Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Monarch Profile: Yesun Temur Khan of Mongolia

The great Mongol emperors who ruled after Kublai Khan are often divided by historians into two groups; those who governed more in keeping with Chinese traditions and those who governed as more traditional Mongol conquerors. As all were Mongols, that influence was a constant but among them all, Yesun Temur Khan is usually regard as the farthest removed from any sort of Chinese influence at all. He was born in Outer Mongolia in 1293, the son of Kammala, the firstborn son of Zhen Jin who was a son of the great Kublai Khan. Kammala was granted the prestigious title of “Jinong” with control over the Gobi Desert and the final resting place of Genghis Khan. For a time, it was thought he might be a contender for the throne of the Mongol Empire but was passed over. Nonetheless, he had a prestigious position and upon his death in 1302 his son Yesun Temur succeeded him as Jinong. Throughout the reigns of Kulug Khan, Ayurbarwada Khan and Gegeen Khan, Yesun Temur built up a powerful position for himself, became quite successful and with his powerful army was acknowledged by other Mongol princes as their representative on the steppes of the north, particularly those who held to the traditional Mongol ways.

His great chance came in 1323 when Shidebala Khan was assassinated by a group of Mongol princes whose tribute he had cut in what was a more Sino-style Confucian reign. Empress Dowager Targi had placed him on the throne (though she later came to regret it) because of his connections with the Khunggirad clan and Yesun Temur was welcomed to take the throne because his mother likewise belonged to the same clan and because he could be counted on to rule in a more traditionally Mongolian fashion, essentially jumping over the two previous reigns to that of Khaishan Khan. Some historians have since speculated that Yesun Temur was himself one of the conspirators in the assassination of Shidebala Khan, yet other evidence suggests that he had tried to warn the Emperor of the plot against him but was too late. In any event, he was looked to for leadership and on October 4, 1323 on the banks of the Kherlen River in Mongolia he was handed the badges of office, the imperial seal and thus became Yesun Temur Khan, tenth Great Khan of the Mongols and Emperor Taiding of the Great Yuan (as he was known in China). Two of those who had instigated the downfall of Shidebala Khan were accorded high rank immediately with the Grand Censor Tegshi becoming effectively the Minister of War and Esen Temur appointed Grand Councilor.

No doubt they felt highly pleased with themselves but that didn’t last long. Once Yesun Temur Khan was told what these men had done and that by appointing them to high office he would appear to have been complicit in their crimes, Yesun Temur immediately had them dismissed and executed for treason. With that action, those loyal to Shidebala recognized Yesun Temur as a fair leader they could trust and called on him, likewise, to take the throne and to punish those who had murdered his predecessor. This, Yesun Temur did, sending troops to Dadu and Shangdu where the rebellious officers were executed and the princes who had supported the coup were all sent into exile. Regardless of the justice of this, Yesun Temur equally had in mind that if he left these men alive they would see him as their own creature and attempt to control him and would likely murder him as well if he failed to please them. Traitors can never be trusted. The Chinese tried to persuade him to go even farther and massacre anyone connected with those who had brought down the last Great Khan but Yesun Temur refused to do this, regarding the guilty as sufficiently punished, granting an amnesty to the rest and even returning the property of the guilty men to their families.

Still, if the plotters had wanted a “more Mongolian” Mongol Emperor, that is certainly what they achieved in Yesun Temur Khan. He reigned in the traditional style of a Mongol chieftain from the steppes. In the official history of the Yuan Dynasty he is quoted as saying, “The Empire is a family of which the Emperor is the father” and that is how he tended to rule. Chinese officials were dismissed and he appointed new ministers from Mongolia, from the ranks of those he trusted and who had proven themselves loyal to him. He also reverted to the traditional Mongol practice of religious freedom and impartiality. Where Shidebala Khan had been influenced by the Buddhist Lamas to restrict Islam, Yesun Temur Khan stopped all persecutions and extended religious benefits (such as exemption from conscript labor) to Muslims and Christians. This did not mean these were rewarded and others were punished though as he also continued to support Confucian and Buddhist temples and, like most, still showed favor to the Lama-Buddhist community.

In his rule of the Mongol Empire, he favored those who he knew best, the other princes and nobles of the Mongolian steppes though, unlike some others, he preferred to live more simply and objected to the wasteful spending he witnessed at the imperial court. Peking (as it would later be known) was still a cosmopolitan place, despite the change in leadership styles and it is believed that Yesun Temur was the Great Khan met by the Catholic friar Blessed Odoric of Pordenone during his extensive travels in the Far East. During his reign, one of the important acts of Yesun Temur was the division of the Mongol Empire into eighteen departments whose oversight was placed in the hands of an advisory council called the “Lords of the Provinces”. However, Yesun Temur did not have a great interest in day-to-day administration and like most Mongol princes, tended to dislike bureaucrats. The “Exalted and Decisive Emperor” lived only to the age of 34. He died quite suddenly and unexpectedly on August 15, 1328 in Shangdu (Xanadu). He was succeeded by his son Tugh Temur but as he was overthrown barely a month later he is seldom listed amongst the Mongol emperors.

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