The Apartments of the Great Khan
Tom Lowenstein

These pages come from a long sequence of journal entries and essays from a poet who, in a remote farmhouse in north Somerset, sometime between 1797 and 1800 had composed Kubla Khan. No biographical or bibliographic relationship with Coleridge is implied. And the chambers discussed in the prose here were most probably at the winter palace at Ta-du. The summer palace at Shang-du (Xanadu) is evoked in a separate section. Almost everything in this work in process is more or less anachronistic.

I have in my hand a volume which is A New History of China, written by Father Gabriel Magaillans of the Society of Jesus which is done out of French and published in S. Paul's Church-Yard in 1688.

This handsome little book has packed into it a folded map with the title 'A Plane of the City of Pekim, ye Metropolis of China': an undecorated, rectilinear engraving which shows one thing merely: the palaces and temples that constitute the Emperor's precincts. Now on the principle that the soul is Emperor of the human body and that a monarch, in that he is closer to God than any of his subjects, represents the life spirit of that kingdom, so presumably the Emperor's palace represents all that one is required to know about the city that surrounds it: and by unfolding this map whose creases symmetrically follow the meridians of its composition, one may assimilate, in one coup d'oeuil, the essence of the whole metropolis. For the Emperor's palace, in that it co-ordinates every important feature of political, religious and aesthetic life in Peking, is, by metonomy, the summation of the city – if not the whole Empire – in its concentrated entirety.

Now I have pondered this careful, if somewhat meanly schematized reduction of the Emperor's premises, and albeit Magaillans' plan comes several centuries after Kubilai Khan's demise, nonetheless much of Peking, the winter city, was built and inhabited by that same Khan: and so I have made the places and apartments identified by Magaillans the subject and the locus of some recent literary dreaming: and while at the outset of my lucubrations on these subjects, I came, through Purchas, to the Great Khan's summer city (Xaindu: which lieis some hundred miles northwest of Peking and whose name in my poem I syllabically expanded), I have here drifted east and transmigrated a season.[1]

To initiate my own ramble, which is as innocent of topographic knowledge as it was in my poetic reverie of Xanadu, I here transcribe a short sampler of what Magaillans sets out in his eighteenth chapter. And having established something of that geographical perambulation, I will take upon myself, still purblind in dreaming, to enter Emperor's inner city. But first this from Magaillans:

The First Apartment is bounded on the north side by the famous street of Perpetual Repose. From thence you proceed to the Third Apartment which is called the Portal of the Beginning.

After this, you enter into a spacious Court, bounded by the Eleventh Apartment, which they call the Mansion of Heaven Clear and without Blemish, and which is the richest, the highest rais'd and the most sumptuous of all.

There are five Ascents to this of very fine Marble, each ascent containing five and forty steps, adorn'd with Pillars, Parapets, Balusters and several little Lyons, and at the Top on both sides with ten beautiful and large Lyons of gilded Brass, excellent Pieces of Worksmanship.

To the North and within two Musquet shot of these Hills, stands a very thick Wood, and at the End of the Wood, adjoyning to the Wall of the Park, are to be seen three Houses of Pleasure extraordinary for their Symmetry with lovely Stairs and Terrasses to go from one to the other. This is a Structure truly Royal, the Architecture being exquisite, and makes the eighteenth Apartment, being called the Royal Palace of Long Life.

And now that I enter, I must speak – as though still from a haunting of my last, initiatory visit to the summer palace – in the challenge of a new displacement.

1. The Portal and the Street of Perpetual Repose

The Great Khan's palace is for his repose. For a warrior king exerts himself beyond all natural limit and it is right that such an individual should maintain a palace where rest may go on, and never have to end except as he chooses.

In European parlance, I fancy that one might anticipate the words Perpetual Repose on some funerary monument. But this as related to the Great Khan's palace, alludes less to dust than to a condition which belongs to relaxation into quiet and delightful activity.

In this regard, it may be surmised that the gods, to whose status the Khan approaches, inhabit a region from which any notion of effort has been removed: and that this represents a condition towards which they themselves perhaps evolved, and therefore also to which certain human beings may be thought to approach in the development of their faculties.

An apartment so named is thus a reminder of such a spiritual possibility and a locus of retreat which will bestow on its residents the charm or enchantment, however temporary and seeming, of its in-built character.

