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.

This split dominated Khubilai’s relations with his siblings: only Hülegü, who held Persia, seems to have given him consistent support, while his younger brother, Arigh Böke, whose base was in the Mongol heartland, proclaimed himself Möngke’s successor and sustained a civil war against him for several years. Khubilai was not simply suspected of showing too much sympathy towards his Chinese subjects: he had also been slow to emerge as a military leader. The chief military task of Möngke’s reign was the conquest of southern China: the north had fallen increasingly under the domination of peoples from beyond China’s frontiers in the centuries prior to the rise of the Mongols, and its absorption into the new empire had been relatively rapid. But the Southern Sung dynasty, which held the Yangtse valley and also carried on a rich maritime trade from the South China coast, represented a naval power such as the Mongols had never encountered before. They decided first of all to outflank it, driving south through the rugged terrain of West China-terrain so difficult that when Mao made his Long March through it in the opposite direction, escaping from the south-east, he counted it a major achievement simply to have survived. Khubilai, already in his mid-thirties, was commander of this bold expedition as far as present-day Yunnan province on the Burmese border; a subordinate completed the encirclement by turning eastward and invading Annam.

Möngke died too soon to capitalise on his brother’s first major success, and the Annamese (today’s Vietnamese), already long accustomed to guerrilla warfare against China, proved far from pacified, so it fell to Khubilai himself to master the techniques of naval and siege warfare along the Yangtse that were now necessary to defeat the Sung. But the Mongol Empire was still coherent enough for the appropriate expertise to be transferred into China from lands already conquered. This involved not just the best available siege engineers but also tax farmers capable of extracting the requisite resources from the Chinese under Mongol control and holy men of every conceivable description whose support might add to the supernatural forces at the disposal of the invaders. Eventually the Sung fell, and Mongol government was applied to the whole of China – it was indeed the first time that the whole of China had been united under a single system of government since the north had started to slip out of Chinese control over three centuries earlier. Yet Khubilai pressed on, completing the subjugation of Korea, unleashing further attacks on the South-East Asian mainland and launching armadas against Japan and Java besides. In many cases the mistreatment of ambassadors is said to have provoked Khubilai’s attempts at vengeance, since, unlike most of their contemporaries, the Mongols, for all their well-known lack of finer feelings, were sticklers for diplomatic immunity. Or was Khubilai trying to make up for lost time as a world conqueror? The failure of his last two high-risk seaborne enterprises, and the deaths of many who were close to him, blighted the Great Khan’s long old age, though mercifully the Emperor seems to have lapsed into indifference and withdrawal in the face of his losses rather than tyrannical senility.

Even if he had succeeded in everything to which he turned his hand it is unlikely that his reputation in Chinese eyes would be any better. True, he did for a while employ some Chinese advisers, northerners accustomed to serving alien overlords, and Rossabi paraphrases the somewhat backhanded praise which Chinese historians allow him on this score. But his ceaseless campaigns led to later criticisms of his overweening belligerence and the decidedly exploitative Muslims and others brought in to act as tax farmers gained him an unenviable reputation for rapacity. Though the Mongol policy of according respect to religious leaders won them considerable advantages in controlling most of their territories – the Metropolitan of Kiev, for instance, became a strong supporter of accommodation to Mongol rule once he had accepted the tax concessions offered to him – Chinese political traditions allowed no place for religious figures in government, and Khubilai’s intervention on behalf of the Buddhists, destroying the scriptures of the rival Chinese religion of Taoism (according to the calculations of Piet van der Loon well over half the Taoist canon earlier available to the Sung disappeared at this point), marked him as unduly partisan besides. Chinese sources for his reign, the product in the main of an official bureau of historians reinstituted by Khubilai according to former Chinese practice, are generally accurate but not very revealing: most educated Chinese did not care for Khubilai Khan. Already under the Southern Sung we can detect a trend away from involvement in government towards finding satisfaction in activities deemed prestigious in local society, ranging from social welfare projects to poetry, painting and calligraphy. Once foreigners ruled all China very little came to be written independently about court life, and we possess no archives from me period to compare with those of three centuries later so cunningly used by Jonathan Spence to construct his Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi.

If we had to judge Khubilai on the basis of his appearance in later Chinese historical writings we might never be tempted to read a full biography of him at all. Many of them cheat by taking a narrow view of legitimacy and not treating him as a central figure until after the complete extinction of the Southern Sung. Most lavish far more attention on the Sung loyalist general and eventual martyr Wen T’ien-hsiang, and Wen is probably a figure of greater significance to Chinese than Khubilai even today, if we take into account the half-dozen or so biographical studies which had already been devoted to him in Chinese before the appearance of the solitary, very recent Chinese study of Khubilai. Pre-modern Chinese historians, at any rate, seem to perceive the Mongol Empire simply as an extension of China’s territory rather than admit (or perhaps even notice) that China had become part of a larger political unit – though in this the Chinese were very much at one with their counterparts in Russia. All in all, no other competent ruler of China with a reign comparable in span to Khubilai’s (one excepts a few longevous nonentities) is given quite such short shrift in traditional Chinese historiography as the unfortunate Mongol.

