Who is Kubilai Khan?

Throughout our study of Marco Polo’s Travels thus far, we have heard of the many places Marco Polo has journeyed to while serving under the great emperor of the Tartans, Kubilai Khan.  Because Marco Polo was gathering information about these provinces to relay back to the Great Khan, it seems as if every description of a place somehow relates back to the glory of their great ruler.  These descriptions make it obvious that Marco Polo’s account was slightly biased toward what Kubilai Khan wanted to hear, but up until Chapter 3, we have no significant information about who this Kubilai Khan really is, besides the fact that he is the ruler of a vast empire.  Chapter 3 provides us with more information about the identity of the Great Khan.  The chapter begins by stating its purpose: to convince the reader that Kubilai Khan was the greatest ruler to ever live.  In a way, this purpose is somewhat fulfilled.  Marco Polo discusses the many achievements of Kubilai Khan, including his successes in battle, his ability to put down rebellions, his great palaces and many riches.  Kubilai Khan is described as a great and powerful ruler, but also one who cares about his subjects, through his charity and almsgiving to the poor, as well as his fair treatment of his subordinates.  However, throughout the many anecdotes told to describe the Great Khan, there are several that seem to characterize him as not so great. These include the stories of his many wives and mistresses, as well as the corruption caused by one of his close subordinates, Ahmed.

Aside from his four legal wives, Chapter 3 also describes the Khan’s many mistresses who are chosen by his emissaries.  These emissaries are sent out to certain provinces where they select the most beautiful women according to the Khan’s specific “standard of beauty.”  The emissaries thoroughly inspect these women, and those who are chosen are taken from their homes and families and brought to the Khan, who then chooses the women he approves of to be his mistresses.  In this way, Kubilai Khan treats women as objects of sexual pleasure, as well as takes them away from their homes and families.  For someone who’s supposed to be the greatest ruler to ever live, Kubilai Khan’s treatment of women doesn’t seem to put him in a very favorable light.  In addition to this, Kubilai Khan also allows corruption to occur in his government through Ahmed, a man “who surpassed all the rest in his authority and influence over the Great Khan,” so much that the Khan gave Ahmed the free hand to basically do whatever he wanted.  Because of this, Ahmed could cause the death of anyone who hated, as well as reward with government jobs anyone who would hand over their daughters to be his mistresses.  The fact that Kubilai Khan allowed this to happen doesn’t seem to support his characterization as a great ruler either.

One might wonder why Marco Polo spent the entire book up to this point describing the greatness of Kubilai Khan, only to later reveal details about his personal life and corruption within his government that undermine his greatness as a ruler.  While the previous two chapters reveal information that Marco Polo gathered for the Khan, this chapter seems more geared toward Marco Polo’s western audience as a source of entertainment.  This audience probably enjoyed hearing the scandalous details of Kubilai Khan’s private life, details that normally aren’t revealed about rulers.

Another element to support the idea of this western audience is the discussion of religion in Chapter 3.  While Kubilai Khan is described as being painstakingly impartial to the different religions practiced in his empire, it is revealed that he actually favors the Christian religion, but hasn’t converted because he doesn’t want to upset his subjects of other religions.  This seems like another appeal to Marco Polo’s western audience in Europe, where many people practiced Christianity.  These Europeans probably would have been more likely to appreciate Marco Polo’s anecdotes about the Khan if they had this sense of familiarity, knowing that this foreign ruler believed in the same Christian God as them.

In my opinion, there are several details about Kubilai Khan in Chapter 3 that seem to support Marco Polo’s attempts to appeal to his western audience in Europe.  What do you believe is the significance of these stories and do they reveal anything about Marco Polo’s Travels as a whole?

This entry was posted in Marco Polo's Travels, Student Generated. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Who is Kubilai Khan?

  1. Kaitlin says:

    I agree with the majority of what you said. This chapter does seem to appeal much more to the Western audience than previous chapters have, or at least in a more direct way.