2. The Portal of the Beginning

That an apartment should be also a portal suggests that however it is enclosed, it represents merely the entrance to the next. Anywhere we stand, sit, lie down or walk is, likewise, the beginning of some new state. For the term of our lives, we are, however we may appear inert, perpetually in motion. There is boundless and boundariless hope suggested in the naming of this apartment. All will be new and engaged in self-renewal. Even here, in this damp, snug and half-darkened little farmhouse parlour, I feel the cool encouragement of mountain breezes sweeping Xanadu and rendering the Great Khan's limbs and spirit youthfully elastic.

3. The Mansion of Heaven Clear and Without Blemish

On account of his powers and the exalted position that he will occupy for ever, the Great Khan's dwelling is a simulacrum of heaven, designated at his command by loyal subjects whose work resides in the maintenance of this mansion in its unblemished status.

As the Great Khan takes residence, however temporarily, in this apartment, its sublunary precincts are, paradoxically, inhabited as though by its proper god. Subordinates who come and go according to the Great Khan's needs represent a part of this heaven, which is, as it were, official: for this place would not be a Mansion of Heaven's office were it not for the services done there for the Great Khan's pleasure.

The class of person who effects these duties can not, however, be said, themselves, to reside in the same unblemished heaven. These are people who, like the fabric and the furnishings of this apartment, contribute to its perfection. It is of the essence that they should, once they have served their purpose, withdraw, leaving the Great Khan in the isolation of his own, complete self-being. This is a characteristic both of their absence and also of the potential, as they are needed, of their brief and utilitarian presence.

4. The Royal Palace of Long Life

All monarchs may be expected to enjoy long lives, for it is believed to be the fate only of the disenfranchised poor to die young from the mishaps from which royalty, with its immeasurable privileges, can insulate itself. History has yet to give proof to such a theory. But given that longevity may be viewed as a reward from Heaven, the Palace of Long Life may be understood as a salubrious and medicinal environment within which the Great Khan could, as it were, draw the elixir of his expectation.

The gods are eternal, and the Great Khan – whose subjects were enjoined to address him as a deity – drew his inspiration from this knowledge. We should recall, also, that among the many religions that the Khan both tolerated and encouraged within his empire, lived the Taoist fraternity, whose mystic priests were adepts in alchemical preparations – of gold leaf, sulphur, cinnebar, mercury and I know not what beneficent disillations – whose ingestion endowed immortality. On this subject, however, I must register skeptic reservation: for if these same chimists were incapable of providing the Khan with a reliable specific against the gout from which he suffered agonies, what in the armoury of their pharmocopeia, I ask, could they propose against the worm, whose channerings, have reliably been observed since the beginning of time, to be ineluctable?

5. The Portal of great Purity

Given that his life was devoted in public to the pursuit of power and in private to pleasure, it is inconceivable that moral purity should have been attributed to the character of this great Tartar chieftain who took upon himself the far eastern imperium. And yet just as he took such an interest in Christendom that he ordered Polo senior to send him emissaries from the Pope and oil from the Holy Sepulchre, so from the Buddhists the Great Khan would have assimilated some knowledge of the path of purification as it was pursued in the monasteries that lay within his empire. But Great Purity, I surmise, related less to the spiritual character of the Khan than to the principles on which the palace architects and geomancers would have constructed the imperial residence. For it would have been impropitious indeed, whether this winter palace were to serve as spiritual retreat, hunting lodge, stables or house of prostitution – or any combination of these – were the palace not built in conformity with the most stringent of indigenous spiritual and divinatory principles – for the Great Khan's pleasure.

6. The Sovereign Concord House which Entertains Heaven

That which is sovereign is trustworthily golden. This predicates an assiduously refined thickness from whose centre the glow of the thing radiates as though steadied by a pulse which maintains the royalism of its endogeny. As the centre works by self-maintainence to refresh what, at the core, it must continue to be, the surface of the piece is in receipt: rhythmically and by repetition, and exists in the character of a perpetual becoming which has been organised or manufactured from the interior.

Alchemy proposes to cast out what is dull, too thick and leaden and to purify that which is coarse to the empyrean of what it could not, without some intervention, independently achieve. With all its elements in harmony, as though smelted first very thin and then consolidated into the sterling of a good bulk, this quiddity which has been rendered transformationally supreme, represents a valid concord: expressing the truth of its own highest possibility.

