Qaidu was one of the most influential Mongol rulers in central Asia from 1266 to 1301. He was the great-grandson of Genghis Khan, grandson of Ogedei Khan. Qaidu spent more than 30 years in continuous warfare against the Great Khan, Qubilai Khan, and his allies, until his death during a battle near Karakorum.


In Marco Polo’s Description of the World, Marco Polo depicted the conflict between Qaidu and Qubilai Khan in his dramatic and entertaining writing style. Fairly good amount of detail was also given by Marco Polo surrounding this continuous brutal warfare. In this research paper, we will take a closer examination of this conflict presented in the Description of the World.


1. Did Marco Polo really know who Qaidu was?

2. How reliable was Marco Polo’s background of the Qaidu-Qubilai conflict in his Description of the World?

3. How accurate were Marco Polo’s details of a war between Qaidu and Qubilai?


To understand the Qaidu-Qubilai conflict, we need to first find out who Qaidu was. In Description of the World’s introduction of Qaidu, the following was addressed:


In Greater Turkey is a king called Qaidu who is the Great Khan’s nephew [nevo], for he was the son of the son of Chaghadai, who was the Great Khan’s brother. [1]


However, we know from numerous primary sources and secondary sources like Yuan Shi and the Mongols by David Morgan, that this claim is not accurate. In fact, Qaidu was the grandson of Ogedei Khan, and the leader of the House of Ogedei, therefor Qubilai Khan’s cousin. This is a major error from Description of the World. It shows that certain things from the book are not very reliable.


Description of the World also presents the cause of the Qaidu-Qubilai conflict. According to Marco Polo, Qaidu had always waged wars against Qubilai’s people. In addition to the wars, Qaidu pressured on the Yuan Dynasty to give him what he wants. Qubilai was willing to give Qaidu territory and goods he demanded, as long as Qaidu was willing to go to Qubilai’s court and show his feudal obedience. Qaidu refused out of fear for his own life. This caused more horrifying wars between these two Mongol rulers.

Portrait of Qubilai Khan


The Great Khan told him that he was willing to give him his part, as he had done with his other sons, if he in fact came to his court and his councils every time that he was sent for, as they did.


But he said that he would not go to his court for anything in the world because he feared that he would have him killed. [2]


From research done by many historians and other records of history of the time, the background to the Qaidu-Qubilai conflict offered by Description of the World had a degree of truth to it. Indeed, Qubilai summoned Qaidu to his court because he wanted Qaidu’s feudal obedience. [3] But there were deeper reasons to why Qaidu and Qubilai had decades of bloody battles. The following chapter will examine the two main arguments.


1. Qaidu’s traditional Mongol way of life vs. Qubilai’s partially sinicized ideologies.


2. Qaidu’s effort to restore the House of Ogedei to its former glory.


“This Mongol, who had remained faithful to the old traditions and to the way of life of his race, was the living antithesis of Kublai, and already partially Sinicized Mongol.” [4] Rene Grousset wrote this sentence in his book The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia to show the readers that, this conflict even though seems like a civil war between two Mongol rulers, they represented two very different values. After Qubilai’s successful conquering of China, he was less of the Great Khan of the steppe, but more of a Son of Heaven. He established his Mongol successor state while adapting the Chinese name Yuan. The idea of Mandate of Heaven was claimed by Qubilai Khan and he moved the capital closer to the center of China. These Sinicization policies were not met with welcome from all the Mongols. Among them, Qaidu was the leader of this rebellion. Being the practical ruler of central Asia, he had the power and influence of leading the fight against the new emperor of China. [5] The environment and landscape were more suitable for the traditional Mongol nomadic way of life, while most China was not suitable for herding. Therefore, some scholar also brought up the point that Qaidu was only being pragmatic for keeping the nomadic lifestyle. Regardless the motivation, the Qaidu-Qubilai conflict was largely caused by their attitudes towards the traditional Mongol value.


Another often overlooked reason is that being the most powerful person from the House of Ogedei, Qaidu felt like he had the responsibility of restoring his family’s former glory. When Monke Khan became the great khan, many of the Ogedei princes were banished because they were the descendants of the former great khans. Qaidu’s father and him however, quietly acknowledged Monke’s authority. [6] This move granted them more territory than before, and made them more relevant among the Mongol lords than before. Here is where historians have their differences. Many of them, including Rashid al-Din, believed that Qaidu was supporting Arigh Boke in his conflict with Qubilai, while others argued that Qaidu had a mostly neutral position. [7] Regardless, Qaidu soon started his expansion in the vacuum of Central Asia following many major Mongol rulers passed away in close proximity. With Qaidu’s constant effort, the House of Ogedei soon gained control over most of the Chagatai Khante that previous ruled by the House of Chagatai. With a large part of Central Asia now under his control, Qaidu had his eyes on the ultimate prize – to take the position of the great khan back to the House of Ogedei.


One specific war between the forces of Qaidu and Qubilai that was mentioned in Description of the World was the one fought between Qaidu and Nomoqan, fourth son of Qubilai. Marco Polo recorded the following:


He knew that the Great Khan’s son, named Nomuqan [Nomogan], was at Qaraqorum, and with him George, son of the son of Prester John; these 2 barons also had a great number of horsemen.6 What should I tell you? King Qaidu, once he had assembled all his people, left his kingdom with his entire army and set out on the road; they rode so far on their journey without finding any adventure worth mentioning that they came fairly close to Qaraqorum, where the two barons were with a great number of people. [8]


There are several things about Marco Polo’s account that could be problematic. First of all, the identity of George, son of Prester John, remains as a question. The editor of Description of the World pointed out that George is in fact Prince George of the Onggut. “Marco may here be confusing Prince George with his father, Ai-buqa, who fought after the capture of Qubilai’s son Nomuqan and died in the field.” [9] Although historically, Prince George did fight against Qaidu, he died in battle in 1298 and it was after Marco Polo had gone back to Venice. Therefore, there are enough evidence to suggest that Marco Polo confused George with his father.


On another note, even though Marco Polo commented this war in his classic way as “know in truth that this was one of the cruelest battles fought between Tartar peoples.” [10], he failed to mention one crucial element of this war. There was a big revolt from the inside of Nomuqan’s army. Qubilai’s son Nomuqan himself was actually captured by Toqtemur and handed over to Nomokhan, an ally of Qaidu’s. Many other princes from Qubilai’s army also treacherously joint this revolt. [11] This would have been a big news. Marco Polo would have definitely included this if he had actually heard about it. However, in Polo’s defense, this revolt must have been humiliating to the Yuan dynasty and probably was kept as a secret.


Despite minor mistakes around certain background and some individual’s identities, Description of the World does effectively provide the bigger picture of the Qaidu-Qubilai conflict. Considering the conflict lasted for more than three decades and Marco Polo was only present for a short period among that time, he delivered the cruelty and scale of the wars between those two powerful Mongols.



Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


Morgan, David. The Mongols (The Peoples of Europe). Kindle Edition.

Yuan Shi

Grousset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia.

Biran, Michal. Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia.

Pelliot, Paul. 1959–1973. Notes on Marco Polo, 3 vols. Paris: Librairie Maisonneuve.

  1. Description of the World, 199

  2. Description of the World, 199

  3. Description of the World, 199

  4. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, 291

  5. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, 291

  6. Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia, Michal Biran, 19

  7. Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia, Michal Biran, 21

  8. Description of the World, 195

  9. Pelliot 1959-1973, II. 737

  10. The Description of the World, 196

  11. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, 292