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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 6, 2020

Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider the people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers. We always agree in our principles, and we are always united by mutual affection. At military exercises I am always in the front, and in time of battle am never behind. In the space of seven years I have succeeded in accomplishing a great work, and uniting the whole world in one empire. I have not myself distinguished qualities.”


    So opens a letter from Chinggis Khan in 1219. Though he did not write it himself, as no evidence suggests he ever learned to read or write, he may have dictated much of what was written down. Emphasizing his nomadic background and lifestyle, his military qualities and extreme humility, it’s easy to imagine this as part of the many ultimatums the Mongols sent to rulers across the world, demanding their submission by the will of Eternal Blue Heaven. However, this was not sent to any monarch, but a Taoist sage, and the letter goes on to describe the graces of one Qiu Chuji, begging him to come and provide his wisdom- and the secret to eternal life- to Chinggis Khan. The elderly Qiu Chuji agreed, and made the difficult journey from northern China, through Mongolia and Central Asia to finally meet Chinggis Khan in what is now modern Afghanistan. In this episode, we’ll relay to you one of the lesser known, but most intriguing episodes in the life of history’s greatest conqueror. Not a military campaign, but a religious discussion, one which illuminates some of the personality of Chinggis Khan. I’m your host David…


    As always, context is key! In thirteenth century China, the three most noteworthy belief systems were Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Their history, and how they intertwined and affected one another, is fascinating but far beyond the scope of this episode. Each strongly influenced daily life and government in China, had done so for centuries and still does today. They were not monolithic belief systems, nor singular ecceleisatical entities like the Roman Catholic Church, and various sects and trends impacted each of  these systems over their combined millenia of adherence. What interests us in this episode is a sect of Taoism which combined elements of Buddhist and Confucian thought that emerged in the mid 12th century, the Quanzhen sect, meaning ‘complete realization’ or ‘complete perfection.’ Founded by Wang Zhe, a man who historical commentators have defined more for his eccentricity than sanctity, the Quanzhen quickly became associated with prolonging life, perhaps indefinitely, through controlling one's internal alchemy, which includes among other things, total celibacy. Thus the Quanzhen leadership, among them Qiu Chuji, were invited to the Jurchen Jin capital of Zhongdu in 1188 to share their knowledge with the ailing emperor, Shizong of Jin. The fact that Jin Shizong died the next year, and that Wang Zhe had died in 1170 at age 57, did little to dispel the association. 


    Qiu Chuji was among Wang Zhe’s earliest disciples, and after the master’s death, became one of the sects leading figures, eventually earning the title of Master Changchun. After Shizong of Jin’s death, Qiu Chuji was largely confined to his home region in north China’s Shandong peninsula, and along with other Quanzhen leaders, cultivated the sect’s popularity until it became one of the most popular of north China and the Jin Empire. As we know, the thirteenth century was not a good time for the Jurchen Jin state, and Mongol forces invaded in 1211, quickly grinding down the empire. In this time, Qiu Chuji received invitations from both the Jin court and Chinese Song Dynasty to the south, inviting him to come and share his knowledge. Both were declined. The sage may have been rather surprised when a messenger arrived from the Great Khan of the Mongols in 1219. 


    How did Chinggis Khan learn of Qiu Chuji?  That takes us to some interesting characters. One was Liu Zhonglu, personal name Liu Wen, a Jin defector, Chinggis Khan’s personal Chinese physician, a herbalist also skilled in the making of whistling arrows. The Mongols prized men of useful skills, as well as archery, so Liu Wen was a snug fit in the Khan’s expanding entourage. It was he who heard of the Taoist sage and brought him to Chinggis’ attention, having heard rumours Qiu Chuji was over 300 years old. He told the Khan that the Taoist would be able to share these secrets and prolong his life.