This, of course, is the basis of the imperial constitution: and the Sovereign Concord House will be a sanctified locus of the Great Khan's apotheosis and stand graciously in a condition where Heaven meets the earth and where any distinction between these two spheres has been eliminated.

Here, neither vaunting itself nor in false, obsequious crawling, Earth entertains Heaven. As though among two cultivated persons of an equal standing, one happened to be host and poured wine for the other, and so they met in uniformity and raised cups in equality, as if one were the other. From this, concord follows.

7. The Portal of Mysterious Valour

Courage resides neither in the blood nor in the muscle, but where the heart produces or exudes a more reserved elixir which is of a spiritual or disembodied morphology.

Great men are those who, without fully comprehending the transaction, have intuitively submitted to ordeals of transition. Hence the Portal in Magaillans connotes a point of both continued exit and of return. Through this gate, which renders each novice progressively more abstract, the spirit will pursue a passage. Whence and whither they conduct such a shuttle are neither in question: instead it is the activity of such a process which knits into the being that which is necessary for the perpetuation of its most delicate build: until such a time that a kind of perfection, as to valour (and its mystery) is achieved – at the least to the satisfaction, so we must imagine, of participating lares.

Still, the individual who has undergone such an initiation is no different from another. The Great Khan's armies are filled, successively, with many tens of thousands for whom these procedures are a childish pastime. As masses of such individuals are left fighting in far-flung districts and to perish anonymously, so they are replaced by those whose own short lives they themselves interpret as mere figures of a pattern which it is within the Great Khan's own destiny (or fancy) to drive forward in the fulfilment of his own relatively brief imperium.

Men who would be Great are those who plume themselves in dangerous states of a quasi- or soi disant deification (of perhaps a militarised character) as a result of having ostentatiously travelled on their best horses through this Portal in pursuit of some perfection – or its simulacrum. Whether the Khan himself is one for whom the notion of Valour represents the spectacle or the pretense of having been seen on some such a gaudy and impressive mount remains unknowable. Such are residues or dreams of conduct that the imagination must pick over with discretion.

8. The Portal of Ten Thousand Years

Amalgamating the long years, 'Ten Thousand' led to precincts in which time, by reduction, in this metamorphic passage, long since gone, dissolved entirely. Through such, the Great Khan might contrive an emergence.

9. The Fifth Apartment – the Supreme Apartment

Ascending from greatness to what is ever higher – travelling through elevations which are rarified beyond comprehension and without definition – such are the pathways diagrammed in this Supreme Apartment.

But at the point where he assumed he had achieved apotheosis, the Great Khan had not realised the supreme. Nor when he dwelled here did its environment thus advise him. No: this stood apart in its own proper condition, which was wonderful, albeit subordinate. He or that which would be great will wait.

Striving for a transcendance, the Khan found it had been contrived already: an architecture which had been construed on the flat and from there piled into the air, and which enclosed the air: the inner walls being of a light blue and gold with which sky and sun competed, one thereby completing the other in a radiance under the dome's arch which drew the light in to the extent that the apartment appeared to lift itself, circle on its own axis, float up of a sudden and thence ascend in a turning movement in the direction of the heaven whose shell it echoed and into which it would become assimilated.

But that which is supreme can only be called such a name from levels which do not reach it. Nothing reaches higher. And yet what lies beyond represents conditions so refined that no condition, ipse, may be said to attach to them. The supremacy of this apartment remains therefore a simple, ignorant allusion to what may never be experienced, still less conceived – as in the previous description – except through the grossest diagram of its possibilities.

Thus when the Great Khan steps there in the self-confidence which is his delusion, his process to that chamber represents merely the ordination of which he has been told the potential. It is of course a lie, that sublime. Because it was after all, something he might have brought with him – in his pocket, or somewhere.

10. The Twelfth Apartment which is called Fair and Beautiful Middle House

To explore for beauty demands less valour than does the execution of a battle and to gallop with one's cavalry towards a veil of arrows whose encroaching shadow will engulf your men within moments of their release, striking thousands in the face and tearing the entrails out of horses in a terrible and chaotic screaming.

If such an encounter does not arrest the charge, the second rank will go forward across the carnage raising the veil of its own weapons, and so by mutual elimination, the field becomes simplified and reduced for the contemplation of the last and no less unfortunate marksmen.

There is no beauty in warfare. And those on whom this truth has been impressed have therefore devoted the remainder of their energies to the rehearsal of what may be salvaged of human ingenuity.

