Kublai Khan’s Naval Power

Reconstructions of a 13th century Chinese ocean-going ships of the kind described by Marco Polo, remains of which have been found at Quanzou. Such vessels had thirteen watertight compartments, a crew of over one hundred and fifty men and a stern rudder which, though also known in the Muslim world, was as yet rare in Europe. These were the ships that took Kublai Khan’s invading armies to Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Conquest of Southern China

In 1264 Kublai Khan turned once again to the conquest of the Sung in what was to prove the greatest military achievement of his career. By his side were two skilled generals who already had considerable experience of fighting against the southern Chinese. These were the Mongol Bayan, son of Kublai’s old comrade Uriyangkhadai, and the Uighur Arigh Khaya. Once more Kublai ensured a carefully planned and meticulous campaign. It would be his own private war and he wanted to take southern China intact, not as a wasteland. Chinese aristocrats who offered loyalty to the new regime were left in possession of their lands. Cities were not sacked and destruction of agriculture was kept to a minimum. Nevertheless the Sung were once again to be the Mongols’ most formidable foes.

Mongol troops still faced particular problems in southern China. There remained the perennial problems of parasites, disease and unsuitable terrain for large-scale cavalry warfare. Even the Mongols’ hardy steppe ponies suffered from the hot, humid climate and there was virtually no open grazing to feed them. Mongol losses rose alarmingly and gaps in the ranks had to be filled with native Chinese levies, most of whom were infantry. At first these troops were despised by their Mongol overlords but they rapidly proved themselves to be not only hardy fighters but better able to cope with the debilitating climate. Progress was, however, painfully slow. The Sung capital of Hangchow fell only in 1276 and it took a further three years for Sung resistance finally to end. Attitudes were also different from what they had been in Genghis Khan’s day. Prisoners were usually treated moderately well and Kublai did all that he could to encourage defections from the Sung side. This was particularly successful where the powerful Sung navy was concerned, a vital factor in a war where ships provided communication and transport not only around the coast but up the broad rivers of southern China.

Meanwhile Bayan proved himself a master of siege warfare, a branch of the military art in which the nomad Mongols had now become world leaders. The most epic siege was that of Hsiang-yang, which lasted no less than five years and was to be the turning point in Kublai’s conquest of southern China. Hsiang-yang was held by one of the most tenacious of Sung commanders, Lü Wen-huan. Because the city stood on the banks of the wide Han river, the Mongols had to use their new-found nautical skills in an attempt to stop Sung supplies and reinforcements from reaching the garrison. Even if this could be achieved, and even if all overland relief efforts could be defeated, Hsiang-yang would eventually have to be stormed. To keep casualties to a minimum the Mongols therefore needed the very best available siege artillery. Experts were recruited throughout the Mongol Empire, from northern China, Korea and even from far distant Muslim Iraq. Meanwhile many battles were fought in the surrounding countryside and on the Han river, but still the city did not fall, for the Sung realized that the fate of their kingdom hung upon that of Hsiang-yang. The Mongol noose steadily tightened but a full-scale assault remained a very hazardous option. Newer, bigger siege machines were erected and an almost constant bombardment was maintained until, late in March 1273, Lü Wen-huan at last surrendered.

The loss of Hsiang-yang was a devastating blow to Sung morale. City after city now fell, until at last Kublai Khan’s armies closed around the Sung capital of Hangchow itself. This, the so-called Venice of the East, had a huge population, an enormous garrison, mighty walls, stone towers in nearly every street and a network of urban canals said to be spanned by 12000 bridges. It was a besiegers’ nightmare! By this time, January 1276, the old Sung Emperor had died, a child was on the throne and the land was ruled by the widowed Empress Dowager. General Bayan had a long list of victories to his credit, yet even he must have felt relieved when the Empress Dowager agreed to hand over the Sung Imperial Seal in an unmistakable symbol of surrender – Hangchow would not have to be besieged after all. Instead of a Mongol sack and massacre, Kublai’s officers made a peaceful yet triumphant entry into the ancient Sung capital. There they proceeded to collect all official seals, the finest works of art, books and maps to be sent to the Great Khan’s court.

