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Ball State Grad-RMN
- Published on Amazon.com
Morris Rossabi's appropriately titled Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times is a well-written and extensively researched biography of the founder of the Yuan dynasty, Khubilai Khan. The benefit of this text, according to Rossabi, is that unlike others, it relies on a wide variety of sources in both Western and Eastern languages. While this text is organized both chronologically and topically, it can well be divided in to three sections. The first section provides background information on the Mongol Empire and traces Khubilai's ascension to the throne of the Great Khan. However, Rossabi argues that a great deal of credit for Khubilai and his brother's success should go to their mother, Sorghaghtani Beki. In the next section, Rossabi examines Khubilai's largely successful endeavors as Great Khan and the Emperor of China. The final section discusses the decline of Khubilai and his empire. Throughout this text, Rossabi portrays Khubilai has a fair ruler who is profoundly influenced by his relationships with his various advisors, including his wife Chabi. Unfortunately, there are several instances where the author fails to provide adequate evidence to support his interpretations. On some topics, Rossabi is also disappointingly vague. These flaws notwithstanding, this biography is an adequate starting point for scholars and non-academic readers interested in Khubilai Khan or the Yuan dynasty.
Sorghaghtani plays a central role in the beginning of this book. In fact, Rossabi declares that Sorghaghtani "had lofty ambitions for her four sons," but he provides little evidence to support this assertion (11). Instead, Rossabi discusses a litany of excessively flattering comments about Sorghaghtani made by men such as John of Plano Carpini, Rashid al-Din, and Bar Hebraeus without even a word about her actions that directly resulted in this praise. Additionally, Rossabi does not clearly illuminate the relationship between Sorghaghtani's actions and her son's success. For instance, the most direct example of her involvement in her son's success is when she warned Batu, the Khan of the Golden Horde, that Güyüg, the reigning Great Khan, was planning to attack him. This action won Batu's favor and after Güyüg's death, he supported Sorghaghtani's son Möngke to become the Khaghan. Still, this action directly benefited Sorghaghtani because she controlled an appanage in Northern China. Thus, she might have acted out of self-interest rather than a desire to see her son become the Great Khan. The remaining evidence revolves around the example she set in governing her appanage and seeing to Khubilai's education, but it seems likely that he would have received an education regardless since he was a member of the royal family.
After he ascends to the throne of the Great Khan, Rossabi pays particular attention to the interplay between Khubilai and his numerous advisors, many of whom died during the 1270s (15). Yet, while Rossabi argues that Khubilai was not a "puppet" of his advisors, he does not address why his fortunes were so dependent upon their wise recommendations. For example, by 1279 Khubilai faced severe financial difficulties due to his ambitious policies and profligate spending during the first two decades of his reign. To solve these financial problems, Khubilai sought the assistance of Ahmad, Sangha, and Lu Shih-jung, known as the "three villainous ministers" (179). These men not only exacerbated Khubilai's financial problems, they also alienated his Chinese subjects. In addition, Khubilai embarked upon several unsuccessful military forays in the decades following the 1270s; the most significant being the disastrous invasion of Japan in 1281. However, Khubilai's troops were also less than successful in military engagements against Pagan, Annam, Champa, and Java. All of these failures significantly undermined Khubilai's authority. As such, there seems to be a strong correlation between Khubilai's early success and his advisors who died during the 1270s. Nevertheless, Rossabi still gives a large amount of credit to Khubilai for the successful policies and military accomplishments during his reign.
Rossabi also tends to be frustratingly vague on important topics and overlooks occasions to give the reader a glimpse of Khubilai, the man, as opposed to the ruler. One of the best examples of this comes from the final chapter when Rossabi writes, "[Khubilai] grew obese and suffered from ailments associated with alcoholism" (206). Given the diverse nature of the "ailments" associated with alcohol abuse, this is a perfect occasion to provide examples of the behavior to which he is referring. Instead, Rossabi moves on to another topic without as much as a footnote. Rossabi is also elusive on the details of how Chabi aided Khubilai in his duties as the Great Khan and Emperor of China, despite asserting that Chabi was an "ideal helpmate" and "was just as anxious as her husband to set up a government in China" (69). As a result, Rossabi not only weakens his argument, he also loses crucial opportunities to provide the reader with a personal glimpse of the individuals he discusses.
Even with these flaws, this book does have some positive qualities. Perhaps the most significant benefit of this text is the clear and concise language with which it is written. Unlike other similar studies, this book also uses a large quantity of sources spread throughout the former Mongol Empire. Therefore, this study is a good starting point for historians interested in Khubilai Khan or this era of Chinese history. Nevertheless, a successful biography requires a great amount of insight into the character, relationships, and intimate details of the person it examines, and it seems that Rossabi passed over several opportunities to relay these types of details.