MARCO POLO IN CHINA
Pamirs Marco Polo called China “Catai,” as in Cathay, a name derived from Karakitay, an 11th century Buddhist empire in western China. Beijing was referred to as Cambalue, a corruption of the Turkish name Khanbalikh, “Khan’s city.”
Polo wrote repeatedly about China’s wealth in silk and spices and declared that the Chinese people had “all things in great abundance.” Among his exaggerations were that Hangzhou has 12,000 bridges and Suzhou had 6,000. A later traveler could only find 347 in Hangzhou and its suburbs and 290 in Suzhou.
Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odysessy nationalgeographic.com ; Footsteps of Marco Polo metmuseum.org ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Marco Polo in China easia.columbia.edu ;
Links in this Website: SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; MARITIME SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CARAVANS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD HISTORY AND EXPLORERS factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE EXPLORATION AND ZHENG HE factsanddetails.com ; EARLY EUROPEANS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; SILK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road History ess.uci.edu ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; History of Silk Road ess.uci.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelerssilk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; China Page chinapage.org ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life Books: The Travels of Marco by Marco Polo; The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.
Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese ExplorationWikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He’s Voyages international.ucla.edu ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; China Page chinapage.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu ; Matteo Ricci international.ucla.edu
Marco Polo in the Pamirs
Marco Polo and his father and uncle passed through the Pamirs, a rugged mountain range with huge glaciers and many peaks over 20,000 feet, to reach Kashgar in China. Marco Polo was the first Westerner to mention the Pamirs, which he said "is the highest place in the world." Today the Pamirs are often called "The Roof of the World."
It is believed the Polos traveled through Wakhan--the long valley in present-day Afghanistan that divides the Pamirs from the Hindu Kush and reaches across to China--and may have entered present-day Tajikistan, where the bulk of the Pamirs are located. The journey through the Pamirs was the most difficult leg of the Polo's journey. It took them nearly two months to traverse 250 miles. On the 15,000 foot passes they traversed, Marco Polo wrote, "Fire is not so bright" and "things are not well cooked." The Polos may have been delayed by blizzards, avalanches and landslides.
"Wild game of every sort abounds" in the Pamirs, Polo wrote. "There are great quantities of wild sheep of huge size...Their horns grow to as much as six palms in length and are never less than four. From these horns the shepherds make big bowls from which they feed, and also fences to keep in their flocks." The Marco Polo sheep is named after Marco Polo because he was the first to describe it. Known for its wide spreading horns, it and the argali of Mongolia are the largest members of the sheep family.
Marco Polo in Western China
After passing through the Pamirs, Marco Polo entered western China near Tazkoragan, near where China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan meet, and traveled to Kashgar. At this point in their journey the Polos had been traveling for about two years and had covered around 5,000 miles and still had 2,600 miles to go before they reached their goal:Shangdu (Xanadu), not so far from Beijing. The Polos followed the Silk Road caravan route through China. They stopped in Kashgar and then crossed the Taklamakan Desert to the north-central Chinese towns of Dunhaung, Nanhu, Anxi, Yumen, Jiayuguan and Zhangye and finally Shangdu.
Modern Kashgar market The Polos traversed the forbidding gravel plains and sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert, whose names means "go in and you won't come out." They most likely were part of a caravan of double-humped Bactrian camels that traveled about 15 miles a day with a month's supply of food, stopping at infrequent water holes and oases. Marco wrote, of oases that "have great abundance of all things and places where "nothing to eat is found" and "you must always go a day and night before you find water."
Marco Polo wrote: "It often seems to you that you hear many instruments sounding and especially drums. The old people believe they are hearing devils speak...One night I heard, three times, a terrible noise, like crying, like someone dying."
