Yan Shi

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Yan Shi


Powerful overlord


Early Life. Born in 1182, the youngest son of a farmer in western Shandong, Yan Shi did not have the family back-ground necessary for a successful political career under usual conditions. He had a nice appearance and an attentive mind but little formal education. He was brave, kind, and friendly. Because of his excessive spirit, he was repeatedly in severe trouble and was jailed for a variety of reasons. He was, however, able to break out of jail with the assistance of his young followers. In his early life Yan Shi was a hooligan by normal criteria.

Opportunity. The chance for Yan Shi to climb from the world of ruffian to bureaucrat came when much of northern China was invaded by the Mongols. Instead of demolishing only the border defenses of the Jin dynasty, as they had done in preceding years, Mongol troops launched a considerable campaign, sweeping across Shandong and Shanxi, as well as Hebei. One consequence of this invasion and the later withdrawal of the Mongol army was increased militarism all over the country. For self-protection armed bands of different sizes and political affiliations were created by members of locally famous families and individual strongmen. Yan Shi was among those militia leaders who were enlisted by the government. After the Mongols retreated from Shandong in 1213, he was appointed as a centurion in his native district. As an officer in the Jin army, Yan Shi had the chance to show his military talent, and he quickly extended his influence with the rise of Song (960-1279) power in northern China. In early 1220, when an envoy went to North China, Yan Shi formally confirmed his allegiance to the Song, bringing with him nine prefectures in western Shandong, southeastern Hebei, and northern Henan.

Submission. Yan Shi was soon disappointed with his announced alliance because Song forces in North China did not receive extensive assistance from the royal court. As a result, when the Mongol army invaded Shandong again in 1220 and Yan Shi realized that they would eventually occupy all of China, he lost no time in offering his surrender. Greatly benefiting the Mongols and hurting the Song, his surrender gave the Mongols not only the largest number of households (three hundred thousand) ever given up by a defector but also a vast territory that paved the way for their attack on the capital. Because of this contribution the Mongols granted him the Chinese honorific title of Gold and Purple Great Officer of Eminent Dignity and assigned him as chief of the Regional Presidential Council of West Shandong.

Powerful Overlord. In subsequent years Yan Shi was among the few high-ranking Chinese generals whose mission was to deal with the Jin and Song empires in eastern China. After more than ten years of cooperation with the Mongols, Yan Shi was appointed chief civil administrator of West Shandong. His domain, including twenty cities, was one of the largest territories occupied by an overlord in northern China. Other than controlling the land and people, Yan Shi commanded a large army.

Aid to People. Yan Shi was not only a strong militarist but also distinguished himself by his efforts to alleviate misery produced by the war. He saved many lives and aided the local populations by discouraging the Mongol commanders from killing tens of thousands of people. He not only prohibited his own soldiers from murdering people but also paid ransoms for civilians detained by other forces. He saved many lives by giving food to starving refugees, who were either sent back to their homes or resettled as farmers.

Reforms. Aside from helping the civilian population at large, Yan Shi made a particular effort to aid displaced intellectuals and officials of the Jin dynasty, many of whom he appointed to his government. With so many intellectuals available, Yan Shi staffed his court with competent men. With the help of this civilian staff, Yan Shi was able to accomplish several important administrative, fiscal, and educational reforms. Managerially, he improved the integrity and efficiency of officials. Economically and financially, Yan Shi reduced taxes as well as promoted agriculture. His most noteworthy contribution was the revitalization of education and culture. For example, a well-endowed prefectural school had been founded during the Northern Song and Jin periods, but it was destroyed in 1213 when the Mongols first devastated the area. Yan Shi rebuilt the institution in 1236, as well as other schools, where pupils studied rites and music that were generally regarded as the core of Confucian education. As one of the strongest overlords in northern China, Yan Shi was a foremost promoter of Chinese culture in an age of chaos during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.


Richard L. Davis, Wind against the Mountain: The Crisis of Politics and Culture in Thirteenth-century China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).

Herbert Franke, ed., Sung Biographies, four volumes (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1976).

Igor de Rachewiltz and others, eds., In the Service of the Khan: Eminent

Personalities of the Early Mongol-Yuan Period (1200-1300) (Wies-baden: Harassowitz, 1993).