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Memories of My Past Life in the 13th Century

My name is Yeh-lu Ch'u-ts'ai. I am lying on a bed underneath a high blue sky. A warm breeze is blowing softly, but I am fully dressed in layers of yellow silk and bundled beneath four heavy gray blankets, one made of wool and three from wolf fur. It is late in the afternoon on the first day of June in the year 1243. The place is Qara Qorum, the walled capital city of the Mongol Empire, where I have long been a high-ranking government official and chief astrologer.

At the bottom of my field of vision is my thick black and gray beard, which extends to my waist. My eyebrows are unkempt; they have grown so wild that I can spy their edges. My long hair is too tightly wound in a single braid, but I do not have the energy to reweave it.

In the distance is the sumptuous palace that houses Ogedei Khan, Genghis Khan's son and successor as ruler of the Mongols. With the help of his Muslim engineers and countless laborers, he built this place as his royal headquarters. Its tall golden pillars, studded with rubies and emeralds, gleam in the descending sun. A short walk from the palace entrance is a large pool of clear water, also the work of men. It is alive with many ducks and a smattering of cormorants and cranes.

My twenty-two-year-old son Chu is just a few feet away from me, dozing as he sits against the outside wall of our home. The rice mead he brought me hours ago, set on a small table next to the bed, remains untouched. My throat and lips are parched, and I wish I had the strength to drink. On the grassy ground below my bed is the Prajna-paramita Hrdaya Sutram, a book whose Sanskrit name means "Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom." My right hand is resting on my unofficial talisman, a wooden statue of a sheep devouring a tiger.

Eternity is closer than usual. The ancestors are purring in my head in a tone I have rarely heard. Almost blithely, with a hint of teasing, they are asking me, "Where do you come from? Where are you going?" I don't need to tell them the obvious answer to the first question, the answer they already know: I am neither Chinese nor a Mongolian of the steppes -- the two tribes with whom I have spent most of my adult life -- but rather Khitan, a lineage of Mongols that once ruled northern China. So then what exactly do my ancestors mean?

I know the reason for their questions. At the young age of 53, I am sorry to say that I am dying. The diffuse ache in my chest is bearable, but my weakness consumes me. I can hardly sit up, let alone move, and my eyesight is growing steadily dimmer and wanner. I suspect my body may fail completely before another day comes.

My physician says that my blood has grown tired, and that my pulse is scattered. What's worse, the energy in my triple heater is severely depleted. He has run out of ideas about how to heal me -- cinnebar, mastic, nux vomica, theriaca, moxibustion have failed -- and so he has for the moment withdrawn. The shaman, on the other hand, remains nearby, preparing for a new round of rituals. He believes my soul is eager to move on to the next world. His goal is not to stop my deterioration but rather to help me navigate the transition out of the body.

They may both be right, but there is also a third reason for my predicament: my broken heart. My second wife Su took a long time to die, but finally did just two months ago. I watched the growing tumor gradually choke off her ability to eat and breathe. Before that, my long and zealous service to the Mongol Empire was cut short when the leader who relied on my counsel, Ögedei Khan, died. Since becoming regent, his widow Töregene has little use for me. My power and my ambition are drained. My time as a man of influence is finished.

A shudder ripples through me, lasting maybe twenty-five heartbeats, like a vaporous orgasm that fills my entire body. It has happened four previous times today. It is both frightening and blissful. While in the grip of this spasm, I swear I can hear the sun's aroma, like a song that blends cinnamon and orange and licorice. And I swear, too, that I can taste the wind's murmuring glissando, humming like a hymn to the diamond light that I hope awaits me.

After my death, my body will be buried, not burned. And yet if I close my eyes extra tightly, lifting the corners of my mouth in a grim, exaggerated smile, I can envision the clean volatile texture of a fire that might just as well mingle with my flesh, turning me into ash and air. There is a certain appeal to that mode of disappearing.

No moment has ever been as sweet as this one, nor as bewildering or devastating or exciting. I fantasize of being born again as a sacred golden lotus, my roots sprouting from the mud and my petals yearning for the bees and beetles to steal my pollen.

Or I imagine that when I next awaken, I will be the mythical fenghuang, with the beak of a crane, the face of a snake, the wings of an eagle, the body of a mare, and the tail of a peacock. In that life, I will be the embodiment of a good omen, a sign of blessing. On those rare occasions when I alight on the earth, the land beneath me will harbor something valuable or precious -- water, salt, coal, iron, buried treasure.

