after decades of effort, finally subdued over 1278. New offensives into Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong strengthened the Yuan hold over China’s southwest, bringing them dangerously close to Yaishan.
Just as Bayan had been placed in supreme command in 1274, Kublai wanted a supreme commander to control the Yuan forces operating in the south and bring them all to bear on wherever the Song court was hiding. In June of 1278, the same month that the fugitive court took shelter on Yaishan, Kublai appointed Zhang Hongfan to be this commander. Zhang Hongfan was a man of northern China who had never served the Song; yet, in one of those twists of fate, he was related to the Song’s great general, Zhang Shijie. Zhang Hongfan had led in the river warfare along the Yangzi, and now Kublai wanted him to personally supervise the Yuan’s new ocean fleet as well. This also highlights the nature of the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan: an ethnic northern Chinese was, for the first time, being placed in supreme authority over Mongol, Central Asian and Chinese forces in order to destroy the remnants of a Chinese dynasty. A diligent and loyal subject of the Great Khan, Zhang Hongfan worked with great speed. The offensive he led at the end of 1278 swallowed up what was left of the Song Dynasty. In an arc from east to west, Zhang Hongfan led his ships along the southern coast, collecting men and ships as he went and turning over every stone for the Song emperor. Assisting them were many former Song commanders and their ships who had thrown their lot in with the Mongols, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to their new masters. Zhang Hongfan’s second-in-command, a Tangut named Li Heng, led the second prong of the assault on land, linking up with Zhang Hongfan’s fleet for those coastal sites still holding out. In the first weeks of 1279, Li Heng surprised and captured the brave Song captain, Wen Tienxiang, handing him over to Zhang Hongfan as prisoner at the start of February.
From there they advanced west, making their way to perhaps the most significant city still resisting Mongol rule, Guangzhou. The Yuan commanders did not know it yet, but Guangzhou was only a few kilometres north of where the Song court was hiding at Yaishan. Guangzhou had thrown off a few Yuan assaults before finally falling to a combined effort by Li Heng and Zhang Hongfan. Twice, ships came up the Xi River in an attempt to relieve Guangzhou. On the second attempt, ships under the command of Omar, grandson of the Yuan governor of Yunnan Sayyid Ajall, followed them, tracking the Song ships right back to Yaishan. Quickly, Omar confirmed it was the Song hideout and sent messengers back to Zhang Hongfan. It was time to prepare the final battle against the Song.
At the end of February 1279, Yuan ships began to join Omar outside the sea entrance to Yaishan, a 1.5 kilometre wide lagoon protected by steep cliffs on either side. Over the following days, the rest of the Yuan fleet joined them. The news prompted panic on Yaishan, and many demanded Zhang Shijie organize another escape. But Shijie was done running. “Lo these many years we have voyaged on the seas. Now we must decide between us and them the victor and the vanquished.” Setting fire to the palaces and buildings of Yaishan, he ordered everyone aboard the ships. The plan was simple. From reports his scouts had gathered, his fleet outnumbered the Yuan greatly, perhaps 1100 Song vessels to 300 for the Yuan. Shijie also considered his men the superior fighters at sea. But morale was low, and in open water the men could find it more persuasive to flee rather than fight. Figuring the Mongols would gamble on an immediate assault to put an end to the campaign, Zhang Shijie needed to make best use of both his greater numbers but worse morale. He settled on chaining his ships together in a great, fortified line. Not at the entrance of the lagoon, where some ships might be able to slip away, but situated deeper down the waterway, where their flanks were securely protected by the steep cliffs. Anchors were dropped, and ramparts and towers were built on the ships, a massive, immobile floating wall. The young emperor, Zhao Bing, was placed in the largest ship at the centre under a secure guard. To protect against incendiaries, the ships were coated with mud and provided long poles to push away fire ships. Finally, catapults were set up to send projectiles at any approaching vessel. Set up, Zhang Shijie prepared for the expected attack.
Shijie’s Yuan counterpart, Zhang Hongfan was no fool and recognized a frontal attack against this entrenched position was very risky. He sent first a small ship with negotiators, among them the captive Wen Tienxiang, who Hongfan hoped would convince Shijie to step down. Tienxiang refused however, and negotiations went nowhere. An effort to send fire ships into the Song line was likewise repulsed, the poles of the defenders keeping the fireships at bay until they burned themselves out. Zhang Hongfan then did the unexpected. He waited.
In doing so, he had the one tool which Shijie had no defence against. Locking the Song ships into place as he had done gave all the mobility, and the initiative, to the Yuan fleet. With so many men and families aboard the Song ships, they quickly used up the food and freshwater that they had brought aboard. Destroying their island buildings and pulling all troops onto the ships meant they had no land forces to scavenge for them or fall back to. Quickly, Yuan scouts found a small creek the Song had considered impassable for ocean vessels. The Yuan instead sent smaller craft up this creek, coming out behind the Song line and surrounding them. Zhang Shijie sent out small sorties to attempt to get through the Yuan lines and acquire supplies, but each time these were pushed back. Unintentionally, Zhang Shijie had settled on the plan that left the remnants of the Song trapped in place.
The two fleets sat in place for two weeks. Running out of freshwater and firewood, the Song soldiers resorted to drinking seawater and eating uncooked meals. Dysentery, sickness and starvation ravaged them. Zhang Hongfan sent one final letter to Zhang Shijie, imploring his kinsman to surrender. Three times letters were sent to Shijie, carried by Shijie’s nephew Han, who alongside Hongfan served the Mongols. The letters carried by Han told Shijie of the rewards that awaited him if he surrendered, but warned of the destruction that awaited him if he refused.
Zhang Shijie’s reply, as recorded by Yuan Dynasty sources, ran thus: “I know that if I surrender I would have life, and also noble titles and riches, but my ruler lives and I cannot desert him. If you wish me to surrender, lift your blockade and permit me to sail out.” But Zhang Hongfan knew he could not trust this. For the next five days, Hongfan and his officers made the final plans and moved ships into place. At dawn on the 19th of March, 1279, anchors were weighed and the Yuan fleet advanced onto the Song from both north and south. Zhang Hongfan led his flagship against the most dangerous section of the Song line. The Yuan ships crashed into the larger Song vessels, the Yuan soldiers climbing aboard to fight on the Song decks, Mongol archers picking off Song defenders. The decks ran red with blood, men locked in combat fell into the churning waters and were crushed between ships. Spears pushed climbing Yuan soldiers back into their ships; grasping hands pulled Song defenders off the decks. Zhang Shijie’s catapult crews fired until they ran out of projectiles. The Song fought with courage, battling for every metre. It was a full day of fighting, but the sickness and hunger of the Song troops was a knife in their backs. Dropping from exhaustion, the Yuan soldiers stepped over their bodies as they steadily advanced along Zhang Shijie’s makeshift wall. Unexpectedly, one Song ship dropped its colours, the signal to surrender. Then another, and another. Such an order had not been given, but in the confusion of battle it could not be undone. The Song began to surrender en masse. Zhang Shijie desperately ordered troops to withdraw to the centre ship housing the emperor, but it was clear the day was lost. As fog rolled in that evening, Zhang Shijie ordered some ships to be cut loose to break out. 16 out of the 1100 Song ships escaped Yaishan with Zhang Shijie, evading the Yuan pursuers in the fog and the confusion. The Emperor, Zhao Bing, was not among them, the imperial barge too large and too slow to break free.
The courtier Lu Xiufu stayed close to the boy emperor, but there was now no escape left on those bloody decks. The last emperor of the house of Zhao would not fall into these barbarian hands, Xiufu decided. Tearfully, Xiufu forced his own wife and children to jump into the sea. With Zhao Bing still in his royal robes and clutching the imperial seals, Lu Xiufu took the 7 year old Son of Heaven into his arms, and carried him beneath the waves. Yuan sources assert 100,000 distraught Song loyalists followed in a mass suicide, the lagoon red and filled with bodies. Whoever still lived surrendered along with some 800 ships. The Song Dynasty’s 300 year rule was over.