The Great Khan had been travelling, one late summer, across half-dead grasslands and then stony desert when the advance party which had been sent forward to prospect for water, returned to report a small oasis. On the arrival of the imperial party, the Great Khan ordered that the horses should be led to drink: and as each mount crept up to the slime, the water hole (if it could it could be so described, for it was half dried up in alkaline and sun-drenched crystals) was soon drained. No single person drank that day. But a full week later, the Khan's horses made an entrance to the city. Half the men who rode were dead. And whether the Great Khan survived is not recorded: they had all, in those days and nights of violent madness, lost their garments and no person, in his inanition, could be told from another.

When the man who claimed to be the Great Khan tottered into the palace and was treated by his surgeons, it is said that a change had come upon him. For the period of a month he consumed no meat or intoxicating liquor, took counsel from a man of learning and discoursed to his entourage on the Middle Path of the Buddhists. When gradually this lapsed and the Great Khan reverted to the character by which he had been remembered, this aberration in his behaviour was forgotten. And yet, below the surface of his earthy character… no doubt the whole episode was a fiction of some court buffoon... If any such existed in those days of solemn moment – in which evidence of humour, so far as I have been able to ascertain, is at the best, scanty.

11. The Palace of Flourishing Learning

The acquisition of learning both was and was not the Great Khan's ambition. It was, afterall, a simple matter for him to surround himself with scholars and in this way assemble a body of men who could pronounce on everything that could be known of the earth and heaven and transmit this knowledge to him as he might demand it.

Knowledge, of course, is so varied and extensive that no one person could expect to contain all that can be known. And if it was the Great Khan's intention to point his captive scholars in the direction of his own mind and, serially, enjoin them to project into his one head (howsoever enormous) their collective learning, then his project must have failed: for even in the greatness that was his person and status, he could not contain the immensity of that range which stretched from the sciences through philosophy, history, statecraft, the fine arts, all the many religions that were represented in his empire and much more that I can neither recollect nor imagine.

Neither, ignorant as he was, would the Khan have known many suitable questions he might have asked the scholars who thronged his court. And so just as they were stuck there, at a presumable remove from any proper environment which might have furthered their own studies and brought them followers who would have promulgated their discoveries and made their names famous, so the Great Khan was stranded amongst them and incapable of even the most modest conversation which could have elicited the smallest element of enlivening information!

What looked, therefore, like a court which was decorated with the choicest luminaries of the empire and where learning appeared to thrive at the centre of the Great Khan's power, was in fact a place of tension and sterility, in which few felt capable of conversing with one another and in which, at its highest circles of scholarly achievement, the Great Khan himself stood quite alone and in an alienation from those fruits of intelligence he so craved to consume and even, in his beneficence, promulgate among his people.

He took comfort in the advice of one man only. This individual was, I believe, a Buddhist adept, and one who previously had lived in retirement in the Ch'uan Chu mountains. While this philosopher had been surprised to have been plucked from his obscurity and carried from a life of vagabondage into the luxurious premises of the palace, this simple soul had adapted himself with complacency to an enforced environment and his good humour was such that he looked on himself as fortunate to have arrived at a higher peak of deprivation to walk through: for the Great Khan's court was, to him, a place so poor in the attributes of natural richness on which he was used to thrive in the mountains, that it became a locus of the most esteemed challenge which could only lead to higher spiritual attainment.

Knowing this man to possess insights into the nature of existence that might enable him to make some kind of intellectual progress without the trouble of acquiring too much more of the Chinese language and its writing system, the Great Khan summoned this mendicant, and having offered him wine (which he refused with a laugh) and tea (which he accepted), installed himself in a little pavilion which was out of the sight of the palace and proceeded to converse with him.

The content of any conversation they enjoyed is of course largely unknown – for any transcript of what passed between them, is either lost or inaccessible to us. Scraps of discourse and a number of words that were overheard by an attendant passed into a folk memory of the event and – no doubt inaccurately transcribed and then translated some four centuries later by a colleague of Magaillans – these came my way in some notes that were harboured by one Dr. --- whose residence I visited only lately on a walking tour in the Hartz mountains. And I have fitted Dr.---'s notes (in the German) to make this statement.

These were the words that have come down to us: court, city, ambition, sandals, no view, mist, wind.

