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The conquest of South China's Song Dynasty under Kublai Khan (r.1260-94) was the Mongol Empire's last great military achievement.


An envoy from Song China arrived at the court of the Mongols, perhaps to negotiate a united offensive against the Jin Dynasty before the Mongol-Jin War deepened. Chingis Khan refused; however, he bequeathed, on his death in 1227, a plan to attack the Jin capital by passing through Song territory. Subsequently, a Mongolian ambassador was killed by the Song governor in uncertain circumstances. Before receiving any explanation, the Mongols marched through Song territory to enter the Jin's redoubt in Henanmarker. In 1233 the Song Dynasty finally became an ally of the Mongols, who agreed to share territories south of the Yellow Rivermarker with the Song. Song general Meng Gong defeated the Jin general Wu Xian and directed his troops to besiege the city of Caizhou, to which the last emperor of the Jurchen had fled. With the help of the Mongols, the Song armies were finally able to extinguish the Jin Dynasty that had occupied northern Chinamarker for more than a century. A year later, the Song generals fielded their armies to occupy the old capitals of the Song, but they were completely repelled by the Mongol garrisons under Tachir, a descendant of Boorchu, who was a famed companion of Chingis. Thus the Mongol troops, headed by sons of the Great Khan Ogedei, started their slow but steady invasion of the south.

The first phase of the Mongol-Song war (1235-48)

From 1235 on, the Mongol general Kuoduan Hequ started to attack the region of Sichuan through the Chengdu plain. The occupation of this region had often been an important step for the conquest of the south. The important city of Xiangyang, the gateway to the Yangtzemarker plain, which was defended by the Song general Cao Youwen, capitulated in 1236. In the east, meanwhile, Song generals like Meng Gong and Du Guo withstood the pressure of the Mongol armies under Kouwen Buhua because the main Mongol forces were at that time moving towards Europe. In Sichuanmarker, governor Yu Jie adopted the plan of the brothers Ran Jin and Ran Pu to fortify important locations in mountainous areas, like Diaoyucheng (modern Hechuan/Sichuan). From this point, Yue Jie was able to hold Sichuan for a further ten years. The only permanent gain was Chengdumarker for the Mongols. In the Huai River area, the Mongol Empire's commanders remained on the defensive, taking few major Song cities, although Toregene and Guyuk Khan ordered their generals to attack the Song.

The second stage of the war (1251-60)

The Mongol attacks on Southern Song China intensified with the election of Möngke as Great Khan in 1251. Passing through the Chengdu Plain in Sichuanmarker, the Mongols conquered the Kingdom of Dali in modern Yunnan in 1253. Möngke's brother Kublai and general Uriyangqadai pacified Yunnan and Tibet and invaded the Tran Dynasty in Vietnammarker. Mongke entered Sichuan in 1258 with two-thirds of the Mongol strength. In 1259 Möngke died of cholera or dysentry during the battle of Diaoyucheng that was defended by Wang Jian. The Chinese general Jia Sidao collaborated with Kublai and took the opportunity of Möngke's death to occupy Sichuan as subject of the Mongols.

The central government of the Southern Song meanwhile was unable to cope with the challenge of the Mongols and new peasant uprisings in the region of modern Fujian led by Yan Mengbiao and Hunan. The court of Emperor Lizong was dominated by consort clans, Yan and Jia, and the eunuchs Dong Songchen and Lu Yunsheng. In 1260 Jia Sidao became chancellor who took control over the new emperor Zhao Qi (posthumous title Song Duzong) and expelled his opponents like Wen Tianxiang and Li Fu. Because the financial revenue of the late Southern Song state was very low, Jia Sidao tried to reform the regulations for the merchandise of lands with his state field law.

Surrender of Song China (1268-76)

In 1260 Kublai was elected as Great Khan of the Mongols and founded the Yuan Dynastymarker in 1271. Kublai did eventually conquer the south ,but not without a great deal of tribulation. First there was the rebellion of Ariq Boke,who had been left in command of the north and stationed in the Mongol capital, Karakorummarker; then in 1268, there was the Mongol advance stopped at the city of Xianyang situated on the Han river controlling access to the Yangtzemarker river ,the gateway to Hangzhoumarker (Cantonmarker).This city was linked to the city of Fencheng situated on the oppostite bank connected by a pontoon bridge spanning the river Han. The walls of Xianyang were some six to seven meters thick encompassing an area of five kilometers wide,the main entrances leading out to a waterway impossible to ford in the summer ,in the winter an impassable swamp and series of ponds and mud flats.

