The First Emperor

T.H. Barrett

  • Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times by Morris Rossabi
    California, 322 pp, £12.50, May 1988, ISBN 0 520 05913 1
  • Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John by L.N. Gumilev, translated by R.E.F. Smith
    Cambridge, 403 pp, £37.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 521 32214 6

Emperors of China are in the West much more like fairy-tale figures than denizens of anything recognisable as the real world. Even when we see the terracotta parade of a Chinese imperial army before our very eyes, how can we begin to fathom the absolute, autocratic will that brought such an array into being? No wonder mat Morris Rossabi, in the opening sentence of his biography of Khubilai Khan, hastens to assure us that this is a book about a real person. For up till now it is Khubilai’s function in the imaginative life of the West which has been his main claim to fame; and unless the motion picture industry succeeds in elevating the complete cipher Puyi to a lasting position of spurious importance in our perception of Chinese history, one supposes that for the English-speaking world Kubla and Xanadu will stand for ever as symbols of Oriental splendour. It may be that Khubilai and the last emperor are more accessible to us than most of their kind since both were themselves non-Chinese, and both formed friendships with Westerners, so that descriptions of their personalities through European eyes survive. But Marco Polo dominates European literature on Asia in a way Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston does not, and while the last emperor was a Manchu, scion of a dynasty which from the start was prepared to accommodate itself to Chinese civilisation, Khubilai was not merely emperor of China alone but also Great Khan of the Mongols.

It was Khubilai’s grandfather Chinggis (Genghis) Khan who unified the Mongols and set them loose upon the Medieval world in a tide of conquest whose effects are still visible today, when pockets of Mongol-speakers may still be found in Afghanistan, while other descendants of their armies look on the Crimea as their lost home. In the backwash from this tide some Europeans, too, were carried a long way from home, a motley selection of voluntary and involuntary flotsam and jetsam – Papal envoys, captured artisans, traders and professional soldiers – who traversed an empire of staggering size by Medieval standards, based on Central Asia but also embracing European, Islamic and Far Eastern territories. After the death of Chinggis his sons and grandsons divided this empire between them, but first an uncle and then a cousin of Khubilai’s inherited the dignity of Great Khan before it passed eventually to his elder brother Möngke. The succession of the title was always uncertain: the Mongols could only respect a leader of manifest ability, so that the hereditary principle in itself could not decide any dispute. But a consensus between the leading Mongols as to who showed the greatest capacity for supreme rulership was often hard to achieve. There are grounds for thinking that Möngke’s authority was in some parts of his empire merely nominal, and in particular a split seems to have developed between khans who ruled over large sedentary populations and khans whose way of life remained closer to the nomadic patterns of their ancestors.

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