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Xanadu in New York

The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 28, 2010–January 2, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition edited by James C.Y. Watt
Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 342 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
National Palace Museum, Taipei
Liu Guandao: Kubilai Khan Hunting (detail of a hanging scroll), 1280


The Mongols inhabited a vast, featureless grass plain where the soil was too thin for crops. They raised horses, cattle, yaks, sheep, and goats, and subsisted almost entirely on meat and milk and milk products. The women milked the cows and the men milked the mares. They had no fixed houses and lived in yurts made of greased felt that they hauled on ox-drawn carts. Inside the yurts, hunks of meat hung on the horns of goats. They never washed their clothes or washed their vessels; bathing in running water was punishable by death. The women were excellent equestrians and archers, but female corpulence was prized and the wealthiest among them became too obese to ride. They had no written language and only rudimentary skills in metallurgy; unlike the Crusaders, they never made horseshoes. Their human genius was in military organization and tactics, and in politics as war by other means.

Nomads continually need greater territory for fresh pasture, and the peoples of the grasslands—Mongol, Tatar, Merkit, Uriyankat, Oirat, Tumet, Kerait, Naiman, Ongut—were at war for centuries. As early as the third century BCE, the settled and agricultural Chinese had begun construction of the Great Wall to keep them out. This was only sporadically successful. By the thirteenth century, the Tanguts in the northwest had already founded the Xi Xia Dynasty, and most of the rest of northern China was under control of the Jurchens, who had established the Jin Dynasty after conquering, in turn, the Liao Dynasty, ruled by another northern tribe, the Khitan.

In 1206, a Mongol of obscure birth, Temüjin, after much internecine warfare, united the tribes of the steppes and was declared the Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, the “universal ruler.” Within a few decades, he and his successors controlled an empire that stretched from Korea to Poland. They destroyed dynasties that had governed for centuries and some of the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated cities on earth. Samarkand and Bukhara never recovered their glory; in the Silk Road city of Merv, perhaps the largest in the world, a million and a half people were killed; in Balakh, it was said that only a few dogs were left barking in the empty streets. Moscow and Kiev, Isfahan and Damascus fell; 800,000 were killed in Baghdad; a million in Chengdu; in Aleppo only the craftsmen were spared; in Poland they cut off one ear of every surviving male and collected them in bags. It was merely the fortuitous deaths of Chinggis’s successors that kept them out of Egypt and Europe all the way to the Atlantic.

The Mongols overran one fifth of the earth with forces inferior in number, but unmatched in military tactics and political skill. Among warring kingdoms, they would join with one side to defeat the other, and then destroy their ally. Unlike the Arab nomads who conquered in the name of Islam or the European Crusaders who fought for Christ, the Mongols had no ideology. They founded no civilization; they only devastated cultures or let them be. After Chinggis vanquished the Xi Xia and Jin dynasties, he planned to kill all the people and turn the entirety of northern China into pasture land for his horses. He was persuaded that it would be more lucrative to allow the Chinese to continue their livelihoods and simply tax them.

Khans succeeded to the throne by tanistry—elected by a convocation of chieftains—not inheritance, though the khans had so many children with their wives and concubines that successors were normally blood relatives who had defeated or killed their brothers or cousins. By 1260, when Chinggis’s grandson Khubilai was declared the Great Khan, the empire was already divided into four vast tracts under semiautonomous command. Khubilai nominally ruled them all, but he directly controlled the eastern and richest sector: northern China, Korea, Tibet, and Mongolia itself.

Khubilai was a warrior shepherd ruling the most advanced civilization on earth at the time. In his kingdom there were a few hundred thousand Mongols, most of them in Mongolia itself, and some ten million Chinese, who unsurprisingly did not welcome yet another foreign occupation. The genius of his success was that he simultaneously weakened the power of the Chinese while increasing his popularity by making himself seemingly more Chinese, although he couldn’t read and could barely speak the language.

He moved the capital of the empire south and east from Khara Khorum in Mongolia, first to Shangdu (the Xanadu of Marco Polo and Coleridge, of which only a few stones and broken statues remain) and then to the former Jin Dynasty capital of Zhongdu (the Central Capital, present-day Beijing). He renamed it Dadu (the Great Capital) and built a magnificent city in the Chinese style with the tens of thousands of artisans who had been forcibly relocated from various corners of the Khanate. He lived like a Chinese emperor, though he preferred to sleep in a yurt on the palace grounds, and in 1271 proclaimed a new dynasty, the Yuan.