I am in mourning for myself. It is far too early to leave this life. There is so much more I might have done.

But I am also awash in pride and gratification for all I have accomplished. I have saved so many lives! There are perhaps a million people who still walk the earth only because I served as counsel to the founders of the Mongol empire. Certainly not always, but on occasion, I convinced the world-conquering Khans, first Genghis and then his son Ogedei, to reduce their mayhem, to slaughter fewer souls than their bloodlust pressed them to do. Because of my strategic gambits and persuasion, they refrained from razing the nine hundred thousand gardens of northern China to make room for pasturelands where Mongols' horses could graze.

I have had so many other successes, as well -- as a calendar-maker, astrological oracle, government administrator, creator of a fair system of taxation, lute-player, translator, poet, father, and husband. If I could lift my voice beyond a mutter, I would crow like a rowdy rooster at dawn on the spring equinox. I would sing a thousand oracles about the future of everyone I have ever known.

But there is so much more of my life to remember, and I want to remember it all, not just the triumphs and the gifts I have given. I want to feel every moment one more time -- every confusing emotion, every disciplined response, every burst of pleasure, every appeal to reason. Do I have enough hours remaining?

As my life dissolves, I watch scenes from my odd and difficult and wonderful life flow across the endless blue sky of my mind.

I am once again in my home city of Beijing in June 1215, saving my own life again and again as the Mongols reel through the streets with their swords and torches, their victims' blood never washed from their armor. I am remembering the dawn-to-dusk hell when I am hiding beneath the rubble of the shattered library, waiting for the barbarians to finish looting the neighborhood. And days later, there's the burning kitchen in which I almost die, covering myself with smoldering bags of rice until the killers move on to their next incineration.

Strange and terrible blessing! So many people dead and so many buildings broken, just to awaken my longing for liberation! Before the fall of Beijing, I had an intellectual curiosity about the Buddhist teachings. Afterward, my cool dry ardor turned to sun's volcanic gold.

I can see the wrinkled and beaming face of my old bald teacher Ch'eng as I tell him I can no longer merely study the sacred texts, no longer skim the surface with a scholar's detached interest, but rather must practice and work like a devoted disciple grappling for enlightenment. That was the beginning of my salvation, and I celebrate that day.

More memories pile up and dissolve into each other. The amazing windmills of Samarkand in Khwarezm, news of which I bring back home to help irrigate the hundred thousand gardens. Squeezing the two-fist-sized pomegranates of Khodjend on the Syr Darya River, and drinking the sour-sweet juice until I am slaked. Feasting on a fifty-pound watermelon of Ba-p'u, so heavy that a donkey is weighed down by just two of them.

As if it is happening right now, I am sitting at my desk in mid-afternoon on the chilly twenty-third day of March in 1213. I put aside my paperwork and drink fermented pu-er tea from the blue porcelain cup my mother gave me. And then I improvise a carefree song, although no one hears it but me: "Floating on air after drinking pu-er tea! Flying over bridges after sipping earthy liquor from wild tea trees! Praying on clouds after guzzling thick dark elixir from heaven's cauldron! Floating on air!"

I relive the midnight my son Chu is born with the amniotic sac rolled up on his head like a diadem, my wife Su bloody but ecstatic, howling for joy that the ordeal has brought such bounty.

I am with my teacher Wan-sung on the greatest of all holidays, the day he bestows on me the seal of discipleship, the sign of his judgment that I have attained enlightenment, and gives me my Buddhist name: Ts'ung-yüan, meaning Following the Source. Heaven descended to be with me on the Earth!

I am there on the morning when I first meet with Genghis Khan in his palace near the bend of the Kherlen River in Mongolia. It is only three years after his warriors destroyed Beijing. I suppose I should thank him for the shock that spurred me to fight so hard to liberate my mind from its illusions, but I don't. Instead, I dare to argue with him, politely but firmly. I tell him I am not happy about his slaughter of the Jurchens, as he imagines I should be. And instead of killing me for my sin, he rewards me with a job. This is the moment when my fate cracks open, releasing my talents to benefit the millions rather than the hundreds.

