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Striking a superior balance

If one attempted to read the character of the calligrapher who brushed in these bold and handsome characters, it would not be difficult to come to certain deductions: the strokes are strong, clear and sure, the alignment and placing of the ideographs even and exact, the effect orderly and striking, as well as carrying with it an element of command. Could the hand have belonged to a leader of men, an able administrator?

It did. Yeh-liu Ch'u-ts'ai answers to this description, and much more beside. Though almost unknown in the West, he is a figure of great renown in China and was in his time famous wherever the Mongol empire held sovereignty. For roughly a quarter of a century he stood beside Genghis Khan as his sage, his advisor, his prime minister and almost his friend.

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The reputation of Genghis is, unlike that of his minister, well-known, and in large degree, unfavourable. How then could a man of virtue and integrity - and Yeh-liu Ch'u-ts'ai was a good person - allow himself to serve the cruel and ruthless conqueror of half the world, the warrior who thought nothing of destroying whole cities with everyone in them, the despoiler of the East, the fear of Europe?

One tends automatically to despise the collaborator; we have seen him too often and at too close quarters in our century to do otherwise. But with the man in question the matter cannot be summarily dismissed. True, he worked with the Mongol who had seized his own country, yet had it not been for his influence the sufferings of the conquered and occupied people would have been immeasurably greater. He had the courage to attempt to restrain Genghis Khan, and such were his tact and wisdom in pressing his policies that in the end they often prevailed.

Yeh-liu Ch'u-ts'ai's family were of noble stock, tracing their line to a prince of the Liao, a Tartar kingdom in north China which had been conquered by the Kin (the Golden Tartars), and who were themselves overrun by the Mongols in 1212, after fierce fighting. Ghenghis Khan had instructed his armies to put the inhabitants of the land to the sword and destroy their towns, preserving only what was valuable to him, which included the more intelligent persons of any community: the engineers, philosophers, soothsayers, astronomers and handicraft workers. When these ''useful men'' as they were called had been brought into the presence of the Great Khan it is recorded that the Khan noticed Yeh-liu Ch'u-ts'ai, ''a tall man with a long black beard,'' who was, they told him, a Liao sage and an astrologer.

Genghis remarked to him that he should be grateful to the Mongols who had removed him, a Liao, from the domination of the Kin, saying ''I have avenged you.'' His captive answered in a way that both pleased and surprised the Great Khan. ''My father, my grandfather, and I myself,'' he said, ''were servants of the House of Kin. I should be a liar and a hypocrite if I were to cherish hostile feelings towards my Father and my Emperor.'' Impressed by this evidence of loyalty, Genghis made him an adviser and soothsayer on his staff. He rose to become a chief administrator and prime minister. His legendary comment, ''Although a kingdom can be conquered from horseback, it cannot be ruled from the saddle,'' was one the Mongols came to understand and partially respect.

The Kin had become sinicized before they were overthrown by the Mongols, and Yeh-liu thoroughly understood and appreciated Chinese culture and learning, being a man of taste and discrimination. A scholar, a calligrapher, poet and writer, he left behind him over a thousand essays. He was also a lover of music. After his death it was found that his possessions amounted to only a few lutes and pictures, together with the manuscripts of his own writings. In all his years of power he had taken nothing. The importance of art, science and civilization was something he tried to impress upon the rude people who were in command. It is claimed by his admirers that it was he who really gave the Mongol empire its shape and form.

The calligraphy shown here is from a poem of farewell to Liu Man, one of Yeh-liu Ch'u-ts'ai's officers who was leaving for his post, and consists of praise for his administration. The broad, angular strokes are powerful, straight and firm, the long sharp diagonals arresting, and add to the beauty of the whole. The characters are as perfectly placed as though they had been fitted into exact squares, yet are done rapidly, with a sure brush and confident rhythm. It has been said of his calligraphy that ''. . . the primary quality of the great statesman's work is the expression of his natural strength of spirit.''

The Chinese have always honored and loved the art of calligraphy even more than their great paintings, and Yeh-liu Ch'u-ts'ai's genius in this marvellous work was consonant with the traditions attending the ''superior man,'' the admirable Confucian figure, which he undoubtedly represented.

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