Zhang Shijie did not flee far: not long after the battle, while sailing to seek shelter in Vietnam his small fleet was caught in a storm and sunk, and he joined his emperor beneath the waves. Zhang Hongfan commemorated the battle with a simple stone inscription at Yaishan, stating “here the great Yuan general Zhang Hongfan destroyed the Song,” and was richly rewarded by Kublai Khan for his victory. He could not long enjoy his spoils. He died the next year, an ailment brought on by the heat and humidity of the south. Later nativist Chinese historians ravaged Hongfan’s reputation as a Chinese “betraying” the Song to serve northern barbarians. But Zhang Hongfan and his family had never been Song subjects. Their native area had been controlled by the Khitan Liao Dynasty since 939, before the Song Dynasty had even been founded. In fact, Zhang Shijie had briefly served the Mongols, making him the traitor to his emperor.
Wen Tienxiang outlived both Zhang Shijie and Zhang Hongfan, offered a respectable position in Kublai’s empire. But Tienxiang refused again and again, unwilling to betray the memory of the Song. Spending his last years imprisoned, he wrote poetry and proudly denied Mongol offers, until finally executed in the early 1280s, the last patriot of Song.
Yaishan was perhaps the largest naval battle in Chinese history after Lake Poyang in 1368, if the sources are accurate with their numbers. It was a major and decisive victory. While some regions in the south still needed to be fully incorporated into the Yuan Empire, and there would be local uprisings, organized resistance against Mongol rule was broken. The Song Emperors were dead, the loyalist infrastructure crushed. Kublai Khan had unified China for the first time since the fall of the Tang Dynasty almost 400 years prior, and was the first non-Chinese to do so. Kublai was now the ruler of All Under Heaven, master of China and the single most powerful man on earth. Those Song loyalists who had escaped to the Vietnamese kingdoms of Dai Viet and Champa would need to be pursued, and Kublai was not a man to believe China was the limits of his empire. Even as the last Song Emperor disappeared beneath the waves at Yaishan, Kublai’s eyes darted to those kingdoms on his horizon, revenge against Japan plotted and his relatives in Central Asia punished. More battles were planned beyond the waters of Yaishan; but not many of them would be victories.
Before we discuss Kublai’s further military ventures though, we must discuss Kublai the man, and the actual empire he built in China, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue to produce great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!
To coincide with the release of the Kings and Generals Biography video of the Mongol general Subutai, for our podcast we’ll present for your listening an extended version of that script, courtesy of our series historian writer. While Subutai is the most well known of all medieval Mongolian generals, the full extent of his career is rarely presented in a single document. With this episode, we’ll hopefully do just that for you; providing an idea of the vast scope of Subutai’s campaigns and his service to three generations of Chinggisids, providing along the way an idea of what made up this man’s personality, and some historiography on him. This version of the script will be accessible to read with full footnotes and sources on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
Of all the generals of the Mongol Empire, none stand taller than Subutai, who led armies from China, across Iran, the Caucasus, Russia and into Eastern Europe. Yet, Subutai remains a murky figure, with difficult to access primary sources providing fertile ground for all manner of myths to grow instead. Utilizing the latest scholarship and medieval materials, we will paint for you a more accurate biography of one of history’s fiercest generals.
Perhaps the best place to start would be his name. Subutai, the most common form of his name on the internet, comes from the Chinese rendering of his name( 速不台 ). Numerous transliterations of his name exist, but perhaps the best approximation of the Mongolian is Sübe’etei. The common epithet attached to his name, Ba’atar, signifies bravery and is often translated as hero or knight.
Sübe’etei was born in northwestern Mongolia in 1175-1176, to the Uriyangqat Mongols. There has been modern confusion of the Uriyngqat Mongols, nomadic pastoralists in the Mongolian steppe, with the Turkic Uriyangqai of the forests north of Mongolia, reindeer herders who did not raise the vast herds sheep, goat or horses. This confusion has resulted in the common misconception today that Sübe’etei was a Tuvan. However, the 13th and 14th century sources clearly identify Sübe’etei as a man of the steppe, whose father herded sheep and their family having been in close contact with that of Chinggis Khan’s for five generations, a sublineage of the Mongol tribe to which Chinggis Khan belonged. Stephen Pow in his article with Jingjing Liao on Sübe’etei suggests part of the appeal to this belief of Sübe’etei as a ‘reindeer herder,’ is the irony in one of history’s greatest cavalry commanders being a man who did not learn to ride a horse until well into his adulthood.
Though specific details of Sübe’etei’s early life are lost to us, we can assume it mirrored that of other Mongolian children. He would have learned to ride a horse, shoot a bow, hunt and herd animals from a young age, the basic skills necessary for warfare on the steppe. In the politically chaotic period of late 12th century Mongolia, Sübe’etei and his family likely suffered from raids and predatory marauders. As a young boy, he found a role model in the form of a fellow Mongol named Temujin. Since the time of Sübe’etei’s great-great-grandfather Nerbi, their families had been close allies, and perhaps from Sübe’etei’s earliest days Temujin had appeared as the centre of Sübe’etei’s world. In the Secret History of the Mongols, around 1185 Temujin was elected as Khan of his Mongol lineage, the Borjigon. Per the Secret History’s account, Sübe’etei, perhaps little more than 10 years old, attended, accompanied by his older brother Ca’urqan and their older cousin, Jelme. In Sübe’etei’s most formative years, he attached himself to this rising warlord, whose family he would stay in loyal service to for the next six decades.
Sübe’etei’s role, if any, in the many trials of Temujin’s rise to power are unmentioned. At 14 years old he would have been enrolled into military service as a lightly armoured horse archer. It is not until 1203, when Sübe’etei was about 27, that we have the first described event of his life. That year, Temujin suffered a devastating setback, betrayed by his ally Toghrul, the Ong Khan of the Kereyit. Defeated in battle by Toghrul and Jamukha, another ally turned enemy, Temujin’s army was scattered and with a small force he fled to Lake Baljuna in eastern Mongolia. Slowly, his allies trickled in, one of whom was Sübe’etei’s father Qaban, driving a flock of sheep to Baljuna to feed Temujin’s hungry men. As described in the Yuan shi, Qaban was ambushed and captured by robbers. Sübe’etei and his brother Ca’urqan, not far beyond with the rest of the animals, followed the tracks of the robbers and ambushed them. Bringing down several robbers, the rest panicked and fled. Their father was rescued, and they brought the much-needed sheep to Temujin at Baljuna. Heartened by their loyalty and courage, he rewarded them; Ca’urqan was made a commander of 100, and Sübe’etei was enrolled into the keshig, the imperial bodyguard, as was common for younger brothers of unit commanders. Alongside physically protecting the Khan, the keshig also served as his closest servants, preparing his meals, protecting his herds and maintaining his belongings. The keshig also served as a training school for commanders, where the skills of leading armies, logistical needs and battle were advanced. It is here that Sübe’etei began his education as a general.
By 1206, Temujin had unified the tribes of Mongolia, taking the title of Chinggis Khan and declaring the Mongol Empire. Sübe’etei was among those rewarded for his service. It was not without sacrifice, as his older brother had died in the fighting against the Naiman in western Mongolia. With 95 others, in 1206 Sübe’etei was appointed to command a minggan, 1,000 men. His reputation as a ferocious warrior in the name of the Khan had already begun to be established, for at the sametime he was noted among Chinggis Khan’s Four Dogs of War: Jebe, Qubilai Noyan and Jelme Uha. Unlike Chinggis’s four Horses -Bo’orchu, Muqali, Boroqul, Cila’un Ba’atar- who were Chinggis Khan’s personal friends from his youth, the Four Dogs were among the deadliest men of the Khan’s arsenal. To paraphrase the Secret History of the Mongols, the Four Horses were the men at Chinggis’ side, while the Four Dogs were those charging wherever the Khan pointed. Brutal, daring, often cruel yet utterly loyal, the Four Dogs were Chinggis’ swords to wield against Asia. It was in this service that Sübe’etei would excel.
