The Khan and the Emperor

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Saturdays, 15 April – 20 May 2017, 10 a.m. – Noon

In this six-week course, we will study the history of the Mongol Empire by examining its two most important leaders. First, the founder of the empire and the conqueror who began it all: Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan. Second, the last of the Great Khans and founder of the Yüan Dynasty in China: Khubilai, grandson of Genghis. Through these two khans–one a conqueror the other an empire builder–we can more deeply understand the Mongol Empire and trace the lasting impact left by the empire and its greatest personalities.


This course is designed to give the student a thorough familiarity with the two most important figures of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan and Khubilai Khan. No prior knowledge of Genghis, Khubilai or the Mongol Empire is required. Through study of biographical materials, we will attempt to better understand the Mongol Empire and how it was shaped by these two men. Using the biographies of Genghis and Khubilai as a framework, we will examine the major events in the history of the Mongol Empire and the stories of other major characters, most importantly the wives, daughters, queens and princesses who played central roles in the story.


This course will meet for two hours, once per week for six weeks. Class time will be spent primarily in discussion of the readings and topics relted to them. I will provide a short lecture at the beginning of each course to orient us and provide visual materials that will help us to explore the material more thoroughly. Each class period will have both assigned and suggested readings made available electronically and printed for those who can not access online materials. The first two class periods will be thematically centered upon Temujin/Genghis Khan, followed by a class on the successors and events after his death but before the accession of Khubilai as Great Khan. Weeks four and five focus upon Khubilai Khan, examining his rise and reign. The final class will be a capstone on what we have covered and a discussion about its relevance to the present. No homework beyond the readings will be assigned and no exams will be given.

Course Materials

We will read primarily biographical works contemporary with our subjects of study as well as products of more recent scholarship. I will suggest that students purchase four books, but will not require you to do so, as we can not cover all of these. I will provide electronic copies of the sections I’d like for you to read a week before each class. Furthermore, I will provide a wide selection of readings from other sources (not shown below) for each class, letting students choose what interests you in addition to the central readings drawn from the four primary books. Finally, I will direct students to many other sources and various media that relate to our course, providing means of access wherever possible.

Central Course Texts (there will be optional readings from other sources for each class, as well)
1. Man, John. Kublai Khan: From Xanadu to Superpower. London: Bantam Books, 2006.
2. McLynn, Frank. Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2015.
3. Rossabi, Morris. The Mongols: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
4. Weatherford, Jack. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued his Empire. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

Week 1 – Temujin the Revolutionary

(15 April 2017, 10 a.m. – Noon)

We begin our study in Mongolia in the middle of the 12th century with Temujin, a destitute outcast. From unlikely beginnings, Temujin forms the largest steppe confederation ever known and, in the process, reorders society and the military, breaking the domination of the aristocratic order.

Week 2 – Genghis the Conqueror

(22 April 2017, 10 a.m. – Noon)

Elevated to the supreme rule of all Mongolia in 1206, Temujin, now known as Genghis Khan, puts his new nomadic confederation to work bringing the civilized societies to the south and west under Mongol control. We’ll attempt to discern what empire meant to Genghis Khan and read about his openness to absorbing people, institutions, and ideas that worked into his growing confederation–no matter their source.

Week 3 – Succession, Civil War and Dissolution

(29 April 2017, 10 a.m. – Noon)

Genghis Khan’s death in 1227 was followed by the naming of his son, Ogedei, as his chosen successor, who continued military campaigns. But the unity of the empire began to weaken and after the death of Ogedei’s son and third Great Khan, Guyuk, a great civil war resulted in the khanate shifting to the house of Tolui, Genghis Khan’s fourth son. Moving ever farther apart from one another, the appanages assigned to the four sons of Genghis Khan after his death never again join under a single, undisputed khan.

Week 4 – Khubilai and the Mongol Sword

(6 May 2017, 10 a.m. – Noon)

In a bitterly contested election in which many representatives of the Mongol ruling family did not participate, Tolui’s son Khubilai is selected as the fifth Great Khan in 1260. We will look at Khubilai’s early years, his brilliant and determined mother, his careful upbringing and his life of campaigns agains the Song Dynasty to see how this unlikely heir to Genghis Khan’s supreme rule over the Mongols became one of the Empire’s greatest visionaries.

Week 5 – Shizu and the Chinese Pen

(13 May 2017, 10 a.m. – Noon)

Choosing the Chinese honorary temple name of Yuan Shizu (元世祖)–reflecting that he was a product of both Mongol and Chinese education–Khubilai attempted to turn the Mongol Empire into a stable and lasting polity, challenging both settled and nomadic peoples. Recognizing the bureaucratic and social strengths of Chinese institutions, Khubilai established Mongol rule in China in the mold of previous dynasties, raising suspicions among the empire’s Mongols. Khubilai’s usurpation of the Chinese throne–a barbarian as the Son of Heaven–created a lasting enmity among the now unified Chinese and undermined his control over the most stable and lucrative part of the Mongol Empire.  We will consider some of Khubilai’s attempts to consolidate his rule and discuss the exceptional foresight of this great empire builder.

Week 6 – A Lasting Legacy

(20 May 2017, 10 a.m. – Noon)

The Mongol Empire remains a singular event in world history, making deep changes to half the globe that continue to reverberate in the present. Governmental institutions, forms of legitimation, Eurasia’s ethnic distribution and the shape of national borders–these are just a few of the things that we can trace back directly to the decisions, policies, actions and personalities of Genghis and Khubilai. In this final class, we’ll look at the present to see what was wrought by these two great men eight centuries ago.

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