One other memory for now, and then I will sleep a while: My favorite early poem, the poem I write when I am not quite 25 years old. I am in another one of the comfortable buildings where I spend so much time in my early adulthood -- before the many years rambling on the steppes, sleeping in yurts, scraping mud off my boots, inhaling the rank smells of so many thousands of soldiers. Not the astrologer and oracle I would be with the Khans, nor the tricky-minded moralist always scheming for an angle to promote the good and the true and the beautiful. When this poem comes, I am serving in the role -- sounds preposterous to me now -- of Auxiliary Secretary of the Boards of Right and Left. A small-town government functionary.

The feel of the poem makes me want to sing it:

The fragmented rhythms of cypress branches
are waking up the morning
and springing me from sleep.
They forgive my generous body
for all the pain-free love it has stolen.

The wind and thunder,
no longer aloof and elegant,
are attentive to my moods.
They please my breathing
with their songs of mountain fires.

Fragrance of persimmon
twists the skies
just in time to reveal
the secret of the golden flower
hidden in my heart's shadow.


Now I am remembering with special intensity the thirteenth day of December in 1226, sixteen and a half years ago. The place is a Mongolian military encampment just east of the Yellow River in Xi-Xia, north central China, home of the Tangut people. I am sitting on a stool next to the warming fire of a brazier inside a high, spacious yurt insulated with ermine skins. It is just after sunset.

The yurt I am in is big enough to fit fifty people, but at this moment it has just two: me and an imposing Mongol warrior in his sixties. We are drinking fermented mare's milk from earthenware cups as the icy wind whistles outside. Another cup of the stuff and I will risk the onset of drunkenness.

The man, who is humming a guttural, tuneless melody, is Genghis Khan. He has a wide, flat face that radiates both aloofness and ferocity. Even at his age, his thick body is agile and muscular. And he has the most beautiful eyelashes of anyone I've ever seen, male or female. They're long, delicate, elegant.

Another self in me, a future self, knows that history regards this man as a notorious mass murderer, more extreme in his slaughter than other overlords, like Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun, whose violence wasn't as apocalyptic because the territories they conquered weren't as vast.

But as Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai, I am the Great Khan's confidant, the closest thing he has to a conscience. For years he has sought my counsel, both as an oracle and as a political advisor.

I am acutely aware of our contrasting powers. He is the supreme leader of tens of thousands of soldiers, the administrator of a vast empire that extends from China to Persia, a charismatic force of nature with seemingly inexhaustible reserves of vigor. He needs little sleep and can devour the entire thigh of a horse in one sitting. He is capable of killing a man with a swipe of his sword or ordering the deaths of thousands of people with a single decree.

But even though he is an unusually tall man, towering above most of his soldiers, I am even taller. In fact, I am the tallest man I have ever known -- six foot, eight inches. My beard is substantially thicker and longer and more beautiful than Genghis Khan's, and my voice is by far more resonant than his high-pitched squall.

More importantly, I know many things he doesn't. I'm a scholar and poet, an astronomer and calendar-maker, a musician and translator. As a Buddhist, I work to liberate myself from the suffering that comes from believing in illusions. As a student of Confucianism, I have developed a rigorous moral sense and a devotion to the joys of living a virtuous life. In my earlier life, I gained extensive experience as an administrator, politician, and statesman, acquiring skills that make me valuable to a warrior who knows how to conquer but not how to rule. And as an astrologer and oracle skilled at divination, I have access to the secrets of the invisible world.

"It is too comfortable in this stifling womb," Genghis bellows at me, grabbing my shoulder and confiscating my cup of mare's milk. "Let us escape so we can think more clearly."

I would prefer to remain in the warm sanctuary where we are, but there are urgent matters to discuss, and we will do that in the setting the Great Khan decrees, not me. I pull myself up and follow him out of the yurt.

In all directions, I see snow, campfires, yurts, horses, and Mongol warriors. The hubbub of voices is cacophonous. The men are giddy with gratified bloodlust. After a long siege of the city of Lingzhou, they finally broke through the outer walls yesterday, looting everything they didn't destroy and leaving behind acres of muddy snow soaked with human remains. That climax came only three days after a spectacular and decisive triumph over a much larger Tangut army, which had come to rescue the beleaguered city.

