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

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 411-414 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0017

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David Robinson must be highly commended for writing one of the most innovative, informative, and potentially field-changing books on the East Asian “Middle Period.” This statement refers to substance as well as to method and approach. At the most basic level, it reconfigures two classic forms of “packaging” Chinese history: the geographical and territorial definition of what China (especially as an “empire”) is assumed to be, and the dynastic cycle. The regional focus of the book, Northeast Asia, which extends to parts of north China (the eastern part of today’s Inner Mongolia), Shandong, Liaodong (for which it was meant roughly what is today China’s dongbei but chiefly southern Manchuria), and Korea, is unusual and shows how a regional perspective can destabilize narratives that refer to the territory classically associated to the “Chinese empire” even when no such empire existed. Moreover, the discontinuities usually associated with dynastic change are muffled if not overall eliminated by two converging paths of approach: the end of the Yuan as “Mongol empire,” and the long wave of decentralization and militarization that characterized Northeast Asia (as defined by Robinson). Therefore, “dynastic change” appears as a process at the same time longer, more local, and more “transnational” (because of its connections with Korea) than if seen only through a “Chinese history” perspective. Robinson demonstrates the advantages of the “sideways view” that he casts upon China, while illuminating Korean and Mongol history with admirable analytical perspicacity and mastery of the sources (Korean, Chinese, and Japanese).

The book opens with a chapter on the Yuan ulus (a term Robinson prefers to “dynasty”) and Mongol politics in the crepuscule of the empire. Together with a balanced assessment of Toghan-Temür’s reign, this chapter touches on several important changes that occurred in Northeast Asia under the Mongols, particularly in regard to the political and military situation. What Robinson stresses is the aristocratic character of the upper layers of society, its multiculturalism, and the higher level of economic integration achieved under the Mongols. At the same time, the region and its attendant parts retained specificity in various realms, from intellectual life to the legal codes that applied to different peoples. The balance between circuits of integration and policies that respected and preserved existing boundaries is a function of the Mongol empire that Robinson rightly underscores and that is essential to a correct understanding of the general backdrop of this period’s events.

This is followed by a chapter on the Mongol rulers’ attempts to respond and react to the many challenges of the mid-fourteenth century, together with the rise of millenarian movements that would eventually feed the Red Turban revolts. Robinson stresses the mounting tide of society’s militarization, the spreading of violence and chaos, while unrest swelled and local militias were created to fill the void left by an ineffective and weakened central government to secure protection for the local people. Robinson depicts a vivid picture of an increasingly beleaguered Mongol leadership confronted by rebel warlords such as Mao Gui 毛貴. As we learn of the ravages of Red Turbans under Master Guan and Cracked-Head Pan in northeast China and of their subsequent march into Korea in early 1359, Robinson turns to Koryŏ under the Mongols (Chapter Three).

With the quick-brush dexterity and detail-oriented precision that is typical of his style, Robinson explicates the relationship between the Koryŏ and the Mongol court focusing on the reign of the Korean king Kongmin 恭愍 (1351–74) and the vicissitudes of court politics. Among many fascinating details, one may note the reassessment of the political and ritual functions of the “Colors Banquets.” These were lavish feasts that introduced at the Mongol court elements of the steppe political culture meant to forge bonds of loyalty, exhibit imperial grandeur, and grant privileged status to the invitees. As Robinson shows, Koryŏ court politics was heavily invested in the glittery world of Daidu’s 大都 Mongol court. The duties of Korea to serve the Mongols became clear when a request arrived to send troops to fight the Red Turbans. King Kongmin obliged, but then moved in a direction of increasing autonomy that would eventually take him to the brink of war against...

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