"Beasts and birds there are none," he wrote, "because they find nothing to eat. But I assure you that one thing is found here, and that a very strange one...When a man is riding by night through this desert and something happens to make him loiter and lose touch with his companions...the spirits begin talking in such a way that they seem to be his companions. Sometimes, indeed, they even hail him by name. Often these voices make him stray from the path, so that he never finds it again. And in this way many travelers have been lost and have perished."
Describing Kashgar Marco Polo wrote: "The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens...the inhabitants live by trade and industry. They have fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates. Cotton grows here in plenty, besides flax and hemp. The soil is fertile and productive of all the means of life. The country is the starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world."
Marco Polo in North Central China
Nahu in north-central China had the only sources of water for miles. Shazhou (present-day Dunhuang) is where the Polos probably were exposed to large numbers of Chinese, Tnguts (relatives of Tibetans), and Buddhists for the first time. Marco Polo didn’t mention the famous grottos in Dunhuang but he did describe the custom in which men sometimes let travelers sleep with their wives, a custom still reportedly practiced by minorities in area.
Marco Polo wrote the people were "idolaters...they have many abbeys and many monasteries which are full of idols of many kinds, to which they do great sacrifice and great honor." He also wrote of admiration for monks—their shaves heads, their fasting, their "moon" calendar and the the way they "lead life hard"—and said Buddha would have been a saint had he been a Christian.
Marco Polo and Kublai Khan
After a three-and-a-half year journey, Marco Polo, his father and uncle arrived in Shangdu (Xanadu), Kublai Khan's summer capital, not so far from Beijing, in 1275, when Marco was 21. Word of the Polos journey had been relayed to Kublai Khan by Pony-Express-style messengers. Envoys of the Great Khan reached the Polos in central China. They escorted the Polos for the last 40 days of their trip to Shangdu.
Marco Polo met Kublai Khan soon after arriving in Shangdu. He called the great Khan a "Lord of Lords" and "the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world"—and this was probably no exaggeration.
Marco Polo described great parties hosted by Kublai Khan with as many as 40,000 guests. He reported that the Khan once received "a gift of more than 100,000 whites horses very beautiful and fine" and employed 10,000 falconers, carrying gyrfalcons, peregrines, sake falcons and goshawkS, and 20,000 dog handlers. He ALSO had an unstated number of lions, leopards and lynxes to go after wild boars and other big animals and 5,000 elephants “all covered with beautiful clothes.” He wrote that Kublai Khan’s palace contained a dining area that could seat 6,000 and was surrounded by a four mile wall. These numbers are thought to be exaggerations.
Marco Polo as Kublai Khan's Envoy
Kublai Khan Kublai Khan welcomed the Polos like long lost friends. He used Marco Polo as an emissary and ambassador in China and in other Asian kingdoms. This was not that unusual. Kublai Khan employed thousands of foreigners, mostly Persians and Arabs. Scholars deduce that Marco Polo could speak Persian and Mongol but not much Chinese (he often used Persian names rather than Chinese ones for the places he described) and spent much of his time with foreigners. Marco Polo didn't mention what his father and uncle did. It seems probable that they worked as merchants.
In a third person account from his book, Marco Polo wrote: "Messer Marco was in the Khan's employment some seventeen years, continually going and coming, hither and thither, on the missions that were entrusted to him...And, as he knew all the sovereign's ways, like a sensible man he always took much pains to gather knowledge of anything that would be likely to interest him, and then on his return to Court he would relate everything in regular order, and thus the Emperor came to hold him in great love and favor."
As Kublai Khan’s special envoy, Marco Polo boasted he explored "more of those strange regions than any man who was ever born.” Marco Polo claimed that he was the governor of Yangzhou for three years. Some scholars think he was exaggerating. Others say he could have been telling the truth because Kublai Khan was in need of administrators.
Marco Polo and Xanadu
Xanadu (Shangdu) was established in present-day Inner Mongolia about 200 miles northeast of Beijing. Kublai Khan set up a capital with a pleasure palace there before he established Daidu. Xanadu was destroyed in 1368 and would likely have been forgotten were in not for Marco Polo's accounts of the palace and Samuel Tayler Coleridge's poem Kublai Khan.
