We Think You Already Know This (A Letter from Kublai Khan)

You Oughta Know

One of the minor downsides to teaching ancient history for nearly half the year is that there simply aren’t the multitude of cool documents – letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles, and the like – which make U.S. or European History so naturally freakin’ awesome.

Sure, there are primary sources – statues, ceramics, broken bits of weaponry and whatnot. There are even textual remains – stuff carved into stone, bits of preserved parchments, maybe a book or two. These things are essential to the study of history and interesting enough in their own ancienty ways. I’m not trying to downplay the glories of Sanskrit or the impact of ancient law codes, or to question the value of innumerable two-line poems about dew on the grass sleeping in winter.

But in terms of modern engagement? They’re, well… challenging.

A woman’s duties are to cook the five grains, heat the wine, look after her parents-in-law, make clothes, and that is all! … She must follow the “three submissions.” When she is young, she must submit to her parents. After her marriage, she must submit to her husband. When she is widowed, she must submit to her son.

--Biography of Mengzi, mother of Confucian philosopher Mencius, fourth century B.C.E.)

Important, sure – but not particularly gripping. Here’s another essential excerpt:

And if you, my vassal, disobey or break this treaty… may the god Adad, the canal inspector of heaven and earth, put an end to all vegetation in your land. May his waters avoid your meadows and hit your land instead with a severe destructive downpour. May locusts devour your crops. May there be no sound of grinding stone or bread oven in your houses. May the wild animals eat your bread, and may your spirit have no one to take care of it and pour offerings of wine for it.

—Excerpt from a treaty between an Assyrian king and a subject city-state, circa 670 B.C.E.

LocustsThings are getting serious when you start wishing locusts on people. No one should wish for locusts. Wild animals eating your bread, sure – but locusts? That’s just harsh.

Not all extant texts are so serious. Some are real knee-slappers:

Apply yourself to being a scribe… you will be advanced by your superiors. You will be sent on a mission… love writing, shun dancing, then you become a worthy official… By day write with your fingers; recite by night. Befriend the scroll, the palette. It pleases more than wine… If you have any sense, be a scribe… and be spared from soldiering!

—Excerpt of a letter from a government official in Ancient Egypt to his son

HA! Those nutty river valley bureaucrats! (Dear god, get me to the Renaissance…)

But there was one moment of nerdy history-joy several weeks back when I came across a brief missive written by Kublai Khan to neighboring Japan in the year 1266. It begins like this:

Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol emperor sends this letter to the king of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly.

Aw, that’s nice! He wants to be a good neighbor! Those cuddly Mongols. Can I borrow a cup of bloodshed?

The “Mandate of Heaven” to which he refers was a historiographic tool of Chinese scholars going waayyy back ago. It framed the rise and fall of various Chinese dynasties in terms of divine sanction. Royal lasciviousness brought about the collapse of the Zhou after long, corrupt centuries? That’s what happens when you lose the Mandate of Heaven. Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu and re-united China under the Han? Well, he obviously had the Mandate of Heaven.

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan, then, was rather bold in claiming the Mandate himself, given that he wasn’t exactly a proper emperor – not being Chinese and all. Still, he’d inaugurated his own dynasty (the Yuan) and the Mongols had been pretty much running the largest empire the world had ever known for over a half-century at that point, so, you know… they were doing something right.

Especially since my ancestor governed at heaven's command, innumerable countries from afar disputed our power and slighted our virtue.

This made me laugh, probably because I’m reading way too much modern political overtone into it. “We’re God’s party here, trying to drain the Yellow Swamp, and all the foreign press can do is spread #FakeNews about us! SAD!”

Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne.

I prodded my poor students as to who “Goryeo” might be. Even with a map on the screen, it was a while before anyone guessed it might have something to do with Korea. And it does.

As in, it’s Korea.

They “rendered thanks for my ceasefire” and were super-appreciative that I let them keep working for me after I took over. They love me in Goryeo!

I’ll bet they did, Kubles. Subjugation and terror tend to bring that out in people.

