The Daughter of Turan

Khaidu was a ghostly apparition – a figure at the periphery of Khubilai Khan’s world that never left him alone. He would pick and poke at Khubilai’s defences for the rest of Khubilai’s life, occasionally seizing territory outside his fiefdom, occasionally retreating into the steppes. He darted towards Karakorum itself, as if hoping to convene a rebel kurultai. He meddled in Tibetan affairs in an attempt to foster anti-Mongol feeling in the monasteries; he put out feelers to disaffected princelings on the other side of China, in the hope that together they might rise up against the sons of Tolui. Khaidu would even outlive Khubilai by a few years, but never quite got enough support to mount a true challenge. Had Khubilai and Khaidu been duelling over nothing more than Mongolia, perhaps Khaidu would have had the upper hand. Ironically, the very Mongol-based feud that Khaidu perpetrated served to drive Khubilai further towards a Chinese perspective. Without China, Khubilai might not have had the support he needed to shrug Khaidu off.

Marco Polo found the whole thing baffling, but far more interested in stories circulating about Khaidu’s daughter, a towering Amazon whose name he recorded as Aiyaruk (‘Bright Moon’).

Her father often desired to give her in marriage, but she would none of it. She vowed she would never marry till she found a man who could vanquish her in every trial; him she would wed and none else. And when her father saw how resolute she was, he gave a formal consent . . . that she should marry whom she wanted and when she wanted. The lady was so tall and muscular, so stout and shapely withal, that she was almost like a giantess.

Khaidu had set himself up as the protector of old-time Mongol values, in opposition to Khubilai the Sinophile. It was hence only to be expected that Khaidu’s daughter was set up in local legend as some sort of woman warrior, who boasted that she would only marry a man who could beat her at wrestling, and that anyone who failed in this would have to pay her 100 horses.

Aiyaruk supposedly successfully fought off 1,000 challengers over the course of the 1270s. Perhaps a little worried that his daughter might be getting long in the tooth, Khaidu is even reported as suggesting that she should try to let the next one win, but she refused, and won another hundred horses for the family herd. With a tacit admission that nobody was going to be good enough for her, she gave up on men entirely and accompanied Khaidu on his endless war against Khubilai’s warriors.

And ye must know that after this her father never went on a campaign but she went with him. And gladly he took her, for not a knight in all his train played such feats of arms as she did. Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.

Remarkably, most scholars suspect that there is an element of truth in the story of Aiyaruk, not least because while Polo in China is hearing of her exploits, his contemporary Rashid al-Din in Persia is writing down the same story, with the same names. Rashid, however, injects a disapproving note, that ‘people suspected there was some kind of relationship between [Khaidu] and his daughter.’

The story would grow with the telling, particularly in Persia, where legends arose about a king of ‘Turan’ (Persian: Central Asia), whose beautiful daughter insisted that any suitor should overcome a series of trials in order to win her hand in marriage. The story flourished in several variants as The Daughter of Turan, in Persian: ‘Turan-dokht’.

It is perhaps most familiar to the Western reader in a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, first performed in 1926, shortly after the death of the composer of the accompanying music, Giacomo Puccini:

This is the law: Turandot the Pure
Will be the bride of the man of royal blood
Who shall solve the riddles which she shall set.
But if he fail in this test
He must submit his proud head to the sword!

indexPuccini’s Turandot is a world away from Khaidu’s real-life resistance in western China. It retains garbled concepts of China and Tartary, and mixes elements of Mongol and Chinese culture. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see a strand of true history informing a strand of modern life. Khaidu would eventually die in 1301, from wounds received in a failed strike at Karakorum itself – but his daughter, or a phantom of her, would spring to life on the opera stage in Milan six centuries later.

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements.

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A Brief History of Khubilai Khan

kkNow finally available on the Kindle (US/UK):

His grandfather was the bloodthirsty Mongol leader Genghis Khan, his mother a Christian princess. Groomed from childhood for a position of authority, Khubilai snatched the position of Great Khan, becoming the overlord of a Mongol federation that stretched from the Balkans to the Korean coastline. His armies conquered the Asian kingdom of Dali and brought down the last defenders of imperial China.

