On the most recent episode (Marco and the Polos 3: The Great, Great Khan), I briefly mentioned the comparison that was made in the Marco Polo text between Kublai Khan and the Southern Song ruler, and the way that ruler’s leisurely ways were blamed for his empire’s collapse. Here I’m going to talk about the end of the Song Dynasty, in Marco and otherwise.
By way of introduction, Marco (I’ll address issues of authorship elsewhere; here, for convenience, I’m just going to speak of Marco as the narrator of the text) first speaks of the province of Manji, roughly the territory of the Southern Song, as being “the most magnificent and the richest that is known in the eastern world.” He says of it that “it was subject to a prince … who surpassed in power and in wealth any other that for a century had reigned in that country. His disposition was pacific, and his actions benevolent.” He was so loved by his people, his rule so just, generous, and charitable, and his kingdom so strong and secure behind its rivers and walls, that the prospect of any power rising to threaten him was thought to be beyond belief. And so he put aside thoughts of war and of arms and soldiers and was entirely content behind his fortifications to follow other pursuits, and the one which he pursued most of all was pleasure.
Marco makes much of this prince’s (an emperor really) fleshy weakness, his surrounding himself with the 1,000 most beautiful women that could be found and delighting in their society, and the way they’d idle away the hours and days in the royal park, sporting and swimming and being served meals in its groves. And then he speaks of the emperor’s alarm when the khan’s men came for him.
The army that approached was led by an accomplished general named Bayan and sometimes referred to in sources as “Hundred Eyes” (and in case you’ve watched the Netflix show and are wondering, he was not a blind monk and master martial artist). Bayan at first invited submission from the cities he approached, and then, at their refusal, selected one, took it by force, and slaughtered its inhabitants as an example to all the others. Open your gates to us, was his message, as clear as any written declaration, or we will come through them anyways, and kill you all. Quickly, cities began to do as he asked. And that was what really woke the Song emperor to the danger he was in. According to Marco, he abandoned his city and his wife, leaving the one in the charge of the other, and fled with his treasures and a ship rather than face the Mongol storm to come. What came next was a bit of a Macbeth scenario, if surprisingly less violent.
The emperor’s wife was not so frightened as her hastily departed husband because she had heard from the astrologers, and the word was good. She had been told that no man could overthrow the emperor unless he was a chief with a hundred eyes, so things were fine for surely that would never come to pass. No, there was nothing at all to fear right until the moment a general with the name “Hundred Eyes” and a large Mongol army showed up at her gates demanding surrender. Promptly, she turned herself and her city over to Bayan and was shipped off to be brought before the khan. In Marco’s telling, that’s pretty much the end of the Southern Song.