    The meeting was encouraged by another figure of growing influence, a Khitan scholar named Yelu Chucai. Chucai is worth a digression as he is among the most famous of the non-Mongolian administrators of the empire, though his importance would not come until the reign of Ogedai. The Khitans, you may recall, were a people related to the Mongols who had once ruled northern China during the Liao Dynasty, from the 10th century to 1100s, before being conquered by the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty. Yelu Chucai was a distant relation of the Liao ruling clan, and his own father had been a personal attendant to Emperor Shizong of Jin.  He would have followed in his footsteps as a highly educated, sinicized servant of the Jin, if it wasn’t for the Mongol invasion. Stationed inside Zhongdu, the city of his birth, during the terrible final siege in 1215, Chucai was deeply traumatized by the intense suffering and horrors he witnessed. Had it not been for the three years of intensive Buddhist training he underwent following the siege, it seems unlikely he would ever have reared his head for posterity. But finding peace and purpose within the teachings of the Buddha, Yelu Chucai developed a steely resolve and determination to do his greatest to reduce further sufferings.  In 1218 he was summoned to Mongolia, gathered in a Mongol search to find ministers to govern their new empire- as a Khitan, educated in Chinese government but of kin to the Mongols, he was highly prized. In April of that year, he met Chinggis Khan in person, who was immediately impressed by the tall, deep voiced and long bearded Yelu Chucai- the Mongols would call him Urtu Saqal, ‘long beard.’


    On meeting him, Chinggis Khan stated “Liao and Jin have been enemies for generations; I have taken revenge for you.”

    To which Chucai responded: “My father and grandfather both served Jin respectfully. How can I, as a subject and a son, be so insincere at heart as to consider my sovereign and my father as enemies?”


    Loyalty to one’s lord was something Chinggis Khan valued above almost all else, and would honour the Khitan for this. So Yelu Chucai entered his service, acting in a variety of roles, such as astrologer, adviser and court scribe. Hearing Liu Zhonglu’s notification of Qiu Chuji, Chucai encouraged the meeting, hoping the Taoist would be able to help pacify the Khan’s more violent tendencies. It is likely Chucai drafted the letters to Qiu Chuji, though he would in time come to regret this.


    Was Chinggis genuinely enticed by the idea of eternal life? As always, the personal thoughts of the man are unknown to us. Rarely did Chinggis Khan ever find a single use for anything- while Qiu Chuji could bring the secrets to immortality, he was also a highly influential religious leader within territory the Mongols wished to conquer. To have him on their side would prove valuable in both the spiritual realm- for his prayers could entice Heaven’s continued support for the Mongols- and in the physical realm, as to bring the many Quanzhen followers into accepting and supporting Mongol rule would ease and consolidate the conquest. If a religious leader was unwilling to accept Mongol rule, then he must be destroyed.


    The implicit threat behind this would have been clear to Qiu Chuji when Liu Zhonglu arrived with Chinggi Khan’s message and 20 armed Mongols in late 1219. Declining was not really an option for Qiu Chuji, though he may have been eager to attach his name to the growing hegemon of northern China; such an attachment would only strengthen the place of Quanzhen, and save them from Mongolian retribution. 


    Qiu Chuji and several disciples, protected by Liu Zhonglu and his men, set out in early 1220, traveling through the war torn  north China. We are rather fortunate to have one of Qiu Chuji’s disciples record the journey for us- it has been translated into English twice, by Emil Bretschneider and Arthur Waley. Both are available to read for free online: look up Bretschneider’s Mediæval Researches From Eastern Asiatic Sources, or Waley’s Travels of an Alchemist, if you wish to read the full, fascinating itinerary. In April they reached the Mongol occupied ruins of Zhongdu, now renamed Yen, where Qiu Chuji was received by escatic crowds. There the party received unfortunate news, as Chinggis had set out on the great Khwarezmian campaign- they were reaching Yen while Chinggis was resting his horses near the fallen capital of Muhamamd Khwarezm-shah, Samarkand. Qiu Chuji  understandably did not want to make the long journey to Central Asia, but Liu Zhonglu would not have it, and forced him on. Qiu Chuji’s next stalling tactic was directed at the large group of young girls Liu Zhonglu was collecting to present to the Khan. For reasons relating to purity and celibacy, Qiu Chuji refused to travel in their company, and a perhaps flustered Liu Zhonglu sent a messenger to Chinggis to inform him. They spent most of the rest of 1220 near Yen, awaiting the Khan’s reply, when in winter messengers arrived from Chinggis’ youngest, and perhaps only, surviving full brother, Temuge [te-moo-guh], who wished to hear his words.


