Putting Memory to Work: The Ming Court and the Legacy of the Mongol Empire

     Empires create legacies that successors use in diverse ways.  My project explores the court of China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644) on a broad Eurasian stage.  It focuses on a moment when much of Eurasia shared a common reference point, the Mongol empire.  In the thirteenth century, the Mongols created the greatest land empire in history; their courts in China, Persia, and southern Russia were centers of wealth, learning, power, religion, and lavish spectacle. Scholars have rightly stressed the Mongol empire’s lasting impact on later ages, drawing attention to the emergence of an early modern global economy, the rise of Western Europe, and the development of the concept and practice of world history.  I tell the story from a different perspective. Rather than focus on how the Mongol empire shaped those who followed in its wake, I trace how ambitious men throughout Eurasia sought to exploit the memory, institutions, and personnel networks of the fallen empire. In other words, I highlight the historical agency of these rulers and their courts as they selectively appropriated elements of the Mongol legacy to advance their interests.

     My work takes advantage of momentum in several fields of early modern history. Scholars have begun to examine how in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, successor polities like the Timurid dynasty in Central Asia, the Muscovite state in Russia, and the Mughal dynasty in India used elements of the political institutions, trade networks, and notions of rulership formed during a century and a half of Mongol hegemony. Simultaneously, much has been done to situate Chinese history in a global context through comparisons of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), which ruled not only China but also Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet, and Xinjiang, to other early modern empires, including Russian, Ottoman, Mughal, and Western European polities.  My project extends these two trends in an emerging reconsideration of the early modern period. It looks at how the Ming dynasty tried to turn the Mongol legacy to its own advantage.  Further, I argue that such efforts are most fruitfully understood in a broad Eurasian context. With deep strengths in Chinese intellectual, cultural, and political history of the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries, Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology (IHP) 中研院史語所in Taiwan was an ideal environment in which to pursue my project in a collaborative environment.  I hope that my hosts have found my multi-disciplinary and comparative approach an interesting way to approach Chinese history.

     At IHP, I completed a book manuscript entitled Empire’s Shadow: The Early Ming Court in Eurasia.  The book charts how, after 1368, both the new Ming court and the surviving Mongol court in the steppe competed for overlapping foreign and domestic audiences through diplomacy, military action, and grand display.  The Ming and Mongol courts often used the same political rhetoric and symbols in their efforts. This created a surprisingly integrated interregional field of contestation. The book shows that when the Ming court explained its place in the world to neighbors near and far, it used a strikingly consistent set of talking points centered on the shared reference point of the Mongol empire and its collapse.  I combine close textual analysis of the story that the Ming court created about the rise, glory, and fall of the Mongol empire (especially the Yuan dynasty, as the Mongols were known in East Asia) with attention to broader developments in east Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I gave a series of talks about the project in Taiwan. Audiences were supportive and critical in just the right proportion.  Scholars at Academia Sinica were unfailingly generous in sharing their time and expertise. In addition, Fulbright organized a series of workshops where scholars had a chance to share their research experiences.

     I have also completed most of a second monograph during my Fulbright year at IHP.  Entitled Ming Rulership in the World, it argues that a vital element of the identity of fourteenth and fifteenth century Chinese emperors was rooted in their relations with foreign polities, especially influential foreign leaders.  I focus Ming rulers’ ties to Mongols, the most important group to Ming dynastic interests. I explore how Ming rulers worked to win the allegiance and support of important Mongol leaders. The book also traces how ties to the Ming throne changed the lives of Mongolians, especially those who chose to migrate to Chinese territory and become part of the Ming polity.

     Academica Sinica was an ideal place to finish my projects.  I made use of their excellent collection of Ming imperial annals, privately compiled histories, and contemporary officials’ memorials, essays, and poetry. Equally important is the outstanding concentration of scholars at the Institute of History and Philology, who are exploring fascinating new questions for the early modern period, including areas closely related to my project. Chen Wen-yi陳雯怡examines the changing social identity of Chinese literati under and after Mongol rule.  Wang Hong-tai王鴻泰has written on the place of military prowess and ethos in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Yu Chih-chia于志嘉 is the world’s leading expert on Ming military institutions, many of which were a direct legacy of the Mongol empire. My sponsor at IHP, Lin Fu-shih 林富士, was a great help in the application process and proved a generous host. Other colleagues at Academia Sinica such as Chen Hsi-yuan 陳熙遠, Wu Jen-shu 巫仁恕, Kevin Chang 張谷銘, Wang Fansen王汎森, and Paul Katz were similarly helpful and welcoming.  It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to interact with scholars from North America, Europe, and East Asia visiting at Academia Sinica. Finally, it was a treat to meet the inspiring members of the Association of Ming Studies of Taiwan, whose work I have long admired from a distance.

     Many global histories hold that China withdrew from the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, facilitating Western Europe’s rise to dominance and leading to the modern world’s creation. Close examination of the Ming court’s relations with the legacy of the Mongol empire, however, forces a reconsideration of China’s place in the world and literati’s place in China. It suggests that the Ming was not isolated, that the Ming court understood that it was one among many, and that it competed with both the memory of the great Mongol empire and later lesser Mongolian polities for status and power in Eurasia. Contextualization of the Ming within Eurasia also makes clear that Timurid, Muscovite, and Korean courts were often wrestling with similar challenges. To understand (and make understandable) Chinese history, we must combine a sharp and critical textual focus with a more encompassing perspective of China’s relations with its neighbors and the wider world. Thinking about the big picture makes us question our sources and the story they want to tell, while reexamining all sources, whether texts or imperial portraiture, makes us rethink the big picture. I learnt a great deal from the specialists at Academica Sinica.  I hope that my perspectives on Chinese history and ways to integrate the Ming period into wider global narratives held some interest to my hosts in Taiwan.

Good pieces need to be seen.


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David M. Robinson 魯大維

David M. Robinson 魯大維

David Robinson is Robert H.N. Ho Professor in Asian Studies and Professor of History at Colgate University.  He teaches and writes about early modern East Asian history, especially court culture, diplomatic practice, and military history.

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