An Offer He Could Not Refuse: The Man of Iron Recruits the Man of Letters
Beyond the Great Wall, which marks the frontier of civilization, beyond the great Gobi Desert, lies Mongolia, the Land of Blue Sky.
This is the setting of the story of Genghis Khan, who is called by his people Conqueror of the World.
Genghis Khan conquered China in the year 1215 in a military campaign that was a work of genius. I was a member of the government of the deposed emperor.
Call me Chancellor Yeh-lu. That is what he Mongol nobility call me. I am half-Chinese and half-nomad of the tribe of the Khitan. My father was Khitan royalty. My mother was a Chinese noblewoman. Through her, I received my classical Chinese education.
My family were the royal family of a deposed dynasty, for after the fall of the glorious Tang Dynasty, North China was ruled by us. We came down from the north and conquered China. The old military and feudal families who formed ruling class could no longer protect the borders. The Great Wall was built to keep people like us out of North China, but the Tang let the frontier go and China was divided. Stronger barbarians came and took North China from us. Then the Mongols came and took it from them. That was the story of China.
One group of barbarians from outside the Great Wall replaced another. The Song Emperor escaped to the South, below the Yangzi River. This was a Han Chinese dynasty. The founder had his generals forsake warfare, so the South was not strong enough to take back the North and put China back together again.
There a new mercantile culture flourished. The South grew rich on trade. It was a new era in Chinese history. Southern Song created a brilliant culture The arts flourished, but they had given up warfare. I should say as a matter of history that my people the Khitan gave China the name Cathay.
You are surprised, there is a nobility among the nomads—it is true. They are an aristocratic society, these riders of the horse. The Chinese call them barbarians because they are unlettered. Also, they do not bathe and they cover themselves in bear grease against the cold. They are notorious gluttons and they drink to drunkenness at their legendary feasts. All these things are true.
Yet I admire their bravery in warfare, their loyalty, their Code of Laws.
At the time that Genghis Khan founded the Great Mongol Nation twenty years ago, he adopted the script of the Uighur to write the language. The Chinese have had their magnificent writing for more than a thousand years.
Here is an important moment in the conflict between China and the barbarians. Through his prowess in war and his excellence in government, Genghis Khan brought peace. He ended the warfare that had been a feature of life in the steppes for generation. The tribes were unified under his banner. He founded a nation, Yesse Mongol Ulus, the Great Mongol Nation.
The steppe wars are examples of brilliant cavalry warfare, but that a story for another time. I am telling you of Genghis Khan's conquest of China, the richest and most brilliant civilization on earth. He did not intend to occupy it. He intended to rule it from the steppes. He made war on China for revenge, for they had been meddling in the politics of the steppes for generations. They backed the tribe that murdered his father and left him alone, unprotected, to die in the steppe winter.
In him was born a lust for power that never left him.
I am a civilized man. I read and write. I speak Chinese and the languages of the tribes. I sat for the examinations that entitled me to serve in the government. I served in the department of the treasury. I was in daily attendance upon the deposed Emperor.
I had in my possession the Seal of State of the Jin--that was the name of the dynasty founded by the Manchus.
I am a Confucian in my public life, for Confucianism is the best philosophy for the ordering of the state. In my private life, I am a Buddhist. Buddhism is the best philosophy for the ordering of the mind.
I served an emperor and l lived in the imperial palace. I saw much. I witnessed the fall of a dynasty.
I saw people starving to death in the streets. I saw the Mongol Army set to the torch the magnificent capital of Qungdu. I saw the princesses of the royal family throw themselves from the wall rather than allow themselves to be taken captive by the Mongol commanders. I saw the streets run slick with human fat, rendered down in the fires. I saw the slaughtered in the streets. These visions haunted me. A sense of doom enveloped me. Joy left me and I had no will to live.
After the Mongols left China, I went to a Buddhist monastery to pray and to seek enlightenment. In my dreams, the ghosts of my ancestors howled, and I was sorry that I had had not joined them.
I meditated until the Abbot declared that I had achieved enlightenment. Shortly afterward, I received the most momentous communication of my life. This was a summons from The Conqueror.
The reader may well ask, how did a man of letters come to serve in the government of a military man?
The answer is simple. Genghis Khan, who was called the Man of Iron, made me an offer I could not refuse.
