“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure-dome decree . . .“ and so begins one of the most beautiful poems in the English language about one of the most legendary Mongol Emperors, Kublai Khan (September 23, 1215 - February 18, 1294). As one of the most famous grandsons of the almost mythical Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan is also one of history's greatest conquerors, one who inspires poetry and flights of fancy alike. Yet, while he has been immortalized in poetry and books throughout history, surprisingly little is known of the Great Khan. Peer beyond the veils of history with these 5 interesting facts about the Mongol Emperor, Kublai Khan. Karin Lehnardt explains.

Kublai Khan as he may have appeared in the 1260s. Painting by Anige, dated to 1294.

Kublai Khan as he may have appeared in the 1260s. Painting by Anige, dated to 1294.

Kublai Khan’s Mother was a Nestorian Christian  

Kublai Khan’s mother, Sorghaghtani Beki(or Sorghaghtani) is considered one of the most powerful and competent women in the Mongol Empire. As a Nestorian Christian, she taught her sons to be religiously tolerant and to value the open exchange of ideas among diverse groups of people. Consequently, when Kublai Khan later conquered the Song Dynasty in China, rather than destroying them or ruling with an authoritarian fist, he incorporated them into his own government. He also assisted the small Chinese Nestorian community, and he included many Muslims in his government. Indeed, in large part due to the influence of his mother, Khan distinguished himself as an emperor by ruling with respect and tolerance.


The Italian Adventurer Marco Polo Served Kublai Khan For 17 Years 

Yes, Marco Polo is more than just a game that kids play in the swimming pool. The fun game is actually based on the famous Italian explorer, Marco Polo (1254-1324), who made it to the legendary Shangdu (Xanadu), China, Kublai Khan’s summer capital. When Marco Polo arrived in 1275, the Great Khan was at the height of his power and poised to take over China as emperor. Khan took a great liking toward Marco Polo and appointed him to some of the highest positions in his government. After Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle spent 17 years in China, Khan reluctantly let the Italians return to Europe. Marco Polo’s description of his stay with Khan and his travels piqued the interest of Medieval Europe in the Orient. Importantly, it inspired Christopher Columbus to search for a western sea route to India, which ultimately led to Europe’s discovery of America.

While he wasn’t the first European to travel to China, Marco Polo’s book also helped spread the news of the advanced technologies in China, such as paper money, coal, eyeglasses, and an effective postal system. While many people believe Marco Polo exaggerated his tales of Kublai Khan, on his deathbed, Polo is said to have remarked: “I did not tell half of what I saw.”

Kublai Khan meeting Marco Polo and his family. Painting by the Master of Busico, dated to 1412.

Kublai Khan meeting Marco Polo and his family. Painting by the Master of Busico, dated to 1412.

Samuel Coleridge Wrote a Poem about Kublai Khan During an Opium-Laced Dream

Kublai Khan, a prolific poet himself, would no doubt be pleased that he was immortalized in a poem by one of the most famous American poets of all time, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For his part, Coleridge says he composed Kublai Khanone night in 1797 after an opium-fueled dream about Xanadu, the summer palace of the Khan. Before the dream, Coleridge had been reading Marco Polo’s description of Khan’s palace (“The pleasure-dome”) in Marco Polo’s book, Book of the Marvels of the World. Though the book - and the opium - sparked Coleridge's imagination, unfortunately, the poem was never completed because Coleridge claims that while he was composing the poem, “a person from Porlock” interrupted him. After the visitor left, Coleridge could not remember the rest of the poem and left it unfinished. Since then, the phrase “a person from Porlock” has come to mean unwelcome visitors who disrupt inspired creativity. 


Kublai Khan Was the First Non-Ethnic Chinese Person to Rule over China 

When Khan conquered the Song Dynasty in Southern China in 1279, he not only unified China and established the Yuan Dynasty, he also became China’s first non-ethnic Chinese emperor of the country. As emperor, he created a long period of prosperity, and while his rule was not perfect, he attempted to boost infrastructure, create religious tolerance, introduce the use of paper money, and expand trade with the West. He was also, at the same time, the overlord of other Mongol strongholds, such as the Golden Horde in southern Russia and the Ill-Khanate of Persia (modern-day Iran). For his relatively benevolent reign, he earned himself the nickname, “Wise Khan.”


Kublai Khan Developed Severe Gout Later in Life 

Though Kublai Kahn was a formidable warrior, he would ultimately be defeated by a common disease: gout. Later in life, Khan was haunted by a series of military failures in Japan, Vietnam, and Burma, and, after his favorite wife, Chabi died, Khan sunk into a deep depression and withdrew from direct contact with his advisors. To comfort himself, he turned to food and drink and became severely overweight. He not only drank heavily, he also indulged in a diet that was heavy in animal organs and meat. On February 18, 1294, he died at the age of 79.



Second only to Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan is considered to be one of the greatest Mongol emperors and one of the greatest rulers in history. Even as he ruled over a huge state, he attempted to be shrewd, but he was also thoughtful and a great supporter of trade, science, and the arts. He introduced paper money, ordered the creation of a new alphabet for the Mongol language, and expanded travel and trade. While the Yuan dynasty ultimately unraveled after his death, Khan remains a wonder for his time. 


What do you think of Kublai Khan? Let us know below.


Clements, Jonathan. A Brief History of Khubilai Khan: Lord of Xanadu, Founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Emperor of China. London, UK: Robinson, 2010. 

Gulzhan, Bedelova, et al. Kublai Khan’s Role in the Cultural Development of the Yuan Empire. Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences. March 19, 2014 (V. 122), 24-28. 

Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.





Author Profile:Karin holds a master’s degree in English and rhetoric and has been a university writing tutor and writing instructor for many years. She loves researching, reading, and writing for factretriever.com. An admitted adrenaline junkie, she married her skydiving instructor and loves to go adventuring with him and their 4 kids. 

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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