This September 23rd marks the 800th birthday of Kublai Khan, greatest of the Mongol rulers (after his grandfather Genghis), brilliant statesman, founder of China’s Yuan Dynasty, and, as historian John Man puts it bluntly ‘the greatest CEO in world history.’
It’s been a privilege to bring this larger than life historical titan to the global attention he deserves (with thanks to the genius performance of Benedict Wong), presently out there in more than 50 countries, moving into Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and streaming farther and wider every day . The Great Khan himself once said it was the Mandate of Heaven that he should conquer the entire world; if the aspirations of Netflix come to fruition, he shall finally reach that goal by 2017.
The Khan will be in nearly every country in the world.
So, if only we could time-travel back to the day of Kublai’s birthday and experience how his empire celebrated, what a Bacchanalian bash that must’ve been. One can only imagine, right? Well, no. One doesn’t need to imagine because Kublai Khan had a young Venetian guy in his court who didn’t miss a thing when it came to chronicling his sovereign’s inner life. So, thanks to Marco Polo, we know what KK’s birthdays were like.
Let the games begin.
According to Marco, the Great Khan dressed up for his special day “in the most noble cloth of the purest beaten gold.” Twelve thousand barons attended and also dressed in silk and gold with pearls and gems sewn into them. Kings who were subject to his jurisdiction offered gifts in his honor. On his birthday, he was a bit like Don Corleone at his son’s wedding: Petitioners came from near and far and got in line to see Lord Khan, requesting favors, very often domains to rule. For this particular real estate ceremony His August Personage had a committee that assigned domains to the bearers he deemed worthy.
Also arriving for the epic birthday party were “people of whatever faith they are, all the Buddhists and all the Christians and the Jews and all the Saracens and all the other races of the Mongols who are subject to the rule of the Great Khan. They must make great petitions and great assemblies and great prayers, each to their God with great chants, great lights, and great incense, that he may be pleased to save and protect them.”
Kublai and Chabi would then ascend to their rest couch in Chinese fashion as gifts were presented. With so many great kings and barons and sultans bearing outlandish gifts for the Khan of Khans, one wonders what kind of present the young Venetian might have humbly offered to his sovereign and father-figure. While there’s no record of such a gift, an argument can me made that Marco Polo gave Kublai Khan the greatest gift of all, the one thing he truly desired.
Kublai, being deeply committed to his investigation into Chinese “treasures” and teachings had a great interest in Taoist mind-body cultivation. In others words: The secret of immortality. This was a common quest back then and someone with the power and hubris of the Great Khan must have allocated a great deal of finance and effort to the investigation of such ancient secrets, a way for him to be Khan forever. Along with his Muslim Hall of Invention, Halls of Calligraphy and Cartography, Astronomy, and halls of multiple arts and sciences, he probably had a Hall of Alchemy with an Immortality Department. And maybe his conscripted alchemists were onto something because Kublai Khan, for all of his orgies and excesses, his goose livers, his plum wine, his obesity and gout, lived to the stunning age of 80. In the 13th century that’s an amazing feat.
Yet, in many ways, Kublai Khan has lived 10 times the age of 80. He has lived, thus far, to the age of 800. And right now, in this year of 2015, he is living large. Because the gift that Marco Polo gave to Kublai Khan was, at the end of the day, immortality. While Chinese alchemists were mixing saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal (by the way, that formula ended up exploding and leading to the invention of gunpowder), Marco Polo was writing shit down. Descriptions of the Khan, his palace, his power, his kingdoms, his 400 concubines of fair complexion. His big fat birthday party. All scholars agree that the west would know very little, if anything at all, about Kublai Khan if not for Marco Polo. So what kind of present do you give to the Khan who has everything — including one-fifth of the inhabited planet? Immortality. That’s what Marco Polo gave to Kublai Khan. And that’s what he truly wanted.
Yes, I know, let’s not forget Coleridge. That opium-besotted poet gave “Kubla” a little immortality, too, but that Xanadu poem had nothing to do with Kublai Khan (or Xanadu for that matter).
In so many ways, Kublai Khan deserved the gift. From expanding the great Mongol empire across one-fifth of the world, to becoming the longest-ruling Khan in Mongol history, to conquering a 300 year-old dynasty and founding a new one with himself as emperor (but admirably naming his late grandfather Genghis as founder), to creating the concept of public education and paper currency and unprecedented religious tolerance, his earthquake of a life was as epic as his appetites. And so, on this day of his 800th birthday, I’d like to share something of his that I think he’d be proud of. Something that few people know about underneath all of his gargantuan accomplishments and victories. Kublai, the most feared man on earth, loved poetry. And he left us a poem that he wrote one day after visiting a Buddhist temple in Western Peking and climbing a mountain on his way back. Fittingly, this mountain was called Longevity Hill and that’s probably why he went up there. As the world’s greatest CEO, he probably dictated to a Chinese calligrapher panting his way up Fragrant Hill with brush and rice parchment:
I ascended on Fragrant Hill in the friendly season of spring
Not discouraged I climbed to the peak and met the Golden Face
Flowers shone bright rays and auspicious colors gleamed like a rainbow
Incense smoke wafted like mist and a blessed light emanated
Raindrops were like bubbles on jade bamboos at the edge of the big rock
The blowing wind played a song among the green pines at the mountain pass
In front of the Buddha in the temple I conducted the incense ceremony
And on the way back I rode a Blue Dragon in the royal carriage.
Coleridge move over. That’s not a bad poem, no opium involved (although one never knows).
And Happy 800th Birthday, Great Khan. Many, many more. As Marco used to say when he approached your golden throne, “long live, long live.”