Description of the West by a Chinese Envoy, 1220
[or "Notes on an Embassy to the North" (Pei Shi Ki)]

translated by
E. Bretschneider (1888)

The following is the description of the "West" (Central Asia) by a Chinese envoy, Wu-ku-sun Chung tuan, sent into those regions by the Kin Emperor to negotiate peace with Chinghis Khan. It is clear from the beginning and ending of the text that the anonymous author was not the envoy himself, but someone who purports to have spoken with him in person and recorded and edited his travels. The account has been excerpted from E. Bretschneider's MediŠval Researches from Eastern Asiatic Sources (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1888), pp.26-34. Bretschneider's page numbers are included here in the format //[p.xx].


//[p.26] In the seventh month (August) of the year 1220, Wu-ku-sun Chung tuan, vice- president of the Board of Rites, was entrusted by the emperor (U-tu-bu of the Kin dynasty) with a mission to the northern court. An T'ing chen, secretary in the Academy, was appointed his assistant. Wu-ku-sun returned in the tenth month (October or November) of 1221, when he addressed me in the following terms:

"I have been sent a distance of ten thousand li west of the border of heaven, and not wishing all the curious things I saw in my travels to remain unrecorded, I therefore request you to write down my narrative.

//[p.27] In the twelfth month (January) of 1220 I passed the northern Frontier (of the Kin empire), and proceeded in a north-western direction, where the ground rises gradually. Advancing parallel with (the northern frontier of) the Hia empire, after having travelled seven or eight thousand li, I arrived at a mountain. East of it all rivers flow to the east; west of it they run to the west, and the ground gradually descends. Farther on, after travelling four to five thousand li, the climate becomes very hot. I passed through more than a hundred cities; not one of them had a Chinese name. Inquiring about the country, I was told that many tribes were living there, namely, the Mo-li-hi, //[p.28] the Mo-k'o-ti, the Ho-li-ki-sz', the Nai-man, the Hang-li, the Gai-gu, the T'u-ma, and the Ho-lu; all are barbarian tribes.

Farther on I travelled over several tens of thousands of li, and arrived at the city of I-Ii in the country of the Hui-ho. There is the residence of the king of (or of a king of) the Hui- ho. We were then in the first decade of the fourth mouth (beginning of May).

The empire of Ta-shi, or the great K'i-tan, was formerly in the middle of the country of the Hui-ho (Mohammedans). Ta-shi Lin-ma belonged to the people of the Liao. T'ai tsu liked him for his intelligence and eloquence, and gave him a princess as wife. But Ta-shi secretly bore the emperor ill-will. At the time the emperor moved his arms to the west, Ta- shi was at first with him, but afterwards he took his family and fled beyond the mountains (probably Altai). Then he assembled the tribes on the frontier and emigrated to the north- west. On their wanderings they rested at places abounding in water and pastures. After several years they arrived at //[p.29] the Yin shan mountain, but could not penetrate owing to the rocks and the snow. They were obliged to leave their carts behind, and to carry their baggage on camels. Thus they arrived in the country of the Hui-ho (Mohammedans), took possession of the land and founded an empire. From day to day Ta-shi's power increased; he reigned some thirty years and more, and after death was canonised as Te tsung. When he died his son succeeded. The latter was canonised as Jen tsung. After his death, his younger sister, by name Kan, took charge of the regency; but as she held illicit intercourse and killed her husband, she was executed. Then the second son of Jen tsung came to the throne. Owing to his appointing unworthy officers, the empire fell into decay, and was finally destroyed by the Hui-ho. At the present day there are few of these people left, and they have adopted the customs and the dress of the Hui-ho.

The empire of the Hui-ho (Mohammedans) is very vast and extends far to the west. In the fourth or fifth month (May, June) there the grass dries up, as in our country in winter. The mountains are covered with snow even in the hottest season of the year. When the sun rises it becomes hot, but as soon as it sets it gets cold. In the sixth month (July) people are obliged to use wadded coverlets. There is no rain in summer; it is only in autumn that it begins to fall. Then the vegetation shoots forth; and in winter the plains become green like our country in spring, and herbs and trees are in blossom.

//[p.30] The people (of the Hui-ho) have thick beards, the hair of which is entangled like sheep's wool, and of different colour, black or yellow in different shades. Their faces are almost entirely covered by hair; only the nose and the eyes can be seen. All their customs are very strange. There are the following kinds of Hui-ho:

The Mu-su-lu-man Hui-ho (Mussulman) are very bloodthirsty and greedy. They tear flesh with the finders, and swallow it. Even in the time of Lent they eat meat and drink wine.

