“Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times” was written by Morris Rossabi focusing on the Song and Yuan dynasties that existed in the Eurasian continent in the early centuries during which the Mongols were the rulers.
The author, Morris Rossabi, is a professor at Columbia with a specialty in China and Central Asia history, an author of several articles and has had many expeditions in Central Asia and Mongolia. In this book, Rossabi focuses on a man known as Khubilai Khan who “lived during the height of Mongol power” (Rossabi 1) and was perceived by many writers as a mythical and legendary figure who was able to influence greatly the history of China, parts of Asia, and the Europe as well. Khubilai Khan was born on 23rd September 1215 (Rossabi 13), and his career ignited the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire in early China. It was during his reign that China witnessed the building of its capital city, Shanghai, and the development of a legal code among other developments. He was brought up by his mother, Ogodei. His wish to become a leader and develop his leadership skills started when he was a ruler of a group of Chinese farmers and rose up the leadership ladder to a Mongol. In all his leadership positions, he adopted a “laizzes-faire” kind of leadership and did not discriminate any class of people (Rossabi 14).
Though he was a non-Chinese, he was dependent mostly on the Chinese people who acted as his personal advisors. However, when he was young, it was not easy to manipulate him and his leadership and, due to these facts, we are able to learn that for the Chinese, it did not actually matter where the ruler came from to demonstrate his leadership position and change to Chinese. Numerous discussions and wrangles because of leadership took place between Khan and his step brothers. Khan had an advantage considering his expansion of the rule to Northern China and also had his own advisors from other parts. He was termed as the most “typical Confucian ruler” (Rossabi xii), even if he did not know the Confucian language, still, the people who were close to him were of Chinese origin. Khubilai was portrayed as a ruler whom nobody knew, neither his leadership style nor ideas despite the thirty four years he held the rule.
He realized that “a good emperor ought, in Chinese eyes, to be a patron of the country’s culture” (Rossabi 163), so, he tried to do everything to meet the necessary standards. The author reveals that despite his empire being marked with frequent wars, he always put up stimulus programs that were meant to boost the social, economic and political structures of the empire. His main concern was on those of the lower class of whom many were the peasants (Rossabi 120); therefore, he developed agriculture and policies that protected their lands from being grabbed and also promoted farm taxes abolishment. In addition, the artisans or craftsmen enjoyed his protection as they were provided with jewellery at the courts, a fact that led to the growth of merchants.
There were many different spheres and activities which were properly developed under the Khan’s ruling. For example, medicine was a highly recognized activity that promoted the development of Imperial Academy of Medicine and was appreciated by the medical representatives from India. It was usually favored by the court, and only pragmatic rulers were able to define its benefits in regard to the development of political relations (Rossabi 125). However, it was not the only activity that made Khan recognizable over the whole world. To gain support from the vast majority of people, Khan pardoned his political enemies and established a law that required one to pay a fine in case it was found that committing an offence was more appropriate than being imprisoned in jail.
He faced a lot of resistance from his enemies and personal frustrations until his death at the age of eighty while still in power. Through the book, the reader gains knowledge on the importance of recognizing all classes of people who help Khubilai Khan retain power and stay strong during a certain period of time. As it was mentioned before, the peasants appreciated his activities the most, and this group of people was the major one. Another clear point the author opens to the reader is that leadership wrangles always starts with family members who prefer to make and develop coalitions with enemies in order to fight against the leader and dethrone his within a short time. Control of authority was regarded to be a significant part of the leader’s life, and to improve the relations with different people, Khubilai made numerous attempts to solve different problems in different ways as soon as they appeared (Rossabi 185). In general, the book is considered to be an interesting source of information about Khubilai Khan during the times he was empowered, specially the time when he deployed Chinese people to be his personal advisors yet he did not know any Chinese language, and his weird way of leadership was not clear to every member of society.
He was a ruler who operated with his conscience: even those people who were close to him could not guess what he was planning to execute, this is why nobody could manipulate him in any way. Maybe, because of such attitude to the people around and to his duties, this person was defined as the Great Khan (Rossabi 53). Though the book does not provide the reader with a clear view of the backgrounds under which Khan lived; a number of interesting facts and passive information about his family, his way to power, and his readiness to resist everyone around help to grasp the main idea of this great ruler’s life. In spite of the fact that not much attention is paid to the political situation in the country, the reader is able to comprehend what made Khan choose particular steps. So, if the reader is able to evaluate the situation through the eyes of Khan and his relatives, it is possible to define the essence of life that was spread over Eurasia before it disintegrated.
Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. New York: University of California Press, 1990.