Marco Polo estimated the length of Shangdu’s pleasure palace walls to be 16 miles around (Chinese archaeologists have estimated that the true figure is 5.5 miles) and described monasteries of Buddhist "idolaters" who supplied Kublai Khan's court with sorcerers and astrologers.
On Kublai Khan's pleasure palace at Xanadu, Marco Polo wrote: "There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment...Round this palace is a wall...and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of a ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gyrfalcons and hawks...The gyrfalcons alone amount to more than 200.
"At a spot in the park where there is a charming wood he has another Palace built of cane. It is gilt all over, most elaborately finished inside and decorated with beasts and birds of very skillful workmanship. It is reared on gilt and varnished pillars, on each of which stands a dragon entwining the pillar with tail and supporting the roof on outstretched limbs. The roof is also made of canes, so varnished that it is quite waterproof."
Kublai Khan in the Pleasure Park at XanaduOn Kublai Khan and his pleasure palace, Marco Polo wrote: “Once a week he comes in person to inspect [falcons and animals] in the mew. Often, too, he enters the park with a leopard on the crupper of his horse; when he feels inclined, he lets it go and thus catches a hare or stag or roebuck to give to the gyrfalcons that he keeps in the mew. And this he does for recreation and sport."
“The lord abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months, to wit, June, July and August, preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very hot place. When the 28th day of August arrives, he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces...the Great Khan had it so designed that it can be moved whenever he fancies... It is held in place by more than 200 chains of silk”.
The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote a weird, largely nonsensical poem about Kublai Khan and Xanadu called is Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream, which he conceived after falling asleep while reading and taking opium. Colerdige later wrote, "During three hours of profound sleep, he composes 300 lines of poetry. After he woke up he wrote down the 54 lines of Kubla Khan when he was interrupted by a visitor. When he returned to his desk he could no longer remember his dream poem."
Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream begins:
In Xanadu die Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
Kublai Khan, Marco Polo and Beijing
Marco Polo first saw Kublai Khan's new winter capital of Daidu (Beijing), established in 1264, while it was under construction. He wrote: "The new city is a form perfectly square...each of its sides being six miles. It is enclosed with walls of earth...the wall of the city has twelve gates. The multitude of inhabitants, and the number of houses in the city... as also in the suburbs outside the city, of which there are twelve, corresponding to the twelve gates, is greater than the mind can comprehend."
"Within these walls...stands the palace of the Great Khan, the most extensive that has ever been known. The sides of the great halls are adorned with dragons in carved wood and gold, figures of warriors, of birds and of beasts. On each of the sides of the palace are grand flights of marble steps." On the Mongol New Year, "great numbers of beautiful white horses are presented to the Great Khan...all his elephants, amounting to five thousand, are exhibited in the procession, covered with housing of cloth, richly worked with gold and silk."
Marco Polo described glazed roof tiles of "red and green and blue and yellow” in Daidu that “are bright like crystal, so that they shine very far." He said that he could estimate the city's population, based on the number of prostitutes—20,000—and said coal was so plentiful that people could take three hot baths a week.
Marco Polo's Descriptions of China
Marco Polo described the city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province as an "important center of commerce in pearls and other precious stones...so well provided with every amenity that it is a veritable marvel." The Fujian city of Quanzhou was "a great resort of ships and merchandises...that is one of the two ports in the world with the biggest flow of merchandise." He called Hangzhou "the greatest city which may be found in this world" and wrote that it had a population of 1.5 million people, 15 times more than his native Venice.
While traveling on the Grand Canal, Marco Polo wrote about porcelain and silk and wine made from rice. "There are very great merchants who do great trade...they have silk beyond measure." For a pittance you could buy "the most beautiful vessels of porcelain large and small."