Khubilai Khan presided over an Asian renaissance, attracting emissaries from all across the continent, and opening his civil service to administrators from the far west. His life and times encompassed the legends of Prester John, the pinnacle of the samurai (and, indeed, the Mongols), and the travels of Marco Polo.

Jonathan Clements examines the life and times of this semi-legendary ruler, detailing the religious scandals and cultural clashes within his supposedly inclusive realm, and the long-running resistance to his reign in Japan and Vietnam. His short-lived “Yuan” dynasty barely lasted a century, but transformed China and the world for ever more.

“The Half of What I Saw…”

Marco-Polo-NetflixNot even Marco Polo was able to edit his own life into an all-encompassing narrative. On his deathbed, surrounded by his weeping daughters and his long-serving manservant Suleiman, he was entreated by Venetian priests to admit he had made up many of the tall-sounding tales of his travel. The holy fathers were worried that “Marco of the million lies” would go to hell if he did not finally confess that he had made up his stories of a black rock that would burn, of oil that came out of the ground, of giant sea creatures and Chinese gods. His last words were a fitting epitaph: “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Dozens of writers have grappled with the way to best tell his story. Luckily for me, I only had to write a biography, which begins with his birth and ends with his death. For the writer of fiction, there are myriad temptations. I’ve toyed with a one-act play, in which Marco and his collaborator Rustichello pace the floor of their opulent but confining house arrest, arguing over the best way to set his knowledge down on paper. Marco is all about facts and descriptions, a tedious village-by-village account of the way east; Rustichello, a former troubadour and Crusader, wants stories of derring-do and fortean curiosities, and in one sense, it’s Rustichello’s Marco that survived through the ages.

You could plump for Italo Calvino’s method, concentrating on the relationship between Marco and his patron, Khubilai Khan, as the aging monarch demands stories of Marco’s adventures. But what of the roads less travelled? What of Marco on his homeward route, escorting the mysterious Princess Kokachin to her doomed wedding, and plunged into local conflict in Persia and befriending his Muslim counterpart, Rashid al-Din? What of Marco the official in China under the Mongols, dealing with intrigues, crimes and murders in a nation under military occupation? And what temptations there are to the historical screenwriter to edge gently out of evidence and into reasonable speculation – what if we ignored the evidence that Marco never saw Japan for himself, and inserted him into the Mongol fleet that suffered the consequences of the first Kamikaze.

cc030914j021f15.jpg_1328648940The new Netflix series tries and largely succeeds to have it all, opening with a prolonged throne-room scene in which Marco shows off his knowledge of Uyghur and Mongol, and in which the Polo family’s failure to keep their promises to the Khan lead to the effective handing over of Marco as collateral to save their trading contracts. But there are nods and foreshadowings, even in those opening few minutes, of the direction that John Fusco intends to take. Khubilai’s beloved wife Chabi, a Christian, stands at his side in her distinctive head-dress. An official called Ahmad is pointedly referenced, ahead of the downfall known to all readers of Marco Polo’s Travels. A lissom figure on the sidelines appears to be Princess Kokachin, thought by some to have been the woman who stole Marco’s heart, even as he was forced to convey her to her new husband. And then the credits begin, awash with impressionistic Chinese inks that create simulacra of his tallest tales – figures and creatures that may, or may not, only exist on paper or in his mind, even as the music soars and hints at Game-of-Thrones-y intrigues and Marco’s endless, infectious sense of wonder at the sights of the Far East.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Marco Polo (US/UK) and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan (US/UK). Marco Polo, the TV series, begins on Netflix on 12th December.

Our New Frontier is a Nice Place

“Xinjiang Hao” is one of my favourite songs. It’s a propaganda ditty from the Mao era, which charmingly recites all the reasons that China’s “new” frontier is a wonderful place. There are run-downs of natural resources, and lists of local fruit and veg. There’s a chorus that always brings a tear to my eye: “Our beautiful fields and gardens, our beloved Home”, and an oddly plaintive, clingy refrain that seems to be actually begging the listener to visit. Here is a rather eurotastic version, featuring some sultry bimbling and a prancing idiot who appears to be trying to play his own leg as a musical instrument.