To render these words intelligible, I have used them as the basis of a short poem. Following this, I have included a short dialogue, as no doubt it proceeded, between the Great Khan and the adept:

Far from court and capital
a sage, in grass sandals,
dwells with clouds and wind as company.
Long since, at court, he had ambition.
Now he harbours no opinion.[2]


Khan    Tell me, O sage, what I should do to be wise and thus be saved?
Sage     Leave your capital, Highness.
Khan    How can I be certain that this is the path?
Sage     I do not know. There is perhaps no path.
Khan    Where, then, should I go?
Sage     You are the Emperor. You may go where you choose.
Khan    Where did you seek truth?
Sage     Out there. Some place that is nameless.
Khan    You mean in the mountains?
Sage     Those are not what you may think.
Khan    Must I travel there alone?
Sage     You will take every self in your possession. Which you'll then send back to join you in the city.
Khan    In that case I shall stay here.
Sage     It will make no difference.

12. The Palace of Mercy and Prudence

Let us try to imagine how Mercy and Prudence belong together and inhabit the same palace. To exercise mercy one must first have power. And so Mercy sits alone on a high seat of judgement. All who come before her are scrutinised and weighed. Their histories are recorded. Each is allowed to make one statement. The court's scribe notes this on a scroll which Mercy reads with care and then for some hours will meditate on its import. Prudence, meantime, lingers by the judgement desk, meditating quiet actions. It is these are decisive.

13. Processing through the Great Khan's Apartments

It was the Great Khan's privilege to process through his apartments in whatever order his caprice may have prompted. Thus, unlike his subordinates, he might enter where he chose. But what signified the numbers that attached to each apartment? And how did those numbers correspond to the names with which they were associated?

Herein, I think, lay the beauty of this palace: it was constructed according to a certain and particular order, but within this order lay foundations that were mobile: and thus the apartments, some of which no doubt consisted of separate dwellings, might be (or were so experienced) not merely as originally they had been designed, but made themselves accessible to identities and positions within the palace precincts which – perhaps as they were viewed by different people from separate meridia – was perpetually changing, or at least liable to alteration.

For such patterns to exist and persist in their transformations, a linear series must initially have been set forth – hence the names of each apartment and its associated number. But the essence of the palace lay, otherwise, in its metamorphic character and of this, there is more than a hint in the description which has come down to us from the Jesuit Magaillans.

According to this Magaillans, 'the First Apartment is bounded on the north side by the street of Perpetual Repose. From thence you proceed to the Third Apartment which is called the Portal of the Beginning.' But then, on the other hand, as wrote Magaillans: 'the second Apartment ought to be called the first'. Securely to interpret such a statement is of course impossible.

But herein, perhaps, lies an essential meaning. Vide: that the palace itself existed as a subject for interpretation. Why, for example, when the entire palace must have been constructed by the best architects of the Orient who had given their attention to the value of each aspect of this all important edifice, should only the twelfth apartment be called Fair and Beautiful? Does this not proclaim nonesense?

14. In which Mansion did the Great Khan Take his Leisure?

There were occasions when the Great Khan dawdled indecisively in this or that pavilion and was incapable of deciding for that afternoon or evening in which to stay. At the best of times and in his most confident moments he was unsure for precisely how long he should remain in any one of his apartments. And so he would enter: and having indeterminately filled it with his presence would soon get up and walk, in a decided manner which belied his uncertainty, to another where he would reside for a short period before again moving on to the station he judged to be appropriate.

Given that each apartment was subtly different from each other in design and that each had been given a title in conformity to a character which signified relations between heaven and earth and even in the relationship of the Great Khan himself both with higher powers and with his empire, the Khan, whether in residence or progress through his apartments, must respond appropriately to the demands of each particular environment.

Given that each apartment communicated its character directly, even the most casual perambulation or briefest residence was subject to a special demand. Thus when, for example, the Great Khan entered the Mansion of Heaven Clear and Without Blemish, he must know this to be the most rarified of simulacra. Here he must fix his mind on a space that prefigured the heavenly realms of immaculate clarity which he could expect one day to enter. On settling, by contrast, even for a brief moment, in the Royal Palace of Long Life he must contemplate the expectation for him, whatever sickness or despondency he might at the time suffer, of a sacralised and somewhat distasteful lengevity.

