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An Offer He Could Not Refuse: The Man Who Saved China


Beyond the Great Wall, which marks the frontier of civilization, beyond even the great Gobi Desert, lies Mongolia, the Land of Blue Sky, the setting of the story of Chinggis Khan, who is called by his people Conqueror of the World.


The Mongol nobility call me Chancellor Yeh-lu but my full name is Yeh-lu Chu-tsai. I am half-Chinese and half-nomad of the tribe of the Khitan. My mother was a Chinese noblewoman. Through her, I received my classical Chinese education. My father was a member of the royal house of the Liao Dynasty, which was defeated by the Jin. One dynasty defeated another, and as the Jin were inexperienced in governing, they recruited my grandfather and father to serve them. We were educated in the classical Chinese tradition. We understood Chinese methods of governing. The nomads needed us.


A good Confucian looks for moral order in history. My fellow scholars would not like to hear me say this because they loathe the nomads and feel superior to them, but I have found moral order among the Mongols who wreaked such havoc on our civilization.


I have observed the Mongols closely for almost thirteen years as of the time I write this memoir. In cutting their wide swath across the world, they have left mountains of skulls, taken bags of ears, and devastated fertile lands. Still, I must tell you that

Chinggis Khan was not bloodthirsty. These terrible acts gave him no pleasure, but were his method of waging war.


If my fellow officials will not give the great man his due, let me record here how greatly I admire his courage, discipline and skill in warfare which allowed him to master not only China, but the world. The question remains, How did he do it. In my account, I answer the question. He recruited able men, educated men, to form the government. The Khans may have been mobile, but we created a capital in Khara Khorum to house the vast revenues that flowed in from the empire. I know the system because I created it. I accompanied him when he waged a war in the Muslim world, and I created the government that was the model for the empire. 


The Mongols invaded China in the year 1211. Here is the question I pose to my fellow officials. If Chinggis Khan was such a barbarian, why did many Chinese generals defect to the Mongol Army? Why did the Jin generals help the Mongols to win? This is my answer: Chinggis Khan gave out orders that any Chinese who came to his side would be given good treatment and position in his army.


Many generals and engineers trusted this guarantee and came to the Mongol side. Chinggis Khan was as good as his word. These military men helped Chinggis Khan master the art of siege warfare, the turning point of the campaign.


The Chinese commanders knew that this not merely a barbarian raid. They believed that the Mongol Khan had acquired the Mandate of Heaven and was destined to be the new ruler of China.


At first Chinggis Khan allowed his army, which had been on operations inside of China for four years, to plunder the plain of North China, because he could not see how to take the capital which had walls forty feet thick.


The capital fell in the year 1215. A dynasty had fallen. The Jin had lost the Mandate of Heaven.


I did what was called "shaking off the dust of the world."  I went to a Buddhist monastery where I sought enlightenment under the guidance of the Grand Abbot. I meditated long hours, trying to eradicate the vision before my eyes, of my world falling apart. What good were worldly treasures and worldly position when the capital of the fallen dynasty, the magnificent city of


Qungdu was a smoking ruin littered with corpses, the gutters running slick with fat rendered from human bodies? There was nothing left of my world. What was I to do with the rest of my life?


During those last days of Jin, soldiers came to the capital bringing news of the situation in the fortress towns which the Mongols had taken, told the Emperor of heaps of white bones piled as high as city gates, white bones strewn along the roads, white bones decorating the sides of steep ravines where the bodies of soldiers had been carelessly tossed. The armies of Chinggis Khan set fire to silk-weaving villages with mulberry tree orchards and behind them left dessert.


I must also record that the inhabitants of towns which voluntarily surrendered to the Mongols and thus saved Chinggis Khan the trouble of going to war, were spared. Their officials were taken into the civil service of the Mongols, their soldiers were taken into the Mongol Army.


The people in the cities were so destitute as cold weather came on that they removed statues of Buddha from temples and chopped them up for kindling wood. Miraculously, the capital was reprieved because the Supreme Khan felt he could not take the city--the capital had walls forty feet thick and eighteen feet high.


During the last days of the Jin, I, a man of letters, was powerless to affect the fall of a dynasty. As an official in the highest governmental bureau, the Grand Secretariat, I was filled with a sense of doom. That I would or would not lose my own life seemed a small event. I came to envy those officials who had been quickly decapitated for it seemed to me that it was easier to die than to survive such horror.


At night, in dreams, I thought I heard the ghosts of my ancestors calling my name over and over like a howling wind and I did not know whether they summoned me to join them or chastised me for my paralysis.


No temple bells rang out in celebration the day that Chinggis Khan left China, because the army had taken the huge bronze bells as plunder. From his camp at Dolon Nor outside the Wall, Chinggis Khan issued orders that the emperor was to remain in the capital, a royal hostage. Then his army rode across the Gobi to Mongolia. The new Mongol governors lost no time in demanding taxes from the population.


