Khubilai Khan, Tibet, and the Yüan Dynasty

Chinggis retired to Mongolia in 1223. He now turned his attention to the Tanguts, who had failed to send their warriors to join the campaign against the Khwarizmians in 1218, as they had promised to do as vassals of the Mongols. The Tanguts had also withdrawn their troops from the campaign against Chin in 1222, and when Chinggis sent envoys to them warning them to mend their ways and keep to the terms of the treaty, they reviled him. Although Chinggis died before the completion of this campaign, the Tangut realm was conquered in 1227. It was fully incorporated into the Mongol Empire and became one of its most important appanages or fiefdoms. One reason it was important is the fact that the Tangut Empire had developed a culture that was as refined as China’s and in some ways similar to it, but nevertheless distinctively non-Chinese (and also non-Jurchen Chin). Although the Mongols had of necessity to rely upon the Chinese for help in ruling Chinese territory under their control, they generally distrusted and disliked the Chinese and were much more inclined toward fellow Central Eurasians, especially in matters connected with religion and state organization.

Chinggis had four sons, three of whom survived him. His son Ögedei (r. 1229–1241) succeeded him as Great Khan. The Mongols continued their attacks on the Jurchen and in 1234 overthrew the Chin Dynasty. At the same time, Ögedei organized a great campaign into the west. Earlier, while campaigning against the Khwârizmshâh, the Mongols had passed through southern Russia. They now set out to completely subdue it as the inheritance of Batu, son of Chinggis’s eldest son Jochi, who had died before his father in 1227. Along with Batu as the nominal commander went Ögedei’s son Güyük, Tolui’s son Möngke, and Sübedei, the Mongols’ most brilliant general. In 1236 the Mongols attacked the Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples of the Volga-Kama region, then the Russians to their northwest, taking Vladimir (east of Moscow) in 1238 and Kiev in 1240, subjugating the region by 1241. Sübedei continued the campaign further west into Poland and eastern Germany, where he defeated the Polish and German forces of Duke Henry of Silesia at Liegnitz and, turning south, the Hungarians and Austrians, before returning to Hungary to spend the winter. But Great Khan Ögedei died in December of that year, and the Mongols withdrew as soon as they learned about it.

Batu remained in the West with a large force. He made his capital at Saray on the lower Volga River and controlled all of western Central Eurasia from the Black Sea and northern Caucasus up to Muscovy and east through the Volga-Kama region. Many of his forces settled at Kazan, not far from the old city of Bulghâr, where they soon shifted to the language of the majority ethnic group in the army, Kipchak Turkic, which came to be known as Tatar. The realm of what was later to be called the Golden Horde soon became de facto independent, but Batu remained committed to his grandfather’s vision of a Mongol world empire and participated fully in the governance of the empire and in imperial military campaigns.

After the short reign of Ögedei’s son Güyük (r. 1246–1248), a power struggle ended with the succession of Tolui’s son Möngke (r. 1251–1259), who became the next Great Khan. He organized a massive campaign to establish firm Mongol control over the lands of Central Asia and the Near East and generally to push the limits of the Mongol Empire toward the sunset. Möngke’s brother Hülegü, commanding the imperial forces, set out in 1253. In 1256 they attacked and destroyed the Assassins, the Ismâ’îlî order that had long terrorized the Islamic world from their base in the Elburz Mountains of northern Iran. By 1257 the Mongols had taken Alamut, the Assassins’ main fortress, and their leader, who was executed by order of Möngke himself. The Mongols then proceeded into Iraq and in 1258 attacked Baghdad. The caliph refused to surrender, despite the reasonable Mongol offer and explanation of what would happen if he resisted. The city was put under siege and eventually succumbed. An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the sack of the city, and the caliph too was put to death.

The Mongols proceeded westward into Mamluk Syria and were making good progress until news reached them about Möngke’s death and Hülegü withdrew with most of the imperial forces. The Mamluks attacked the remaining Mongols and crushed them in the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalût, in Galilee, on September 6, 1260. This was the first setback for the Mongols in Southwestern Asia.

