One of the first and most pressing problems to confront Qubilai, after his election as khan in 1260, was the problem of food supply for the military and civilian population of the imperial capital. This was a problem which had plagued rulers of China long before the coming of the Mongols, ever since the rise of the lower Yangtze area as the economic center of China. During the Sui, T'ang and Northern Sung periods, a fairly adequate solution had been found in a system of waterways which, running in a northwesterly direction, carried food supplies to the nation's capitals, located far inland. This system of waterways became the lifeline of China for over five centuries. But, when Qubilai Qaqan established his administrative headquarters at the northern corner of the great Yellow Plain close by the sea, food supply again became an urgent problem and new solutions had to be found.

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