It’s the birthday of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, born simply Kublai — the word Khan means ruler — somewhere in Mongolia in 1215. The grandson of the empire’s founder, Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan inherited rule over a territory of North China as a young man. When his older brother, the emperor, died on a raid, Kublai Khan fought his little brother for succession and ultimately took control of most of the Empire, stretching across modern-day Mongolia and China.
Historically, Kublai Khan is remembered for founding the Yuan Dynasty, for adopting Chinese traditions to successfully garner popular support despite being a foreign conqueror, and for instituting paper money. But in Western culture, Kublai Khan is best known from two popular writings: Marco Polo’s journal, and Samuel Coleridge’s famous poem, “Kubla Khan.”
Polo traveled to China with his father and uncle. It took them more than three years to travel from Venice to Kublai’s Khan court; they stayed 17 years to make the trip home, another three years, worth their while. Polo was a teenager when they left. He quickly learned the language and served in Kublai Khan’s administration. Although his account is regarded as questionable, it’s the only personal depiction of Kublai Khan that exists. Polo praised him as a great leader but admitted to a few foibles: certain excesses, evidenced, for example, by the 22 sons he sired by his four wives … in addition to the 25 sons he had with various other women. Presumably, he had daughters as well, but Polo didn’t bother to mention them.
Polo also described Kublai Khan’s summer palace, a place called Shang-tu, a word that became known as Xanadu in English. This “stately pleasure dome,” as Coleridge called it, was the inspiration for one of the most famous poems in the English language, his phantasmagoric “Kubla Khan.” The other inspiration, of course, was opium; Coleridge claimed to have woken from a drug-induced dream with the poem fully formed in his mind, but he only recorded a portion before he was interrupted and forgot the rest.
Because of Coleridge’s poem, the word Xanadu is understood to mean a utopia, a place of perfect luxury and beauty, Kublai Khan’s original Xanadu, although impressive, was likely a bit more rustic since it was able to be disassembled and moved at his command. As for the origins of the word itself, Shang-tu meant simply “Upper Capital,” distinguishing it geographically from the main capital he founded to the south. Today, that permanent establishment is known as Beijing. All that remains of Shang-tu, or Xanadu, is a few grassy mounds on an empty plain.