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In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 
A stately pleasure dome decree…

Immortalized not only in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge but also in the memoirs of Marco Polo, Kublai Khan (1215–94) – known to the Chinese as Yuan Shizu – is the only emperor popularly known by name to the outside world. And little wonder: as well as mastering the subtle statecraft required to govern China as a foreigner, this grandson of Genghis Khan commanded an empire that encompassed the whole of China, Central Asia, southern Russia and Persia – a larger area of land than perhaps anyone in history has ruled over, before or since. And yet this king of kings had been born into a nomadic tribe which had never shown the slightest interest in political life, and which, until shortly before his birth, was almost entirely illiterate.

From the beginning, Kublai Khan had shown an unusual talent for politics and government. He managed to get himself elected Khan of the Mongols in 1260, after the death of his brother, despite considerable opposition from the so-called “steppe aristocracy” who feared his disdain for traditional Mongolian skills. He never learned to read or write Chinese, yet after audaciously establishing himself as Emperor of China, proclaiming the Yuan dynasty in 1271, he soon saw the value of surrounding himself with advisers steeped in Confucianism. This was what enabled him to set up one hundred thousand Mongols in power over perhaps two hundred million Chinese. As well as reunifying China after centuries of division under the Song, Kublai Khan’s contributions include establishing paper money as the standard medium of exchange, and fostering the development of religion, Lamaist Buddhism in particular. Above all, under his rule China experienced a brief – and uncharacteristic – period of cosmopolitanism which saw not only foreigners such as Marco Polo promoted to high positions of responsibility, but also a final flowering of the old Silk Road trade, as well as large numbers of Arab and Persian traders settling in seaports around Quanzhou in southeastern China.

Ironically, however, it was his admiration for the culture, arts, religion and sophisticated bureaucracy of China – as documented so enthusiastically by Marco Polo – that aroused bitter hostility from his own people, the Mongols, who despised what they saw as a betrayal of the ways of Genghis Khan. Kublai Khan was troubled by skirmishing nomads along the Great Wall just as much as his more authentically Chinese predecessors, forcing the abandonment of Xanadu – in Inner Mongolia, near the modern city of Duolun – his legendary summer residence immortalized in Coleridge’s epic poem, The Ballad of Kublai Khan. Today virtually nothing of the site remains.

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