In the first Mongol invasions, against the Tangut Kingdom in 1209 and the Jin Dynasty in 1211, Sübe’etei’s mentions are sparse. In 1212 Sübe’etei was the first onto the walls of Huanzhou. He was richly rewarded for his role in taking the city, and for his courage he earned the title of Ba’atar. Jebe Noyan, with whom Sübe’etei was often partnered with, went on a long ranging campaign across the Jin Empire in 1213, through Manchuria and taking one of the Jin capitals, Tung-ching. It’s possible Sübe’etei accompanied him on their series of long marches, feigned retreats and sacked cities, but such is only speculation.
By 1216 Chinggis Khan was back in Mongolia, his armies having taken the Jin supreme capital of Zhongdu and left them on the backfoot. In Mongolia Chinggis had to deal with rebellions and foes who had survived the unification. One army under Boroqul was sent to subdue the forest peoples around Lake Baikal, who were in open revolt against Mongol rule; Jebe was sent to capture a fugitive Naiman prince who had usurped power in the Central Asian realm of the Qara-Khitai; Muqali was to command the armies fighting the Jin; and Sübe’etei was to accompany Chinggis’ eldest son Jochi far across the western steppes, in pursuit of Merkit tribes who had fled Mongolia and sought shelter with the Qipchap-Qangli east of the Caspian Sea. This was the Mongol Empire’s first great expansion west of the Altai Mountains. The precise dating and presence of Jochi on this western campaign has been debated by scholars, but we will follow the likeliest chronology proposed by historian Christopher Atwood. Before they set out on the long journey, the Secret History of the Mongols has Chinggis provide Sübe’etei an iron reinforced cart for the journey. This statement may perhaps be the partial origin for the myth that Sübe’etei was immensely overweight, and that no single horse could carry him, requiring instead specially made carts! No medieval source describes Sübe’etei’s weight in any capacity, but Stephen Pow noted that Rashid al-Din mentions of an elderly Uriyangqat who needed to be carried everywhere in a cart, as well as a grandson of Orda bin Jochi who was immensely obese and also required a cart to travel, for no horse could bear him. Possibly, such descriptions were confused with Sübe’etei, encouraged, Pow suggests, again by the “irony of a man [unable to] ride a horse becoming the nomadic cavalry’s greatest general.”
In two battles over late 1218 and early 1219, Sübe’etei and Jochi defeated the Merkit and their Qangli allies in what is now western Kazakhstan. On the long trek back across the steppe to Mongolia they made an unexpected meeting. The ruler of the vast Khwarezmian Empire, Muhammad II, intercepted the Mongols somewhere in central Kazakhstan. Jochi and Sübe’etei informed Shah Muhammad they had no quarrel with him, that their task had been simply to deal with the Merkits. But Muhammad had come north looking for a fight, and the Mongols would have to do. Outnumbered, the Mongols made a good show of themselves, the right wings of both armies pushing back the opposing left. Both armies fought until darkness forced them apart. Lighting many fires to make it appear they were setting up camp, the Mongols slid away into the night. The Khwarezmians awoke the next morning to see the mysterious enemy had vanished. Horrified by the destruction wrought by this encounter in the field, Muhammad Khwarezm-shah seems to have developed a phobia of facing the Mongols in open battle.
Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Chinggis late in summer 1219, in similar time to the arrival of news of the infamous Otrar Massacre. The Khwarezmian governor of Otrar, Shah Muhammad’s uncle, murdered a trade caravan sent by Chinggis Khan. It is unclear if the massacre took place with or without Muhammad’s support, but when Chinggis’ envoys arrived demanding punishment for the butchery, Muhammad had them executed. As Jebe had by then conquered the Qara-Khitai, the aggressive Khwarezmians were now direct neighbours of the Mongol Empire. Scarcely had Jebe, Jochi and Sübe’etei returned to Mongolia when they set out to invade the Khwarezmian Empire at the end of 1219.
The story of the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm is well told and does not require our attention here. Muhammad, seeking to avoid field battles relied on garrisons within city walls, believing the Mongols, as nomads, lackes sige capabilities. He was sorely mistaken. By spring 1220 the northern frontier of Khwarezm had collapsed. Muhammad fled deeper into his empire, and in pursuit Chinggis Khan unleashed his dogs of war: Jebe Noyan and Sübe’etei Ba’atar, supported by a third tumen under Chinggis’ son-in-law Toquchar.Across Khurasan and northern Iran sped Shah Muhammad. Jebe and Sübe’etei followed. While Muhammad was their primary goal, as they went they took the submission of cities- those which resisted were marked for Toquchar to secure as he followed behind them until his death outside of Nishapur in November 1220. After Nishapur, Jebe and Sübe’etei split up to cover more ground. In Radkan, Sübe’etei was so pleased by the pleasant climate that he apparently avoided any bloodshed, appointed a Mongol governor and moved on. In Quchan, the Mongols committed great slaughter. In Mazandaran, Jebe captured Shah Muhammad’s mother and his harem, sending them back to Chinggis Khan.
Jebe and Sübe’etei reunited at Rayy, tracking Shah Muhammad to Hamadan. Sources differ on what exactly happened at Hamadan. Nasawi describes a battle near the city, ibn al-Athir
has the Shah escape before they arrive and Juvaini wrote that the Mongols caught him on the road, wounding him with arrows before he escaped. No matter what occurred, after Hamadan Jebe and Sübe’etei lost his trail. Muhammad died a few weeks later, succumbing to pneumonia on an island in the Caspian Sea in December 1220.
Spending that winter in Azerbaijan’s Mughan Plain, Jebe and Sübe’etei spent the next two years pinballing across the Caucasus and northwestern Iran. Inflicting a devastating defeat on the Georgian King Giorgi Lasha in February 1221, by the summer they cut back to Persian ‘Iraq where cities they had previously taken were revolting. The Eldeguzid Atabegs of Azerbaijan wisely refused Georgian requests for an alliance and instead submitted to Jebe and Sübe’etei. By mid-1222, messengers had returned from Chinggis Khan, informing them that they could continue the conquest against the Qipchap tribes north of the Caucasus. Striking the enemy from unexpected directions was always a favourite ploy of Chinggis Khan, and the Qipchaq had already shown themselves to be enemies by allying with the Merkit and fighting for the Khwarezm-shah.
While passing north, Jebe and Sübe’etei took the city of Shamakhi, employing a particularly gruesome tactic. To mount the walls, corpses of locals and livestock were piled into a platform. For three days, the Mongols fought from it until it decomposed and collapsed. Such tactics had a use far greater than the individual siege, for they contributed to a dread reputation designed to discourage resistance. Upon exiting the Caucasus, Jebe and Sübe’etei were confronted by a much larger force of Alans and Qipchaqs, perhaps alerted to the Mongol approach by the Shah of Derbend. After a difficult journey through the mountains, Jebe and Sübe’etei were reluctant to fight against such odds. Sending messengers to the Qipchaq, they bribed them into abandoning the Alans. After overcoming the now isolated Alans, the Mongols then fell upon the unsuspecting Qipchaq, killing their most powerful leaders.