The defenders of twin-cities, Xianyang and Fencheng, attempted to break the siege but the Mongols under Aju defeated them each time. The Mongol crushed all reinforcements from the Song, each numbering in thousands. On the request of Aju, Kublai sent the engineers Ismail and Al-aud-Din from Iraqmarker to South China to construct a new, much more powerful type of trebuchet whose lever mechanism worked with a counterweight as opposed to the pulling teams of the traditional Chinese version. Called by Muslim historians "Frankish trebuchets" (manjaniq ifranji), their design apparently originated in medieval Europe and may have been identical to the bricola, a double-counterweight trebuchet which had only shortly before been introduced to the Levant by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1210-1250).

Bayan of the Baarin, the Mongol commander, then sent half of his force up river to wade to the south bank in order to build a bridge across to take the Yang lo fortress .Three thousand Song boats came up the Han river and were repulsed;fifty boats destroyed with 2,000 dead. Xianyangs commander then surrendered to the Mongol commander ,the entire force including the surrendering commander sailing down the Yangtze, the forts along the way falling as this commander, now allied with the Mongols, had also commanded many of the down river garrisons. In 1270, Kublai ordered the construction of five thousand ships. Three years later, an additional two thousand ships were ordered to be built; these would carry about 50,000 troops to give battle to the Song. In 1273, Fencheng capitulated,the Mongols putting the entire population to the sword to terrorize the inhabitants of Xianyang. After the surrender of the city of Xiangyang, several thousand ships were deployed. The Song fleet, despite their deployment as a coastal defense fleet or Coast Guard more than an operational Navy, was more than a match for the Mongols. Under his great general Bayan Khublai unleashed a riverine attack upon the defended city of Xiangyang on the Han River. The Mongols prevailed, ultimately, but it would take five more years of hard combat to do so. By 1273, the Mongols emerged victorious on the Han River. The Yangtse River was now open for a large fleet that could conquer the Southern Song empire. A year later, the child-prince Zhao Xian was made emperor. Ressistance became stiffer, resulting in Bayan's massacre of the inhabitants of Changzhoumarker in 1275 and mass suicide of the defenders at Changshamarker in January 1276. When the Yuan Mongol-Chinese troops and fleet advanced and one prefecture after the other submitted to the Yuan, Jia Sidao offered his own submission, but the Yuan chancellor Bayan refused. The last contingents of the Song empire were heavily defeated, the old city of Jiankang (Jiangsu) fell, and Jia Sidao was killed. The capital of Song, Lin'an (Hangzhou), was defended by Wen Tianxiang and Zhang Shijie. When Bayan and Dong Wenbing camped outside Lin'an in Februray 1276, the Empress Dowager Xie and Quan Jiu surrendered with the underage emperor and the imperial seal. Emperor Gongdi abdicated, but faithful loyalists like Zhang Jue, Wen Tianxiang, Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu enthroned the emperor's younger brother Zhao Shi and Zhao Bing. Zhao Shi was enthroned far from the capital, in the region of Fuzhou (posthumous title Song Duanzong) but he soon died during the flight to the south in the region of modern Guangdong. Zhao Bing was enthroned on an island in the South China Sea (Yaishan, near Xinhui/Guangdong). In 1279 the Yuan took the island, and Lu Xiufu drowned himself, embracing the last emperor of Song.

Last stand of the Song loyalists (1276-79)

Empress Dowager Xie had secretly sent the child emperor's 2 younger brothers to Fuzhoumarker. The strongholds of the Song loyalists fell one by one: Yangzhou in 1276, Chongqingmarker in 1277 and Hezhoumarker in 1279. The loyalists fought the Mongols in the mountainous Fujianmarker-Guangdongmarker-Jiangximarker borderland. On Februray 1279, Wen Tianxiang, one of the Song loyalists, was captured and executed at Khanbaliq.

The end of the Mongol-Song war occurred on 19 March 1279, when 1000 Song warships faced a fleet of 300 to 700 Yuan Mongol warships at Yamen. The Mongol fleet was commanded by Zhang Hongfan (1238-1280), a northern Chinese, and Li Heng (1236-1285), a Tangut. Catapults as a weapon system were rejected by the Mongols, for the Mongols feared the Song fleet would break out if they used such weapons. Instead, the Mongol plan called for a maritime siege, in order to starve the Song into submission.