Spring arrived. Flowers opened in the fields and the snow-laden sky turned from grey to blue. All was sadness and desolation. Joy left me and I had no will to live. I had no idea that within a number of years, I would become the most important official at the court of Chinggis Khan.


Amid the desolation, members of the imperial family engineered a palace coup; the royals put a new emperor on the throne. Although many high officials tried to convince him that this was an unwise course of action, the Emperor fled the city. When Chinggis Khan heard that the emperor had dared to defy him, he was furious.


The worst heat of the summer of 1214 passed. By August, the Mongol Army returned from Dolon Nor, the summer camp in the steppes where the Mongol Army could fatten their horses and rest for the coming season of battle. The Supreme Khan set up camp outside the capital once again. A terrible siege, which was to last for ten months, began.


This was Chinggis Khan's method of persuasion. He wanted the officials of Qungdu to open the city gates and hand him the city which he could not take by force of arms.  The grain supplies which the Imperial Government kept in the city fed the inhabitants of the capitol for eight months. The last two months of the siege, there was a famine. I went about my duties in the Imperial Palace, aware that the populace was starving to death in the streets.


By May of 1215, this ruthless tactic succeeded. The capitol of China was in Mongol hands. At the hour of victory, a nomad army was entitled to pillage, loot and rape and they did so. Many thousands of people died while those of us who ran the government were forced to remain prisoners within the walls of the Imperial City. The capital burned while we watched flames of destruction rise against baked summer skies. The gutters ran slick with human fat. Royal women, rather than be taken as prisoner and slaves by the barbarians, threw themselves to their deaths from the ramparts, their gauzy scarves floating on the breeze.


Imagine what the Mongols must have thought as they made their sweep of the plain of North China conquering everything to the sea. Imagine nomads seeing for the first time cities and farmlands stretching for hundreds of miles when all they were used to seeing was a sea of grass stretching to infinity under a brilliant blue sky.


The first question that entered their minds was how would they feed their horses? The Mongol generals wanted to raze North China, all of it, and turn it into pasture for their beloved horses. This is why I went into Chinggis Khan's service. Who else would speak for Chinese civilization?


Once I was in the government of the Supreme Khan, I appealed to his greed, not to his compassion. I told him that it would be more profitable to tax the population rather than annihilate it. I proved to him how much profit he could gain from the agricultural products, once the regular seasons were re-established after the years of warfare. There was chaos in North China, but with my programs, soon order was restored.


The Mongol soldiers and officials were loyal to their Khan. In the palace, I witnessed Shiki Kutuku, the Supreme Judge of the Mongols, making records while Mongol soldiers entered the storerooms of the Jin Emperor and loaded the Imperial treasure of China into black Mongol carts: millions of gold and silver ingots, millions of bolts of the finest silks, satins, and brocade, hundreds of thousands of objects of art, priceless paintings, sculptures of precious metal with precious and semi-precious stones, ivory carvings, porcelains, jewelry, and bronze ritual vessels dating back a thousand years.


A Chinese official tried to bribe the barbarian official with a portion of the treasure but Shiki refused the bribe and brought every item of booty, catalogued by him, to Chinggis Khan's camp at Dolon Nor. I did not know then that Shiki was an adopted brother of the Khan, taken by him at the conquest of the Tatar tribe, the mortal enemy, and given to his mother to be raised in her tent, that their kind would not vanish from the earth.


In the year 1218, the Supreme Khan sent a Chinese general to the monastery where I resided. The man was wearing a Golden Tiger Tablet, a pai-zi of gold embossed with the image of a tiger to indicate his high rank. The inscription was in Chinese and in Mongolian. It read:  This is the sacred order of the Oceanic Emperor Chinggis who is Beloved of Heaven:  All commands are to be executed in accordance with the wishes of his Envoy. I left the monastery and rode north to Mongolia, bearing the Seal of State of the Jin Dynasty.


I made what is called a Comfortable Journey at the invitation of the Supreme Khan who was now the most powerful man in Asia, the new emperor of China. I was escorted by his soldiers and rode in a palanquin which he provided for me. I was taken to his palace tent, now filled with the treasures he had taken from the Imperial Palace in Qungdu: sculptures of gold, jade and priceless porcelains.


I entered the Valley of Two Rivers and marveled at the tens of thousands of white felt tents fanning out across the landscape. I passed through the fires which the shamans put at the entrance to Chinggis Khan's camp to rid visitors of evil spirits.

Keshig Officers, the Imperial Guardsmen, searched me to make sure that I was not armed. These fierce-looking aristocratic commanders ushered me into a brocade palace tent of immense size filled with the treasure taken from the Jin Emperor. The Dragon Throne had been placed on a dais. I recognized it. I knew it well. It was made of gold and ivory and cinnabar, carved lacquer.


