China and Inner Asia
Yelü Chucai 耶律楚材 (1190-1244) is the most well-known individual among the first group Jin dynasty (1115-1234) scholars who joined the emerging Mongols in their westward expeditions. Dozens of poems survived which he wrote over the decade he travelled in Transoxiana. Modern scholarship has been taking these poems as a continuity of Chinese frontier poetry tradition that had blossomed in the expansionist years of the Tang dynasty (618-907). This paper, however, argues that Yelü departed from this tradition. Whereas Tang frontier poems focus more on describing the strangeness of borderlands and the arduousness of life there, Yelü’s poems feature a much more positive attitude towards life in Transoxiana. He managed to continue his scholarly habits of drinking both wine and tea, writing and exchanging poems with friends, practicing calligraphy, and playing guqin. As a Chinese scholar who travelled into a different cultural area in the early 13th century, his poems present observations of a foreign land and remarks on transboundary experiences. Moreover, despite the fact that frontier poetry had only played a marginal role in Tang literature, Yelü’s poems spoke out the spirit of his time. The optimistic attitude towards some magnificent landscape and unfamiliar customs in the Eurasian Steppes with which Yelü’s poems are charged started a new writing tradition to be continued by more Chinese-speaking writers who travelled to the Mongol heartlands in 13th and 14th centuries.