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Yelü Chucai : Prime Minister to Genghis Khan

Beijing History - Genghis Khan
Yelü Chucai (1190-1244): Prime Minister to Genghis Khan

The history of Beijing is littered with mashed reputations of once proud and noble people. Perhaps none were more proud than the ruling classes of 10th century Beijing, when it comprised the capital of the Liao empire.

The Liao was an ethnic Khitan dynasty that descended directly from northern Steppe nomads. With their power waning in the early 12th, another semi-nomadic people, the Jurchen Jin dynasty seized the Liao power base in northern China and converted Beijing into their own capital.

Despite being sworn enemies, not all of the Khitans did badly under Jurchen rule, and the family of Yelü Chucai rose to some note at the height of the Jurchen court in around 1190.

Legend has it that Yelü received the name Chucai (literally material from the Kingdom of Chu) from the classical Chinese story of a man from Chu who was forced to flee and ended up serving another kingdom. Yelü’s father reportedly foresaw that his son would also serve another power, and named him thus.

When only a young scholar in his twenties, Yelü Chucai witnessed one of the most horrific events in the history of Beijing – the Mongol siege led by Chinggis Khan.

Lasting for months on end, and combined with some of the worst famines for decades, the siege of 1213 claimed thousands of lives. When it became apparent that all was lost to the Mongols, Chucai’s brother threw himself off the walls of Beijing.

Yelü Chucai, however, submitted himself alive to the Khan, following the great leader through Central Asia as his soothsayer. It was while on the border with India that Yelü is supposed to have spotted a mysterious, greenish, talking animal that warned the Mongols against going any further.

As the main religious advisor, Yelü advised that the sign did not bode well for going further, and thus India was spare from the savage Mongol hordes. Historians think the creature to have been nothing more than the common rhinoceros!

On his return from Central Asia, Yelü rose in fame and was given a power base in Beijing as the prime minister of China north of the Yellow River.

At first favoured highly by Chinggis Khan’s successor, Ögödei Khan, Yelü Chucai was accredited with the amazing feat of successfully arguing against a Mongol plan to slaughter the population of the north China plains to make room for pasture lands for Mongolian horses.

This success was short lived, however, as politics in the Mongol empire started to shift away from favouring Yelü Chucai’s Khitans, to a preference to doing business with Turkic Central Asians.

As the Ögödei Khan became less interested in playing a direct role in politics, his advisors moved to oust Yelü from power. Thus Yelü Chucai’s career was extinguished and he was forced to retire early.

Yelü Chucai was buried along with his wife, and later their son, in the family estate in the Western Hills. Their family estate was taken over in the 18th century and converted by the Qianlong emperor into what is now the Summer Palace.

The tomb and ancestral temple can be found in the Wenchang yuan, on the left hand side of the Summer Palace main entrance that taxis and busses drop you at. However, at the time of writing, the tomb was under repair and does not look likely to open in the near future.

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