Kublai Khan, the preeminent leader of the Mongol dominions of his time, made his bid for power in 1260, militarily fending off his ambitious brother Arigböge (or Ariq Böke) by 1264 to assert his place as the Great Khan of the Mongolian realms. Despite the title, the different Mongol khanates were largely decentralized from Kublai, and many of his kinsmen, such as his nephew Kaidu Khan (r. 1269-1301), actively and aggressively challenged Kublai’s authority. Much of the disagreement between the Great Khan and his dissident relatives was Kublai’s China-centric goals. He wanted to defeat the Chinese Song Dynasty and also expand Mongolian influence into the regions surrounding China, such as Korea, Southeast Asia and Japan. The famous Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, arrived at the court of Kublai Khan in 1275, at a time when the Great Khan was in the process of dismantling the Song Dynasty. A year later, in 1276, the Mongols captured the Chinese emperor, and the Song Dynasty would formally be overthrown in 1279. Marco Polo remained in Kublai Khan’s court for many years, doing diplomatic and administrative tasks for the Great Khan until he decided to leave in 1291. The merchant reached Venice in 1295 and his account of his travels in Asia was penned down by 1298.
Within Marco’s story—known by various names such as Il Millione and The Travels—the Venetian merchant tells, among many other subjects, of Kublai Khan’s incredibly large family. Maroc Polo, in his assessment of the Great Khan’s children, divided Kublai’s family into three categories: sons of the khan’s main consorts, sons of the khan’s lesser concubines, and finally the daughters. As a medieval man accustomed to European politics, Marco Polo naturally ignored Kublai Khan’s daughters, and did not count how many of them existed. In regards to the sons, however, the Venetian merchant claimed to know the numbers. According to Marco Polo’s tabulations, “the Great Khan has twenty-two sons by his four wives….You should also know that the Great Khan has a further twenty-five sons by his concubines” (Marco Polo, The Travels, Book III, Nigel Cliff translation page 98). Combined, that would mean that Kublai Khan allegedly had 47 sons. As Marco Polo left in 1291, before the Great Khan’s death, even more children might have been born before Kublai died in 1294. It would not be a son, but a grandson—Temür (r. 1295-1307)—who would succeed Kublai as Great Khan and emperor of China.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Kublai Khan on a hunting expedition, by Liu Guandao (1258–1336), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Travels by Marco Polo and translated by Nigel Cliff. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.