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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 15, 2021

"You must know that, as we shall tell you later on, the Great Kaan has entrusted to twelve men the task of attending, as seems best to them, to all territories, governments, and everything else. Among these twelve men, there was a Saracen, [Ahmad] by name, a shrewd and capable man, who above all others enjoyed great power and influence with the Great [Khan], who loved him so much that he gave him every liberty, for, as was found after his death, this [Ahmad] laid such a spell over the Kaan with his sorceries that the latter placed absolute faith in his words, paying them the closest attention. Thus he was able to do all that he wished. He it was who distributed all governments and offices, and punished all offenders. And every time he wished to encompass the death of someone he hated, whether justly or unjustly, he would go to the [Khan], and say, “Sire, such a man is worthy of death, for he has offended your Majesty in such a way.” Then the [Khan] would say, “Do what thou thinkest most fitting.” And straightway he would have the man put to death. Hence, seeing the complete liberty he enjoyed, and that the Lord placed absolute trust in his words, no one dared cross [Ahmad] in anything whatsoever.”


So the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, in the Benedetto translation, introduces Ahmad Fanakati, the famous “evil finance minister” of Khubilai Khan. Ahmad, the first of Khubilai’s “Three Villianous Ministers,” as they’re termed in the Chinese sources, is often used to symbolize the decay and corruption of Khubilai Khan’s final years. Where Khubilai had once been a vigourous monarch attending to every detail of state, by the 1280s  his interest and energy for governing declined with every year. Having taken you through the inconclusive, expensive and disastrous foreign miltiary expeditions of Khubilai’s last years, we shall now take you to the political and personal failings of Khubilai’s twilight, beginning with the Three Villianous ministers- Ahmad Fanakati, Lu Shih-Jing and Sangha. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals, Ages of Conquest.


Ahmad, the first of the “Three Villianous Ministers,” was a Muslim from Central Asia who had been a favourite of Khubilai’s wife Chabi. Appointed to Khubilai’s Central Secretariat in 1262, Ahmad’s power and influence rapidly rose through his canny ability. For  a refresher on the secretariats and government structure of Khubilai, you can check back to episode 37, “Kublai Khan’s Reign.” By 1264, Ahmad was Vice-Chancellor of the Central Secretariat, and in 1271 was even briefly appointed as head of  the newly made Supreme Secretariat. His primary responsibility in Khubilai’s service was as a finance minister, tasked with providing the Great Khan more and more revenues. In this position he promoted trade, particularly with Central Asia and sought to increase the number of taxable households in the empire- usually by tracking down those who had escaped prior registration. Ahmad also oversaw further progress on implemention of regular land taxation, one of those ever-present problems of the Mongol administration in China, as well as new taxes on merchants. One of his most noteworthy efforts was the expansion of government monopolies; iron producing regions would have to provide yearly quotas of iron to the government, which would be turned into tools and farm implements to be sold back to farmers. After 1276 Ahmad forbade the private production of copper tools, making it a privilege of the government to produce and sell these, usually in exchange for grain. The yearly revenue from the strictly enforced salt monopoly increased dramatically over the 1270s and early 1280s, and monopolies on tea, liquor, vinegar, gold, silver - all traditional monopolies of the Chinese state- were enforced under Ahmad’s supervision. 


    None of Ahmad’s financial policies in and of themselves indicated an expectional cruelty on his part or hatred towards the Chinese. Rather, he was enacting the will of Khubilai, who was making ever increasing demands for income. Ahmad had to choose between more state revenues or looking to fail the Great Khan, and judged, rather wisely, it was better to come up with more revenue. Ahmad carried out his mandate thoroughly, and for this earned as much love as any thorough tax collector will- i.e, not very much. If we are to believe the sources, the Chinese at large hated and cursed him for his policies, and the fact that he was a foreignor. Khubilai, as Ahmad’s backer, thus found his own standing harmed in their eyes. However, whatever “public opinion” was regarding Ahmad does not particularly matter: the Mongols never showed themselves really concerned with how the masses viewed their ministers. The fact that Ahmad was bringing in the revenue streams and trying to handle the tricky task of incorporating the former Song territories into the Yuan Empire mattered more to Khubilai than the cursings of merchants.