    Where I differ, is what you say about the treatment of women. You say that because he treats women badly, that makes him a bad ruler, but in that time period, women weren’t treated well at all. Perhaps this is going too far into the idea of looking at history through the perspective of that time period, but it seems to me that it wouldn’t have scandalized much of the Western audience as to the maltreatment of women. Thoughts?

    Other than that point, I agree with your take on Kublai Khan as a whole, and how his person would be viewed in the Western culture. As a whole, I think that it reveals fully the difference between Polo writing for the Khan versus writing for the Europeans, something that was glimpsed at in earlier chapters.

  2. Lindsey says:

    I think it’s important to note even though the Great Khan doesn’t treat women well in today’s sense, he might have treated the concubines well for his time period. After all, “the Great Khan gives [some nobleman] one of these damsels with a great dowry. And in this way he marries them all off honourably” (Marco Polo, 123). Perhaps honorably marrying off his concubines was considered good treatment. In addition Marco Polo represents the fathers of the these women as esteeming “it a great favour and distinction” (Marco Polo, 123). Either way I agree with Megan that the Western audience must have enjoyed these private details of the Khan’s lifestyle.

  3. Kevin says:

    Those of us who read the Zhou article will remember that Zhou had some interesting insights into the portrayal of the Great Khan. As he argues that Marco Polo is a work of small talk, a specific genre of Chinese literature dealing with gossip, anecdotes, and trivial concerns, he mentions one slight difference between true small talk and Marco Polo’s work: a real baiguan, or official whose job it was to write small talk, would never have been able to publish the saucier details of the Khan’s life, especially those of his sex life and his numerous concubines. I would agree, though, that these details are not necessarily meant to be demeaning to the Khan. They may not fall within Western ethical standards, but Marco Polo definitely could have given a much harsher account of them than he did. The fact that he was pretty neutral about it actually fits into the small talk technique, but I’ll spare those of you that didn’t read Zhou. Essentially, these stories that we could stretch to be “bad” really are just describing the Khan in a fairly matter-of-fact fashion – just like almost every story he tells of the Khan.

  4. Annalise Burnett says:

    I agree that the concubines are not presented in a way that should cast the Khan in a negative light. Marco Polo even directly addresses this when he says “You may be inclined to ask: ‘Do not the men of this province regard it as a grievance that the Great Khan robs them of their daughters?’ Most certainly not.” He then proceeds to explain how overjoyed the fathers of the girls are to have their family honored in such a profitable and respectable (given the time) way.

    In regards to the take on Ahmad, I disagree that it presents the Khan as a bad leader. In fact, I think it does the opposite. Remember that the Khan was not aware that Ahmad was committing these evil deeds until AFTER his death. In fact, the text begins its description of Ahmad by saying that “this Ahmad used to bewitch the Emperor by his black arts to such purpose that he won a ready hearing and acceptance for everything he said; and so he was free to do whatever he chose.” This tells us that the Khan was not simply turning a blind eye to Ahmad’s actions, he was instead being duped by someone he trusted. This sense of betrayal and deception on Ahmad’s part is reinforced when the Khan, upon discovering what had actually been going on behind his back, “ordered Ahmad’s body to be taken from the grave and flung in the street to be torn to pieces by dogs.” Clearly, the Great Khan was not aware of what this man had been doing, and went to great lengths to show his people that. Therefore, I do think this passage functions to portray the Khan as a great leader just like the rest of the chapter. The point, in my opinion, is to show that despite being humiliated and betrayed by someone so close to him, the Khan is not making any excuses for the evil done by Ahmad, and is instead treating him as he would anyone else who had committed such awful deeds, showing his sense of justice and equality, which are highly respected and desired traits in a leader.

  5. Laura says:

    I think it could be argued either way – that these stories both add to and deter from Kubilai Khan’s image as a leader. However, I do think it more likely that these stories are meant to build up his image, just as the beginning of Chapter 3 suggests. When telling of the concubines, like Lindsey mentioned, Polo is sure to mention how delighted and honored the fathers of the chosen damsels are. And just as Kaitlin states, I don’t think this “maltreatment” of the women would have caused much alarm within the Western audience, as far as social justice goes. I think there’s a large possibility that Polo was attempting to paint an exotic East for the West. In the article by Campbell, she mentions how at this time, the expectation of the East was everything that the West wasn’t. The Western world, with its strict religious code and moral conduct dictating only one spouse, only one sexual partner, is appalled and intrigued by stories of the East with its hundreds of concubines, mistresses, and wives. In short, I think it’s possible that Polo chose these stories because he knew they’d provide an interesting, intriguing dichotomy of Western civilization.

