Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan

In the third century B.C.E., Emperor Shih Hwang-ti joined together a series of defensive walls to create the Great Wall of China. The wall reduced the raids by the nomadic Mongols, fierce warriors who lived on the steppe northwest of the kingdom. For centuries, Mongol tribes lived by raising horses and sheep. They lived in movable tents called yurts.

In the 13th century, a charismatic leader united the Mongol tribes into a military state. This leader, Genghis Khan, became one of history’s greatest conquerors. As a young boy named Temujin, his father was poisoned, and Mongol chiefs abandoned his family to starve. Temujin wanted revenge for his father’s death, so he led a small group of warriors. He defeated his enemies using his well-trained horsemen and brilliant tactical strategy. His army grew so large that in 1206 the Mongols proclaimed Temujin as Genghis Khan, or “Universal Ruler,” of the Mongols.

The following year, Genghis Khan led the Mongols on the first of many destructive invasions of foreign lands. His horsemen would approach a village, offering rulers two options: peaceful surrender, or invasion and destruction.

Genghis Khan was illiterate, but his success as a ruler resulted from his superior military organization, strategy, and mobility.

At its peak, the Mongol Empire was the largest ever land empire, stretching from Korea to Hungary and as far south as Vietnam. As the Mongols added new territory, they developed trade routes that connected the eastern and the western worlds for the first time in a millennium. The Mongols provided safe travel to merchants while collecting taxes.

The Mongols developed a system of communication. Emissaries carrying official badges could quickly carry messages over long distances, getting fresh, rested horses at stations along the way.

Genghis Kahn’s grandson, Kublai Khan, conquered China and moved his capital to the city now known as Beijing in 1271. Kublai Khan probably did not know how to speak Chinese, but he took the Chinese name Yuan for his dynasty. The Yuan was the only foreign dynasty ever to rule all of China. Because the Mongol emperor did not trust local officials, he hired foreigners. A merchant from Venice named Marco Polo wrote that he worked for Kublai Khan as a governor for seventeen years.

The Chinese people came to resent the Mongols as an elite, privileged class exempt from taxation. By 1368, several natural disasters and a peasant rebellion caused the Mandate of Heaven to shift to a Buddhist peasant named Hung-wu. Hung-wu expelled the Mongols, ending almost a century of Mongol rule.

Source: Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan
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