    The reason that Ahmad has become so infamous comes not from his taxation policy and treatment of the lower classes, but his treatment of the elite and other members of government: the ones who wrote the sources we use for learning of Ahmad’s career. Khubilai over the 1270s seems to have given minimal oversight to Ahmad, trusting him to get results and engaging less and less often in meetings. Left to run things how he desired, Ahmad sought to secure his position, placing  his friends, allies and family in government positions. One of his sons was placed into the lucrative position as darughachi of Hangzhou, the capital of the late Song Dynasty. He also sought to run his political foes out of the bureaucracy; in at least one case, a political enemy was hounded into execution. Often he butted heads with Khubilai’s other advisers, especially Confucians and Buddhists. The Chancellor of the Right, Antung, blocked an attempt by Ahmad to place a son in prominent position in Khubilai’s capital of Dadu; respected advisers like Shi Tienzi fought Ahmad’s tax policies. Their resistance brought the dissolution of Ahmad’s brief post as Administer of the Supreme Secretariat, and their collective complaints about a lack of oversight over Ahmad forced Khubilai to grant his son Jinggim authority over Ahmad’s actions. But as many of these most stalwart adivsers died off in the 1270s, Ahmad’s  power increased, and fewer voices were there to whisper against him. His influence grew so great that Rashid al-Din, a contemporary who served as vizier of the Ilkhanate, described Ahmad as the vizier of Khubilai’s Yuan Dynasty.


    . Ahmad accused his remaining foes of embezzlement, adultery and “unbecoming personal conduct,” which succeeded in driving a number from office. Similar accusations were hurled back at Ahmad himself, pointing to cronyism, personal enrichment, taking bribes and manipulating gold and silver rates for his own gain. Detractors accused him of allowing and even promoting abuses in the system, and that his continued issuing of paper money was causing inflation and therefore encouraging the subjects to hoard their own gold and silver. The most famous accusation against Ahmad, repeated in the Yuan Shi, by Marco Polo and Rashid al-Din, is that he was a lechourous pervert, stealing wives, daughters and mothers for his insatiable sexual desires. To quote Marco Polo, 


“There was no fair lady whom if [Ahmad] wanted her, he did not have at his will, taking her for wife if she was not married, or otherwise making her consent. And when he knew that anyone had some pretty daughter, he had his ruffians who went to the father of the girl saying to him, What wilt thou do? Thou hast this daughter of thine. Give her for wife to [Ahmad]  and we will make him give thee such a governorship or such an office for three years.”


Rashid al-Din for his part, is hardly more subdued in his description of Ahmad’s 

“female interests,” stating simply that Ahmad had some forty-one wives and four hundred concubines. There was likely a bit of truth in these accusations: it seems Ahmad was engaging in cronyism, personal enrichment and a bit of adultery on the side, but the  scale of the issue was almost certainly overstated by his unsympathetic chroniclers. Further, none of these would be vices unique to Ahmad’s service in government. Regardless, it’s clear that there was a  lengthy conflict going on in the upper uchelons of the Yuan bureaucracy over the 1270s and 1280s, one which Khubilai seemed content to turn his gaze away from.


    Notably, Ahmad had an openly poor relationship with the crown prince, Khubilai’s son Jinggim. According to Rashid al-Din, Jinggim’s dislike was so open for the finance minister that one day Jinggim struck Ahmad on the head with his bow, causing him to bleed profusely. Ahmad went before Khubilai, who inquired as to what had happened. Attempting to be diplomatic, Ahmad answered that he had been kicked by a horse, to which Jinggim, standing nearby, shouted “art thou ashamed to say that Jinggim hit thee?”, and then proceeded to punch Ahmad a number of times, right infront of Khubilai. Rashid al-Din and Marco Polo both agree that Ahmad lived in fear of Jinggim, which seems rather reasonable.