This is, largely, how Xinjiang looks whenever it’s mentioned on Chinese telly – joyful dances and graceful dark-haired beauties. Back in the time of Empress Wu, her adviser Judge Dee suggested that she steer clear of Asia’s arid heart, thereby leaving it to her enemies to waste their energies crossing its forbidding deserts before they reached her borders. But Wu, and subsequent Chinese rulers, expanded the realm far to the west along the Silk Road, exposing China’s flank to a long, modern, festering border with all those Central Asian republics we tend to lump together as “The Stans”.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is a fast read. Despite its 350 pages, some of the chapters are only a paragraph long, although author Nick Holdstock has artfully imposed a seasonal and narrative structure over what clearly began as scattered diary entries from his time in the remote town of Yining. The result is a welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s small supply of books about Xinjiang, China’s landlocked new frontier and place of exile.

Holdstock’s book is unlikely to lead to a flood of tourist trips. Like Mannerheim before him (who was underwhelmed with the place), and Eric Tamm in Mannerheim’s footsteps, he describes a drab, dusty dump you’d have to be mad to visit, with nosy, snotty children, world-weary cab-drivers, and wheeler-dealers selling condemned blackcurrant juice. As for Things to Do, there’s always the cockfights, clamorous karaoke bars and pink-lit brothels. “Anyone wishing to launch a cultural pogrom in Yining,” Holdstock observes, “would be hampered by the shortage of targets.” There are none of Youtube’s pretty Uighur dancers here, nor much in the way of homespun shepherd wisdom. Instead, Holdstock finds squalid slums of crumbling concrete, apples that almost break his teeth, and a drunken, drugged-out population of no-hopers and spivs.

Arguably, one finds what one is looking for. Holdstock’s book is boldly formalist, discussing only what he sees and stumbles across. He doesn’t go out of his way to find natural beauty or local colour; instead he lets Xinjiang dig its own hole. Apologists and propagandists for Xinjiang describe lush green hills populated by gambolling sheep, glittering mosques, happily dancing natives (a recurring stereotype that clearly winds the locals up), and quaint folk traditions. But many foreign observers (well, so far in my reading, all of them) instead outline a tense, jumpy borderland in a permanent stand-off between restless native Uighurs and unwelcome Han colonists.

Holdstock is uncompromisingly even-handed in his treatment not only of the region, but of its contending interest groups of clueless bigots, smug religious fanatics and downtrodden peasantry. Irritated in equal parts by squabbling Muslim factions, undercover Christian missionaries and listless Chinese bureaucrats, Holdstock is a Canute-like figure, teaching English to students with little hope of escape, and railing against the jobsworths who won’t sell him a bus ticket.

He has an ear for the long silences and dispiriting platitudes of stilted intercultural conversations, but also for sudden, unsettling outpourings of emotion, when his Chinese colleagues feel they can open up, and he often wishes they hadn’t. The stir-crazy Holdstock grows so bored with frontier life that he actually looks forward to seeing a horse get butchered, and is frustrated even in this simple ‘pleasure’ by the interfering authorities.With comedic haplessness, he also embarks upon a grand enterprise to expose a kind of international espionage (I won’t spoil it), only to repeatedly shoot himself in the foot regarding contacts, evidence and subterfuge. That’s not to say a whole lot happens – this is not a plot-driven narrative – but it amply, and damningly conveys the loneliness and tedium that is surely a hazard of the job for many teachers, missionaries and diplomats in all the inhospitable corners of the world. If anyone had a romantic idea about Xinjiang (or China, or Cambodia, for that matter, where Holdstock winters for an interlude among stoners and paedos), The Tree That Bleeds tramples it in the dust.