But at the outset, there was a defect in the Song tactics that would later be exploited by Yuan at the conclusion of the battle. The Song wanted a stronger defensive position, and the Song fleet "roped itself together in a solid mass[,]" in an attempt to create what appears to be in a nautical skirmish line. Results were disastrous: the Chinese could neither attack nor maneuver. Escape was also impossible, for the Song warships lacked any nearby base to which they might take refuge. The course, then, was clear: the Song must stand and fight! Not all the Chinese did, though. On 12 March, a number of Song combatants defected to the Mongol side. On 13 March, a Song squadron attacked some of the Mongols' northern patrol boats. Lorge thinks this action was an attempted breakout, but if so, it failed. The Chinese squadron was crushed with an appalling loss of life. By 17 March, Li Heng and Zhang Hongfan opted for a decisive battle. Four Mongol fleets moved against the Song: Li Heng attacked from the north and northwest; Zhang would proceed from the southwest; the last two fleets attacked from the south and west. Weather favored the Mongols that morning. Heavy fog and rain obscured the approach of Li Heng's dawn attack. The movement of the tide and the southwestern similarly-benefited the movement of the Mongol fleet which, in short order, appeared to the north of the Song. It was an unusual attack, in that, the Mongol fleet engaged the Song fleet stern first.

In hindsight, this was a very good tactic. It enabled the naval infantry archers to take full advantage of the ships' high sterncastles. Prior to the battle, the Mongols constructed archery platforms for their sea soldiers. As a result of this simple innovation, the archers atop the sterncastles were transformed into force multipliers against the Song. The position enabled the archers to direct a higher, more concentrated rate of missile fire against the enemy. Fire teams of seven or eight archers manned these platforms, and they proved devastatingly-effective as the battle commenced at close quarter.

Li Heng's first attack cut the Song rope that held the Chinese fleet together. Fighting raged with great intensity at a hand-to hand distance. The Song gave fierce resistance, but by eleven, they had lost three of their ships to the Mongols, though the outcome was still by no means certain. Then, by the forenoon, Li's ships broke through the Song's outer line, and two other Mongol squadrons destroyed the Song formation in the corner of the northwest. Around this time, the tide had shifted; Li's ships drifted to the opposite direction, the north.

The Song believed that the Mongols were halting the attack and, foolishly, dropped their guard. Their mistake was obvious when, suddenly, Zhang Hongfan's fleet, riding the northern current, slammed into the Chinese ships. Zhang was determined to capture the Song admiral, Zuo Tai. The Mongol flagship was protected by shields to negate the Song missile fire. Later, when Zhang did capture the Song flagship, his own vessel was riddled with arrows. Then, as if the Song did not have enough difficulties, Li Heng's fleet returned to the battle. By late afternoon, it was obvious to all observers that the battle was over. The Mongols had prevailed, and the Song navy surrendered.
Horrified, the ruling elite, unwilling to submit to the Mongol yoke, opted for death by suicide. The Song councilor, an important post, in that, he was tasked with literally holding the infant child-emperor of the Song in his arms during the battle, also elected to join the Song leaders in death. Not only did he plan his own death, he, or perhaps others, decided to take the infant Emperor to his royal destruction, too. As harsh a decision as this sounds, it is not without its own cruel logic. Presumably, the councilor did not wish to see a mere baby trampled to death in Mongol tradition, as undoubtedly the Yuan would have done to the child-emperor, to leave no doubt that the Song Dynasty was literally dead. Tragically, the councilor jumped into the sea, still holding the child in his arms. Both would die; the Song Dynasty would die with them.; Lorge described the scene and its aftermath: Tens of thousands of Song officials, and women threw themselves into the sea and drowned. The last Song emperor went to the bottom with his entourage, held in the arms of his councilor. With his death, the final remnants of the Song dynasty were eliminated. Khublai's Mongol Yuan dynasty completed the conquest of China with naval campaign and a climactic battle at sea more than 2,000 miles south of the Mongolian homeland.


  1. C.P.Atwood-Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, p.509
  2. Henry Hoyle Howorth, Ernest George Ravenstein-History of the Mongols, p.228
  3. John Man-Kublai Khan, p.158
  4. C.P.Atwood-Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, p.509
  5. John Man-Kublai Khan, p.168
  6. Paul E. Chevedden: "Black Camels and Blazing Bolts: The Bolt-Projecting Trebuchet in the Mamluk Army", Mamluk Studies Review Vol. 8/1, 2004, pp. 227-277 (232f.)

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