Yesterday, I watched the butchery from afar, aghast and disgusted, then forced myself to hike to the scene of the massacre and survey it in detail. I was born to wealthy parents and a soft life, but it long ago became my job to be intimately familiar with all facets of the Mongolian juggernaut, including the bloody wake it leaves behind. It has never become routine for me to be in the presence of mutilated corpses. Nausea was my companion throughout the day and night. I have barely been able to eat today.

Now, having left the yurt, the Great Khan is walking fast, headed toward an unknown destination. I keep pace.

"You know this, but I will remind you," he says. "The night before we crushed the Tangut army for good, the skies cleared for the first time in many days."

I know what he is about to tell me and exactly where it will lead, but I will not interrupt.

"I saw what every one of us saw, what you saw: the five stars huddled closely together, arrayed in a tight line. You later told me they were not stars but planets, the wanderers who keep changing their places."

"Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn." I say. "They are the only five planets we know."

"Arrayed in a dramatic design, assembled in the shape of an unmistakable message, on the night before our marvelous victory."

He looks at me as if seeking my confirmation. I gaze into his eyes and nod yes. "I have no doubt it was a divine sign," I say.

"Ha! A divine sign. A communication directly from our eternal sky god Tengri. You agree?"

"An omen, unquestionably. Neither in my lifetime nor yours have the planets made such a theatrical statement."

"And I will tell you what I believe that statement to be," Genghis Khan says. "What my generals and I believe to be the meaning of the divine sign."

I'm marshalling my will to rise up in defiance of his will, but I am not quite ready yet. Soon, though.

In our ramble, we are just now passing a grotesque reminder of the violence so recently finished. Three captives from the pillaged city are here before us, lucky to have survived the slaughter in the streets but far unluckier to be where they are now: naked and crucified -- pierced with iron nails through their upper arms, liver, and lower legs. Each man is moored to a wooden donkey. All are barely conscious, covered with their own blood and as cold as any human being has ever been.

"That is an abomination," I mutter, though not so softly as to avoid the Great Khan's hearing.

"It is a necessary thread to the ongoing story," he says, not offended by my protest. "It is more raw material for the legend we spread. In the future, those who may foolishly dream of resisting Mongol might well learn of this 'abomination,' as you call it, and correct their ideas."

I hold my tongue, not wanting to spend any of the capital I will need shortly.

"But you are free to disagree with me," he says.

"As always, I honor your willingness to consider my truth," I reply.

"To return to my point, then," he says. "I will tell you what my generals and I believe to be the meaning of the five planets arrayed in the shape of a heavenly grin. It is a blessing from Tengri: a sign that our cause is not only just but should be expressed more aggressively. We must put an end to the fractious Tangut people forever. Erase them from history. Expunge every last one of them and claim their part of the world as our own. Not only will we solve the turbulent challenge that they forever pose to our mandate from heaven. It will also provide broad expanses of new grazing land for Mongol horses."

I stop walking, and to my surprise, so does he. It's unusual for him to take a cue from me. I assume he is curious about what I am looking at. My eyes are turned toward the lower edge of the western sky, where the clouds are dissipating. The five planets are still gathered together, though not as closely as the night before the defeat of the Tangut army. One in particular, Mercury, has broken away. The heavenly grin, as Genghis puts it, is now more of a heavenly grimace.

"I must tell you no," I tell him softly but firmly, gazing directly into his grey eyes as I tap my right fist into my left palm. "No. It is my duty, Sovereign, to inform you that your interpretation of the omen is faulty."

He respects me too much to rashly lash out. Otherwise I might be alarmed as he raises his hands up over his head and shakes them menacingly. He speaks no words, but only growls like a wolf.

I continue, raising the growing force of my voice from deeper in my abdomen. "The planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are closely packed together in Capricorn. This is a rare convergence. A vivid augury. But it is not a go-ahead to commit indiscriminate slaughter. Not a license to exterminate for the greater glory of the Mongol empire. Just the opposite, in fact. It is a divine sign advising you to restrain your instinct to kill: for your own benefit as much as for the Tangut's. And so I say: To keep the heavens aligned with you, sheathe your swords. Keep your arrows in their quivers. Quiet your naphtha-filled cannons."

He does not want to hear these words from me. He shakes his head and frowns deeply. But because my oracular pronouncements have been right so many times before, I know he fears the prospect of ignoring my counsel. I have predicted eclipses that no other shaman or magician in his retinue has anticipated. I have foreseen the death of Hsüan-tsung, emperor of the Chin Dynasty. I have guided him week by week, omen by omen, in his campaigns to lay claim to vast swaths of land: where and when to attack, which of his generals to lead each new ploy, how to take advantage of the weather.