While the Sovereign Concord House which Entertains Heaven elicited from him the demand that residence there meant something which it was beyond his powers to achieve – whether in his uxorious relationships, political relations within the empire, in relations with alien and potentially hostile principalities or indeed with the celestial authorities – without whose consent – the which could be interpreted only by specialists whose formulae of divination he did not comprehend – he could do nothing.

These anxieties were compounded by the fact that each wonderful apartment was decorated with symbolic representations which he did not understand and about which he was too bashful, emperor that he was, to make enquries. More: there existed, throughout his palace, inscriptions in Chinese. And while he had, since childhood, spoken this language well enough, it was with a barbarian tonality whose accent could make his more elevated Chinese advisors cough softly with mortification. Even with his concubines, several of whom had been chosen for their superiority in the arts would inwardly smirk even in the course of his most furious embraces in the knowledge that he was incapable of reading the ethical and philosophical inscriptions that bedizened his chamber of pleasure. Sometimes, in amorous conversation with some beauty in whose confidentially he was certain, he would, with a careless insouciance which belied the serious intent of his request, murmur that he would now, having finally allowed her to rise from pronation, enjoy being read to – and thus assimilate, by proxy, the moral character of the chamber he had ordained to have been built for his pleasure.

In the Chinese view, of course, pleasure connoted something more than the satisfactions of the body. And even within this grosser sphere, there existed – as there did for the spiritual aristocracy of India – levels of erotic gratification which approached a sublime spirituality of which the Great Khan could neither conceive nor achieve. This, afterall, was – to borrow a figure from the Sanscrit – something of a boar of a man or a bull. One who took for granted the height and throbbing of his member as the be all of his manly system and whose gratification must be accomplished in a greedy and animal consummation. After which urgency, in lieu of lying genially with his paramour and contemplating with her the exquisite vault of the chamber in which they had been playing and whose harmonies they had been encouraged by it to replicate, he would roll over and snore, refreshed albeit, while the lady would creep back to the gynaeceum where she would rest in the ambiguity of a purdah of one who had been at once privileged and abused.

This may be added. And some may nod in recognition of this. Vide: that erotic engagement serves wonderfully to gather to itself everything that may preoccupy both mind and body, and in so doing it will at the same time obliterate all that does not belong to eros. The whole world – sun, moon and cosmos even – are gathered in and at once cast away by the act of congress: for acts of congress represent an All-consuming All Things, and thus the world is, by the minute, recreated.

This fact was, I am certain, of immeasurable convenience for one such as the Great Khan, who stood at once at the pinnacle of authority and lay in his pavilions, uncomprehending as a baby. While the meanings inherent within the fabric and the architecture of his very own mansions, which had been prepared for his glorification by subject minds whose speculations he could neither follow nor imagine, would, with effortless repeated acts of rutting, be obliterated entirely.

15. The Palace that Envelops the Heart

If the solace of a happy private life represents a good, then surely it was in the seclusion of his apartments that the Khan found his greatest satisfaction. And in commandeering – as though equipping himself with an elite personal guard – the most delectable young women of a remote province in which the prettiest children were known to be engendered, he ensured that he was surrounded at all times with an inexhaustible supply of companions who could gratify his every whim and bring him pleasure and not least not annoy him with bad breath or their snoring. In thus fortifying his private life with pulchritude – and all that this entailed of emissaries and other subordinates who would effect the importation of these damsels from their places of breeding – the Great Khan was, of course, also executing state policy.

And if we are reminded of how gloomy Dis plucked Proserpine from meadows where she herself plucked flowers, let us recall also that according to Marco, it was, at this time and in those parts regarded as nothing but an honour to provide the Great Khan with your prettiest daughters and to imagine a successful future for them in a place of privilege and exaltation.[3]

But to my point, which is the nature of the Great Khan's private experience. Let us assume, first, the existence of women's quarters at a sufficient remove from the Khan's apartments to ensure mutual privacy but still close enough to allow a quick transfer of personnel – for nothing could be guaranteed to irritate an Emperor more than to be kept waiting or to be visited by a companion who arrived in disarray, perspiring or otherwise displaced from the coordination of her perfections.

I will not dwell on the cultivated entertainment that ensued and the manner in which this evolved into a carnal sporting. What exercises me still is the fact that this engrossment, howsoever it took place in an absolute seclusion of the Great Khan's choosing, remained a political act which had its place in the life of his empire, and further, that his private chambers represented state apartments: and that were he not Emperor, this or that young woman would have been smiling at some toothless yokel across the rows of the millet they were harvesting and that she would produce babies for him under rice thatch, sink into bucolic maternity, fast become a grandmother and die in the anonymous province where her granddaughters would repeat her experience.