Under their leader Kotjen, the Qipchaq survivors fled west to the Rus’ Principalities. There, Kotjen organized an alliance between his son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold of Galicia, and several other leading Rus’ princes. Modern retelling has often presented what follows, the famous Kalka River Battle, as Sübe’etei’s master stroke, perfectly drawing the Rus’ and Qipchap into a long distance feigned retreat. However, as historian Stephen Pow has recently argued, the primary sources suggest a much closer run thing. Often overlooked has been a small engagement in the lead up to the battle, where the Rus’ chronicles described a Mongol general Hamabek being caught and killed by the Rus’s Qipchaq allies. Pow argues that Hamabek is actually how the 13th century Rus’ interpreted Yama Beg, the Turkic form of Jebe’s name and that by which the Qipchaq knew him by. Bold and often leading from the front, Jebe’s recklessness evidently cost him his life, caught hiding in a kurgan and perhaps, embarrassingly, cut in half.
Jebe had been the commanding officer and something of a mentor to Sübe’etei. To suddenly lose him, thousands of kilometres away from any reinforcements and deep in enemy territory, meant Sübe’etei was thrust for the first time into independent command. The famous nine day feigned retreat which followed may have therefore been an actual retreat. The Qipchap and Rus’ hotly pursued them, until Sübe’etei noticed the enemy had strung themselves out. At the Kalka River in May 1223, Sübe’etei turned about and brought the full weight of his army against the Qipchaps, who broke. Fleeing Qipchaps collided with the oncoming Rus’, breaking their formation as Mongol arrows rained upon them. The result was a massacre. Survivors held up on a nearby hill resisted briefly before being convinced to surrender by Sübe’etei. With guard and weapons let down, the Rus’ were slaughtered, their leaders captured and smothered under boards upon which the Mongols feasted and celebrated.
Sübe’etei had won a great victory, but was in no position for further conquest. While often presented as the great, undefeated conqueror, the Kalka Campaign had been only narrowly won. On the return journey, sometime in late 1223 or early 1224, Sübe’etei’s forces passed through the territory of the Volga Bulghars along the Volga and Kama Rivers. Laying ambushes for the Mongols had several places, the Bulghars drew the Mongols into feigned retreats, surrounding and killing many. Some modern writers of popular biographies, such as Frank McLynn and James Chambers, have Sübe’etei regroup his forces and inflict a defeat in turn upon the Bulghars. Such statements have no basis in the historical sources. The most detailed description of the encounter with the Bulghars is in the chronicle of ibn al-Athir, who describes the Mongols suffering heavy losses against the Bulghars, before moving on to campaign farther south along the Volga, attacking the Qipchaq settlement of Saqsin. Some authors may have conflated Saqsin as a location in Bulghar territory, or been misled by outdated works like those of Abraham d’Ohsson and Rene Grousset, who presented the encounter much more favourably for Sübe’etei. The need to dismiss Sübe’etei’s defeat is necessary in order to uphold his popular image as the undefeated champion of Chinggis Khan. The most heavily utilized sources such as Juvaini and the Secret History of the Mongols provide no specific comments on, or outright ignore, the encounter with the Bulghars. In comparison, those who actually provide evidence for the encounter, such as ibn al-Athir and Friar Julian, remain much more difficult to access, allowing the exaggerated version of Sübe’etei’s record to often go about unchallenged.
We can also note another popular rumour relating to this campaign. It is sometimes claimed that Sübe’etei, while venturing into the Crimean peninsula in 1223, formed an alliance with local Ventian merchants there. The Mongols would attack representatives of Venice’s other Italian rival, Genoa, present in Crimea at the port of Sudaq, and provide exclusive trade privileges to the Venetians. In exchange, the Venetians would provide intelligence and maps for the Mongols in Europe, as well as spreading rumours of Mongol ferocity to sow dissent and fear. James Chamber’s The Devil's Horsemen forwards this, among many other false claims on Sübe’etei’s life. As historian Peter Jacskon has noted in his review of Chambers’ book, “Chambers has borrowed the whole idea from Bréhier’s L’église et l’Orient au moyen âge: it is derived ultimately from Cahun’s Introduction à l’histoire de l’Asie (1896), which has all the authority of a historical novel.” The actual Italian presence in Crimea in the early 13th century was minimal. The Mongol sack of Sudaq had nothing to do with Genoa, the major source describing the incursion, ibn al-Athir, signifies the city as a place where the Qipchaq came to sell their wares and slaves, making no mention of any Italians. Historian Denis Sinor describes Suqaq as an outpost of the empire of Trebizond, home to a mixed population of Greeks and Armenians. Meanwhile A.C.S Peacock has argued that there is evidence that Sudaq, also known as Soldaia, at the time of the Mongol arrival to the Crimean peninsula was actually in the hands of the Seljuqs of Rum. Beyond the story of the Venetians bribing the Mongols into sacking Genoan rivals at Sudaq being false, there is simply no medieval evidence supporting any alliance between Venice and the Mongol Empire, and appears to be in part a conflation of later Italian contacts among the Mongols, most notable in the form of Marco Polo. This was however, the acts of individual merchants, rather than the Venetian state.
While this campaign from Shah Muhammad’s death until Sübe’etei’s return to Mongolia is often termed the Great Raid, and described as if it was intended to just gain information on the west, this is a modern extrapolation. The contemporary sources describe it in terms no different than any other stage of the conquests. If a reconnaissance-in-force, then it was a great success; but if intended to seize the western steppe and subdue the Qipchap, it was a poorer showing, marred by the humiliating death of Jebe, heavy losses, a military defeat and no conquered land. The Secret History of the Mongols describes the entire campaign in a laconic line: “Sübe’etei Ba’atur had been put in a difficult situation by these peoples.” It would take well over a decade before the region saw a permanent Mongol presence, and Sübe’etei knew that in order to avenge Jebe and his own defeat, he would need to return in overwhelming force.
Upon his return to Chinggis Khan, Sübe’etei was in an imminent position. Despite his great trial in the west, he faithfully returned with loot for the Khan. Chinggis was preparing for the final campaign against the Tangut, but told Sübe’etei to visit his parents, who he had not seen in a decade. Sübe’etei simply responded, “If the emperor will be busy working and the vassal will be at rest, my heart will be in deep uneasiness.” The Khan’s loyal hound, Sübe’etei led in the conquest of the Tangut in 1226, cutting off the western half of the Tangut Kingdom, skirting along the south to subdue Uyghurs and other local tribes before striking the Tangut’s western border. There, he sacked numerous counties along the Tangut-Jin frontier in Gansu, ensuring no aid would come from that direction. 5,000 captured mares he sent to Chinggis Khan, and it was here that he learned of his master’s death in August 1227.
Chinggis Khan was the single most influential figure on Sübe’etei’s life, and in his memory he would continue to loyally serve his family. Attending the coronation of Chinggis’ son Ogedai as Khan in 1229, Sübe’etei was rewarded with an imperial princess as a wife. Soon after his enthronement, Ogedai resumed the war with the Jin Dynasty. A Mongol army commanded by Doqulqu was shockingly defeated at Dachangyuan in the first weeks of 1230 by the Jin general Pu’a and his “Loyal and Filial Army,” made up of captives and deserters from the Mongols. Ogedai lacked the authority of his father and the confidence of many of the generals, who thought his younger brother Tolui was the better captain. Such military defeats uneased the new Khan and undermined his position. To offset this, in the last days of 1230 Ogedai led an army against the Jin accompanied by Tolui and Sübe’etei.
