Yeh-lu Chu'tsai the Magician

Who is Yeh-lu Chu'tsai?

The historical figure of Yeh-lu Chu'tsai and his significance is a relatively overlooked one. Although he has rightfully been described as one of the greatest statesmen of the thirteenth century, contemporary Mongols tend to dismiss him because he is Chinese, since the modern Chinese atrocities perpetuated by the tyrant Mao Zedong and his clique of co-tyrants and epigones have instilled in many Mongols a strong dislike of everything pertaining to China. However, the ancient historical record bespeaks a Mongolian/Chinese contact of long standing, and this, in addition to the different characteristics of these two worlds, indicate that there is every reason to consider the Northern/Siberian/Mongolian and the Southern/Chinese civilizations as complementary opposites.

It was therefore what could be expected when Chingis Khan, upon his seizure of Beijing in 1215 singled out this Chinese man of learning and wisdom. To call him Chinese is a simplification, as he was really of Mongol extraction. Thus, even if his upbringing and education was Chinese, spiritually he was as Mongolian as any Mongol, and it must have been natural to him to serve Chingis Khan and the Empire. Yeh-lu Chu'tsai was to assist the Mongol emperor in building and administering the new state. He became Chingis Khan's "chief adviser" or "chief of the secretariat" as he is often described. The story is more extended. From 1215 and until the passing away of Chingis, Yeh-lu followed the Great Khan as his close and trusted friend. Yeh-lu Chu'tsai remained forever faithful to Chingis Khan, and his wisdom evidently contributed to the success of Chingis' work. He had many talents. He was a herbalist, who used to prescribe medical herbs to alleviate the effects of the killing of war. His using the I Ching is testified to by the sources. Some even confirm that he was an astrologer who read the stars to predict developments and potentials. Others merely call him "astronomer." The most recent biography on Chingis, that of Paul Ratchnevsky, mentions that Yeh-lu Chu'tsai also used to read probable future developments by burning sheep's scapulae (scapulamancy) and observing the patterns of the cracks. Moreover, he possessed a large tent filled with not only writings and literature, but instruments used for astronomical purposes. He was responsible for drawing up among other things, a taxation programme, based on his knowledge of Chinese economy and agriculture. The puzzling failure of Western historians to admit that he was also a magician probably stems from the modern divorce between science and religion that took place in the West during the Age of Reason. Nevertheless, Yeh-lu was both a shaman and a prominent statesman, and should be acknowledged as such. His service of the Mongol Empire continued after the earthly life of Chingis Khan. Leo de Hartog writes in his biography that after the passing of Chingis Khan in 1227, Yeh-lu Chu'tsai and Subedei were "chiefly responsible for continuing the principles of leadership laid down by Genghis Khan, and the work of these two men had resulted in much being accomplished during Ogodei's period of rule, both in civil and military affairs." This is a fair judgement.

Chingis chose him, this tall and bearded, dignified man, because he showed the qualities of a high spiritual being: Faithfulness towards his former masters and his ideals, an utmost sincerity, and being a man of high learning. This demonstrated that the Father and Founder of The Mongol Nation was not a mere "barbarian," but mindful of all the components that have to be integrated in a viable, healthy society. Yeh-lu Chu'tsai is manifestly the symbolic link between the nomad world of the endless steppes and forests on the one hand, and the urbanized culture with its possibilities for learning, science and culture on the other. Without this link, any modern de-urbanization programme is unrealistic, since both elements, the nomad/natural and the urban, must be simultaneously present to ensure a maximally strong cultural viability. The traditional Mongolian culture is in many ways excellent, but in its pure form its realistic area of application is limited. Without possibilities for organized learning and science, the needs of the human mind cannot be fulfilled. If the natural lifestyle were to die out, however, humans would lose contact with and responsibility towards nature itself. What the Mongols stand for, through the spiritual principles of the Etugen and the Tengri (names of the Mongolian spirits of Nature), and the building process of their foremost exponent Chingis Khan, is one manifestation of the necessary complement and counterweight to urban culture, and a very powerful one. It is salutary to bear in mind that neither of the two principles, the "primitive" or the "civilized," can stay healthy without an element of the other principle also being present.

Chingis Khan understood this, and therefore he in 1206, upon his investiture, instituted a written language for his Mongols. Before him, the Mongols did not have any language of their own. When Yeh-lu Chu'tsai upon Chingis' choice became the Mongolian State Shaman, he became a link between the two worlds, because he was evidently a mixture of Mongol and Chinese, genetically as well as functionally, and therefore a representative of both worlds. And we are entitled to see in the person of Yeh-lu Chu'tsai the symbol of the very combination of the "primitive" and the "cultured" that must be put into effect in order for humanity to obtain maximum "physical, psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual" wholeness. It is thus only a matter of course that Chingis Khan would want him as his chief advisor. Chingis had from then obtained physically, as well as given to posterity, the spiritual means to combine the modern and the ancient parts of human culture, or if you like, the forceful and often ferocious intensity of Nature with the mental development characterized by human culture, something that was forever the aim of Chingis Khan. While Chingis Khan, the descendant of the wolf and doe, is a child of Nature who wants humanity to keep their animal connection to Nature, narrow-minded backwardness and prejudice against innovations and development was foreign to his mind, so he always wanted humanity to embrace the highest progress also in the mental, scientific and technological sense. In short, his was a general inclination to culture, and he worked to help humanity to maintain both elements in our future to come. Yeh-lu Chu'tsai, being the civilized complement to the Siberian wilderness of Temuchin, was Chingis Khan's foremost assistant in this work.

We are today challenged upon to prove that humans can simultaneously be both true animals of Nature and spiritual beings. It is up to us. Let the memory of the wise Mongol from China, Yeh-lu Chu'tsai, inspire us in our endeavor to reconcile Nature and Culture in a way that vigorously sustains the best elements of both.

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Last updated June 10, 1998 by Per Inge Oestmoen