- Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols
The number of regional studies of China has grown tremendously in recent years, and David M. Robinson’s Empire’s Twilight is an excellent addition to this new direction in research. It is particularly welcome not only in its regional emphasis, in this case northeast Asia, but also in its focus on the fall of the Yuan dynasty. As Robinson so rightly points out, the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in northeastern Asia is barely discussed in most histories. Empire’s Twilight is not, however, just about a region of China. Rather, it is about the way in which parts of the Mongol empire, or ulus, interacted with each other across boundaries. Particularly in northeast Asia, the Korean kingdom of Koryŏ was a critical part of political and cultural life.
Robinson’s starting point is the deep and complex relationship of Koryŏ to the Mongol central court. Korean aristocrats, particularly members of the royal family, spent considerable time at the Mongol court, absorbing Mongol customs and becoming part of the larger multiethnic, multicultural Mongol empire. Royal sons served in the emperor’s keshig, or bodyguard, developing personal ties to the Mongol emperor. At the same time, taking Korean wives or consorts was a status symbol, bringing female Korean influence into the households of many members of the Mongol court, including the emperor. Indeed, the empress Ki would play a pivotal role in Mongol and Mongol-Koryŏ politics. Her drive to get her husband to abdicate in favor of her son, and her hostility to the Koryŏ king Kongmin, fueled much of the internal strife at the Mongol court just as it faced a rising tide of opposition to its rule. Kongmin himself would manage to survive Ki’s opposition, as well as the fall of the Mongol empire.
Just as critical in the mix of region and politics was the rise of the Red Turbans. This originally millenarian Buddhist rebel group evolved not only into the forces of the warlord and soon-to-be founding Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, but also into a large number of disparate, and often uncoordinated, bandit groups marauding across eastern Eurasia. The challenge for the historian, as Robinson makes abundantly clear, is somehow to draw a line around an area and try to analyze what was happening in that territory. Particularly in the case of the Mongol ulus, where the concept of control was itself a fluid thing, it is functionally impossible to isolate parts of it without doing violence to what was actually happening.
Boundaries did exist within the Mongol ulus, but they were not quite what modern nationalists or even historians would be comfortable with. Koryŏ was a separate kingdom in a political and territorial sense, while at the same time being [End Page 377] subordinate in both those spheres to central Mongol court authority. Lines were established through political and military struggle, all the while maintaining the agreed upon hierarchy of central court and subordinate state. Kongmin actually fended off a Mongol invasion in support of a rival claimant to the Koryŏ throne, a claimant whose position as Koryŏ king was ordered by the Mongol court. The failure of the invasion, compounded by Kongmin’s ultimately successful defense of his kingdom from the Red Turbans (something the Mongol court could not claim), forced the Mongol emperor to retract his order deposing Kongmin. Empress Ki was, therefore, unable to get her way in Koryŏ. Yet none of this actually changed the overall Mongol-Koryŏ relationship.
Robinson’s work also highlights two historiographical issues that have strongly biased our understanding of Mongol, Chinese, and Korean history. The first is the linguistic challenges that create academic boundaries between otherwise connected polities. Very few scholars have all the necessary languages to study the Mongol ulus and, even if they did, the kinds of sources available make comparisons and connections difficult. Yuan dynasty history, as opposed to that of...