The Hui-ho of I-li are rather weak and delicate; they do not like to kill, and do not eat flesh when they fast. There are further the Hui-ho of Yin-du (Hindustan), who are black and of good character.

Many other things could be reported about these people (of the Hui-ho). The chiefs there choose their servants amongst the black and vilest class of the people of Yin-du, and mark their faces by burning. The people are all living in cities; there are no villages. The roofs of their houses are covered with clay. All the woodwork in the houses is carved. They use white glass for their windows and for vessels. The country is very rich in silver, pearls, cotton, hemp, &c. Their arrows, bows, carts, clothes, armour, spears, and vessels are all of strange appearance. They use large bricks for building bridges. Their boats //[p.31] resemble a shuttle. They have the five kinds of corn, and also mulberry trees, as we have in China. Their salt is found in the mountains. They make wine from grapes. There are water-melons weighing sixty pounds. The apples there are very prettily coloured. The onions and melons are also very fine and fragrant. As regards animals, camels are found there, but they have only one hump. The oxen there have a hump on their neck. Their sheep have large tails. There are also lions, elephants, peacocks, buffaloes, and wild asses. There are snakes with four legs. There is also a dangerous insect which resembles a spider: when it bites a man he cries out and dies. In those countries there is a great variety of beasts, birds, fish, insects, &c. not found in China.

There is a hill (or mountain) called T'a-bi-sz'-han. It has an extent of fifty or sixty li; and appears like a green screen, being covered with forests of kui trees. At the foot of the hill is a spring. The people are dressed simply. The flaps of their coats have not right and left; all wear girdles. Their clothes, cushions, and coverlets, are all made from wool. This wool grows in the ground. Their food consists of hu ping (barbarians' bread), tang ping (meal-meat), fish, and flesh. The women are dressed in white cloth. They cover their faces with the exception of the eyes. Amongst them there are some who have beards. The women do nothing //[p.32] but sing, dance, &c. Sewing and embroidery are executed by men. They have also performers and jugglers. Their laws are written in Mohammedan letters. For writing they use reeds. At their funerals they never use coffins or sarcophagi. In burying the dead they always put the head towards the west. Their priests do not shave their heads. In their temples no images or statues are seen. It is only in the cities of Huo chou and Sha chou that statues are found in the temples (of the Mohammedans? [or the Buddhists? See the next sentence.]) as in China. There they recite also Buddhist books written in Chinese letters. The language of the sacred books of the Hui-ho is unintelligible to the Chinese.

(After Wu-ku-sun had finished his report), I (i.e., the author of the article) said to him: Your journey indeed is an extraordinary fact. Anciently, in the time of the Han dynasty, Chang K'ien and Su Wu were entrusted with missions to far countries. They returned after several years, having endured much suffering, and risked their lives. (Like these men) you penetrated to unknown countries, travelled amongst enemies more than ten thousand li, crossed deserts, and accomplished all this for the sake of saving the people. You were quite cheerful, //[p.33] your mind did not falter; and it is remarkable that your face bears no token of fatigue. It is because from youth up your heart has been full of devotion to the throne; and thus you were able to travel amongst the barbarians as gaily as if you had not left home. You have preserved your life and your honour, and your bold feat has made a great sensation amongst your contemporaries. Indeed, you are a glorious man; and it is with great pleasure that I undertake to write your report for the benefit of future historians.


[(Bretschneider's comment:) As Wu-ku-sun in his report says nothing regarding his audience with the Mongol emperor, I may be allowed to translate, for the sake of completeness, from the YŘan shi, what I have found there on this subject. In the annals there, sub anno 1221, it is stated:]

In this year the Kin emperor despatched Wu-ku-sun Chung tuan to Chinghiz with a letter, in which he begged for peace. He agreed to be the emperor's younger brother (i.e., his vassal), but made the condition to retain the title of emperor.

[Sub anno 1221, ibidem, we read:]

In autumn Wu-ku-sun was presented to Chinghiz in the country of the Hui-ho (Mohammedans). The emperor said to him "I formerly asked of your sovereign to cede the land north of the Yellow River, and to reign over the country south of it with the title of wang (king). On these conditions I would have suspended the war. But now Muhua-li [=Mukali, one of Chinghis' generals] has already conquered all these countries, and you are compelled to sue for peace." Wu-kusun then implored the emperor to have pity. Chinghiz replied: "It is only in consideration of the great distance you have come that I can be indulgent. The land north //[p.34] of the Yellow River is in my possession, but there are still some cities in Kuan si which have not surrendered. Tell your sovereign to surrender these cities, and then he may reign south of the Yellow River, with the title of wang." After this Wu-ku-sun returned home.

© 2003 Silk Road Seattle