In February 1221 they set out again, having received the Great Khan’s replies- one of which was a reminder for Liu Zhonglu to take the utmost care of the master. Before they departed, Qiu Chuji is said to have told his adherents in Yen he would return in three years time. Traveling north, they passed through the fortifications which the Mongols had broken through in 1211. Crossing the Yehuling, the site of the bloody battle of the Badger’s Mouth Pass, they saw the ground still littered with bleached human bones, 10 years after the engagement.  Around April or May, the party reached Temuge’s encampment in northeastern Mongolia. There, Temuge inquired about the secrets to prolonging life, to which Qiu Chuji told him it was improper for the prince to learn these secrets before the emperor. Getting the hint, Temuge supplied the travellers with oxen and carts to help them on their journey and hurry them onto his older brother.


    The voyage is of great interest to scholars, as it provides a fascinating view of early imperial Mongolia, visiting the Orkhon Valley and encampment cities like Chinqai Balasghun, where they met the eponymous Chinqai, a senior minister of the empire ordered to help expedite the journey.  Jurchen and Tangut princesses that Chinggis had taken as wives came out to greet Qiu Chuji, as did various Chinese who had been transplanted west to serve the Mongol war machine. Sadly, we don’t have time to share all the details of the lengthy and difficult journey westwards, following roads cut by Mongol armies en route to Khwarezm, or at times, forced to tie ropes around carts and animals to lift or lower them through passes in the mountains. Details of cities they passed by or through, like Beshbaliq, Almaliq, Urumqi and the former Qara-Khitai capital of Balasagun are provided, In December 1221, they finally reached Samarkand, Qiu Chuji wintering in the palace of the late Khwarezm-shah. Likely at this time, he met Yelu Chucai and spent time discussing religion and philosophy. 


    Judging from the writings of Qiu Chuji’s disciple, the master found great pleasure in Samarkand, particularly in its gardens, describing them as finer than those in China. There he noted that Samarkand had a quarter of its former population, but had been repopulated somewhat by Chinese, Khitans, Turks and Tanguts who had travelled with the Mongol army. The party stayed in Samarkand in comfort until April 1222, when a Tangut messenger from Chinggis arrived.

    “Sainted man, thou hast arrived from the country where the sun rises; thou hast met great difficulties in crossing mountains and valleys; indeed, thou hast taken great pains. I am now about to return, but I wait impatiently for thine explanation to me of the doctrine of the Tao. Do not delay meeting me.” the Khan’s letter to Qiu Chuji. At that time, Chinggis was making his steady way north after his victory over the Khwarezmian prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu in November 1221 on the borders of India. Qiu Chuji met Chinggis Khan somewhere south of the Amu Darya River in what is now Afghanistan, on the 22nd of May 1222, where the Khan was joyed that this old man had made such an arduous voyage to meet him. After allowing him a meal, the Khan asked rather bluntly:


    “Sainted man, you have come from a great distance. Have you a medicine of immortality?”


    To which Qiu Chuji replied, equally bluntly:


“There are means for preserving life, but no medicines for immortality.”


Counter to what  you might have expected, at least publicly, Chinggis Khan lauded Qiu Chuji for his honesty. For a man to travel such a distance and  hardship at his age, only to tell the World Conqueror, “no,” required quite some courage, and the Khan always respected that. The Khan was not yet finished with him though, and ordered him to have a tent pitched next to his own. They were to together travel higher into the valleys of the Hindu Kush to rest and wait out the summer heat, though uprisings took Chinggis Khan away before he could speak with the master again. Qiu Chuji requested to return to Samarkand in the Khan’s absence, which Chinggis reluctantly agreed to, providing him a 1,000 man escort.