Nevertheless, Hülegü soon returned, and the Mongols succeeded in establishing their power over most of the Near East. They eventually made their home encampment in northwestern Iran near Tabriz, where there were good pasturelands. Hülegü founded the Il-Khanate, which ruled over Iraq, Iran, and some of the neighboring territories; warred periodically with the northerly Golden Horde and with the Central Asian Chaghatai Horde, the successors of Chinggis’s son Chaghatai; and extended his influence as far as Tibet.

Tolui’s inheritance included the former Tangut realm. Under Ögedei, his second son Köden (Godan, d. 1253/1260), who was assigned Tangut as his appanage, was responsible for the nearly bloodless subjugation of Tibet. In 1240 Köden sent a small force into Tibet under Dorda Darkhan. The Tibetan monasteries evidently resisted it; two were attacked and damaged, and some monks are said to have been killed. The Mongols eventually withdrew, having been told to contact the leading cleric in Tibet, Saskya Panḍita (d. 1251). Köden sent a letter to him in 1244 summoning him to the Mongol camp. In 1246 the elderly monk arrived in Liang-chou, having sent ahead his two nephews, ‘Phagspa (Blogros Rgyal-mtshan, 1235–1280)25 and Phyag-na-rdorje (d. 1267). In 1247 the Tibetans surrendered to the Mongols. Saskya Pandita was appointed viceroy of Tibet under the Mongols and Phyag-na-rdorje was married to Köden’s daughter to seal the treaty. After the death of Saskya Panḍita in 1251, the Mongols sent another expedition, under a certain Khoridai, who restored their control in Central Tibet in 1252–1253.26 Köden, who because of his chronic illness—for which he had been treated by Saskya Panḍita—had been passed over for the throne in favor of his elder brother Güyük, seems to have been dead by this time.

Khubilai (b. September 23, 1215, r. 1260/1272-February 18, 1284) was one of the sons of Tolui. He married Chabi, a fervent Buddhist. When their first son was born in 1240, they gave him the Tibetan Buddhist name Dorji (Tibetan rdorje ‘vajra; thunderbolt’). Already by 1242 Khubilai had begun assembling Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist teachers at his appanage in Hsing-chou, in Hopei. With the accession of his brother Möngke as Great Khan in 1251, Khubilai was in direct line to succeed to the throne. His brother appointed him to several other appanages in North China, greatly strengthening Khubilai’s power and making him effectively the Mongol viceroy over this rich, populous region. In 1253 Khubilai called for ‘Phagspa and his brother to be sent to him. They arrived and were well received by the Mongol prince. He left shortly afterward in command of an imperial campaign to conquer the Kingdom of Ta-li (in what is now Yunnan Province) as a preliminary flanking movement before invading the large and aggressive Sung Dynasty, which had been repeatedly attacking Mongol territory to its north.

After a year’s preparation, Khubilai’s forces, with Sübedei’s son Uriyangkhadai as general in chief, set out late in 1253. Before attacking the Ta-li forces, he sent envoys to them with an ultimatum demanding their surrender and assuring their safety if they did. When they responded by executing the envoys, the Mongols attacked and defeated them, forcing them to retreat to their capital. The Mongols notified the people of the city that they would be spared if they surrendered. They did so, and Khubilai then took the city, establishing Mongol power over Ta-li with a minimum of bloodshed. General Uriyangkhadai continued the Mongol campaign in the southwest with considerable success, eventually marching southeast to Annam (the area of modern northern Vietnam) by 1257, where however the Mongols suffered from the heat and insects. When the ruler offered to send tribute to the Mongols, Uriyangkhadai withdrew.

In 1256 Khubilai, who had returned to his appanage after the victory in Ta-li, began work on a summer capital, K’ai-p’ing (renamed Shang-tu ‘Xanadu’ in 1263). It was about ten days’ journey north of Chung-tu (Peking) in an area with both agricultural and pasture lands. In 1258, after Khubilai answered accusations made against him by conspirators at court, his brother put him in command of one of the four wings of the army in his new campaign against the Sung. In 1258 the invasion was launched, with Möngke himself leading the campaign in Szechuan, while Khubilai attacked southward from his appanage in the east.