In northern China Marco Polo wrote about "fair and gay and wanton women" and men who ran boarding houses where he "tells s his wife to do all that the stranger wishes...And the stranger stays with his wife in the house and does as he likes and lies with her in bed."
Marco Polo described coal—which at that time was unknown to most Europeans—as “black stones...which burn like logs". He was amazed when he learned that asbestos came from a mineral not from salamanders as medieval Europeans believed. He also wrote about paper money and the custom of burning fake paper money. He compared the ability of the Great khan to print money equal in value to gold as "alchemy."
Marco Polo in Yunnan
Yunnan rice terraces Of his travels in Yunnan, Marco Polo wrote about local religious customs, shamanistic healing practices and the use of cowrie shells and salt as money, all of which have been verified by scholars. He also wrote about a giant snake with legs and a mouth "so large that it could well swallow a man." Some believe he was referring to crocodiles that lived in the region or to a local legend of a giant man-eating snake.
Marco Polo described people in Yunnan with tattoos and gold-sheathed teeth. The tattoos were applied, he wrote, using "five needles joined together...they prick the flesh till the blood comes, and they rub in a certain black coloring stuff." The Dai that live in the area he visited have gold teeth and tattoos like those he described. Marco Polo also wrote "people are accustomed to eat the raw flesh of fowls, sheep, oxen and buffalo...the poorer sorts only dip it in a sauce of garlic mixed with good spice...they eat it as well as we do the cooked. The Bai people around Dali eat the same way today.
Describing the Yunnan city of Kunming in the 13th century, when it was under the rule of the Kingdom of Dali, Marco Polo wrote: "In it are found merchants and artisans, with a mixed population, consisting of idolaters, Nestorian Christians and Saracens or Mohametans...The land is fertile in rice and wheat...For money they employ the white porcelain shell, found in the sea, and which they also wear as ornaments around their necks.” He also said, “The natives do not consider it an injury done to them when others have connection with their wives, providing the act is voluntary on the woman's part "
Marco Polo's Last Years in China
In the late 1280s, after 15 years in China, the Polos were getting restless. Kublai Khan, their patron was in his 70s, and was drinking too much and suffered from gout and the Chinese were tiring of his rule. Marco was 37 and his father and uncle were near 70. Marco wrote they had "acquired great wealth in jewels and gold" but Great Khan was reluctant to let Marco go.
Marco Polo asked for permission to leave several times but was denied each time. The Polos finally got their chance to return when emissaries from Persia showed up and asked for an escort to accompany a seventeen-year-old Mongol princess that was to become the wife of the Ilkhan of Persia (a Mongol khan) on her journey to Persia. Marco had just returned from a sea journey to Indie (India or the East Indies) and thus was considered to be qualified him for a sea journey to Persia.
Marco Polo Leaves China
The Polos left China from Zaiton (Quangzhou) in 1281 with the Mongol princess and a fleet of 14 ocean-going ships that contained 600 people, plus sailors (Marco Polo's estimate), and two years of supplies. The ships were 100 feet long. Each had four masts, oars that required four men to pull and a dozen or so sails, probably made of bamboo slats that rattled in the wind.
Kublai Khan gave the Polos a palm-size gold paitzu, which required officials in the Mongol to provide them with anything they needed on the journey. Chinese documents found in 1940 offer evidence of the trip. Although they don't mention Marco Polo they mention the same people that Marco Polo mentioned in his account.
The Polos sailed south past Vietnam and Malaysia to Sumatra and then across the Bay of Bengal to India. They hugged the Indian coast, stopping several times and then crossed to the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf. From Hormuz they traveled overland across Iran to the Black Sea and sailed from there to Venice. The entire journey took about four years.
The journey from China to Persia was the most dangerous of thei Polo's journey. Only 18 people of the original 600 survived. During their trip across Iran they were robbed of some of their gold and jewels.
Image Sources: Pictures of places Mongabay.com
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2010