With the Jin Dynasty’s northern border protected by the Yellow River and its southern by the neutral Song Dynasty, access to Jin territory was through the mountains guarding Henan province’s west, a route blocked by the formidable Tongguan fort. Thre, the garrison wisely refused to be lured into a feigned retreat. Frustrated and not desiring to be stuck in a long and costly siege, Ogedai sent Sübe’etei to find a route through the hills south of the fort. Sübe’etei managed to force a smaller pass, cutting through and ransacking towns in western Henan. Through the hilly terrain his forces became spread out, and the Jin general Chenheshang with 1,000 men of the Loyal and Filial Army cornered and defeated Sübe’etei at Daohuigu 倒回谷. Suffering heavy losses of both men and horses, Sübe’etei was forced to retreat back to a furious Ogedai. So enraged was Ogedai that he removed Sübe’etei from command, and nearly did Sübe’etei disappear from history if Ogedai’s brother, Tolui, did not step in and vouch for him.
A new strategy was decided on, a triple pronged assault on all the Jin frontiers. Ogedai with the main army was to cross the Yellow River along its central stretch, another army would probe the eastern end while Tolui and Sübe’etei were to bypass Tongguan entirely, cutting south through Song territory to come behind Jin lines. Unable to diplomatically gain military access through Song lands, Tolui and Sübe’etei had to rush through potentially hostile territory. The result was unexpectedly successful. In the last weeks of 1231 they penetrated the Song frontiers, feeding men and horses in country untouched by the Mongol-Jin war. After a few weeks of plundering they cut north into the Jin lands. The main Jin generals, Pu’a and Hada, pulled back troops from Tongguan to catch Tolui and Sübe’etei, skirmishing over January 1232 until the Mongols were surrounded on Sanfeng Mountain that February. Pu’a sent a threat boasting that he would rape the Mongols’ women once he was done with them. When a snowstorm blew over the armies, Sübe’etei told Tolui to wait it out, telling him the Jin forces were weak people from cities who could not handle the elements, while the hardy Mongols would endure. After three days, deeming the Jin were suitably weakened, the Mongols charged down the hill and routed them.
As punishment for Pu’a’s boast, the Mongols sodomized the Jin prisoners. The captured general Hada asked for death, with his final wish to lay eyes on Sübe’etei. Perplexed when he heard of this, Sübe’etei came to see the captive Hada, telling him, “You will die momentarily. Why do you want to see me?” To which Hada replied, “Each of us vassals work for our respective masters. You are braver than other generals, and by nature you are a hero. Could that all really just be random chance? I have met you and now I shall die in peace.”
One they linked up with Ogedai’s army, Tolui and Ogedai returned north, leaving Sübe’etei as supreme commander against the Jin. With Jin offensive ability shattered, Sübe’etei invested their capital, Kaifeng. It took a year for the city to fall, in which time the Jin Emperor escaped and many losses were inflicted on the Mongols. When Sübe’etei alerted Ogedai to the city’s final surrender in early 1233, he was prepared to carry out the standard practice of massacre for the city’s prolonged resistance. In Sübe’etei’s mind, it was a well deserved punishment and one he was eager to carry out. But Ogedai was convinced by his Khitan adviser, Yelu Chucai, to spare the inhabitants. What followed is perhaps the most illustrative example of Sübe’etei’s worldview, as far as we can understand it. Sübe’etei was to limit killing to just members of the Jin imperial family, the Wanyan clan 完顏氏, and not harm the inhabitants. Having gone from being prepared to kill them all, Sübe’etei, whatever his personal thoughts on the matter, now carried out the Khan’s will to the greatest detail. Halting depredations of Kaifeng and its population, Sübe’etei allowed them to travel unhindered in search of food. Travel was permitted north of the Yellow River to organize food shipments for the beleaguered population, and Sübe’etei’s biographer in the Yuan shi goes as far as to say the people appreciated him for his efforts.
Sübe’etei led the final push against the Jin, ending their dynasty in early 1234. Back in Mongolia by 1235, Sübe’etei took part in the organization of his most well known endeavour: the Great Western Campaign. Sübe’etei reached his apogee, the senior commander alongside the leading princes of the third generations of Chinggisids under Batu bin Jochi. With a great army, over 1236 they swallowed up the western steppe. The only organized Qipchaq resistance under their leader Bachman was swiftly crushed; the Volga Bulghars who had once ambushed Sübe’etei could do little as the great wave washed over them and destroyed their cities. One of the Mordvin principalities wisely submitted to Sübe’etei; the other foolishly offered a brief resistance. The divided Rus’ principalities were quickly picked off. The Mongols rested men and horses in the summer before resuming attacks in the winter when the frozen rivers were easily traversable. In this way, from 1237 to 1240 the Rus’ cities were burned. Few cities lasted as long as two weeks, though Mongol losses were incurred and part of the army under Guyuk and Mongke returned to Mongolia late in 1239.
By the start of 1241, Sübe’etei and Batu had brought the Mongol Empire to the edge of Europe, splitting their forces to take multiple routes through Poland, Hungary and Transylvania. Sübe’etei wanted to draw the Hungarian royal army onto ground of his choosing, forcing them to cross an exposed bridge over the Sajo River where on the far bank the treeline would hide flanking Mongol forces. King Bela IV foiled this by not crossing the bridge. The new plan was for Batu to force the bridge while Sübe’etei tried to cross downriver and outflank the Hungarians. Either impatient or Sübe’etei was behind schedule, Batu charged the bridge too early, resulting in heavy losses and the Mongols being repulsed. Angered with Sübe’etei’s failure to cross the river, a new plan was used; early on April 11th, the bridge guard was overcome by Mongol catapults. Crossing over the River, near the village of Mohi the Mongols encircled and destroyed the Hungarian royal army.
Despite the success, some Mongol princes were apprehensive of pressing on after the costly fighting. But Sübe’etei shamed them for their cowardice, telling them, “If my lord wishes to retreat, then retreat by yourself. Until I reach Bacha city on the Danube River, I will never return.” The loyal Dog of Chinggis Khan now had to whip his grandchildren into shape. So they pressed onwards, pushing as far as Austria until the Mongols began to withdraw at the end of March 1242. Finding their catapults and siege techniques ineffective against stout stone fortifications, Batu and Sübe’etei desired to step back and restrategize. The withdrawal from Hungary was methodical, campaigning as they went to reduce whoever survived the first pass.
Sübe’etei stayed with Batu up to the Volga River, where in late 1243 or 1244 Batu set up his permanent encampment. Sübe’etei scolded Batu for refusing to attend the quriltai in Mongolia to elect Ogedai’s successor, but before departing, Sübe’etei and Batu came to peace regarding the losses at the battle of Mohi. In time, Batu gave thanks to Sübe’etei, attributing to him the reason for their successes.
Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1246 to meet the new Khan of Khans, Ogedai’s son Guyuk. Now aged 71, Sübe’etei was one of the few remaining individuals left who had personally known Chinggis Khan. The Franciscan Friar John de Plano Carpini, during his journey to Guyuk’s enthronement in 1246, mentions the elderly Sübe’etei, a figure of immense respect among the Mongols “known among them as ‘the knight.” Later that year, the venerable Sübe’etei went on his final campaign, a brief incursion against the Song Dynasty, as described by the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din. Yet, this campaign goes unmentioned in Chinese sources. Possibly, the elderly Sübe’etei was forced by age or illness to step back from the campaign before it could achieve anything. Perhaps Guyuk’s death in early 1248 ended this campaign prematurely. Either way, we know Sübe’etei was back in Mongolia by 1248, for he died there later that year, somewhere along the Tula River, aged 73. Sübe’etei, most famous of all Mongolian generals, was one of the few to die of old age.
Sübe’etei’s sons continued to serve as commanders, the most well known being Uriyangqadai, who accompanied them on the great western campaign, served with Kublai Khan against the Dali Kingdom, occupied Thang-long, modern Hanoi in Vietnam, and fought against the southern Song Dynasty. Uriyangqadai’s son Aju was another of Kublai Khan’s lead generals, who served alongside his father in Yunnan and northern Vietnam. After leading in the siege of the Song fortress-city of Xiangyang, Aju, longside Bayan of the Barrin, was the top Mongol commander in the final campaigns against the Song Dynasty. After the ferocity of Uriyangqadai and Aju, their descendants picked up the pen instead of the bow. Aju’s son Bolianjidai was an administrator well known for his leniency, while his own son Tongtong was a scholar and academic, and from then the lineage of Sübe’etei disappears from us.