Interesting for this anecdote, Rashid al-Din is silent on Khubilai’s response to Jinggim’s assault, surprising given his usually pro-Khubilai stance. Rashid may have been uninterested in commenting on Khubilai allowing mistreatment of a long serving Muslim servant, or  it may have been that Khubilai, characteristic of this period, offered no response. Khubilai was either ignoring the open disputes rocking the top levels of his government, or completely oblivious to them, and remained content to focus on the revenue Ahmad was bringing in. Either option speaks to Khubilai’s growing disinterest in governance and dereliciton of his duties. Marco Polo, who adored Khubilai, sought to explain away his hero’s inaction by stating that Ahmad had bewitched the Khaan. 


    The tension with Ahmad and his foes reached a breaking point in April 1282. Every year, Khubilai and most of the royal court, including Jinggim, made the trek to the steppe to spend the summer in his secondary capital, Shangdu, the famous Xanadu of Marco Polo. It’s likely the Venetian accompanied them on the trip this year. While the Khan and crown prince were absent from the imperial capital of Dadu, Ahmad’s foes made their move- possibly with the tacit approval of Crown Prince Jinggim. The conspiracy was led by a Chinese fellow named Wang Zhu, who, if we are to believe Polo, had his mother, wife and daughter all fall prey to Ahmad’s urgings. One night the conspirators sent a messenger to Ahmad, telling him that Jinggim had returned unexpectedly and demanded to see him. The worried Ahmad came forth at once to the palace, where he found the conspirators sitting in a dark room lit by sparse candlelight. Bowing before whom he assumed to be Jinggim, the conspirators swung their swords and removed Ahmad’s head. The guards were quick to the scene and killed the perpators, sending a message at once to Khubilai of what had happened. A furious Khubilai returned quickly to Dadu and unleashed hell upon the conspirators still alive and buried Ahmad with full honours. But the survivors in time finally convinced the Khan of Ahmad’s digressions and lechery, though it seems the defining moment came when one of the “lost” jewels from one of Khubilai’s crowns miraculously turned up in the late Ahmad’s private residence. Marco Polo, who writes that he was at Khubilai’s attendance on his return to Dadu, vividly describes the Khan’s reaction. Roaring with anger, Khubilai had Ahmad’s sons and wives rounded up; those found guilty were flayed alive and their fortune confiscated. Ahmad’s body was exhumed and placed on display, it’s head removed and crushed by a cart; and the rest fed to Khubilai’s dogs. 


    So ended Ahmad’s tenure as finance minister and a purging of a number of his associates. Ahmad’s actions seem to have furthered an anti-Muslim policy Khubilai had been developing since 1279. The original incident which brought this on, according to Rashid al-Din, was a refusal of Muslim merchants to eat non-halal meat offered to them in Khubilai’s court, an offense which Khubilai took personally. Khubilai ordered that whosoever slaughtered animals in the Muslim fashion would in turn be killed and their family and property given over to whoever informed on them. Circumcisions were likewise forbidden, on pain of death. It also may have been an effort by Khubilai to placate some of the Chinese or even Mongols by making an appearance to restrict the privileges of Muslims in the government, and further encouraged by his anger at Ahmad Fanakati. Regardless of the cause, it resulted in a number of greedy individuals using Khubilai’s decree to kill Muslims and seize their property. Rashid al-Din indicates that a number of powerful and wealthy Muslim merchants in the 1280s chose to flee the Yuan realm, or refused to travel there in the first place, rather than face the Khan’s scruple-less enforcers. This reflects Khubilai’s inability to handle any religious matters carefully in these years. The man who had once headed a famed Buddhist-Taoist debate in the 1250s, now  responded to perceived abuses by Taoists in the 1270s and 80s with violence. A conflict between Taoists and Buddhists turned bloody in the streets of the imperial capital, and a group of Taoists attempted to frame Buddhists for a fire attack on a Taoist temple in Dadu. When the plot was discovered, Khubilai had the Taoists involved variously executed, their noses and ears chopped off, and others exiled. Continued circulation of certain Taoist texts banned after the earlier debate resulted, in 1281, with Khubilai ordering all Taoists texts other than Lao Tzu’s Tao Teo Ching to be burned and their printing blocks destroyed.  Restrictions were imposed on Taoist charms, incantations, and magic, while some Taoist monks were forcibly converted to Buddhism. 


