The monks of the Jeskai Way, Aloof and enlightened martial artists living in secluded monastery fortresses, could not be further removed from the culture and nomadic way of life of the Mongol peoples as represented by the Mardu Hordes and Temur Frontier. Narset and her kin draw heavily from the culture of the Chinese people, traditional rivals of the medieval Mongol tribes. Unlike the lightning-fast nomadism of the Mardu, or the earthy shamanism of the Temur, the Jeskai Way is a society defined by rules, scholarship, and defensive walls. In the Jeskai clan we can see a reflection of China before and after the Mongol conquests of the 13th century—a sliver of a vast and complex society that existed alongside and at odds with the khans of the Mongol steppe.

The Tao and the Jeskai Way

Like the deep well of nomadic shamanism that inspires the depiction of the Temur Frontier, the Jeskai Way owes its foundation to Chinese religion embodied in the Tao Te Ching (or Dao). Simply translated as “the Way,” the Tao is used to refer colloquially to a set of teachings penned by a mysterious figure Laozi several centuries before the common era. These teachings vary in theme from philosophical explorations of the concept of emptiness and the nature of life, to telling the story of divine creation, to providing guiding rubrics for adherents. There is (and continues to be, as Taoism is still very much alive and well) no single dogmatic truth at the root of the Tao – it was simply the Way.

The Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir depicts the Jeskai people as adherents of this spiritual, moral, and philosophical tradition in much the same way as Taoists throughout history. There is emphasis placed upon knowledge in all forms, whether higher learning, or a simple trade, or even the physical perfection of the martial arts. And while there is law and order enforced throughout the lands of the Jeskai, it is shown through paths like that of the wandering warrior that the Way lies in a variety of forms, which may differ between individuals upon the path.

In its very nature, the Tao and its representation in the Jeskai Way are radically different from the spiritual traditions of the Mongols. Both traditions, admittedly, make reference to divine forces in the natural world and ancestral veneration, and both allow for personal reflection and connection with innate truth. But the Tao emphasized contemplation and interpretation of its core text to understand the lessons it could impart to its adherents. Medieval Mongol shamanism had no written documents and no scholarly canon. Shaped by life in immediate contact with a harsh environment, shamanism in the Mongol culture dealt very much with the perceived forces of nature and ancestral protection, rather than esoteric guidance for a life wisely lived.

Mongol Conquest

So, what is a heavily-contemplative religious canon doing among these traditional elements of nomadic Mongol culture?

The same thing as the reflection of Islamic civilization seen in the Abzan Houses: getting conquered by Chinggis Khan.

The conquest of China was one of the first and last goals of the united Mongol Empire. The Mongol tribes prior to Chinggis’ ascension as Khan traded and raided in nearly equal measure in the Chinese territory that bordered them to the south. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomacy under the 13th century Song dynasties and their predecessors focused upon keeping the Mongol tribes divided as Chinese farmland expanded into the northern steppes. It was perhaps inevitable, with the rise of a charismatic ruler like Chinggis Khan, that the Mongols would seek to conquer their long-standing rivals. From 1206 to 1279 CE, Chinggis Khan and his descendants overtook vast swathes of Chinese territory, culminating in the final collapse of the Southern Song dynasty and the establishment of a Mongol regime, the Yuan dynasty.

The Way in Darkness

Like in Persia, the death toll was catastrophic. It is likely that the actual number of lives lost was inflated by mutually exaggerated claims (the Mongols boasting of their ferocity, the Chinese recounting their foes’ barbarism), but it is estimated that as many as ten million Chinese soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the invasion and subsequent disorder and famine.

Yet the Tao survived. Like the Jeskai scrolls buried by Shu Yun beneath the mountains, the knowledge passed down through the monasteries of the Taoists was indestructible, and the ferocity of the Mongol invaders did not last forever. Over time, the fourth Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan transformed the Mongol occupation of China into a semi-legitimate dynasty, and proclaimed himself emperor to his Chinese subjects as well as a khan to his Mongol followers. The individualism of the Tao, filtered through the freedom of nomadic life sought by the Mongol peoples, eventually found some measure of favor under Mongol rule, especially in contrast with its rigid and hierarchical philosophical rival, Confucianism.

It is the Tao under the Mongols which best represents the three colors of the Jeskai way: white, blue, and red. Medieval Taoism cared for order, for continuity, and for a stable society. It demanded contemplation and careful study to reveal its meaning in life. But what allowed it to endure under Mongol rule, and what eventually endeared it to many Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty, was the emphasis placed upon individuality—the sense that the Way, like Mongol spirituality, ran through all its adherents, and each path was an individual road to enlightenment. Narset Transcendent, who carries the Way beyond Tarkir, may embody this spiritual tradition long after the Jeskai themselves were supplanted by the Ojutai on Tarkir.

Curtis Wiemann writes about a lot of still-extant religious traditions from outside their cultural context, so please: take these articles as an introduction rather than a full description!

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.