It happened today - January 29, 2016

On this day in history, Kublai Khan invaded Vietnam. It seems an odd thing for him to have done.

If you’ve heard of Kublai Khan, and aren’t keenly interested in Mongol history, military history or both you probably know him primarily through Coleridge’s poem I think of as “Xanadu” though it’s actually called “Kublai Khan”, famously written under the influence of opium, interrupted and never satisfactorily finished (at least in his view; it extends for 54 lines of the 200 or 300 he evidently dreamed but seems to me to end rather decisively).

Its dreamy tone doesn’t seem compatible with military adventures that cross China to bother its neighbours. But we are talking the Mongols here, one of those odd groups or individuals who, like Napoleon or Alexander, seem very good at conquering things without any huge idea as to why. And at that point Kublai’s brother Möngke (yes, it looks like it would be pronounced “monkey” but I don’t think it would have been wise to allude to that unimportant fact in his presence) was busy conquering south China and ordered Kublai to conquer some of west China as a warmup. Having done so, Kublai figured what the heck and kept going for a bit, though he got pushed back and then distracted by succeeding Möngke in 1260 and having to fight another brother for the throne.

In the end the Mongols attacked twice more, in 1285 and 1287, and though they never conquered Vietnam the locals ultimately decided it would keep things fairly quiet if they sort of accepted the supremacy of what had by then become the Yuan Dynasty established by Kublai Khan who was still emperor at the time (he died in 1294).

I find the whole thing interesting because as a grateful citizen of Canada and a man of the West I generally think of the Mongols primarily in terms of the ominous threat they posed to Europe and the catastrophic effect they had on Russia including imposing a concept of government sharply at odds with the notion that citizens had rights of any sort. I knew they conquered China and then were in a very real sense conquered by it, finding the lifestyle and culture of the subjected people irresistible. It’s odd to think that to the Vietnamese, it was one more of those “We were just minding our own business and suddenly these maniacs came over the horizon at us” stories that compose too much of human history.

Anyway, Kublai Khan inspired a pretty good if in my reading very unsettling poem. But he also inspired a bunch of invasions that were just vainglorious. I’m sorry he attacked Vietnam and glad he lost.