"The heavens have shown favor to my conquests every step of the way for many years," Genghis spits, interrupting a new growl. "Why should they discourage me now?"

"The message the heavens send is designed to further the longevity and strength of your empire."

"My empire needs more land!" he insists.

"Your empire needs subjects who will provide food and tax revenue for you and your armies," I argue. "Your empire needs all the Tangut artisans who will build beautiful and useful things for your pleasure and prosperity. And your empire needs all the soldiers who will remain alive and healthy because they will not die and be maimed by the Tanguts who resist your force."

It is not that I am using my oracular arguments deceptively. I believe in the interpretation I espouse. The signs are unambiguous. But it is convenient for me that the heavenly dispensation dovetails perfectly with the moral instruction I have tried for years, often with little success, to impose on him.

"I will follow your recommendation," he says, his shoulders slumping. I know he will do so without indulging in lingering doubt about the decision or resentment at my counsel. That is how his warrior's mind works. And that is how much he has come to trust my oracular skill. His generals will be angry at me, though, even if they have begrudgingly, over the years, come to accept my modest influence over Genghis.

I have taught myself to avoid showing emotion in public at most times, and especially on those rare occasions when I overrule the will of the supreme leader who owns half the world. And so my face is a mask of serenity. But as Genghis turns around to walk back in the direction from which we have come, I allow myself to celebrate inwardly.

My victory is small. I haven't prevented the carnage he has inflicted on the Tangut for the last nine months. But with my prophetic power, I have at least ensured that in the near future, the lives of many tens of thousands of people will be spared.

Not that Genghis will stop killing; I don't expect that. He will not kill as many as he might have without my intervention, but he and his brute forces will still cut, shoot, burn, crush, and explode human beings.

Similar scenarios have played out on other occasions in the past. My reading of signs and omens, of both the heavenly kind and others, has kept alive countless people whose murders the Mongol warriors longed to commit -- even as I've been powerless to staunch so much of the other bloodletting they unleashed.

Am I a collaborator with a mass-murderer? That view could be argued persuasively. My thoughtful and steady presence at Genghis Khan's side gives him strength. My perspectives stimulate and entertain him. He needs me. I feed him.

But it is equally true that I am a mitigator, preventing the devouring beast from wreaking even greater mayhem. I continually seek to sabotage and undermine the most violent expressions of the Mongols' greed.

"Why so much rhubarb?" the Great Khan asks me as we walk, changing the subject now that the main issue has been resolved. His question refers to my own small part in the looting that his army conducted before leaving the ruined city of Lingzhou. I loaded two camels up with satchels of books and many bundles of rhubarb.

"An army should always have a good stock of rhubarb," I say. "The dried root, the 'big-yellow,' can be of great use in curing dysentery and even typhus." Herbal medicine is among my areas of expertise.

"So as you looted elbow-to-elbow with my rough warriors," Genghis says, "you were motivated only partly by self-interest. We might almost describe you as an unselfish looter." My long influence on him has subtilized his mind.

"There were few if any people in Lingzhou left who would be capable of or interested in reading the books I took."

"Still, I wonder how it can be that a Buddhist sage with Confucian morals justifies his plundering."

"I am well-practiced at the art of abiding in the grip of contradiction," I conclude. "You know that. I am an advocate of mercy who serves as an advisor to a god of war. I am a scholar and a shaman, a student of statecraft and a magician who speaks with the stars. I am part-Chinese, part-Mongol."

"You are always divided. I venture to say that you love to be divided."

"Good choice of words, Master: divided. As a Buddhist, I love this world even as I am free from it. I rejoice with love for my seemingly unique self, and I also know that there is no such thing as 'me.' I am both full and empty, both alive and dead."

"In your own way, you are a warrior," says the Great Khan.

We walk in silence until we arrive back at the yurt we started from. Lodged in the snowy ground near the front entrance is a white battle standard, as big as a sail, on the end of a long, thick pole. It has nine points, with a white horse tail hanging from each. I find myself gazing up into its rippling expanse, and I remember that this is a memory; I am actually lying on a bed, in my death throes, in the open air back at Qara Qorum.

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