Then again, it’s often tricky to gage tone with historical documents. While some things are universal across humanity, language and culture change dramatically over time – often in ways difficult to discern without a becoming a specialist of some sort.

Still, whatever else the Mongols were, they weren’t known for rhetorical nuance; I don’t think I’m overly projecting when I infer a very familiar tone in lines like this:

Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this.

Renaissance Dancers“Feudatory” is a funny word. It probably works better in the original tongue. The root, of course, is “feudal” – as in “feudalism.” It conjures up images of western European lords and serfs, trying to avoid the Plague while men in tights play recorders and bald clergymen harrumph about, gardening and copying books by hand.

But feudalism existed in a variety of forms, anywhere society was structured around relationships between landholders and those doing the actual producing. It sounds too close to slavery for most modern sensibilities, but it provided social stability and a physical security for common laborers which arguably fit the time and circumstances.

Still, Kublai is probably overselling the “father-son” thing a bit. Like the serfs, Korea had little choice in the arrangement, although in return for their loyalty they received the Mongols’ protection, which was no small thing.

Any doubt as to tone or intent begins to vanish with that next bit: “We think you already know this.”

Terse, isn’t it? Somehow things are feeling much less neighborly than they did only moments ago.

Goryeo is my eastern tributary. Japan was allied with Goryeo and sometimes with China since the founding of your country; however, Japan has never dispatched ambassadors since my ascending the throne. We are afraid that the Kingdom is yet to know this.

You never write, you never call, and you completely ignored our friend request on Facebook. I know you got our message – I can see the little checkmark and the time you read it. Do you know how that makes us feel?

Hence we dispatched a mission with our letter particularly expressing our wishes. Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this?

Again with the super-friendlies. You know that line about walking softly but carrying a big stick? Kublai had Teddy Roosevelt beat by about six centuries.

“This is… a really nice place you got here, Benny. Isn’t it a nice place, Nicky?”

“It’s a great place, boss.”

“A man could really do well for himself in a place like this, Benny. He could provide for his family, couldn’t he, Nicky?”

“Ain’t nothin’ more important than family, Boss.”

“That’s so true. People what you gotta love, and protect… it can be such a dangerous world. It’s a shame, really – the things that can happen.”

“It’s a tragedy, Boss. I weep when I think of it.”

“A man’s gotta know who his friends are, Benny. He gots ta’ know who he can count on to help him prevent… accidents. Misfortunes. Ain’t that right, Nicky?”


“Ah, now… Nicky just broke your kusanagi! Nicky, what have I told you about other folks’ holy relics?”

“That I gotta be more careful, Boss.”

“That you gotta be more careful. That coulda been his daughter. Right, Benny?”

Fake GangstersI mean, I can’t prove the Mongols talked and swaggered like bad movie mobsters in early 20th century Chicago, but you can’t prove they didn’t – and in today’s world, that makes my interpretation way truer than yours.

Finally, just to make sure the message isn’t received by some particularly dense diplomat and its intent even slightly misunderstood…

Nobody would wish to resort to arms.

That certainly would be a shame. The Mongols hated violence, you know.

But what a wonderful way to wrap up such a loaded dispatch. He doesn’t even have to cackle and rub his hands together maniacally – it’s all in the tone. 

The letter didn’t work. Kublai Khan tried a few more times, then resorted to military force. Two full-scale invasions were repulsed, both times in part due to monsoons, or “divine winds” working in favor of the Japanese. Their word for this is “kamikaze,” which I’m told will come up again later.

Hey, I don’t read ahead. I like to be surprised. 

It was a defining limit on Mongolian expansion, and a glorious moment in the early history of Japan. In both cases, the events of the 13th century shaped subsequent developments forever thereafter.

Which is, after all, a large part of why we study these things.

Most importantly, though, the exchange produced this letter, which we now read, analyze, and discuss in class. It’s distant enough to be history but approachable enough to be engaging. With a little effort, we can use it to anchor all sorts of changes and continuities and comparisons and connections. Thank you, Kubles – I LOVE this stuff!

But... I think you already know this.

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