The Secret History of the Mongols describes the birth of a nation and a state, organized around a heavenly-destined charismatic founder, Genghis Khan. The biography of Yelu Chucai describes how a new dynasty, founded by a heavenly-destine charismatic conqueror, ‘The Great Founder’ or Genghis Khan, was transformed and civilized by an adviser Yelu Chucai, himself of Khitan origin, from the Inner Mongolian people who built the Liao dynasty.
The great Mongol empire founded in 1206 by a prominent charismatic person Genghis Khan was unshakeable and progressive. Mostly it was provided by wise government that could always find ways out of difficult situations, introduce reforms and solve problems. Strong army conquered more and more new lands, expanding the territory of the khanate.
The progress was evident and all the people were sure that it was due to the heavenly-destined ruler, Genghis Khan and his descendants. However, few people knew the role of his right-hand man Yelu Chucai who actually took the lead in the majority of reforms and whose advice was a decisive factor in all Khan’s orders. He was the real power behind the throne and controlled all the governor’ decisions. Chucai’s possibility to influence the Khan and to persuade him change his orders really astonished. Step by step, Yelu Chucai gained more and more official power and became a highly influential person in the empire. “Chucai, as a single scholar standing alone at the head of the court, still desired to practice what he had studied – how unmanageably difficult it was! Fortunately, relying on the succeeding Son of Heaven sitting on the throne, his admonitions were heeded and his words heard.” (Fu 205) How did he manage to make such a career and to enjoy Khan’s confidence? Moreover, how a person of Chinese origin with his own firm point of view on the state governing could influence a strong-willed, independent and terrible conqueror, who had an absolutely different opinion concerning state and its government? To answer these questions it is necessary to analyze Chucai’s biography, his personality and the history of the development of the Mongol empire together with Chucai’s participation in it.
The representatives of two different nations, the Chinese and the Mongols, could cooperate for many years in spite of different views upon the state. Both the Mongolian Secret History of the Mongols and the Chinese Biography of Yelu Chucai see government as founded by a heavenly destined conqueror. However, for the Chinese, conquest is only the means to an end, the unification of China, but for the Mongols, continuing conquest is the very purpose of the State. Reviewing the history of the Mongol empire, we see that for the Khan, the main aim was the everlasting war, occupation of new lands and expanding the territory. Being nomads, the Mongols never knew how to establish a firm state and provide its prosperity. In fact, they never needed it as considered the conquest of other nations much more important. Meanwhile Chucai as a Chinese wanted to establish a stable government and thus to unite the whole nation and lead it to the well-being. His right and thorough approach to the matter became apparent when he occupied the post of a Secretary. He stated, “Although the world was won on horse back, it cannot be governed on horseback.” (Kuo-yi Pao 253) Chucai’s nature, great intellect and extraordinary wisdom were the keystones of the development of the empire.
In contrast to the hot-tempered, impetuous and moody Genghis Khan, whose only desires were money and territories, sober-minded Yelu Chucai overviewed future prospects and knew very well what to do to unite the nation and to establish not a nomadic settlement but a stable state. The Mongols’ way of life comprised only campaigns and leisure time. If they did not conduct a raid, they rested and derived pleasure from hunting. This tendency can be emphasized by such an example. When the emperor was ill, Chucai helped him to recover but only as far as it was possible, still he asked him several times to abstain from hunting. Nevertheless, neither the Khan, nor his subjects considered Chucai’s opinion, saying, “If he does not ride and hoot, then how will he enjoy himself?” (Fu 195) The Khan hunted several days and died after it. Thus, it shows how reckless and narrow-minded the Mongols were. Most of them were simply uneducated, perhaps therefore Chucai could persuade them and influence on them with the help of his keen intellect and reasonableness.
Yelu Chucai was perfectly educated. When he was seventeen, he had already read a great amount of books and could write as a real author. He showed excellent results during special examinations for secretarial clerks and after being appointed the Vice-Prefect, he rapidly made his career and eventually became the advisor of the Emperor Genghis. From the very beginning, he revealed wisdom in taking decisions and the gift of reading the future by different signs. For example, once in summer the army was going to campaign in the west, but on the day when there was the ceremony of sacrificing, the was a heavy snowfall that worried the Khan. Chucai said that it signified that the enemy would be defeated. Another time in winter Khan heard a great thunder. Habitually, he asked Chucai about it and got the answer that it was a sign of a forthcoming death of the Turkish Sultan. All his prophecies were fulfilled and the Khan’s admiration was endless.
Solving everyday problems Chucai did not need any provision; his wisdom helped him not only to find the only true ways out but to convince the governor in their soundness as well. It was Chucai who made a true calendar, introduced proper order among the officials, enacted laws concerning profits from monopolies, land charges, commercial tax. He took care of people that lived in the state and about the army that was, in fact, the basis of the empire. After the capturing another city, when everybody was plundering houses, Chucai took only several books and a sack of rhubarb. When there was an epidemic among soldiers, those who got the rhubarb could survive and that was a great number of people. It was not the only time when Chucai saved the Mongol army from the destruction.
Moreover, no one can said that such Chucai’s diligence and desire to make people’s life better was conditioned by his wish to gain favor with the Emperor or to earn more money. His absolutely disinterested work was due to his character and responsibility. “Chucai served in court with a stern and serious face and would not demean himself in even minor ways. He desired with his own person to profit the whole society. Whenever he set forth the profit or harm to the dynasty and the joys and sorrows of the populace, his utterance and facial expression were deeply sincere.” (Fu 125) Being an honest and noble person he never permitted himself to make a profit out of others’ work or property. While plunders were an essential part of Mongolic raids, he never took money. The only thins that were found in his rooms were books and ancient manuscripts. Being an erudite person, he devoted all his free time to learning and stated, “No matter how much official business multiplies, the days belong to the office, but the nights belong to yourselves and you may still study.” (Fu 160)
To make a conclusion, I am inclined to believe that Yelu Chucai’s contribution to the development and progress of the Mongol state cannot be overestimated. To my mind, it was he who ruled the nation and made it prosperous. Without his wise control of Khan’s governing the empire could not be so powerful and vast. Random orders of the Mongol Emperor and his ignorance in the proper ruling of a state eventually could lead to the quick collapse of the empire. Mongolic nature and approach to the politics contradicted the ones of the Chinese adviser, however, he managed to rule the state in spite of any difficulties.
Chunjiang Fu. “Gateway To Chinese Culture”. Asiapac, 2003
Farquhar M. David, “Structure and Function in the Yuan
Imperial Government in China under Mongol Rule”. Ed. John D. Langois, Jr. Princeton, 1981.
Kuo-yi Pao. “Studies On The Secret History Of The Mongols”.
Wing-Tsit Chan. “A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy”.
Presidio Press, 1997.
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