A Battle of Two Khans: Genghis Khan vs Kublai Khan

Close of phic of Genghis Khan main

Temujin (born 1162) arose from humble origins to be the great leader (Genghis Khan) of the Mongolian Empire. A lowly Central Asian herdsman used a mix of brutality and strategic brilliance to become the leader of an empire from the Middle East to China. His policy: brutality in war, civility in peace, religious tolerance, and openness to adapting the ways of the people he conquered. His grandson, Kublai Khan, also had to fight to control the empire. Kublai focused on being a Chinese emperor, losing many of his Mongol ways. 


Mongolia, a grassland (steppe) region between Russia and China, was divided among various tribes in the mid-12th Century. They believed spirits inhabited the land. 

Geography was central to Mongol culture’s development, including a simple nomadic lifestyle and a drive to raid surrounding areas to obtain goods they could not produce.  

Mongols were excellent with horses. It would come in handy when building an empire.  

Genghis Khan 

Temujin had very humble origins. He was born in 1162. His mother was kidnapped from her original husband by someone too poor to avoid the costs of a more proper wedding. 

His father died. Temujin killed his half-brother and had to live as a criminal/slave. What mattered was that he survived. Temujin married and used his wife’s dowry to ally himself with the leader (khan) of a powerful tribe. He strategically expanded his power over the years.

In 1206, Temujin became the leader of all the Mongol clans, the Genghis Khan (“leader of all”).  

Genghis Khan established various successful practices, including military organization (promoting the good of each unit as a whole, with leadership chosen by ability, not mere family connections), a “Great Law” to address various problems that divided his people (such as forbidding kidnapping and allowing religious freedom), and use of an election council (khuriltai) to assure that the new leader (khan) had the support of the group as a whole.  

Mongols were a deadly mobile fighting force. If you peacefully surrendered, all would be well. If not, they would kill all the aristocrats and give no quarter. Their reputation preceded them. 

Genghis Khan built up an empire from China to Iran. He established a capital city in Mongolia. His brutal military tactics contrasted with his benign civil policy. There was religious freedom. Mongol soldiers protected trade routes, resulting in a thriving trade. A cosmopolitan range of native experts from various conquered lands provided educational and technical know-how. 

It was a type of Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace). Genghis Khan continued to fight and expand his empire until he died at age sixty-five in 1227.  

Kublai Khan

Kublai was born in 1215. He was the youngest son of Tolui (Genghis’ son) and Sorghaghtani Beki (a Christian). His mother was primarily in charge of Kublai’s education. 

Kublai learned the art of warfare and became a skilled warrior. He learned Mongolian traditions. He successfully brought down an antelope at age nine.  

He spent most of his life in China. When Kublai was twenty-one, his uncle gave him control of Hopei province in China. He benefited from advisors from a range of philophies and ethnic groups.  He learned the ways of Confucius, the moral guide of the Chinese people. A Chinese monk taught him the ways of Buddhism.  Nonetheless, he did not know how to read Chinese. 

His brother became the leader of the Mongols. Kublai was in charge of gaining control of China. He spent decades trying to do so. Meanwhile, after his brother died, Kublai fought a civil war with another brother to replace him. After four years, he was the new leader of the Mongols. 

Kublai gained control of China by adapting to the culture of the region.  Kublai became a Chinese emperor, starting the Yang Dynasty and residing in Bejing. He controlled all of China in 1279. 

It was the height of the Mongol Empire. Marco Polo, the Italian merchant, visited during this time. Kublai put him to work, making him a government official for a few years.  

Kublai Khan continued the benign civil policies of his grandfather, including religious tolerance. In his older years, Kublai settled down as a Chinese leader. He grew fat and drank heavily. Attempts to further spread the empire into Japan and other Asian lands failed.  

Kublai Khan died peacefully at age 70 in 1294.  His grandfather’s empire had already begun to break apart into different regional centers. The Mongol Empire collapsed mid-14th century.

The Two Khans 

The two leaders of the Mongol Empire were grandfather and grandson. 

Both were Mongolian, learning the traditional ways of the people. They each were builders of great empires. Both had to fight civil wars to obtain final control. 

They also each ruled following a policy of tolerance and skillful governance. A warlike people built a great empire the breadth akin to that of the Romans.  

Genghis Khan arose from humble origins and kept on fighting until the end. Kublai Khan was born into a family that already ruled an empire.  Kublai became a Chinese emperor. His grandfather never truly gave up the culture of his birth. Kublai also settled down, unlike his grandfather. 

The two Khans had many similarities and differences. Each was, in their way, a “Genghis Khan.”

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.