Episode 29: Conquest of Song China
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
Harl regards Kublai Khan as the greatest of all the Mongol conquerors. His grandfather Genghis Khan was content to control large portions of the Chinese-dominated Silk Road. His uncle Ogedei settled with occupying the rump Jin Dynasty and securing a treaty relationship with the more powerful southern Song Dynasty.
Kublai Khan began his assault on China by moving his forces into Tibet (a vassal state that paid to the Mongols), on the Song Empire’s western border. He proceeded with an assault on Dali (currently Hunan), an independent kingdom inhabited by non-Chinese Bai people. Due to China’s large number of settled cities, the war on China proper was mainly one of sieges and logistics. Once he captured cities, Kublai Khan recruited large number of Chinese mercenaries to garrison them.
In 1259 the great khan Mongke died of cholera while Kublai Khan was besieging the fortresses on the Yangtze River. Mongke’s younger brother Verke had himself declared great khan while most of the Mongolian nobility was fighting in China. In 1260 during a brief civil war, Kublai Khan marched to Karakorum and deposed Verke (becoming great khan himself).
Under Kublai Khan, the Golden Horde Mongols on the western steppes were ruled by descendants of his cousin Batu. Kublai Khan’s nephew ruled the Ilkhanate on the central steppes, consisting of the modern day states of Iran, Iraq and. Under Kublai Khan, the Chagatai Khanate broke away from the Mongol Empire and was ruled independently by descendants of Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai. By the 14th century, all three khanates had adopted the Turkish language and the Muslim religion.
In 1268 Kublai Khan reopened the war against the Song Dynasty. The Ilkhan sent Muslim engineers to assist Chinese engineers in building trebuchets, incendiaries and other siege technologies. The Mongols also deployed great paddled river flotillas to isolate Yangtze fortresses from the river. Eventually numerous Chinese generals defected to fight for Mongols.
Unlike western Mongol victories, Kublai Khan’s victories in China weren’t accompanied by massacres and atrocities. Instead he sought to win over the civilian population.
When the dowager Song empress surrendered on behalf of the child emperor in 1271, Kublai Khan became the new emperor, founding the Yuan Dynasty. For the most part, the bureaucratic Mandarin class generally supported the new regime.
This film can be rented free on Kanopy with a library card.