Why you should care
Because his leadership tempered Genghis Khan and helped shape modern Chinese government.
When Genghis Khan first met Yelü Chucai after overthrowing the Jin dynasty in Beijing in 1215, the Mongol empire builder expected some gratitude from his newest Chinese prisoner. “Liao and Jin have been enemies for generations,” the khan said, referring to the previous ruling dynasty, and the fact that Chucai had Liao royal family blood. “I have taken revenge for you.” But Chucai wasn’t so easily impressed by the khan. “My father and grandfather have both respectfully served the Jin,” the 28-year-old responded. “How can I, as a subject and a son, be so insincere in heart as to consider my sovereign and my father as enemies?”
Surprisingly, though, Genghis Khan wasn’t angry. He was impressed — by the Confucian scholar’s frank reply and by his beard, which fell to the waist of the 6-foot-8 statesman. Both men would have to adjust to the other. But that exchange began Chucai’s role as chief adviser to one of the most consequential leaders in history, where he’d play an instrumental part in softening the khan’s blood-soaked rule and creating a robust taxation system that paved the way for the consolidation of the Silk Road. “He introduced what you could call morality to Genghis,” says John Man, a British author who’s written multiple books about the khan.
Chucai experienced the barbarism of the Mongols firsthand, as a 20-something witnessing the khan’s siege of Beijing, a bloody affair that ended in 1215. “By the time it was over, there was cannibalism and a lot of deaths on both sides,” Man says. Shocked after watching his native city brought to its knees, Chucai withdrew from public life to study — mostly the Buddhist scriptures, Taoist principles and the ethos of legalism, a school of philosophical thought on government that inspires much of Chinese bureaucracy today.
Still, Chucai decided to re-emerge in 1218, and took his place at the khan’s side, partly because he believed the Mongol warrior must have heavenly favor to succeed in his conquests. Starting as a mere scribe, he became an unofficial spiritual adviser to Genghis Khan, teaching Buddhist and Taoist principles that “rather intrigued” the Mongol ruler. When the khan headed westward — to the Khwarezmian city of Otrar — to invade the Islamic world after one of his ambassadors was attacked and killed in 1219, he brought Chucai along, where they talked “more seriously about what it meant to be a great ruler, not merely a good ruler,” Man says.
During this time, the khan also became fascinated with immortality. So he charged Chucai to bring him “Master Changchun,” the founder of the famous Dragon Gate sect of Taoism who claimed to have methods for prolonging life. But Chucai became disillusioned with the spiritual leader. “He saw this guy as a bit of a fraud,” says Timothy May, professor of Central Eurasian history at the University of North Georgia. In one memorable moment, Changchun tried to convince Chucai to become a disciple of his. “Why would I descend from the lofty trees into the dark valley?” was Chucai’s sharp response, the 13th-century philosopher’s version of a modern-day comeback.
Yet Chucai didn’t convey his fears to Genghis Khan, reflecting perhaps one of his weaknesses as an adviser, May says. “He does try to mitigate the excesses of the Mongols, tries to bring in rational bureaucracy. But it’s also very clear from his own writings that he was there to work for the Mongols and try not to cause problems.”
As the empire expanded, Chucai’s importance grew. He became the lead administrator of almost all of northern China (under the rule of the khan’s son, Ögedei, who helped expand the empire to most of Eurasia, from modern-day Korea to Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia). There was a problem though: “You can imagine nomads aren’t much good at taking cities — they don’t have any of their own,” Man says. And the people were even worse at managing them, preferring instead to slaughter the people they conquered. Ögedei mocked Chucai and his desire to spare lives: “Are you going to weep for the people again?”
Chucai famously responded that while the Mongols could conquer by horseback they could not rule by it. Instead, he convinced Ögedei that they needed to keep their conquered foes alive, so they could tax them and become even richer. His motivation was in part to save Confucian scholars like himself, often helping them gain administrative posts and jobs as tutors to Mongol royalty.
Still, Chucai also brought great wealth to the budding empire. He ended the arbitrary collection of taxes, which often led corrupt politicians to bankrupt regions and leave villages deserted. Using a taxation-by-household method, the Mongols required payment mostly in silver, although sometimes grain and silk were collected too. He also installed a regional sales tax and special duties levied on everything from liquor and vinegar to smelting iron and salt. While the Mongols traditionally hadn’t taxed clergy, Chucai created a religious test that was required for anyone who wanted to be exempt — a nod to his earlier skepticism of spiritual leaders who didn’t back their belief with knowledge. “He was not reinventing the wheel,” May says, but “it was more novel that he was convincing people.”
Alas, his influence didn’t last forever. After Ögedei died, the Mongols moved to more exploitative tax systems, such as tax farming, hiring third-party collectors to ramp up funds — decisions that helped precipitate the eventual collapse of the Mongols, who by the end of the 13th century were being broken up by intra-familial feuds between the khan’s grandchildren. Seeing that nobody cared about his opinion anymore, Chucai retreated from public life once more, deeply aggrieved. According to folklore, he died of grief at the age of 53 in 1244. He was memorialized well, though: “In the Chinese sources, he’s seen as the ideal Confucian sage,” May says, an inspiration to modern leaders. And today, statues of the wizened adviser stand across China — a testament to his legacy, from the Wuyi Mountains to Guta Park in Jinzhou.