When Möngke died of fever outside Chungking (Chongqing) in Szechuan (August 11, 1259), the campaign against the Sung came to a halt. Arik Böke, his youngest brother, who had been left in Karakorum to guard the homelands, began assembling his forces to contest the succession. Hülegü halted his campaign in Syria and hurried home to support Khubilai at the great khuriltai, but Arik Böke too had substantial support and sent forces to attack Khubilai’s appanage. When Khubilai finally reached his capital at K’ai-p’ing, a khuriltai was assembled in May 1260, and Khubilai was elected Great Khan. The decision was vehemently opposed by Arik Böke, who had powerful adherents—including Berke, the successor of Batu, and Alghu, ruler of the Chaghatai Khanate in Central Asia. They proclaimed him Great Khan in June 1260, and civil war broke out. Khubilai outmaneuvered Arik Böke at every turn, despite the latter’s many supporters. Alghu broke with him in 1262, and in the following year Arik Böke surrendered to Khubilai. The civil war was over. In 1266 Khubilai began building a new winter capital, Ta-tu ‘great capital’, slightly northeast of the old city of Chung-tu (the site of modern Peking), moving the power base of the Great Khanate further into China and solidifying his control there.

After spending the next few years settling affairs within the Great Khanate, Khubilai returned to the Sung problem. First he sent an embassy to the Sung (May 1260) to propose a peaceful solution. But the chancellor of Sung detained the envoys and sent his forces to attack the Mongols (August 1260). After Khubilai retaliated in early 1261, the Sung invaded three times in 1262. The Chinese also refused to release Khubilai’s envoys. Finally, the Mongols attacked the Sung in force, defeating them soundly in Szechuan early in 1265 and following with a full-scale invasion in 1268. The war with the Sung was not an easy matter. Mongol victory came only in 1276, when the Sung empress dowager surrendered and handed over the imperial seal and regalia. In 1279 the last resistance ended.

The new Chinese-style Yüan Dynasty officially began on Chinese New Year’s Day, January 18, 1272. Despite the orthodox procedures followed in the establishment of the dynasty, and in much of the structure of the administration, the new government was very clearly Mongol. Unlike their Jurchen predecessors in North China, the Mongols generally did not trust the Chinese. Khubilai himself did have many important Chinese advisers, but his successors put Mongols, Central Asian Muslims, Tibetans, Tanguts, or other non-Chinese in all key administrative positions. The Great Khanate continued to exist, and included Mongolia and Tibet as major constituent parts that were recognized as not being Chinese. While in many respects Yüan China was integrated into the Mongol Empire, the Great Khanate continued to be the larger unit. The two were not equated with each other.

One of the most important events of Mongol history took place at this time. The early Mongols had already come under the influence of various world religions, and some of the nation’s constituent peoples had converted, at least theoretically, to one of them—for example, the Naiman and Kereit had converted, at least nominally, to Nestorian Christianity, and the Mongols of Khubilai’s generation were already becoming Buddhists under Uighur and, especially, Tibetan tutelage. But, on the whole, the Mongols had remained pagan and for long were suspicious of all organized religions. The early European travelers’ accounts note how much the Mongols relied on their soothsayers in all things. But by the time of Marco Polo, the Mongols of the Great Khanate had unofficially, but enthusiastically, adopted Buddhism, mostly of the Tibetan variety. With its idea of the dharmarâja or ‘religious king’, the religion provided legitimation for Khubilai’s rule and also gave the Mongols access to a great body of learning and wisdom that was not Chinese.

When Khubilai decided he wanted to have a unified “Mongol” script for all the languages of the Mongol Empire, he appointed to the commission the Tibetan Buddhist leader ‘Phagspa, who was his National Preceptor and the viceroy of Tibet. The new script, based on the Tibetan alphabet (but written vertically like Chinese script and Uighur-Mongol script), was promulgated as the official writing system in 1269. Known today as ‘Phagspa Script, it is in effect the world’s first multilingual transcription system. Examples of it are preserved in several languages from around the Mongol Empire, including Chinese, and it is thought that the script influenced the later creation of the Korean Han’gul writing system. ‘Phagspa was also in charge of other intellectual projects, including the compilation of a great comparative catalogue of the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons, the respective compendia of translations of sacred texts from Sanskrit.

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