Far too many books about China are tiresome travelogues by chinless Torquils on a gap year, or earnest, uncomprehending Lucindas who think that readers will find their baffled musings endearing. I grew weary long ago of reading about how Daddy’s money and Uncle Jeff’s friend in Hong Kong pulled this string or wangled that boondoggle, all so little Rupert could chortle in a Clapham gastropub about the larks he had in Kunming. I am, to put it bluntly, sick of books about China that brag of the author’s ignorance. But there is none of that with Holdstock, who comes to Xinjiang in the noble, monastic penury of a Voluntary Service Overseas contract, and crucially has served time already in Hunan, thus inoculating him against any large-scale culture shock. Ignorance for Holdstock is not a badge to wear in place of content, but an alluring, whispering shadow over his whole stay, as he attempts to find out exactly what happened in a series of riots (or demonstrations) that were suppressed before his arrival.

Residing in Yining at the time of the Twin Towers attacks, he is drily cynical about the Chinese government’s attitude towards local unrest. There apparently “wasn’t any” until 9/11, when the Bush administration made it fashionable to rebrand reprobates as terrorists. Suddenly, everyone is jumpy about al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whereas previously the Chinese have been diligently saying that all Xinjiang is good for is a sing-song. Holdstock never really finds the answers he is looking for, but The Tree That Bleeds is all about the questions anyway.

I would like to believe that The Tree That Bleeds is subjective and one-sided, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Never having been to Xinjiang myself, I rely for my picture of it on the writings of others, who unanimously depict it as a miserable, god-forsaken place, ever since Marco Polo wrote of its howling winds and haunted sands. There are so few books about Xinjiang (go on, name five. I’ll wait…) that every new addition is welcome and Luath Press, a small Edinburgh outfit I’d never heard of before, is to be commended for taking a risk with Holdstock’s anti-travel book.

But Xinjiang can’t be as awful as he makes it sound… can it? Can it…? One day I shall find out for myself. Until then, I consider myself forewarned and forearmed.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is out now from Luath Press.

The Mongol Armada

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and in the US.

The attempted invasion of Japan was, with hindsight, the moment when the Mongols’ legendary invincibility was called into question for the first time – a sign that the tide of barbarian invasion had finally begun to ebb. The Mongols had experienced setbacks in the past, but had always, eventually, returned home with, at very least, the nominal submission of their enemies.

Logistically, the Japanese invasion project was no smaller than the Mongol enterprises to take the empires of the Tangut, Jurchen or the Southern Song. However, historically, it became literally world famous. It is in Marco Polo’s awestruck account of the plan to invade Japan that the island kingdom first enters European consciousness. When, 200 years later, Christopher Columbus waded ashore on a remote Caribbean island in search of ‘Cipangu’, he was merely the latest inheritor of Khubilai’s propaganda, convinced that Japan was an island of untold wealth, there for the taking.

Many Japanese accounts leap straight to the arrival of the first great Mongol fleet off the coast, and the heroic efforts by the samurai to hold them back. However, Chinese and Korean annals present a very different story, and show the size of the Mongol threat steadily growing throughout the 1260s. The first approaches to Japan were little more than honeyed words and oblique threats, escalating in severity as years passed without a direct Japanese submission to Khubilai.

The first signs of the Mongol invasion are rumours and tall tales from mainland visitors, the mere ghosts of direct contact, as careful Korean obfuscations kept the Mongols and the Japanese from making actual contact. Although history largely remembers the two great, apocalyptic battles in Hakata Bay and their almost supernatural ending, lesser accounts record a number of skirmishes long before the infamous days of reckoning. There were kidnappings and secret deals in the Korea Strait years before the Mongol armada officially set sail, and there was even a pre-emptive Japanese strike on the Korean coast, which saw part of the intended invasion fleet burned where it stood in the shipyards. Small parties of emissaries travelling aboard the ships of others, gradually transformed through the 1260s into an ambassador with his own honour guard and his own military escort: two ships, then a dozen, then hundreds.

If we piece together the scattered references to ‘Dwarf Pirates’ or the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ in mainland chronicles, we become witness to the inexorable gathering of a terrible storm. The question that remains for the modern historian to ponder is whether the Japanese or Mongols ever appreciated the terrible odds they both faced.

Jonathan Clements is also the author of Marco Polo, available now in paperback and on the Kindle (US/UK).

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.