Book Review: Khubilai Khan

Khubilai Khan:  His Life And Times, by Morris Rossabi

I found this book to be a remarkably evenhanded book and one that gave a fair amount of credit for Khubilai’s early success to the people he had around him, whether that included his wife or some good advisers, and as I tend to like books that present a nuanced view of important historical personages, this book definitely fits the bill nicely.  If you have an interest in Mongol history [1] and enjoy reading moderate length biographies, this book will likely please you as much as it pleased me to read.  I also found this book relevant for an unexpected reason, and not only as an antidote to books that seek to libel the book’s subject, but also for the fact that the author spends a good deal of time mentioning repeatedly the fact that Khubilai Khan struggled with gout for a substantial period of his life and did not handle it in the best way.  As someone who knows my way around a gouty foot myself, I found that discussion to add some surprising poignancy to the life of someone I must say that I have not read about at length and in detail before, despite being generally familiar with the Mongol’s rise to power.

In terms of its contents, this book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into eight chapters.  The first chapter of the book looks at the context of the early Mongols and their rise from nomadic obscurity to a position of power over a large stretch of Eurasia.  After this the author looks at the rise of Khubilai among the descendants of Genghis Khan thanks to the sound diplomacy of his mother and the exploitation of divides within the family of the Great Khans.  The third chapter examines the disputed election of Khubilai to the position of Great Khan and the growing freedom and rivalries of other parts of the family, which had divided the large Mongol Empire into smaller Khanates.  Then the author looks at the conquest of China by the Mongols and how it was interrupted by internecine warfare.  The author’s period as Emperor of China and his efforts to play different advisers off of each other follows.  Then the author looks at Khubilai’s work as a cultural patron in areas like poetry, drama, art, and architecture, all of which had some notable influence thanks to Mongol support as well as international trade.  The last two chapters, sadly, detail the decline of Khubilai and Mongol rule over China, including growing fiscal mismanagement, a dispute between incompatible goals of ruling gently over the Chinese and exploiting the wealth of China for failed invasions of Japan, Vietnam, Burma, and Java, before the book closes with a melancholy look at the succession after Khubilai.

This book excels at a few tasks, including a bit of historical investigation into the origins of some of the notable figures in Khubilai’s reign as a Chinese ruler.  Whether it is reflecting into the divisions within the Chinese religious community or the ruling families of the Mongols or even the Chinese intellectuals of the time, this book does a good job at pondering the way that the fate of large empires sometimes depends on matters like the health of an emperor, the susceptibility of his relatives to poisoning and alcohol abuse, and the way that it is sometimes impossible to govern well given the constraints that one is under.  If this book is certainly a melancholy one, there is a lot to appreciate about it and the way that it shines a light on an area that has been neglected by a wide variety of contemporary historians because they have either not taken the writings of Marco Polo and others seriously enough or because they have taken Chinese mandarins hostile to the achievements of Mongols at face value and not examined the larger historical record to see the facts for themselves.  That this book does so is certainly worthy of notice and praise.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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