As Chinggis spent the next months putting down local rebellions, Qiu Chuji again in the palace of Shah Muhammad, enjoying melons and bathing. By the end of August, Chinggis Khan was ready for him, and sent for Qiu Chuji. A particularly erie detail mentioned is that while traveling south to rejoin Chinggis, Qiu Chuji passed the ruins of the once great city of Balkh: only dogs could be heard  barking within. 


Chinggis once more showed the master great respect and patience. Presented to Chinggis by the minister Chinqai, Qiu Chuji was not required to bow or kneel before the Khan. When the Khan offered him airag, the traditional fermented mares’ milk so beloved by the Mongols, Qiu Chuji refused to drink it. Everyday he invited Qiu Chuji to join him for dinner, and everyday he declined, saying he preferred seclusion. The master told Chinggis to keep his soldiers distant, for the noise annoyed him, and when the army moved north in the autumn of 1222 and wintered near Samarkand, Qiu Chuji was given leave to take up in Shah Muhammad’s palace once more. 


Over the course of this period, Chinggis Khan and Qiu Chuji had several meetings, Chinqai and Liu Zhonglu present, the Khitan governor of Samarkand Yelu Ahai acting as translator between the Mongolian and the Chinese. Together they discussed the concepts of the Tao, Chinggis supposedly being quite interested. Qiu Chuji’s disciple failed to provide specific details of these discussions, though we know he urged Chinggis to show mercy on the Chinese, establish a buffer state in north China and lift taxes for three years. In January 1223 their journey back east resumed, though the Taoist showed himself displeased with the progress of the army.  By March he was asking to set out on his own, hoping to return to his native Shandong before the end of the year. Chinggis urged him to stay, saying his sons would soon arrive and would like to hear of the doctrine and that he himself needed more information. Qiu Chuji cooly replied that he had told the Khan everything he knew.


    Later that month while hunting wild boar, Chinggis Khan was thrown from his horse: the boar failed to charge and gore the Khan, avoiding the fate of Game of Thrones’ Robert of House Baratheon. When he learned of this, Qiu Chuji called it a warning from heaven, a sign that the Khan should give up hunting in his old age. Reluctantly, Chinggis gave up this favourite activity… for two months. Qiu Chuji’s advice on abstaining from sexual intercourse to prolong his life was likewise ignored. Continuing to badger Chinggis to allow him to leave, the Khan finally acquiesced and in April 1223 they seperated. The master declined the gifts Chinggis Khan offered, except for a major one: an edict declaring Taoists exempt from taxation and corvee labour 


    Qiu Chuji returned to Yen, modern Beijing, in the first months of 1224, within 3 years as he had foretold. He spent the remainder of his life in that city, dying in August 1227, the same month as Chinggis Khan.  We just mentioned the edict proclaiming Taoists exempt from taxation. Well, part of the original edict was that no more Taoists would be ordained. This was followed up with a proclamation a few months later making Qiu Chuji the head of all the Taoists and Buddhist of China. The consequences of this were many. It’s not sure what exact role Qiu Chuji had in what followed, as he fell ill not long after he returned to Yen and the Khan’s edicts may have been taken advantage of by ambitious disciples. Almost immediately this turned into thousands flocking into Quanzhen temples to escape taxation and forced labour for the Mongols. Likely, thousands of lives were saved through this, and Quanzhen Taoism quickly became the most influential religious sect of North China.  One scholar, Yuan Hao-wen, estimated that by the late 13th century, some 20% of northern Chinese were adherents. Even today, it remains one of the most popular forms of Taoism in China. Less positively, was that the Khan’s elevation of Qiu Chuji’s status over Buddhists turned into free license to confiscate Buddhist temples, destroy Buddhist artifacts and texts and force the conversion of Buddhist monks and nuns. 