    After Ahmad’s death in 1282, Khubilai promoted one of his associates, a Chinese named Lu Shih-Jung, to the post of Chancellor of the Left. In this position, he took over many of Ahmad’s former financial responsibilities, and subsequently earned himself the place as the Second of the Three Villianous Ministers. One may have assumed placing a Chinese in this position was intended to placate some of the anger felt at the Yuan financial system, though it did little good. While vitriol could be hurled at Ahmad for his actions, Ahmad himself  was not the source of the problems. The immense revenue demands of Khubilai and the Yuan government were not abating as more military expeditions were launched; the second invasion of Japan was undertaken in 1281, in 1282 Sogetu’s army landed in Champa and in 1283 an attack was launched on the kingdom of Pagan, in addition to the expenses of the court, the government and public works. It was  a thankless task to try and cover this, and Lu Shih-Jung found himself no better off than Ahmad. More monopolies were enforced, salt licenses were made more expensive, and rich households that were avoiding monopolies were cracked down on. He increased the issuance of paper money and tried to increase government control of the copper coinage and silver, which only contributed to the inflation. In an attempt to secure his position and actually carry out his policies, Lu Shih-jung sought to place his allies in power and run his enemies out of office. All this succeeded in doing was stiffening resistance against him, until finally Jinggim himself grew frustrated with him. Khubilai was finally forced to interact, having likewise turned a blind eye to the minister and court conflicts as long as the money kept coming in. On Jinggim’s urging, in early 1285 Khubilai dismissed Lu Shih-jung from office, had him arrested and by the end of the year, executed.


    The last of the so-called Three Villianous Ministers was a Buddhist named Sangha, either a Uighur or Tibetan. Having supported Lu Shih-Jung and been in the staff of the ‘Phags-Pa Lama, Khubilai had long taken a liking to the experienced and capable Sangha. By 1275 he was placed in charge of the Office of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs, and in 1280 successfully crushed a revolt in Tibet. After the deaths of Ahmad and Lu Shih-Jung his importance increased dramatically, culminating in his appointment as Chancellor of the Right in 1287 and expansion of his influence across the entire government. Like Ahmad and Lu Shih-Jung, Sangha also had the undesirable task of paying for Khubilai’s expenses, and likewise enforced monopolies and new taxes, to the ire of many. He tried to tackle the matter of inflation head on via currency reform instead of just printing more money. In 1287 he persuaded Khubilai to replace the existing paper money with a new unit, which the subjects were to exchange their current paper money for on a five-to-one basis. To put another way, Sangha was seeking to reduce the amount of money in circulation, and thereby reduce inflation. No matter how well meaning it was, it succeeded in angering many who felt they were devaluing themselves for notes of lesser value. 