The Mongols themselves, to make matters worse, left only one or two works describing their own empire, and were it not for Marco Polo and the contemporary Persian historians, who were agreeably well-informed about Mongol rule in China, Rossabi, who frequently alerts us to the Chinese prejudices I have just mentioned, would have had a far more frustrating task. The problem is a general one for students of the Medieval Mongols: we mainly see them through the eyes of non-Mongol witnesses whose testimony has to be pieced together out of a variety of languages and evaluated by careful comparison. This requires formidable erudition – involving, in Rossabi’s case, a mastery of the non-alphabetic scripts of East Asia – and such erudition has almost vanished in Britain today, where we do not possess the resources to support it any more. For though Mongol studies do survive and even manage somehow to prosper here without a single established university post allotted to them, the Medieval period is covered by historians working only with Western and Islamic sources: their excellent research is not matched by that of any British historian of East Asia, and potential recruits to the field who have mastered Chinese and Japanese find their considerable investment of time and effort more rapidly and lucratively returned by steering well clear of academic life.

There is, however, a possible alternative to painstaking erudition, at least for me Russian reader, which is most entertainingly exemplified by L.N. Gumilev’s Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom. Russia’s incorporation in the Mongol Empire was more than a passing episode in her history, so much of the painstaking work on the available sources has been done in Russian, albeit in a somewhat piecemeal fashion. It is this which allows Gumilev to sally forth, with courage and imagination worthy of the son of Anna Akhmatova, to conquer the vast empty terrain at the heart of our current historiography of the Medieval Mongols through a daring application of two main strategies: first, a close comparison of surviving clues as to Mongol activities at any point in time, however widely scattered in space, to reconstruct events; and second, a determined use of the cui bono principle to try to probe the motivations of the actors involved. Though his academic debts may be to Russian-language scholarship (the non-Russian studies cited are mostly extremely dated), his intellectual debts are self-confessedly to ‘Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, and even Agatha Christie’.

The imaginary kingdom of Prester John which forms the main theme of Gumilev’s study refers, not to the legend of a Christian king beyond the domains of Islam as it developed in Europe, but to the existence from time to time of Christian nomad leaders in Central Asia, rumours of whose exploits gave rise to the legend in the first place. These men were, to use our terminology, Nestorians, adherents of the Eastern Church based in Mesopotamia which accepted the teachings of Nestorius, condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Nestorian Church had spread in subsequent centuries to cover a far greater area than European Christendom, but it was always very thinly spread, almost always the faith of a minority living under Zoroastrian, Islamic or Buddhist rulers, and though the nomads who did for a while emerge as potential champions of the faith seem to have played some part in the rise of the Mongols, the Nestorian warriors of the Mongol Empire do not loom large in most accounts of the period. Choosing to concentrate on a submerged element within the rise and fall of an empire already under-represented by historical sources of its own creation allows Gumilev to soar to positively virtuosic feats of imaginative re-creation of the past, which are further heightened by a penchant (faithfully conveyed by the translator) for asking loud rhetorical questions and following them with thunderous answers.

At least this means that some of his more startling points may be succinctly (if unfairly) presented by adopting this device. Why did Chinggis Khan succeed in uniting the Mongols? Because his ostensible rival, Jamuqa, was secretly collaborating with him all the time! But why did Nestorianism fail to take hold among the Mongol leaders? Because they already had their own established religion, which was none other than the Tibetan religion of Bon, which was none other man a form of Mithraism! And why are the Mongol armies depicted in European accounts as consisting of mad killers, rather than as containing a large Christian contingent? Because the rascally Crusaders wished to cover up their embarrassment at not having co-operated with the Mongols to defeat Islam and hold on to the Holy Land! So what became of these Christian nomads? Why, with the conversion of later Mongol leaders in West Asia to Islam they went over to the nascent Russian resistance – and formed an important and completely unacknowledged element in its success! ‘Well I never!’ we cry, or ‘Never!’ – depending very much on our own familiarity with these highly disparate areas of inquiry, though perhaps every schoolboy knows that the Crusaders were not the sort of people to embarrass easily. Even the editorial introduction to this English version of Gumilev raises an eyebrow or two over his attempts at shaking more meaning out of familiar but highly problematic materials, while commending (in concert with Anglophone historians) his welcome insistence on treating Eurasia as a unity: we have to, if the Mongols did.

In other words, Gumilev’s first strategy works a whole lot better than his second, though perhaps to declare his work good in parts is to miss the point: he repeatedly tells us exactly what he is doing, right or wrong, and that he is doing it because he is committed to finding a way beyond narrow specialisation which fails to comprehend what the Mongols were about. Rossabi’s is assuredly the better-wrought book, one that will probably stand for many years as the best account of Khubilai available, but Gumilev’s challenges us not to rest content with the many rebuttals of his specific interpretations that have already appeared here and there but to move on to a renewed attempt at synthesis which will do justice to the extraordinary scale of the Mongols’ achievements. Rossabi, his scholarship a patient accretion of details, provides us with a fascinating portrait of a restless nomad chieftain seen mainly through the eyes of the sedentary populations over which he ruled; Gumilev conveys something of the excitement of conquest from the conqueror’s point of view. Read both books, and marvel like Marco Polo at the mighty empire which first shattered the parochial isolation of our forebears at the Western end of Eurasia, and which even today baffles the parochialism of our own approach to history. Travel in the imagination a long way from home, even as far as Xanadu, courtesy of the research work of the USA and the USSR: Britain is guaranteed to seem a much smaller place on your return.