On 5th May 1260, Kublai Khan was declared Emperor of the Mongolian Empire. A grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai reigned for 34 years and established the Yuan dynasty that was the first non-Han dynasty to control the whole of China. This is significant, because the Mongols were traditionally a nomadic tribe who ruled by the sword rather than diplomacy.
The area governed by Kublai Khan was enormous, sweeping from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Black Sea in the west, and from Afghanistan in the south to Siberia in the north. Historian John Man, who wrote noted a biography of Kublai, estimates that this area was approximately one fifth of the entire world’s populated area.
Having had little experience of political government, Kublai Khan was only able to rule his vast Empire by employing a range of civil servants and foreign administrators. Arguably the most famous of these was the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, who met and worked for him for a number of years. Although he was not the first European to visit China, Marco Polo was the first to document life in the Empire in any great detail and is the Western origin for many accounts of life in China under Kublai Khan. Although his writings broadly praised Kublai as the model sovereign, he did recognise his weaknesses. Despite being heralded as a Chinese Emperor, it was Kublai’s failure to fully integrate the Mongols into Chinese society that led to the downfall of his dynasty.