OK, so we're all watching Marco Polo solely because of the Chinese characters, right, because the only thing that the show really nails is turning the Yuan Dynasty's medieval Chinese empire into a prestige drama setting filled with sex, murder, and political intrigue. And it all happens when Marco Polo's father sells the explorer to the deadly Kublai Khan, leader of the Yuan dynasty. And after all that non-history geeks might be wondering — was Kublai Khan related to Genghis Khan? Turns out, the question is legit, because Kublai was Ghengis' grandson and one of his successors. Marco Polo covers Kublai's struggles to control the vast, unpredictable empire he's inherited, making necessary adjustments as technology like seafaring and gunpowder are developed, and heading into war against rivals like the Song Dynasty and the Japanese.
And for the truly history averse, Genghis Khan was one of the deadliest and most influential conquerors in history. He simultaneously took over almost the entire Asian continent, stopped only by the constraints of geography — he ran out of land to conquer. So Kublai has a lot to live up to, emperor wise. The Khan's leadership had become even more politically strategic by the time Kublai took power, hence why he was trading off the Blue Princess to a local governor for a marriage. In the days before gift baskets, that passed as a way to show the Khan appreciated his service.
And he had to be savvy about showing his appreciation for the middle men — because no one man could effectively rule over the entire expanse of his empire. But therein laid his biggest strength as a ruler. His administrative acumen split up the territory into organized pieces that were run by local Chinese officials, who were happy at the chance to take a small amount of political power and maintain some of their traditional customs.
But by the time Kublai was the leader of Mongolia, things had begun to splinter in the empire. First of all, his power began to consolidate. The show isn't cheaping out by only showing a couple of battle scenes — he was mostly confined to China and Mongolia, even though he had influence in other areas and technically ruled from the border of Western and Eastern Europe straight to the Pacific Ocean.
And there was a great deal of war in the empire, which we see plaguing Marco's journey with Kokachin and Kublai's negotiations. Things started off well, with the (spoilers ahead!) successful subjugation of the Song Dynasty, but his real life ended with some misguided naval attacks and disasters. But since they've already worked in Marco Polo himself into way more of Kublai's accomplishments (like the trebuchet experiments), he'll probably be right by the emperor's side — and may even change the course of history.
Image: Phil Bray/Netflix (2); Giphy