“Impressions of Early 13th century Central Asia as seen in the poetry of Yelü Chucai”: a guest lecture by Dr. Sally Church with Prof. Qiu Jiangning

By | 13/12/2017

On October 18th Dr. Sally Church gave a guest lecture at the Department of History, Nanjing University, together with Prof. Qiu Jiangning of Zhejiang Normal University. The topic was: “Impressions of Early 13th century Central Asia as seen in the poetry of Yelü Chucai”.

Prof. Qiu Jiangning was a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, in 2015-2016, and is primarily involved in the study of Yuan, Ming and Qing literature and culture . Her most recent publications are on literary schools and scholarly activities during the Yuan Dynasty.

The lecture discussed Yelü Chucai’s (1190-1244) impressions of Central Asia in the poetry he wrote while in the service of Chinggis Khan on his Westward Campaign, 1219-1227. A descendent of Abaoji, founder of the Khitan Liao dynasty, Yelü Chucai served in the government of the Jurchen Jin until his hometown of Beijing was conquered by the Mongols in 1215. After witnessing the killing and destruction of that dramatic event, he withdrew and studied Buddhism for three years before deciding to fulfill his Confucian obligation and answer Chinggis Khan’s summons for experienced Jin officials (especially those from the disaffected Khitan ethnicity) to serve as an advisor to the Mongol leader. He thought he might be able to influence Chinggis Khan to adopt a more humanitarian policies toward those he conquered: to dispense with his practice of mass slaughter and devastation, and instead allow the conquered peoples to live, be taxed, and supply the needs of the empire. His advice was sometimes heeded and sometimes not, but it is said that he was instrumental in influencing Chinggis Khan to stop the Western campaign in 1224 and return eastward. He also encouraged the Mongol leaders to spare North China from the sword.

File:Richard Zommer By the city gate.jpgAs he travelled with the Mongol leader on his Western Campaign, across thousands of miles of mountains and deserts all the way to Samarkand, staying in various places along the route, Yelü Chucai wrote approximately 50 poems to express his feelings and impressions of Central Asia, containing vivid descriptions of its climate, geography, scenery, and products.

The poems of Yelü Chucai were were published in 1234 in Pingyang in a collection called Zhan-jan ju-shi ji (“Collection of the works of the hermit Zhan-zhenya”), compiled by the low-ranking civil servant Tsung Zhong-heng. Initially, the collection consisted of 9 chapters, more than 500 poems and various notes. Then, between 1234 and 1236, it was expanded, and its modern form includes 14 chapters, 776 verses and notes.

The following poem by Yelü Chucai is from a series called “Ten Songs on Hezhong (Samarkand) in the Western Regions” (“Xiyu Hezhong shi yong” 西域河中十詠) written in 1222. It combines description of the objects and culture of Samarkand with his own feelings about how different things are here from his homeland, and he wonders if he should have come at all. All the poems in the series begin with the same line, “Desolation in Hezhong fu”

寂寞河中府, Desolation in Hezhong fu,

西來亦偶然. Coming westward was something that happened by chance.

每春忘舊閏, Every spring they forget about the old intercalary month.

隨月出新年. They follow the months to determine the New Year.

強策渾心竹, They make strong whips from bamboo that is not hollow,

難穿無眼錢. It is difficult to string coins that have no holes.

異同無定據, There is no set standard for similarities and differences,

俯仰且隨緣. In whatever I do, I accept the way things are.

In his note he says, “people in the West do not insert intercalary months into their calandar, and just count one year as 12 months” (xiren bu ji run, yi shier yue wei sui 西人不計閏,以十二月為歲).

The poems give a well-rounded picture of Yelü Chucai’s encounter with Central Asia in the early 13th century. They let us glimpse his inner life and his personality, and enhance our understanding of what it must have been like for a traveller to encounter such different cultures.


Image 1: “Guri Amir Mausoleum (8145400758)” by David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada – Guri Amir Mausoleum. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guri_Amir_Mausoleum_(8145400758).jpg#/media/File:Guri_Amir_Mausoleum_(8145400758).jpg

Image 2: By the city gate, by Richard-Karl Karlovitch Zommer  (1866-1939). Source of the image: Wikimedia Commons

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