But transported from ------, here this fine girl stood, swayed, danced and sang and then dallied with the greatest Emperor that the world has ever seen. And for one night, for a week or a month perhaps, he would enter her body and she would receive the elixir of his potency – a common enough male currency! Subsequently, she would retire to the Great Khan's gynaeceum, to be presented in the end, if she continued to behave with decorum, to one of the Khan's officials, who would do with her as he wished – albeit never again to see her kinsfolk or her childhood companions. Who, after all, would bother, once she had served her limited purpose, with the repatriation of such a little individual?

Reverting to the nature of the Great Khan's private life, it is reasonable to assume that he and his concubines, coming as they did from widely separated regions, spoke languages that were mutually unintelligible. And albeit locked in concupiscence, each party to that pleasant strife was shuttered away securely from the other. Delightful – to the Khan at least – as such encounters might briefly have been, this was nonetheless lonely exposure to a solitary other. With strangulated grunts of lust he consumed her body – and then others still more fresh and lovely. While they, in return, as custom demanded, murmured teasing endearments in their region's language – though who knows with what insults in their honeyed and lubricious accents they assaulted him! Still, once the sweet event had run to its conclusion, an empty silence followed. And gathering now that liquefaction of her silks she had rustled in with, the lady hurried off with her eyes averted to the gynaeceum where shuddering in recollection of the indecencies to which she had been subjected, she gave herself over to her colleagues and rivals, who led her to a bath house and assisted in her toilet.

I have, in my imagination, expatiated somewhat pruriently on these eventualities in order to give air to the following suspicion. This is as follows. While the ladies of the harem were captives and, indeed, were enslaved to a tyrant whose only raison d'etre was the exercise of power, the Great Khan, in turn, was in certain ways in the power of his gynaeceum. For it is not difficult to imagine the women's gossip that followed each encounter. They were, of course, kept for one purpose only. But while they (in the changing composition of their group) represented a little society, the Great Khan was just one. And as he grew in years (and in dimension!) he grew both less manly in comportment and less capable of performance.

What intelligence, therefore, might have been passed around among his women on a night when the Great Khan had been unable to -----? Or when his member had merely ---- --- ------? What tattle, likewise, must have circulated on the porcine swelling of his face, his fat-squeezed eyes, his gouty ankles, the stink of his breath and not least the belly that toppled him around when he was aroused, whether or not he had been drinking?

It is, of course, unthinkable that the Khan was not aware of such eventualities. What therefore should he do with the women with whom he performed unsatisfactorily, or even with those in whom he sensed the slightest reserve? Might they, at the outset, have been warned not to gossip about their imperial lover? What threats would have been issued against such an infraction? Might it not have been simpler just to do away with those who might have discreditable stories?

There were good reasons to oppose such a policy. A strangled concubine spoke grimly from the couch she had vacated: what secrets, people close to him and his women might have asked, after all, on the subject of the Great Khan's person had been snuffed out with her murder? Besides, the terror that such a crime would inspire would so intimidate her colleagues in their relations with the master that any spontaneity that they might bring to his pleasure would be impossible for any of them to sustain.

These were, I surmise, a small number of the sentiments and circumstances that attended on the Khan's existence: and while The Palace that Envelops the Heart had been constructed for the enjoyment of great men and the employment of enchanting women, it remained a place where beauty threw long, poignant shadow. And where greatness was reduced to a solitary inanition.


[1] In thus doing I have foresworn to copy for my Bristol audience Marco’s description of the Winter Palace. If this be regarded on my part as a caprice, let the reader here resort to Chapter 10 of his Book 2 and compare it to Magaillans. Which, worthy essay as it might be, is none of my intention here.
[2] Adapted from Kurt W. Radtke – Poetry of the Yuan Dynasty, Canberra, 1984
[3] And yet, one asks, did not this tithe on pulchritude so under-populate the garden from which its best flowers were gathered, that in due course, the fairest young women having been deported, that same province became a place in which ugly children only were engendered, while their descendents who had been fathered by the Great Khan ipse, came to populate the environs of Xanadu and thus up-ended the human composition of the empire somewhat?

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