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Reviewed by:
  • Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols
  • Michal Biran
Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols by David M. Robinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. Pp. xiv + 439. $49.50.

In recent decades, Western scholars have produced few monographs on the Mongols in East Asia; even rarer have been studies that explore untapped sources and present them in an erudite and original fashion, thus paving the way for new lines of inquiry. Against this backdrop, Robinson’s Empire’s Twilight is a most welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the Mongol empire. Offering “a view from the edge” in terms of both time and space, it focuses on the empire’s northeast corner in the decades preceding the fall of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). In particular, Robinson scrutinizes the Red Turbans’ campaigns of the 1350s and 1360s in the context of Northeast Asia, a region that he defines as comprising the Korean peninsula, southern Manchuria, the Shandong peninsula, and the area north of the Yuan capital of Dadu on the site of present-day Beijing. Through this prism Robinson highlights four major themes: the importance of adopting a regional perspective rather than a dynastic- or state-oriented one; the processes by which newly captured territories were integrated into the Mongol empire and the consequences thereof; the tendency of individual and family interests to trump dynasty, state, or linguistic affiliations; and the need to recognize Koryŏ as part of the wider Mongol empire (p. 6).

Empire’s Twilight is a profoundly erudite study; especially worthy are its numerous references to Korean scholarship (in addition to Chinese, Japanese, and Western studies). The book also draws on a wide range of primary sources, supplementing the official histories of Yuan China and Koryŏ with a panoply of private sources—poems, funerary inscriptions, diaries, and memorials—as well as later reconstructions of the period that were written in China, Korea, and Mongolia. Furthermore, Robinson intersperses the text with lengthy quotations from primary sources in both English and Chinese (for accommodating Chinese texts Harvard University’s Asia Center is to be commended). Whereas some of the longer excerpts hinder the argument’s flow, other passages serve well to convey a sense of the period. All told, by virtue of his extensive use of primary and secondary [End Page 370] sources, Robinson creates a nuanced picture of a region and epoch that scholars of the Mongol empire have often overlooked.

The first chapter reviews the integration of Northeast Asia under Mongol rule. Here, Robinson establishes the regional perspective as his primary analytic unit and unveils the amalgamation of political and administrative authorities in Mongol Liaodong and in the Korean Peninsula, which included Mongolian nobles (descendants of Chinggis Khan’s brothers); the Koryŏ monarch; and a host of Mongol, Korean, Chinese, and Uighur officials and generals who counterbalanced the ruling class. The author also reviews the political, commercial, ethnic, religious, and cultural networks that bound this region together. Whereas earlier scholarship put an emphasis on the indigenous culture’s influence on the Mongol conquerors, Robinson, following in the footsteps of Thomas T. Allsen’s seminal work,1 emphasizes the impact that Mongol cultural norms and administrative practices had on their subjects in a broad spectrum of areas, from military organization and multi-ethnic administration to gift giving, fashion, and food. This chapter is complemented by Chapter 3, which examines Koryŏ’s standing in the Yuan ulus (empire, state, literally the people subject to a Mongol prince), with an emphasis on the marriage relations between the two dynasties. Chapter 3 also introduces the Korean King Kongmin (r. 1351–1374), whose legitimacy was largely dependent on his relationship with the Mongols, both as a son-in-law (küregen) of the Yuan emperor and as someone who grew up in the royal guard in Dadu together with other members of the Yuan elite. Kongmin was indeed highly assimilated: he possessed a Mongol name (Bayan Temür); practiced archery, polo, and wrestling; and dressed in the Mongolian style. This does not mean that he did not strive to manipulate the Yuan weakness for his own ends. However, his attitude toward the Mongols was more...


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