Utterly loyal to Chinggis Khan, perhaps no other commander in history could be said to have travelled so many kilometres. Depending on how one counts, Sübe’etei fought in over 50 battles and sieges against almost every major power of the thirteenth century, though despite some claims was not undefeated. Neither was he the sole strategist of the Mongols, and often his most effective campaigns were those where the planning had been in the hands of Chinggis Khan or Tolui. Sübe’etei had no care for administration, only in carrying out the Khan’s will against his enemies. Frustrated by Chinggis’ descendants, Sübe’etei still carried out their mandate with thoroughness and ferocity. To quote Stephen Pow in his email correspondence with this author, Sübe’etei “emerges from the surviving writings as very loyal to emperors, sardonic toward enemies, and ultimately loyal to Chinggis Khan’s yasa or vision in terms of carrying out missions, following orders even if they went against his own preference. A bit of Cardinal Richelieu can perhaps be found in him – his only enemies were those of the state... and the state was the khan”.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our extended look at Sübe’etei’s life; you can find the written version of this script, featuring all the various sources and footnotes, on the academia.edu page of our series writer, Jack Wilson. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.
This episode details the Mongol-Song war from the fall of Xiangyang to the capture of Hangzhou in 1276, and the final stand of the infamous Song Chancellor Jia Sidao, and the failures of the Song court to avert disaster.
With the loss of control over the western half of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan was left to direct his considerable energies against the single strongest holdout to Mongol rule; the Southern Song Dynasty, dominating China south of the Huai River since the early 1100s. An immense economic and military power, the conquest of this dynasty would be no small feat- trying to do so claimed the life of no less that Kublai’s predecessor the Grand Khan Mongke in 1259, as covered in episode 31. The completion of the conquest of China was to be Kublai’s greatest accomplishment; but first Kublai needed to overcome the mighty walls of Xiangyang, the key to Song China. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.
As discussed in episode 31 and 32, at the end of 1259 Kublai was forced to withdraw from his campaign against the Song, returning to his residence in Inner Mongolia where he declared himself Khan in the first months of 1260. The led to war between Kublai and his brother Ariq Boke for the throne, culminating with Ariq’s surrender in 1264 and Kublai securing his title as Khan of Khans. However, the upheaval of this conflict broke Mongol imperial unity, and by the mid 1260s the Mongol Empire was irrevocably broken into independent Khanates. Kublai had little authority over these western Khanates, his effective power only with difficulty reaching to the Altai Mountains and the Tarim Basin.
Unlike the previous Khans whose power centres were in Mongolia proper, Kublai’s very legitimacy was tethered to his Chinese territory. Aside from his own personal interests in Chinese culture, it had been the resources of northern China which had allowed him to overcome his brother Ariq. Abandoning Karakorum in Mongolia, which was exposed and difficult to support, Kublai moved his capitals south: first at Shangdu, in what is now Inner Mongolia on the very border of the steppe and China; and then at the site of the former Jin Dynasty capital of Zhongdu, where modern Beijing sits. This was Dadu, the “great city” in Chinese, or as it was known to Turks, Mongols and Marco Polo, Khanbaliq, the Khan’s city. The indications were clear from the outset; Kublai was not just a Mongol Emperor, but Emperor of China- though the specifics of this political aspect we will explore in a future episode.
As a part of this, Kublai needed to bring the Song Dynasty under his rule. Kublai, much like his brothers, was a firm believer in the eventuality of Mongol world domination. It was not a debate of if, but when. Kublai may have cultivated an image as a more humane conqueror than the likes of Chinggis or Mongke, but he was a conqueror nonetheless. The Song Dynasty had to accept Mongol overlordship or be destroyed. For a man also trying to overcome his ‘barbarian’ origins to show himself as rightful ruler of China, having a rival dynasty claiming to be the heirs of the illustrious Han and Tang Dynasties was a major hurdle to his legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese. The flight of refugees from north China to the Song Dynasty was considerable throughout the thirteenth century, and any revolt within Kublai’s domains could see Song aid, financial, moral or military.
The subjugation of the Song to solidify his rule as both a Mongol Khan and a Chinese Emperor was, in Kublai’s mind, absolutely necessary. The problem was actually doing that. Warfare with the Song broke out in 1234, months after the final defeat of the Jin Dynasty. Thirty years later, in 1264, the frontier had hardly shifted. The Mongols controlled the territory across the Song’s northern and western frontiers, including Tibet and the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan. Even the northern Vietnamese Kingdom of Dai Viet, known to the Chinese as Annam, now paid tribute to the Khan. Advances against Song were difficult; western Sichuan was under a tenuous Mongol hold, unmoved since Mongke’s death in that province. The Mongols had found they could often easily penetrate the Song border, but holding territory was another matter. Unlike northern China, marked by the relatively open North China Plain, the south was a myriad of thick forest, mountains, rivers and canals, the available space covered in rice paddies and other agriculture. This was not the open terrain so suited to Mongol cavalry warfare. The humidity and heat grew ever more oppressive the farther south one travelled, spreading diseases the Mongols and their horses struggled against. It was also home to the largest cities in the world. The Song capital of Linan, modern Hangzhou, held well over one million people- about the population of Mongolia when Chinggis Khan unified the tribes in 1206. The Song fielded a regular army of at least 700,000, supported by a large navy. The many huge cities built along the Yangzi River could be resupplied by naval support, an area in which the Mongols had little experience. The thoroughly planned campaign of Mongke in 1258-9 had wrought much devastation but little gain, and on the Mongol withdrawal at the end of 1259 the Song reoccupied most of the lost territory.
A military conquest of the Song was an immense task, and something Kublai wanted to avoid. Soon after declaring himself Khan in 1260, he sent an emissary with terms. The Song Emperor, Lizong of Song since 1224, could continue to reign as a client of the Khan. They had merely to recognize Kublai as the Son of Heaven and they could continue to rule, with of course yearly tribute and prayers in the name of the Khan. It was, from Kublai’s point of view, a chance for them to enjoy great prosperity and avoid the many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives that would be lost by further fighting. Since it didn’t involve extensive retribution as punishment for thirty years of fighting, Kublai must have thought it a very generous offer.
Kublai’s envoy, one of his top Chinese advisors named Hao Ching, was promptly imprisoned. He would not be released for 15 years. Hao Ching had run afoul of the man now in charge of the southern Song, the infamous Jia Sidao. To some, Sidao was the last intelligent man in Hangzhou, deftly guiding the dynasty against an indomitable enemy, outmaneuvering his foes and a political mastermind let down by a corrupt and rotten dynasty. To others, Sidao is the archetypal “bad minister,” overconfident and inept, downplaying the Mongol threat and hiding the truth from the emperors until it was too late. For some, he is best known as the ‘Cricket Minister,’ who liked to train the insects to fight each other. Sidao’s role in the fall of the Song is complicated, though his 15 year mastery of the Song court saw the loss of the final chance to avoid disaster.
Unlike the majority of the court officials, Jia Sidao was no graduate of the Examinations from which most bureaucrats from the Tang to the Qing were chosen. Born in 1213 to a military family in Zhejiang province, Sidao’s father Jia She was a respected Song military commander in Shandong, and Sidao followed in a variety of military and civil positions in strategic areas along the Yangzi River. Sidao’s good fortune was helped by his talent and the fact his sister was a favourite consort of Emperor Lizong. Lizong and Sidao did not meet until 1254 when Sidao was Associate Administrator of the Bureau of Military Affairs, and immediately struck up a friendship. Promotions quickly followed. The relationship seems to have been genuine; contrary to the Netflix series where Sidao’s rise is due to his sister’s influence, Sidao’s sister had died in 1247, leaving Sidao to ascend on his own charisma and competence.