When the Buddhist Yelu Chucai returned to Yen in 1228, he was infuriated by what he found there, and how the Quanzhen had taken advantage of the privileges granted to them, compounding Chucai’s existing dislike of Qiu Chuji. Initially they had been friendly, but Yelu Chucai soon found Qiu Chuji to be totally ignorant of Buddhism, and came to see him as a fraudster taking advantage of the Khan’s generosity and power. In 1229, Yelu Chucai wrote a lengthy work criticizing Qiu Chuji and his positions, while blaming himself for having encouraged the meeting. He further accused Qiu Chuji of being fully complicit in the seizure and desecration of Buddhist temples, and it is in Chucai’s account we are told that Qiu Chuji died on the toilet, but his followers covered this up and said he died while at prayer. Yelu Chucai’s work provides a fascinating counterbalance to the more hagiographic account of the journey provided by Qiu Chuji’s disciple, though Chucai’s writing remains difficult to access, leaving Qiu Chuji’s reputation intact as a ‘saviour’ of the Chinese. The influence of Quanzhen Taoism, and it's armed conflict with Buddhists continued until the reign of Chinggis’ grandson Kublai, when their privileges were drastically reduced and forced to return Buddhist temples. 


    What did Chinggis Khan think of Qiu Chuji? He seems to have enjoyed his company, and would certainly have had respect for an old man who made the long journey to his court. If he was disappointed in the failure of Qiu Chuji to provide an elixir of immortality, he did not show it publicly. Since the main account of these meetings was from a follower of Qiu Chuji, we must note he had a vested interest to make the relationship between the two look as good as possible, securing Quanzhen privileges as they were granted at the Khan’s behest.


    On the internet, their relationship is famous for the following letter, sent from Chinggis to Qiu Chuji not long after their final meeting in 1223:


“You left me and set out on your travels in the Spring and were still on the road during the great heats of the summer. I hope you suffered no inconvenience and were well supplied with post-horses. I hope that you were always provided with plenty to eat and drink and were never stinted. I hope the officials at Hsuan-te [Xuande] and elsewhere treated you properly.  Hope that the common people came to hear you. Are you well and in good spirits? Here I am always thinking about you, O Holy immortal. I have never forgotten you. Do not forget me.”


    It is… a little unbecoming for the world conqueror, making him appear rather desperate for Taoist’s affection, like a high school student trying to win back his crush. There are two things to keep in mind:


  1. The most obvious is that this letter was sent in very basic and repetitive simple  Chinese. Form wise, it is totally alien to the literary flourishes, metaphors and references from writing of scribes like Yelu Chucai. Arthur Waley suggested that because the Chinese is so basic, that perhaps this was Chinggis Khan himself dictating it in Chinese. He had Chinese speakers in his entourage for well over a decade, meaning he had plenty of time to learn to make simple sentences in the language. So the letter may have come across particularly love-lorn because the Khan couldn’t do much better than that.
  2. Chinggis Khan knew Qiu Chuji was a very popular figure in northern China. Getting Qiu Chuji to encourage his many followers across China to accept Mongol rule and pray for them may have been the Khan’s ulterior motive throughout. Note how Chinggis hopes the common people came to hear him- to hear him spread the word of accepting Mongol rule, and to pray for them. Then, the final line “I have never forgotten you. Do not forget me.” While it can be read as a rather sappy declaration, we might wonder if there was a threat  hidden between the lines. Should Qiu Chuji choose to forget about the Khan and proclaim for the Jin Dynasty, Chinggis and his men would not forget about him, and their arrows never missed their mark…


    Shortly after the departure of Qiu Chuji, Chinggis Khan learned of the death of his general Mukhali in China, how Tangut forces had abandoned him and were now in peace talks with the Jurchen Jin. The aging Chinggis Khan was about to partake on the final campaign of his long life, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!