    • Charlie says:

      I think you’re right when you say that the stories we read in this section of The Travels have been chosen deliberately for a Western audience. This seems most apparent when the Great Khan responds to those who are taunting Christianity after the defeat of Nayan. Though the Khan has just overseen the execution of this man, who “was a baptized Christian” (117), he nonetheless defends the the Christian religion, an action which European nobles would have found quite pleasing even if such a defense was never issued from the Khan’s mouth. Moreover, the leader of the Mongol empire goes on to embrace Christianity and proclaim that its beliefs are “truest and best” (119). In my opinion, all of the praise given to this oriental ruler in the subsequent stories becomes acceptable to the Western audience because the Great Khan is establishes as a Christian sympathizer, who would convert to the Western faith if he could do so without upsetting the multifaceted populace of his empire, for which he himself upholds a pluralist approach to religion. As a whole, it seems that making the Khan a Christian at heart is what allows his glorious image to be so marketable to Western lords, who may wish to emulate this highly successful ruler.

  6. Ivana Surjancev says:

    Annalise, I agree with your ideas about Ahmad and Kubilai Khan’s relationship with him. However, I’m not sure to what extent we can trust this relationship to have been as Marco Polo describes it. For one, we have already established that Marco Polo is trying to appeal to talk up Kubilai Khan, making him seem like the best ruler that ever lived. By telling us that Kubilai Khan is manipulated by Ahmad, who uses black magic, Marco Polo makes it seem that Kubilai Khan truly had no control over what Ahmad was doing. This is a great excuse for the Khan’s lack of action to prevent Ahmad from doing such things, though it might not be the real reason why the Khan didn’t punish Ahmad sooner. Perhaps it was easier for the Khan to ignore Ahmad’s actions? Or maybe he was just too lazy to take action against him? It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume that the Khan was at least a bit lazy considering that he always had concubines serving him. And once Ahmad was killed, it was a much easier task for Kubilai Khan to order people to take the body from the grave and feed it to dogs than it would’ve been to actually face Ahmad directly while he was alive.

    Overall, I think it’s important for us to try and distinguish what characteristics of the Khan were true in reality and which characteristics did Marco Polo exaggerate or give the Khan to make him seem like a better ruler.

  7. Brenna says:

    I think it’s important, when framing a discussion like this, to make a distinction between the possible definitions of greatness. There is possible moral greatness which might manifest itself in excellent treatment of conquered people and his wives/concubines; just government, or at least a government intended to be as just as possible (i.e. no institutionalized malfeasance or inequality etc.) and other ways. The other is “greatness” in the sense that his power is great, his empire is great, his prowess is great . Although his treatment of other religions and the like may give Kublai Khan a moral leg up on some other rulers in the traditional Western sense in at least one arena, for the most part, Kublai Khan’s greatness is one of power, not goodness.

  8. Clare Welch says:

    I agree with Brenna in that it is important to define Marco Polo’s motives in this book. As we have discussed in class, there are many ways to try to define what exactly Marco Polo is trying to convince the reader of in his description of the wonders of the East. I think the most interesting part about the ambiguity of Marco Polo’s writing is that he himself is an ambiguous figure. How do we know if the views portrayed in The Travels are actually his ideas? How much have the original source’s ideas been distorted over the centuries through different translations, or as Strickland argues, through different illustrations? I think it is an important to question how much the interpretation of this text has affected the way in which we read Marco Polo because the difference in interpretations could explain why there could be so many definitions for a great leader, or what charity is. I have absolutely no idea how to go about answering this question. However, it intrigues me because by somehow discerning the external influences imposed on the text from the original text, one could plausibly find out what Marco Polo’s original intent was.

Comments are closed.