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Khubilai Khan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In the English-speaking world, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” has immortalized the founder of the Mongol Dynasty:

In Xanadu did Kubla KhanA stately pleasure dome decree:Where Alph, the sacred river, ranThrough caverns measureless to manDown to a sunless sea.

Coleridge aside, Khubilai Khan was a significant historical figure. Among his accomplishments were the conquest of Southern China, the establishment of a “foreign” dynasty over all China, the forging of cultural and economic links with Europe, promotion of the arts and literacy, promotion of trade through the use of paper money, and improvements in transport and communications. Perhaps his most significant achievement, however, was his own evolution from pastoral nomadic ruler to administrator of an empire. It is this development that Morris Rossabi chronicles in Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times.

Rossabi’s approach to his subject is basically topical, although chronological order is also a consideration. An initial chapter introduces the early Mongols and their traditions and places them in the context of the world of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Having set the historical stage, Rossabi introduces Khubilai and discusses his early life, including his relationship with his mother and her family. Traditionally, the Mongol power structure required the lesser khans and the Great Khan to prove repeatedly their military and political abilities, and none was beyond challenge by another; succession was not automatic and almost never secure, as the continual rivalry between Khubilai and his younger brother Arigh Boke illustrates. This conflict is discussed in a chapter chronicling Khubilai’s struggles to maintain his position as Great Khan after his election in May of 1260. In this period Khubilai continued the Mongol tradition of expansion, moving his forces into Southern China in an effort (eventually successful) to subjugate the Southern Sung Dynasty and place all China under Mongol rule. Meanwhile, Khubilai succeeded in having the Korean king acknowledge fealty to him and placed a resident commissioner in Korea. With the aid of the Koreans, Khubilai launched his first attempt at subjugating the Japanese—which became his first failure at conquest, a sore point to which he would return. Having secured his position for the time being against both foreign and domestic challenges, Khubilai began to concentrate on administrative and other matters relating to governing a diverse empire. Rossabi’s fifth chapter chronicles Khubilai’s activities as Emperor of China. A significant portion of his attention was given to economic problems and the launching of public works programs. One particularly far-reaching accomplishment was Khubilai’s improvement of the transportation system. He promoted the building of roads throughout the empire; at the same time, he established a network of postal stations that greatly improved communications. “By the end of Khubilai’s reign,” Rossobi observes,China had more than 1,400 postal stations, which had at their disposal about 50,000 horses, 8,400 oxen, 6,700 mules, 4,000 carts, almost 6,000 boats, over 200 dogs, and 1,150 sheep. The individual stations varied considerably, but they all had hostels for visitors, kitchens, a main hall, enclosures for animals, and storehouses for grain. Under ideal conditions, the rider-messengers at the postal stations could cover 250 miles a day to deliver significant news, a remarkably efficient mail service for the thirteenth, or any other, century.

In this period Khubilai also recruited something of an international cadre of advisers in all areas of government. He drew from Chinese Confucians, Persian Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and European Christians. For a Mongol, Khubilai was remarkably tolerant; indeed, it could be said that domains under his rule enjoyed a greater degree of religious freedom than any other area in Asia or Europe at that time.

At the same time, Khubilai was...

(The entire section is 1,258 words.)