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Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 206-210 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

One of the least-studied periods in Korean history is the century following the collapse of military rule in 1270, before the rise of Chosŏn at the end of the fourteenth century. To examine this period comprehensively, a scholar must not only work with Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Mongolian sources, but also be well versed in the individual histories of these areas. Few are willing to take on this daunting task, but for readers of English we now have an excellent window into this very period. Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols by David M. Robinson demands our respect. As Robinson notes from the start, because of the complexity of this subject, historians have long remained “confounded” by this period. With this publication, students and scholars should no longer be “confounded.”

Western scholarship has virtually ignored this period that saw the unraveling of the Mongol empire, and few scholars writing in Korean, Chinese, or Japanese have made this era a focus of their research. In the West, John Duncan, in his monograph The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty, has provided the most in-depth study of Korean society at that time, but his focus was more on internal dynamics than Koryŏ’s relations with the Yuan. Duncan also oversaw Peter Yun’s dissertation, “Rethinking the Tribute System: Korean States and Northeast Asian Interstate Relations, 600 to 1600,”1 which also skirts this same period. In the Korean language there are a number of studies over the last twenty or so years that have tried to put this period in perspective, but these, like those in the West, have remained focused on Koryŏ specifically and do not try to provide a more global approach to understanding Koryŏ within the Mongol sphere. Here is perhaps Robinson’s greatest contribution.

Although this book focuses extensively upon Koryŏ within the Mongol empire, particularly during the “twilight years” of the empire from 1350 to its final collapse, it also looks beyond Koryŏ, bringing in perspectives from both Shangdu and Daidu, the Mongolian capitals. Robinson does this by examining the character of interchange within the Mongol empire and also focusing on three personalities that dominate this period: two men and a woman. Toghan-Temür, the Mongol emperor Huizong or Shundi (1333–70), Koryŏ’s King Kongmin (1351– 74), and the Korean-born wife of Toghan-Temür, Empress Ki. In most studies to date, these three personalities have appeared only as opaque characters. Robinson gives life to them and through them provides a much more nuanced understanding of these twilight years.

The four themes that intersect this study are: “the need for a regional perspective versus that of a dynasty or country; the process and consequences of integration under the Mongols; the tendency for individual and family interests to trump those of dynasty, country, or linguistic affiliation; and finally, the need to see Koryŏ as part of the wider Mongol empire” (p. 6). What Robinson is attempting to do is unique in the study of East Asia or Northeast Asia and points to the direction future research should consider. Too often historians have been content to look at just one dynasty or country as a window into a period. One possible early exception is Charles Holcombe’s The Genesis of East Asia2 where the author attempts to move beyond a country-by-country understanding and focus on the integration of the region. (To digress, when the history of Western Europe appears in most textbooks, authors pursue this very same approach looking at Western Europe as a collective, rather than just individual, diverse polities.) This is Robinson’s mission and he has made great strides in achieving this.

A second important perspective Robinson provides is that he tries to study the period in its own right. Granted he has titled this book Empire’s Twilight, well aware that great changes are about to come, but he seeks to understand the events and personalities of the age in light of the conditions these personalities confronted. None knew that the Ming and Chosŏn dynasties would shortly emerge, and all were struggling to be masters of the age at hand. Empire’s Twilight...

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