Although he is generally associated with trade, prosperity and the visit of Marco Polo, Kublai Khan was indeed a warrior. His moth¬ er, Sorghagtani Beki, groomed all four of her sons as prospective heirs to the Mongol Empire. Her husband Tolui had been passed over in the succession, and she was deter¬ mined the same thing would not happen to her sons. A fervent Nestorian Christian,
Beki won influence and the respect of much of the Mongol elite. She died in 1252, having had the satisfaction of seeing Mangu, Kublai’s older brother, take the throne in 1251.Kublai began his military career during the 1250s. He led an epic expedition that took control of the kingdom of Ta-li (present-day Yunnan province in southwest China) in 1252-1254.
Kublai led his 100,000 troops through 1,000 miles of ice-capped mountains on the eastern border of present-day Tibet. Only 20,000 of the men survived the journey. Kublai led another army south against the Sung Empire, while his veterans in Yunnan traveled by a dif¬ ferent route to join him. Thus, by the time Mangu Khan died in 1259, Kublai had become a seasoned military leader. He emerged as the new khagan, or universal ruler in June of 1260.
Kublai Khan turned southward and con¬ centrated his force on the Sung Empire of southern China. While the northern Chin and Hsi Hsia Empires had been peopled by mixed ethnic backgrounds, the Sung Empire was fully and truly Chinese. Kublai showed the care and thorough preparation for which he had become known as he slowly conquered China.
He captured the Sung capital of Hangchow (1276), and the last Sung resistance ended in 1279. Kublai thereby reunified China for the first time since the T’ang Dynasty had fallen in the 10th cen¬ tury. He also ruled over 80 percent of the entire Eurasian land- mass, perhaps the largest empire in all of human history.
Kublai led his troops even further south. He invaded Annam (present-day northern Vietnam) and defeated the Pagon king of Burma. In these southern invasions, the Mongols faced ele¬ phants in battle for the first time. After win¬ ning their victories, they brought many ele¬ phants north to China, where they became a fixture in Kublai’s court. Kublai sent an inva¬ sion fleet to the island of Java in 1293, but the mission was defeated when his Javanese allies turned against the Mongols.
He died in 1294, having indeed brought China to unity. His body was brought to the sacred mountain in Mongolia called Burdan- kaldun, where he was laid to rest next to his grandfather, Genghis Khan (see no. 30).