Despite the Empress Dowager’s surrender, the Chinese of the deep south kept up the struggle. The last flicker of resistance was by a Sung fleet, aboard which was a nine-year old boy, Ti-ping, the last Sung Emperor. Even after the Mongols had captured every port along the coast this heroic fleet fought on from bases in coastal islands. But now the Mongols also had a navy of their own and on 19th March 1279 the enemy was trapped near Yai-shan. Only nine Sung ships broke out. That of the little Emperor was not among them. They say that the Sung admiral took the child in his arms and, shouting out ‘An Emperor of the Sung chooses death rather than imprisonment!’ leapt into the sea, drowning both himself and the boy ruler. With this, the final defeat of the Sung, Kublai Khan reunited China for the first time since the fall of the T’ang dynasty in the tenth century. Despite a turbulent history, mainland China has never since lost this unity. To the Mongols, Kublai had achieved a long-cherished dream, for

Kublai Khan inherited a powerful fleet from the defeated Sung of southern China. This he used to conquer the coastal islands, reduce piracy and attempt to force his suzereinty on distant lands which had once paid tribute to China. Chinese naval power and overseas trade had, in fact, grown enormously under the Sung, while there had been dramatic advances in naval technology. Some resulted from the influence of Arab ships arriving from Iraq, southern Arabia and Egypt, while others were purely Chinese developments that in turn influenced the naval technology of the Islamic world. Flourishing shipyards could now be found in Hangchow, Canton, Ming-Chou and Wen-chou. The Sung even had special government departments dealing with river patrols and coastal defence. All this was now available to Kublai Khan who had already established a rudimentary navy in northern China, as well as being able to draw upon Korean maritime resources.

Mongol nomads took to the sea with remarkable alacrity, just as the desert-dwelling Arabs had done during their period of empire building six centuries earlier. In fact a number of Arabs played a leading role in the development of Kublai Khan’s navy. One came from a long-established merchant family resident in Kuang-Chou. He is known only by the Chinese version of his name, P’u Shou-keng. This merchant first rose to become the Sung’s Superintendent of Maritime Trade and was later promoted as Kublai’s military commander of the vital coastal provinces of Fukien and Kwantung. Despite their humiliating defeats at the hands of the Japanese – which were largely a result of the weather being on Japan’s side – the Great Khan’s navy achieved some remarkable results.

The effectiveness of Kublai Khan’s military organization is shown, not in his over-ambitious forays across the sea or into the steaming jungles of south-east Asia, but in triumphant campaigns like that against the Sung of southern China. This had demanded far greater planning and logistical skill than any earlier Mongol conquest. Many of these massive and far-reaching campaigns required not only Mongol cavalry but the close coordination of such horsemen with Chinese infantry, not to mention the more-than-supporting role played by Kublai Khan’s newly formed Mongol navy. Contemporaries certainly recognized the Great Khan’s military capabilities. Marco Polo said he was ‘brave and daring in action, but in point of judgement and military skill he was considered to be the most able and successful commander that ever led the Tartars [Mongols] to battle.’

Chinese ships of this period also deserve mention, if only because archaeology has again confirmed Marco Polo’s description of both the design and huge size of the Khan’s ships. This Venetian traveller was, of course, an expert on shipping, and he stated that the largest vessels needed a crew of up to three hundred men. They were much larger than anything seen in Europe and also had a sophisticated internal structure of watertight compartments, making them much harder to sink. A ship of this kind, dating from around 1277, was found near Quanzhou, the medieval Zaitun, in 1973 . She was an ocean-going vessel with a deep keel and had originally been around one hundred and twelve feet long. Judging from the remains of her cargo the ship was returning from the East Indies when she was wrecked. Though only four weapons were found aboard this peaceful trading craft, comparable vessels sailed the pirate-infested eastern oceans as far as Sri Lanka, Arabia and perhaps east Africa. Others carried Kublai Khan’s troops to the shores of Japan, Indo-China, Java and, according to a probably legendary source, even the Philippines.

Kublai’s invasion of the distant island of Java was even more dramatic, if somewhat pointless. Ostensibly it was in retaliation for the mutilation of another of the Great Khan’s envoys, but in reality it probably had more to do with control of the rich spice trade of the Molucca island, which both states coveted. In 1293 , using the experience painfully gained against Japan and in Indochina, Kublai Khan sent a force of 20000 men under Mongol, Chinese and Uighur generals to the eastern end of Java. Armed with a year’s supply of grain and huge amounts of silver to purchase local supplies, they joined a Javanese rebel force to defeat the local king. But the Mongols’ Javanese ally then turned against them and forced them to abandon the island. All that they gained from this spectacular expedition were a few shiploads of spices, perfumes, incense, ivory, rhinoceros horns, maps and a register of the local population – hardly enough even to cover campaign expenses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.