Yuan meant “origin”—as in “back to the origins”—and Khubilai revived ancient Confucian court rituals and had a dynastic history written in the traditional manner to justify its heaven-endowed legitimacy. His greatest claim as a Chinese emperor was that the Yuan eventually unified the country as it had not been in centuries. The Jin Dynasty had conquered half of the Song Dynasty, but the southern portion continued on for 150 years. The Southern Song, a wealthier and more populated region, with some 50 million people, had become weak and bankrupt as—in a pattern that has become all too familiar—the rich managed to legally avoid paying taxes while military expenses greatly increased. Nevertheless, it took years for Khubilai to conquer them and he never overcame their resentment, for the southerners were unaccustomed to foreign occupation and Confucian wisdom dictated that one must remain loyal to one’s original master. The rich, however, were allowed to keep their lands and were not unhappy to become even richer through the prospering sea and land trade.

To lessen the political power of the Chinese majority, Khubilai abolished the examination system, which traditionally had been the only way to rise into and through the bureaucracy. The exams were based on a knowledge of the Confucian classics and it was unlikely that non-Chinese would be able to pass; appointments were now made under the Mongol system of personal recommendations. A four-tier system was created. At the top were, of course, Mongols, who were more or less forced to keep their identity. They were forbidden to marry Chinese, or even to speak the language. Official proceedings were done through interpreters, though Khubilai unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a new, alphabetic form of writing, devised by a Tibetan monk, that could represent the sounds of all the languages of the empire.

Next in the hierarchy were the “colored-eyed people,” the foreigners, largely from western Asia. One could now travel safely by land from the eastern Mediterranean to the China Sea, and merchants poured in, welcome as long as they exchanged their gold and silver for Khubilai’s paper currency. Many of them—including Marco Polo, if he is to be believed—were given government positions.

Third were the northern Chinese, and fourth, the least trustworthy of all, the southern Chinese. Power in that other political force—organized religion—was kept in check by promoting all of them and favoring none. Along with adherents of the traditional Three Teachings (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism) there were Nestorian Christians, Manichaeans, and Muslims. Among the Buddhists, preference was shown for the Tibetan version, which was more appealing to Khubilai with its magical powers and politically motivated lamas than the more contemplative Chinese schools of Chan (which became Zen in Japan). There were, however, instances of religious repression: periodically against the Muslims, who were overenthusiastic collectors of taxes, and once against the Taoists, when Khubilai sided with the Buddhists in a dispute and ordered Taoist temples to be evacuated and the books of their canon burned.

Whether Khubilai was crueler than previous Chinese emperors is subject to debate. He created a comprehensive surveillance system of his citizens unmatched until the time of Mao, but he executed fewer officials. In the wars he fought, he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, including his disastrous campaigns against Annam and Champa (in present-day Vietnam), where his horses could not survive the jungle, the Kingdom of Java, and Japan, where nine hundred of his ships with the corpses of naked Japanese women nailed to the sides were destroyed by a combination of samurais and the kamikaze (divine wind) of a typhoon, whose symbolism would resurface in Japanese propaganda in World War II.

His later years were an autumn of the patriarch. He lost his favorite wife and favorite son, became grotesquely fat, suffered from gout and other ailments, and was detached from governing. He held huge and endless banquets of meat and koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, and was in a near-continual state of inebriation. More and more of his time was spent in the summer palace of Shangdu, which was largely a hunting reserve. There, four elephants would carry him, lying on a couch, in a gold-plated palanquin decked with tiger skins, accompanied by five hundred falconers and leopards and lynxes trained to chase down bears and wild boars.

He died in 1294 and was succeeded by twelve khans in turn, including ten in one seventeen-year span. China was wracked with natural disasters: unusual cold in what is now known as the Little Ice Age, famines every two years, floods, swarms of locusts, the earthquake of 1303 that killed at least a half a million, and epidemics of typhoid, smallpox, and bubonic plague. (It was the Mongols who brought the Black Death to Europe in the fourteenth century, which some epidemiologists trace back to the fleas on the Mongolian gerbils of the steppes.) It is probable that the total population dropped by tens of millions. In the Chinese obsession with the harmony of Heaven and Earth, with the emperor as the Son of Heaven who assures order, it meant that the universe was out of whack, that there was a moral disorder as much as a physical one. In 1368 the dynasty collapsed in the usual chaos and a new dynasty, the Ming, was declared.


The great museums are little empires, ruled by tyrannical or benevolent emperors, with the plunder of the world arranged geographically: the Great Powers of history centrally located and the more remote corners of the earth usually accessible only through a labyrinth of corridors, stairs, and elevators. Small wonder, then, that museums so often pitch their blockbuster shows on empires themselves and, when possible, charismatic emperors.

The World of Khubilai Khan” at the Metropolitan Museum is no exception. Khubilai—thanks to Marco Polo, Coleridge, and a thousand cheesy discos called Xanadu—is a brand name of sorts. It hardly matters that Marco Polo may never have gone to China and that Coleridge’s opium dream—beyond the “stately pleasure dome” of the first lines—was also an amalgam of his readings of actual and fantastic accounts of travel in Florida, Kashmir, and on the Nile. Blockbusters have to sell tickets, and the Met is even luring visitors with a Patti Smith “tribute to Xanadu” concert.

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