In Sichuan when Mongke attacked in 1258, Sidao returned east after the Khan’s death. His timing was good; the removal of the Chancellor of the Right, Ding Daquan, left an opening at the top of the Song court, which Lizong replaced with his buddy Jia Sidao at the end of 1259. One of Sidao’s first acts was to play up Kublai’s withdrawal, acting as if Sidao had won a great victory. It was Sidao who imprisoned Kublai’s envoy, Hao Ching in 1260. Acting as sole Chancellor from 1260 onwards, Sidao wished to fervently resist the Mongols, something in which the court was in agreeance. How to do it was another matter. For Sidao, an important step was fiscal reform to strengthen the dynasty. The economic cost of the war was immense. A massive standing army, destruction of valuable regions across the frontier, alongside rampant corruption and hyperinflation of their paper currency put the Song court in a precarious economic position. Sidao ordered land surveys in 1262 to find those avoiding taxation. In 1263, he ramped this up with his Public Fields Measures, wherein officials with tax exempt status had their excess lands confiscated. The government was supposed to purchase the land from the owners, but they were largely paid in the increasingly worthless paper money, or the land was outright seized. Sidao hoped to use this land to grow the foodstuffs necessary for the Song army, but his effort had the side effect of creating a large body of Song officials and elite highly antagonistic to Sidao.
Sidao also set up letter boxes to anonymously report corruption and official offensives. It was a fine sentiment, though it turned out many of these corrupt officials also happened to be the ones Sidao didn’t like. Removing and at times executing those who stood in his way, Sidao appointed his own men to their positions. The polarization of the court was intense, though Sidao could overcome this as he had the strong support of the Emperors. Lizong died suddenly in November 1264, succeeded by his 24 year old nephew Zhao Qi, known by his temple name Duzong of Song. Duzong, if anything, had an even closer relationship with Jia Sidao, who had been his tutor. Duzong was much more interested in extravagant feasts and women than affairs of state -hardly the image of austerity expected when facing the threat of the Mongols, when other lordly men were required to give up lands and sons for the cause. The new Emperor was immensely loyal to Sidao, and in some depictions subservient to him. In 1269 when Sidao played with resigning from the court, Emperor Duzong came on his knees begging and crying for Sidao to return, which Sidao did with the dismissal of more of his court foes.
While this was going on, Sidao was putting substantial investment in defense, especially around the region of Xiangyang, which we will get to shortly, and in improving the walls of the capital. Diplomatic efforts were at their lowest with the Mongols since the outbreak of war in the 1230s, and even though Kublai Khan routinely released captured Song merchants and prisoners in an effort to build goodwill, Jia Sidao did not budge. And since Sidao controlled the court and policy of the Song, the Song court did not budge either.
Aside from retaking some cities and border skirmishing, Jia Sidao did not take any larger offensives against Kublai during his occupation with Ariq in Mongolia. Sidao likely recognized that, with their well-built walls and defensive weapons supported by rivers and ships, the Song’s defense could stick up to the Mongols. Yet on the offense, especially in the more open territory of the north, the Song armies would suffer the same results they had on every other northern expedition in the Dynasty’s 300 year history; a dismal defeat against the cavalry based armies. Perhaps the most notable effort at undermining Kublai’s rule in north China was by encouraging a Chinese warlord in Shandong allied to the Mongols, Li Tan, to revolt. Despite both he and his father, the Red Coat warlord Li Quan, having fought the Song for decades, Li Tan was not feeling like he was favoured under Kublai. Encouraged by Song promises and Kublai’s conflict with Ariq, in February 1262 Li Tan declared for the Song and threw off Mongol rule.
It took about a month for Mongol forces to arrive and defeat Li Tan’s rebels in the field. Li Tan was caught in August 1262 and executed. The Song had provided no direct aid for Li Tan, whose small forces were quickly overcome by Mongolian and Chinese under Shih Tienzi, a Northern Chinese whose family had loyally served the Mongols since the late 1210s. Jia Sidao may have wanted to see if the Chinese of the north would rise up against the Mongols, but the Mongol response was quick enough to violently put a stop to any talk of rebellion. The most significant outcome of the rebellion was upon Kublai himself. Not only had Li Tan, a Chinese warlord considered a loyal subject of the Khan rebelled, but Li Tan’s father-in-law Wang Wentung was found to have been complicit. Wang Wentung was the Chief Administrator of Kublai’s Central Secretariat, and one of the most influential figures in Kublai’s administration. Executed only weeks after Li Tan’s initial revolt, it was a blow to Kublai’s trust of the Chinese in his government. In the aftermath, Kublai decreased the power of many of the Chinese in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, replacing them with Central Asians, Muslims, Turks and Tibetans. Many of the Chinese warlord families who had served the Mongols since Chinggis Khan saw their holdings reduced or forfeited. The family of Shih Tienzi, a man noted for his loyalty to the Mongols over many decades of service, ceased to be feudal lords, though this was partly on Tienzi’s urging in order to not lose the trust of the Khan. Such was the effect of Sidao’s effort to undermine Mongol rule in North China.
Kublai’s first years as Khan were focused on consolidating and establishing his governing apparatus of northern China, and for the first half of the 1260s conflict with the Song was relegated to border skirmishes. Aside from diplomatic efforts to encourage a surrender of the Song Dynasty, Kublai also offered great rewards and lands for defectors in an effort to encourage desertions. Here, Kublai had some successes, perhaps the most notable early on being Liu Zheng, who became one of Kublai’s staunchest supporters and the ardent proponent of a navy. Liu Zheng and other like minded men convinced Kublai that the key was not multi-front attacks, but seizing control of the Yangzi River, the backbone of the Song realm where the Dynasty’s most prominent cities sat. To do this, the Mongols needed to build a navy and take the stronghold of Xiangyang.
If you look at a topographic map of China, three river systems should stand out to you, running in three lines from west to east. The northernmost and the longest is the Yellow River, which curls from the foothills of Tibet down into the Ordos desert, where it forms its great loop before cutting across the north China plain to spill out into the sea by the Shandong peninsula. This was the barrier which the Jin Dynasty moved their capital behind in an effort to protect themselves from Chinggis Khan. South of the Yellow River is the Huai, the shortest of the three rivers here, which marked the border between Jin and Song for a century, and now served as the Mongol-Song border line. By Kublai’s time, the Mongols had failed to hold it, the area south of the Huai a mess of canals and smaller rivers serving agriculture, terrain unsuited to cavalry maneuvers. Our third river on the map is the Yangzi, a wide and fast flowing river which was the natural defense against any northern invader. The most populated cities in the world were clustered along it, including the Song capital of Hangzhou, a short trip south from the River’s eastern end on the ocean. The Yangzi could only be crossed with difficulty, and the Song used it as a highway to reinforce and resupply cities, ferry troops and generally prevent a Mongol conquest. Lacking any beachheads on the Yangzi, the Mongols had nowhere to build up a navy and begin to challenge Song authority there.
That is, except for the Han River. Nestled between the mountains of Sichuan in the west and end of the Huai river to its east, runs the Han River, cutting north to south to intersect with the Yangzi at what is now Wuhan. The Han was the strategically vital access point, one where the Mongols had the potential to build up a river fleet in security before assaulting the Yangzi. Kublai knew this, and so did Jia Sidao, who for this reason spent huge amounts improving the defences of the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng, which today are the super-city of Xiangfang. Sitting on opposite sides of the Han River, the two cities stood at the edge of the Song Dynasty and the Mongol Empire. Xiangyang and Fancheng were both huge, well fortified with wide moats, well provisioned and guarded by large garrisons and a variety of counter siege weapons. With both cities right on the river, they could continually be resupplied and deny the Mongol advance. Liu Zheng and the other Chinese defectors argued that Kublai should forget the favourite Mongol ploy of vast pincer movements. The Song had resources and moral enough to withstand these. Instead, the defectors argued, Kublai needed to throw his total might against Xiangyang and Fancheng.
