In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a Stately Pleasure-Dome Decree

Kublai Khan (1215-1294)

On September 23, 1215 AD Kublai Khan, the second son of Tolui and Sorghaghtani Beki, and a grandson of Genghis Khan, was born. Considering the Mongol Empire at that time as a whole, his realm reached from the Pacific to the Black Sea, from Siberia to modern day Afghanistan – one fifth of the world‘s inhabited land area.

When Kublai was in his 30s, his brother, the emperor Mongke, gave him the task of conquering and administering Song-dynasty China. In 1257, unhappy with the progress of the war against the Chinese Sung Dynasty, Möngkë led an expedition into western China but was killed by the Chinese defense in August 1259. In 1260, supported by pro-Chinese groups, Kublai was elected as Möngkë ‘s successor, but his younger brother, Ariq Böge, disputed the election and proclaimed himself khan at Karakorum, Mongolia. In the following years Kublai fought his brother, defeating him in 1264.

Recognizing the superiority of Chinese thought, he gathered around himself Confucian advisers who convinced him of the importance of clemency toward the conquered. In subduing China and establishing himself there, he alienated other Mongol princes; his claim to the title of khan was also disputed. Though he could no longer control the steppe aristocracy effectively, he succeeded in reunifying China, subduing first the north and then the south by 1279. To restore China’s prestige, Kublai engaged in wars on its periphery with Myanmar, Java, Japan, and the nations of eastern Southeast Asia, suffering some disastrous defeats. At home, he set up a four-tiered society, with the Mongols and other Central Asian peoples forming the top two tiers, the inhabitants of northern China ranking next, and those of southern China on the bottom.

He recruited men of all nations for his civil service, but only Mongols were permitted to hold the highest government posts. He promoted economic prosperity by rebuilding the Grand Canal, repairing public granaries, and extending highways. Under Kublai, the Mongols adopted divide-and-rule tactics. The Mongols and central Asians remained separate from Chinese life; in many ways life for the Chinese was left basically unchanged. Kublai was also well known for his acceptance of different religions. The rule of the Mongol minority was assured by dividing the population of China into four social classes: the Mongols; the central Asians; the northern Chinese and Koreans; and the southern Chinese. The first two classes enjoyed extensive privileges; the third class held an intermediate position; and the southern Chinese, the most numerous of all, were practically barred from state offices.

Under Kublai, the opening of direct contact between China and the West was made possible by Mongol control of central Asian trade routes and aided by the presence of efficient postal services. In the early thirteenth century, large numbers of Europeans and central Asians made their way to China. The presence of the Mongol power also enabled many Chinese to travel freely within the Mongol Empire, all the way to Russia, Persia, and Mesopotamia. In 1266 Kublai entrusted the Polo brothers, two Venetian merchants, to carry a request to the pope for one hundred Christian scholars and technicians. The Polos met with Pope Gregory X in 1269 and received his blessing but no scholars. Marco Polo, who accompanied his father on this trip, was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China. It is said that he spent the next seventeen years under Kublai Khan, including official service in the administration and trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien.

Almost 500 years later, Kublai Khan became also famous in the western world by the 1797 poem ‘Kubla Khan‘ by Samuel Tayler Cooleridge, praising the summer garden of Kublai Khan at Xanadu.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan  
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea. (lines 1-5)

Moreover, popular culture referred to Xanadu from the poem in Orson Welles‘ 1941 movie ‘Citizen Kane‘. It was the name of Charles Foster Kane’s estate and the lines were quoted right in the beginning of the movie. Don’t forget to mention also Frankie goes to Hollywood and their song ‘Welcome to the Pleasure Dome‘ also referring to the poem.

At yovisto you can learn more about the times of Kublai Khan and the Mongolian Culture in a video presentation by James C. A. Watt from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art on ‘The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty – A Retrospective‘.


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