    Perhaps the most notable project Sangha oversaw was the expansion of the Grand Canal to the capital of Dadu. Canals had long been a part of Chinese trade networks; as China’s many rivers generally flow west to east, speedier movement could be attained by digging north-south canals to connect them. Under the Sui and Tang Dynasties, when most of China’s north and south were unified, came the first great connections of these canals, tying the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers- China’s two great arteries- together in what  came to be called the Grand Canal. After the fall of the Tang, the division of China between Liao, Song and Jin had left little reason for the maintenance of these north-south canals, and the route was largely left to silt up. With unification under the Mongols, there was once again an impetus to restore it. While Khubilai had been quite  forward thinking in many respects to the requirements of his great capital of Dadu, he found that supplying it with its necessary grain was proving difficult. Khubilai wanted to use the great production regions of southern China and the former Song territory to supply Dadu, and initially hoped to rely on the coastal route, with ships making the long journey bearing the foodstuffs. While there was some successes here, the route was perilous. Shallow waters and storms off the Shandong Peninsula and Gulf of Bohai brought many of these shipments to the bottom of the sea. Such was the fate of over a quarter of the fleet bearing the grain in 1286. With the sea route too unreliable, it was decided to dig a proper canal to connect north and south- not only better supplying Khubilai’s capital, but tying his empire closer together as well. Some canal projects had started as early as 1283, but it was Sangha who suggested a massive, 217 kilometre, or 135 mile, expansion of a vast Canal to bring supplies right into Dadu. By February 1289 the bulk of the work was completed, with expansions over the 1290s which allowed ships to sail from Hangzhou right into the heart of Dadu. The Canal was an impressive structure- much of the Yuan canal system, with upgrades and expansion, remained in use until the 1850s when flooding irreparably damaged much of it. But it was a massive expense; some three million labourers had to be mobilized for the construction, and it required even further expenditure for basic maintenance to prevent it from silting up. Though it served its purpose in providing for the supply of Dadu, it was another cost that men like Sangha had to try and cover.


    Another area Sangha found to help bring in further resources was to try to revitalize the Central Asia trade and increase taxes on merchants. In order to do this, Sangha needed to encourage the travel of Muslims to China, something hamphered by Khubilai’s anti-islamic promulgations. It took until 1287 for Sangha to succeed in getting Khubilai to rescind his bans on halal slaughter and the like- convincing Khubilai not on the basis of compassion, but on the revenues they would provide. In the following years Sangha did receive Khubilai’s support for schools for educating on Muslim languages and scripts to assist in trade contacts. This was rather typical of Sangha, who on a whole favoured many of the men from the ‘western regions,’ of China, what we today would deem ‘non-Han’ peoples. Muslims, Tibetans, Uighurs, all found protection and patronage from Sangha. All of his major-apointees to positions of power came from these non-Chinese groups, which of course did little to endear him to his Chinese enemies. Like his predeceassors, he forced his enemies from their offices and appointed his friends and allies. In the increasingly faction divided Yuan government, with little direct interference from an ever-more out-of-touch Khubilai, removing enemy voices and appointing friendly ones was one of the best means to not just stay in office, but actually enact some policies before they became bound up in intrigues and infighting. Of course, Sangha therefore suffered from the standard accusations of cronyism, enriching himself as well as intense sexual perversions. A particular offence which Sangha was said to have given support to, was when a Buddhist monk in his service descrecated and looted tombs of the former Song Emperors, and turned former Song palaces into Buddhist temples. Here was an issue which angered former Song subjects and literati combined and did little to endear the new Yuan masters in south China. With mounting pressure building against him, Sangha’s enemies conveniently “found” stolen pearls in his private residence. Khubilai had him removed from office, stripped of rank and title and executed over the course of 1291.


    So ended the period of the “Three Villianous Ministers.” As the histories of these men were largely written by parties antagonistic to them, we should take many of the accusations with a grain of salt. Ahmad, Lu Shih-Jung and Sangha certainly had a little issue making the same accusations towards their political foes. What these episodes highlight is the ever widening divide between Khubilai Khan had the demands of government and the start of issues which would plague all of Khubilai’s Yuan successors: the seemingly impossible task to govern China while dealing with the costs of a top heavy court and military expenditure. None of them would be up to the task, and it is no wonder that Ahmad, Lu Shih-Jung and Sangha could not find the balance between meeting Khubilai’s demands and placating court opinions, particularly when Khubilai refused to intervene. The Three ministers became scape-goats for the issues of Khubilai’s government and served to illustrate the failures of the last years of Khubilai Khan. Our final episode on Khubilai looks at these years, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, pelase cosnider supporting us on Patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.