Preparations began in the second half of the 1260s with the creation of a river fleet. In 1265, the Mongols won a battle at Tiaoyu Shan in Sichuan against the Song, capturing 146 boats. Koreans, Jurchen and Northern Chinese were put to work building more ships; in early 1268, officials in Shaanxi and Sichuan were ordered to construct another 500 vessels. By the last months of 1268, a large force of Mongols, Turks and northern Chinese converged upon Xiangyang and Fancheng. The Song defector Liu Zheng was placed in charge of the Mongol fleet, blocking off the Han River south of the cities to cut them off from the Yangzi. Aju, Subedei’s grandson, was entrusted with the siege of Fancheng; Shih Tienzi, the Chinese warlord long in service to the Khans, held overall command outside the walls of Xiangyang. A frontal assault was dismissed; the wide moats and thick walls were all but impervious to the catapults the Mongols brought with them. Attempting to storm the cities would result in heavy losses. No, they would need to be starved out. To do so, the Mongols erected walls and defensive works around the cities to cut off land access, while Liu Zheng and his fleet prevented Song reinforcements from the river.
In December of 1268 the garrison made an attempt to break out before the cordon could be tightened, but this was repulsed. The Song commander in Xiangyang, Lu Wenhuan, was a steady hand and kept moral up. They probed the Mongol besiegers continuously, trying to find the weak point in the lines. By March 1269, Shih Tienzi requested another 20,000 reinforcements from Kublai for this reason. The large cities and river access made closing them off a great challenge.
While Jia Sidao has often been accused of hiding the details of the siege of Xiangyang from the Song court, this is a baseless accusation. Duzong of Song may have taken little interest in military matters, but it was beyond the skill of Jia Sidao to hide the massive efforts going on outside Xiangyang; everyone along the Yangzi River would have known of it. The court was very much aware of the siege; the annals of the Song Dynasty, the Song shih, describe the court heaping rewards onto the defenders of Xiangyang in order to encourage their resistance. The court was still united in the opinion of resisting Kublai, even if the how was not agreed upon. Sidao sent multiple armies to relieve the defenders, some of them led by his own brother-in-law, Fan Wenhu. In August 1269, the first of these relieving forces sailed up the Han River to Xiangyang, but was defeated by the Mongol fleet and their boats captured.
In March of 1270 another attempt by the garrison of Xiangyang to break out was defeated and another Song relief fleet was repulsed. Though by then the city was largely closed off by the ever expanding Mongol fortifications, the Mongol commanders needed more men: 70,000 men and 5,000 more ships were requested, giving an image to the scale of the task to really surround these cities. Xiangyang was a whirlpool pulling in men from across the Mongol and Song empires, neither side willing to budge. Several times in later 1270 and 1271 Sidao’s brother-in-law Fan Wenhu led fleets up the Han River to assist Xiangyang, and each time the new Mongol navy proved victorious. The skilled Mongol fleet commanders, most notably the Chinese Liu Zheng and Zhang Hongfan, were adept at this river warfare, luring the Song into ambushes and developing a lengthy system along the Han to detect approaching fleets and communicate response. Jia Sidao ordered attacks on Sichuan, along the border and even a naval attack on the Shandong peninsula. His hopes these would divert Mongol resources were dashed, as most of these were inconclusive, won only minor victories or were outright disasters, as with the Shandong attack. All Sidao achieved was the wasting of Song resources while the noose tightened on Xiangyang.
Though the Mongol navy had a good chokehold on Xiangyang and Fancheng, the cities stood defiant. Well stocked and moral still high, any sort of frontal assault would still result in high losses and possibly allow the Song to break the siege. In 1272 one relief force actually pushed through to reach the city, albeit with heavy losses of most of their men and resources.
Kublai needed something to bring the siege to an end, and reached out west to see about acquiring some news tools.
In 1271, Kublai’s nephew Abaqa sat on the throne of the Ilkhanate. Abaqa was Hulegu’s son, and unlike his cousins in the Golden Horde, still recognized Kublai as the nominal head of the empire. When Kublai’s envoys arrived in 1271 asking for something to assist in the siege, Abaqa had just the ticket. Abaqa sent two Muslim siege engineers, Ismail and Ala al-Din, experienced in the newest advancement in projectile weaponry; the counterweight trebuchet. Developed in Europe in the early thirteenth century, it spread to the crusader kingdoms by the end of the 1250s, where Hulegu may have utilized them in his campaign in Syria in 1260. They were pretty nifty; instead of manpower, as required by the Chinese catapults the Mongols used, the trebuchet used its counterweight and gravity to hurl projectiles with greater accuracy, power and distance.
By the last weeks of 1272, Ismail and Ala al-Din arrived outside the walls of Fancheng and began to build the machines. In December, the first shots were launched into the walls of Fancheng. Within days, they were breached, the Mongols in the city and Fancheng was overrun. A massacre was conducted on those found within, ensured to be visible from the walls of Xiangyang. Still, Xiangyang held out. Carefully, the trebuchets were disassembled and transported across the river. In the first weeks of 1273, the weapons were carefully set up at the southeastern corner of Xiangyang. The trebuchets were carefully calibrated and launched a projectile supposedly nearly 100 kilos in weight. The first shot hit a tower along the city walls, a crack like thunder heard across Xiangyang. Panic set in, Xiangyang’s formerly untouchable walls now under real threat.
One of the Mongol commanders, a Uighur named Ariq Qaya, rode to the walls and called for the city’s commander, Lu Wenhuan. He commended Wenhuan on his skilled resistance, but now it was time to submit; do so now, and he would be rewarded by Kublai. Resistance would meet the same end as Fancheng. Lu Wenhuan recognized there would be no relief force from the Song for him now. On the 17th of March, 1273, Lu Wenhuan surrendered Xiangyang to the Mongols. After a 5 year siege, the battle was decisely won in the favour of the Mongols, and the Han River could now become a veritable shipyard for the Mongol advance on the Song.
The fall of Xiangyang sent shockwaves across the Song Empire; Jia Sidao’s authority was greatly undermined, though Duzong of Song’s confidence in him was not shaken. He had now to prepare for a full river and land invasion of the Song heartland. For Lu Wenhuan, the Mongols kept their promise; siding with the Khan, he would now lead the Mongol spear thrust against the Song. Xiangyang was perhaps the decisive victory in the Mongol-Song war, its fall ensuring the Mongols had a route to truly conquer the dynasty. So great was the story that Marco Polo retold it time and time again on his return to Europe; either through his own ‘enhancing’ of the story, or that of his ghost-writer Rustichello, the account was shifted to remove the Muslims’ role from the siege. Instead, Polo, his father and his uncle became the ones who shared the knowledge of the trebuchet with Kublai. Considering that the siege ended in early 1273, and Polo did not arrive in China until 1274 or 5, we can rather safely dismiss that. However, Polo, the Chinese language Yuan Shi compiled around 1370, and Rashid al-Din, writing in Iran in the early 1300s, all include the story of Kublai gaining his siege equipment from westerners. Polo just happened to be the only one indicating it wasn’t a Muslim.
Kublai Khan was now poised to end the forty year long war with the Song Dynasty, completing the conquest of China begun by Chinggis Khan some sixty years prior. Our next episode will look at the fall of the Song Dynasty, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, please support us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.