One of the most accomplished and intriguing rulers in history and the conqueror who established one of history’s largest empires, Kublai Khan is responsible for the unification of China through a rapid expansion across the Asian continent in what has come to be known as the Mongol Empire…
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As Emperor, Khan initiated a symbiotic relationship between the Chinese and the Mongols, promoting a nation of tolerance and cross-cultural interaction that allowed for a flourishing of diverse arts as well as militaristic might. He exercised both military and political savvy in his actions, which contributed to a successful unification of the two primary peoples of his empire. Kublai’s power, military and political success attests to his military intelligence and daring. He was a strong man who understood strategy and possessed the ability to command respect and obedience from his subjects and people, ruling with a strong hand when necessary and promoting tolerance when possible. It was in this latter instinct that he gained perhaps his most lasting contributions, but it is also that instinct that nevertheless led to his downfall. Although he likely would not have been as successful as he was, had he not possessed political intelligence and agility, his instincts were often towards indulgence of this tendency. He well understood the profound importance of catering to the Chinese majority, and thus took on Chinese advisors and officials as well as made a point of upholding important Chinese traditions, cultural values, and administrative practices. He commanded all his concubines, sons, daughters, and all the royal family members to adopt the Han culture and acquire the Chinese language and customs. Thus, the new China flourished under Kublai’s rule and experienced a heavy restructuring of political configuration. However, although Kublai Khan overcame many difficulties and barriers and ultimately achieved what he endeavored to do, in the end he became a disillusioned and embattled man. Through the struggles to convince his own conservative Mongol community of the need for the tolerance he promoted with the Chinese culture, he was increasingly isolated and frustrated at the end of his life. Both his military and political strength portrays his capacity for leadership and as well as his ability to properly run a nation and allow it to flourish, but his personal failures and ideas eventually left lonely and embittered. In this essay, his contributions and legacy will be reviewed in order to see this in more depth. Family Background and Early Beginnings Genghis Khan, Kublai’s grandfather, united many of the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia and in that way founded the Mongol Empire. As Paul Ratchenevsky writes, the nomadic tribes in their territory were loosely linked tribal groups who would make stronger but still temporary confederations whenever some regional purpose called for it. Such purposes often involve war, but these were traditionally wars of a defensive nature. The tribal bands would come together whenever an outside force posed some impending danger, but their need for mobility as nomadic peoples generally prohibited any stronger or more lasting associations because of the nature of their lifestyles. Genghis Khan, through force of personality and visionary leadership managed to unite these tribes and begin offensive wars that allowed the empire to expand across Asia. Eventually, he initiated many invasions within Eurasia, thereby extending the reach and impact of his territory. In these ways, he was to be emulated by his grandson, with a combination of imaginary and charismatic leadership that led to the establishment of greater territories. Through the influence of Genghis Khan,
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