History of International Relations Textbook

The Mongol khanates

Dreams of the Emperor’s palace


One day in early in October 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge took a few grains of laudanum an opium-based extract used as medicine – and sat down to read Purchas His Pilgrimage, a classical collection of travelers’ tales from Asia compiled by Samuel Purchas and originally published in 1614. One of the most famous entries in the book was Marco Polo’s description of the palace of Kublai Khan at Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. In Xanadu,” Polo remembered, “did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteen miles of plain ground with a wall, wherein are fertile meadows, pleasant springs, delightful streams, and all sorts of beast and chase and game, and in the middle thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.” Soon Coleridge fell asleep, and in his sleep he had a vision of Kublai Khan’s palace. It was a sublime apparition, Coleridge explained, which inspired both longing and dread:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree,
where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
down to a sunless sea. …

A savage place! As holy and enchanted
as a’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
by woman wailing for her demon lover.

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:…

      And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war! …

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

A story missing from Purchas’ collection is the account of Kublai Khan’s palace written by the Persian fourteenth-century historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani. The emperor of China, Rashid-al-Din explained in “Compendium of Chronicles,” had laid down to sleep and when he woke up the following morning he told his courtiers about the wondrous palace he had seen in his dream. He promptly instructed his architects to set to work and before long the palace at Shangdu was completed. Curiously, the palace had first appeared in a dream, both to Coleridge and to Kublai Khan himself, and even more curiously, Coleridge could not have known anything about Kublai Khan’s dream since Rashid-al-Din’s account was unavailable in European languages at the time he wrote his poem. The juxtaposition of the two dreams was either a strange coincidence or, as Jorge Luis Borges surmised in an essay in which he discussed Coleridge poem, perhaps the two dreams both concerned the same object. The palace in the dream is eternal, and from time to time there will be rulers, or poets, who will try to recreate it here on earth. Yet these recreations are bound to be only temporary since royal palaces, like all other things human, eventually will crumble and be ground to dust. It is the palace in the dream that is real, Borges concluded, and the palace built here on earth is only its ephemeral, sub-lunar, manifestation.