Yelu Chucai - Chinese Statesman

Yelu Chucai - Chinese Statesman
Yelu Chucai - Chinese Statesman

Yelu Chucai belonged to the Yelu clan of the Khitan Liao dynasty, which ruled northeastern China 916–1125. After the fall of Liao his branch of the family remained in northern China and served the Jin (Chin) dynasty (1115–1234) that had destroyed Liao. He was thoroughly Sinicized, a follower of Confucian philosophy, and also practiced Buddhism.

The Mongol army captured him in 1215 and three years later he was sent to Mongolia. He so impressed Genghis Khan in an interview that Genghis appointed him scribe and court astrologer; he accompanied Genghis on campaigns to Central Asia between 1216 and 1219.

When Ogotai Khan succeeded his father as grand khan in 1229, a debate ensued among his advisers on the general policy directions. The extreme faction advocated the extermination of the agricultural population of northern China and use of the land for pasturage.

Yelu Chucai argued forcibly in favor of letting the people live and taxing them, which would generate more revenue and benefit the imperial treasury in the long run. Ogotai decided to give Yelu Chucai’s proposal a one-year trial period.

Yelu Chucai devised a plan that assessed every adult a fixed tribute paid in silk yarn or silver, and every farming family a set grain tax. This fixed and predictable tax that everyone had to pay was preferable to the random and ruthless looting up to that time, and for the Mongol government resulted in increased revenue.

As a result Ogotai appointed Yelu Chucai head of his secretariat that oversaw the administration for North China; he would use his position to push for more reforms. One was to take a census for more accurate tax assessment.

Another was to apply the Jin code for administration of laws for the Chinese population because the Mongol code was unsuitable for a sedentary culture. In 1238 he was able to hold examinations for the Chinese population across North China. A quarter of the candidates still had the status of prisoners of war or slaves of the Mongols.

The exams were based on the Confucian Classics, and over 4,000 men passed. However Ogotai employed few of those who passed and only in very lowly posts. This was because the Mongol rulers had no intention of sharing power with their Chinese subjects.

Yelu Chucai also had limited success in his tax reforms because of Ogotai’s constant demand for more revenue and orders to increase taxes at will. He turned to a system of tax farming relying on his Central Asian supporters to collect taxes and keeping a portion for themselves.

Central Asians were also favored as moneylenders, who loaned money to farmers to pay their taxes and charged over 100 percent per year in interest. Ogotai also created numerous appanages (fiefs) for his relatives and supporters, who were able to mistreat the people under their control without government interference.

Yelu Chucai died in 1243 in Karakorum. His great contribution was to persuade Ogotai not to exterminate the conquered northern Chinese population. His reforms were largely put aside in favor of Mongol policy interests.