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This week in history: Kublai Khan

May 15, 2020

This week in 1260, Kublai Khan became ruler of the Mongol Empire. Grandson to the great Genghis Khan, the empire’s founder, Kublai was the fifth Khagan, or Great Khan. He succeeded to the throne after the death of his eldest brother, Mongke. The latter died in 1259 without naming a successor, and almost immediately Kublai’s younger brother, Ariq Boke, held a Mongol great council and had himself named Khagan. But Kublai then held his own great council, which declared him Khagan, and went to war against Ariq Boke. The Mongol civil war that lasted four years, and of course Kublai won.

The civil war, however, divided and weakened the Mongol Empire, and soon it broke into several smaller domains. Kublai ruled as great Kahn, but his true realm was China and Mongolia, and he wielded less power in the rest of the empire than had any of the earlier Great Khans.

Kublai’s legacy includes many conquests but also some prominent losses. He tried to conquer Vietnam three times and Japan twice, without success.

The name Kublai Khan comes down to us from poetry as well as history. In 1797, British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge woke from an opium-laced dream with a poem fully formed in his mind. It told of Kublai Khan and his glamorous palace at Shangdu, known in Europe as “Xanadu.” Coleridge never completed the poem, since a visitor interrupted his work — “a person from Porlock,” as he put it — and he forgot the rest of his dream-inspired lines. But the three stanzas he did write are considered among the best of European literature.

Kubla Khan
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

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