Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai (1189-1243), secretary-astrologer to Genghis Khan and chief of the Secretariat under his son Ögödei, was famous for his administrative reforms introduced in North China during the early years of the Mongol conquest.
The son of a Sinicized Khitan noble serving the Jürchen-Chin dynasty (1115-1234), Yeh-lü Ch'uts'ai was born in the Chin capital Chung-tu (modern Peking). He began the study of Chinese classics at the age of 12. Placing first in the degree examination, he was appointed a district vice-prefect in modern Hopei (1213); when the Chin emperor transferred his court to Pien-ching (K'ai-feng) in 1214, Yeh-lü returned to the old capital to become an auxiliary secretary in the Secretariat Council. He stayed to witness the fall of Peking to the Mongol forces in 1215.
Meanwhile, Yeh-lü had developed an interest in Buddhism and lived in seclusion as a lay disciple until he was summoned by Genghis Khan to Mongolia in April 1218. When Genghis set out for central Asia on his expedition against the Khwarezmian empire (in Russian Turkistan) the following year, Yeh-lü accompanied him as secretary-astrologer. He is said to have invoked the legend of the unicorn to dissuade the Great Khan from prolonging his futile campaign against Khwarezm. Yeh-lü was also credited with persuading Genghis to invite the famed Chinese Taoist Chiu Ch'iu-chi to the Mongol quarters to advise on government and religious matters. Genghis retreated with his forces in 1222, but Yeh-lü delayed his return to Peking until 1227.
In September 1229 Ö gödei was elected Khan by the Mongol assembly in succession to Genghis, who had died in 1227. Ö gödei was faced with a double task in North China: to annihilate the Chin and to consolidate the Mongol rule and devise effective means of exploiting the conquered territory. While the first task presented little problem, the second was beset by serious difficulties. The conservative faction of the Mongol court favored the complete annihilation of the native population and the turning of the entire occupied territory into pasture land. Opposing this radical suggestion, Yeh-lü proposed a more rational alternative for exploiting the country. He won and was put in charge of the taxation program; meanwhile, he presented to the Emperor an 18-point plan for dealing with the state of chaos in North China.
Yeh-lü's chief concern was to restore order and create a strong, centralized government, a prerequisite for a systematic and effective exploitation of the country. This was impossible when the conquered areas were under the control of the military commanders, who were virtually independent of the court; hence Yeh-lü insisted on a strict separation between the military and civil authority. He divided the country into 10 principal administrative units and established in each of these centers a tax collection bureau administered by civil officials to replace the arbitrary collection of levies by the local military officials. His fiscal reforms of 1229-1230 represented the first step toward transforming these confused fiscal practices into a rational system on Chinese lines.
Yeh-lü introduced a land tax on a household basis, a poll tax on all adults, a tax on commerce, and the traditional Chinese duties on liquor and vinegar, salt, iron smelters, and mining products. He also curbed the excess privileges of the clergy by rescinding some of their exemption from levies granted by Genghis Khan. To implement his program, Yeh-lü began to build up a network of civil officials, but he gained little headway, as the Mongols resented the appointment of Chinese nationals to positions of responsibility.
These fiscal reforms bore the first fruit in September 1231 as the amount of revenue collected in Yün-chung (in modern Shansi) tallied with the figure Yeh-lü had projected. Ö gödei was so pleased that he appointed Yeh-lü chief of the secretariat. He ran into difficulty when he wanted to carry out his reforms on a wider scale, because of the displacement of the population owing to war and famine and the impossibility of taxing the privileged non-Chinese residents of North China (Mongols, central Asians, and others).
Upon Yeh-lü's recommendation, a national census was ordered in 1234 and was completed 2 years later. He was in favor of the census for administrative reasons, but the Mongol nobles supported it as the basis of appropriating a larger share of land in the conquered areas.
Much against Yeh-lü's advice, Ö gödei divided North China into a series of appanages and distributed them among the Mongol nobles and other dignitaries. This measure further weakened the central authority and presented a serious obstacle to Yeh-lü's reform programs. Meanwhile, Yeh-lü also encountered much difficulty in attempting to reorganize the civil service. In 1237 Ö gödei consented to Yeh-lü's proposal of selecting Chinese for office through competitive examinations. Examinations were held, but the successful candidates only served in an advisory capacity on local administrative matters to their Mongol or central Asian superiors. This system was abolished after 1238.
Yeh-lü's failure to reintroduce the traditional examination system coincides with the decline of his power at the Mongol court. Several factors contributed to this: Ö gödei's withdrawal of support after 1235, the growing anti-Chinese feeling at court, the rise of central Asian merchants as tax collectors, and Yeh-lü's conflicts with his colleagues in the Secretariat.
Having lost out in his contest of power to the pro-Moslem faction of the court, Yeh-lü remained only as the titular head of the Secretariat after 1240 and ceased to play a decisive part in government affairs. Following Ö gödei's death in 1241 and the succession of his widow Töregene as regent of the empire, Yeh-lü's position became more precarious. His support of the election of Siremün, the successor designated by Ö gödei, to the khanate against the wishes of Töregene, who favored the candidacy of Ö gödei's son Güyüg (who was finally elected in 1246), must have further jeopardized Yeh-lü's relationship with the Mongol ruling oligarchy. Yeh-lü died in 1243 and was buried near Peking.
Besides being a vigorous administrator, Yeh-lü was also a man of letters in the Confucian tradition. His collected works, in 14 chapters, were published after 1236. The record of his journey to central Asia, entitled Hsi-Yu lu, was written in 1228 and published in 1229.
An English translation of Yeh-lü's record of travel in central Asia is in Emil V. Bretshneider, Mediaeval Researches from Eastern Asiatic Sources, vol. 1 (1888; repr. 1967). Another translation, with annotations by Igor de Rachewiltz, is in Monumenta Sinica, vol. 21 (1962). There is no book-length biography of Yeh-lü in English. The authoritative essay on his life and career is Igor de Rachewiltz's "Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai (1189-1243): Buddhist Idealist and Confucian Statesman" in Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett, eds., Confucian Personalities (1962). Recommended for general historical background are Michael Charol (pseudonym of Michael Prawdin), The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul (1940), and René Grousset, The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire (trans. 1952).