Across it was thrown the skin of a white horse, the symbol of the Supreme Khan's rule. Only he was allowed to ride white horses and drink the milk of snow white mares. Chinggis Khan sat on the throne as though it were a saddle, legs open, torso forward, shoulders squared. He looked as though nothing on earth could unseat him. This was the situation I faced. A barbarian had gained the Mandate of Heaven without which no emperor rules China.


I presented the Supreme Khan with the Jin Emperor's Seal of State. It was his to wield, to stamp his decrees. He ordered one of his Keshig, his Imperial Guardsmen, to take it from my hands. My long sleeves fluttered as I presented the seal.


The Supreme Khan wore the uniform of the Mongol soldier, a long tunic with pleated riding trousers and leather riding boots. He had red hair which he wore in two plaits and a leather war helmet trimmed in sable. His eyes were amber, ringed in gray.


They tilted tiled like hawk-wings over his wide Mongol cheekbones. He had huge shoulders and a broad chest. The Mongols are short and bow-legged.


I am a vain man, over six feet tall and slender in my long silk scholar's gowns. But Chinggis Khan was as tall as I am. The Mongols do not bathe frequently for they are shamanists and superstitious about the spirits that reside in rivers and bodies of water. This is why they did not bathe until I convinced the Supreme Khan that he would suffer the loss of his soldiers from battlefield epidemics if they did not wash the filth from themselves after a battle. I have bathed with the Great Khan in the rivers of Samarkand when we were on campaign in the Western lands, and I can tell you that his legs are straight.


The Emperor fixed his eyes on me. Under his unflinching gaze I knew that this was no mere brute of a military man. He was a military genius and he understood the motivations of men. He questioned me closely.


As a high official in the government of a deposed emperor, I was certain that I was to be put to death. My only thought was to conduct myself with dignity. I did not know then how much the Emperor admired men of learning. 


Then he announced, "I have avenged you and your ancestors by ridding you of the Jin."

I was offended. No one, not even a great conqueror, was privy to my feelings about my family. I tucked my hands in my sleeves and drew myself up to my full height. "With all due respect, sir, my grandfather, father and I all served the Jin. I would be a liar if I told you that I was happy about their downfall. I would be happier bringing the seal to the Jin Emperor than to you, sir."


The Supreme Khan laughed, a booming laugh which echoed through the tent. None of his soldiers made a move. "I admire loyalty more than all other virtues, even loyalty to a fallen enemy. If you will be loyal to your lord when it might cost you your life, I can trust you to be loyal to me. I offer you a post in my government. I have no learning. I can make use of your skills."


I was twenty-five years old and Chinggis Khan was old enough to be my father, almost fifty. He told me that he admired my accomplishments. I could read and write, and was an educated man. He said that he himself was not educated, but he surrounded himself with educated men. He made use of everything, every person, every resource in his empire. I was no exception. I even wrote classical Chinese poetry. I am a physician and knew medicines and herbs. Chinese medicine was infinitely superior to what the Mongols called medicine, this was a valuable skill. I knew divining by Chinese methods, and could tell fortunes by casting the yarrow stalks of the I Qing, the Book of Changes.


My interview satisfied him. The Supreme Khan offered me the post of bicigeci, Secretary In Charge Of Official Documents. I was offered the posts of Court Astrologer and Court Physician, to make use of my knowledge of medicines and herbs.


I had witnessed the horrors of the Mongol conquest at first hand and decided to accept Chinggis Khan's offer. I saw no other way to preserve Chinese civilization.


I accepted Chinggis Khan's offer to give myself a reason to live. If I had sought enlightenment in the Buddhist monastery, I might have hanged myself with a silk cord for the simple reason that my world had come to an end.


The Mongols have only had writing since The Conqueror gave them a script in the year 1206, a mere twenty years ago. They are not accustomed to the writing of history, nor do they have literary style and the skills necessary for the keeping of records.

My fellow Confucians, scholar officials who ran the empire, will memorialize Chinggis Khan's bloody deeds, but they will be unable to abandon their belief in their own superiority long enough to record the truth about him for future generations.


Only I can tell how he was a genius at war, that his warfare, far from being ruthless, bloodthirsty and savage had a morality, an elementary logic all its own. He never left a civilian population behind the advancing front lines of his army. This was the reason for the slaughter. This was my task. Only I can tell how I helped to civilize Chinggis Khan and eradicate the worst of Mongol ways.


I write this memoir in the year 1227, the year of Chinggis Khan's death, in order that I who have stood beside him on the battlefield, helped him administer his empire, and attended him at court, may write his history.


I set my seal to this document from the Supreme Khan's capitol of Khara Khorum in the Mongol homeland, a city of tents in the steppes beyond the Great Wall. The Mongol nobility have gathered from the ends of the earth and they have ratified Chinggis Khan's choice of his third son Ogodei as his successor. The new Supreme Khan has invited me to continue in my post and I have pledged to serve him as faithfully as I served his father.



Yeh-lu Chu-tsai

(His Seal Affixed)

Khara Khorum, Mongolia