As an official in the government of a deposed dynasty, I expected to be put to death. Instead, I was summoned into the presence of the most powerful sovereign in Asia, and I was recruited.
He sent a general to the monastery, a man bearing a solid gold tablet in the shape of a tiger. It was official summons, with a guarantee of good treatment. He asked me to come to his camp, and he asked me to bring him the Seal of State. He was the new Emperor of China.
I went under armed escort to the vast steppelands beyond the Great Wall. I met him and I gave him the Seal of State.
He was seated upon the Dragon Throne that had been taken from the Audience Hall of the Jin Emperor. Across it was thrown a white horseskin, symbolizing his rule over all of those who herded horses. He sat there with his legs open, his leather armor covering his massive chest, his red hair hanging in plaits beneath his war helmet trimmed in sable. He looked as though nothing on earth could unseat him.
He questioned me closely then offered me my life if I helped him to govern China. I knew he was no mere barbarian.
He told me that he was not an educated man, but that he surrounded himself with educated men.
He was a true nomad. He loved being the ruler of thousands of clans living in felt tents, loved owning vast herds of horses and the herd animals the nomads call "the five snouts." He loved the free open life of the steppes and the seasonal migration to good pasture. He loathed the peasants who lived in fixed dwellings in villages and were slaves to the seasons.
But he needed men like myself with skills that his people did not possess. The Mongols knew nothing of administration and record-keeping. They had no skills for governing the richest civilization on earth. That is why he recruited me.
The Mongol generals wanted to put all of North China to the torch and turn it into pasture for their horses. I convinced the Supreme Khan that he had more to gain from taxing the population than from annihilating it.
I appealed to his greed, not to his sense of compassion, for he had none. I do not believe that he comprehended civilized life, meaning the life of those who lived in fixed dwellings.
Genghis Khan made me an offer, an offer to save Chinese civilization and I took it. I became a man of letters serving in a military government.
This is the story of my life. For the past twelve years I have been personal secretary, physician and astrologer to Chinggis Khan, who brought such devastation to China. I had no idea that within a matter of years, I was to become the most important statesman in the Mongol Empire. Mine has been a rare and spectacular life.
I stood beside Genghis Khan on the battlefield. I advised him on campaign and at court. I can tell you, he was no barbarian. The Chinese are so convinced of their own superiority that they cannot see him for what he was, an aristocrat of the horse-raising nomads. He gave a Code of Laws to his people. He gave them a written language. He brought peace to the empire. He tolerated all religions. He promoted trade.
Many of my fellow officials fled to the South to where a Han Chinese emperor sat on the throne of the Song Dynasty. They refused to serve a conquest dynasty.
Many Confucian officials who remained behind were taken prisoner. Many were turned into slaves.
My fellow officials said that I was a traitor to my people. I don't think so. I believe that I saved Chinese civilization. Who would be there to speak for the people, if not for me?
My situation was difficult. The Mongol generals resented me. "Are you going to weep for the people again?" they asked, when I went to the battlefield to see the slaughter and to help those that could be helped.
They soon came to see why I gave my advice. They knew what happened after the slaughter. I stopped the epidemic of battlefield diseases. Typhoid, dysentery, cholera.
The Mongols are shamanists and believe that spirits inhabit the rivers and they did not want to disturb the spirits. They were afraid of lightning for many of them were killed in the rivers of the steppes. But they learned.
In the minds of the Chinese literati, Genghis Khan was a bloodthirsty barbarian because he wreaked such devastation upon our civilization, but he was a man of honor and bravery. He was a genius at utilizing every element in his domain to his best advantage.
He was not bloodthirsty. He did not kill for the sake of killing. His warfare had an elementary logic all its own. He never left an enemy population behind the advancing front lines of his army. He never lost a battle. He rode at the head of his army into war. He wore the same rags as his men. He lived in a round felt tent. He ate the same food as they. They were fanatically loyal to him. He was the steppe incarnate.
A Confucian looks for moral order in history. I believe that I have found it.
The Chinese never asked themselves, what had they done to deserve the conquest? What was it all about? I leave this record, this tribute to the man I knew. The Chinese are the greatest historians on earth. They create a history of every dynasty, that future generations may understand the lessons contained in history. Perhaps this is the reason that their civilization has lasted so long. They learn from the past.
There is no one to create this history in this first generation. The task has fallen to me. I offer the history of the man who founded a dynasty in China.
Chancellor to Genghis Khan