Marco Polo described the Grand Canal but not the Great Wall

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “Marco Polo traveled in great deal in China. He was amazed with China's enormous power, great wealth, and complex social structure. China under the Yuan (The Mongol Empire) dynasty was a huge empire whose internal economy dwarfed that of Europe. He reported that Iron manufacture was around 125,000 tons a year (a level not reached in Europe before the 18th century) and salt production was on a prodigious scale: 30,000 tons a year in one province alone. A canal-based transportation system linked China's huge cities and markets in a vast internal communication network in which paper money and credit facilities were highly developed. The citizens could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls and wear silk garments, lived in prosperous city that no European town could match. [Source: Silk Road Foundation ]

Marco Polo described the city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province as an "important center of commerce in pearls and other precious 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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

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." On the Chinese pepper trade, Marco Polo saod that for each load of pepper sent to Christendom, a hundred were sent to China. **

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 was amazed when he learned that asbestos came from a mineral not from salamanders as medieval Europeans believed. He also wrote about 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." **

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volumes 1 and 2 (London: John Murray, 1903) are part of the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels

Marco Polo on Coal

Marco Polo described coal — which at that time was unknown to most Europeans — as “black stones...which burn like logs": At first charcoal was used in the production process, leading to deforestation of large parts of north China. By the end of the 11th century, however, coal had largely taken the place of charcoal.

Marco Polo wrote: “It is a fact that all over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stones existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply the fire with them at night, and see that they are well kindled, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part I, Chapter XXX: Concerning the Black Stones That Are Dug in Cathay, and Are Burnt for Fuel,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 1 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Chapter XXX begins on page 603 of this online text /]

“It is true that they have plenty of firewood, too. But the population is so enormous and there are so many bath-houses and baths constantly being heated, that it would be impossible to supply enough firewood, since there is no one who does not visit a bath-house at least 3 times a week and take a bath - in winter every day, if he can manage it. Every man of rank or means has his own bathroom in his these stones, being very plentiful and very cheap, effect a great saving of wood." /

20080312-coal briquettes westport.k12.ct.jpg
coal briquettes used for cooking and heating today

Marco Polo in Yunnan

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. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

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 on 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." [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

"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 Description of Beijing

Camel Square in Beijing
Chapter XI: Concerning the City of Cambaluc is a detailed description of the layout of the city of Cambaluc (Daidu/Beijing). According to Marco Polo's description: “Now there was on that spot in old times a great and noble city called Cambaluc, which is as much as to say in our tongue ʺThe city of the Emperor.ʺ But the Great Kaan was informed by his Astrologers that this city would prove rebellious, and raise great disorders against his imperial authority. So he caused the present city to be built close beside the old one, with only a liver between them. And he caused the people of the old city to be removed to the new town that he had founded; and this is called Taidu. [However, he allowed a portion of the people which he did not suspect to remain in the old city, because the new one could not hold the whole of them, big as it is.] [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“As regards the size of this (new) city you must know that it has a compass of 24 miles, for each side of it hath a length of 61 miles, and it is four-square. And it is all walled round with walls of earth which have a thickness of full ten paces at bottom, and a height of more than ten paces; but they are not so thick at top, for they diminish in thickness as they rise, so that at top they are only about three paces thick. And they are provided throughout with loop-holed battlements, which are all whitewashed.

“There are twelve gates, and over each gate there is a great and handsome palace, so that there are on each side of the square three gates and five palaces; for (I ought to mention) there is at each angle also a great and handsome palace. In those palaces are vast halls in which are kept the arms of the city garrison.

“The streets are so straight and wide that you can see right along them from end to end and from one gate to the other. And up and down the city there are beautiful palaces, and many great and fine hostelries, and fine houses in great numbers. All the plots of ground on which the houses of the city are built are four-square, and laid out with straight lines; all the plots being occupied by great and spacious palaces, with courts and gardens of proportionate size. All these plots were assigned to different heads of families. Each square plot is encompassed by handsome streets for traffic; and thus the whole city is arranged in squares just like a chessboard, and disposed in a manner so perfect and masterly that it is impossible to give a description that should do it justice.

“Moreover, in the middle of the city there is a great clock...that is to say, a bell.. which is struck at night. And after it has struck three times no one must go out in the city, unless it be for the needs of a woman in labour, or of the sick. And those who go about on such errands are bound to carry lanterns with them. Moreover, the established guard at each gate of the city is 1,000 armed men; not that you are to imagine this guard is kept up for fear of any attack, but only as a guard of honour for the Sovereign, who resides there, and to prevent thieves from doing mischief in the town.”

Marco Polo’s Description of Beijing’s Traffic and People

camel outside the gates of old Beijing
“Chapter XXII: Concerning the City of Cambaluc, and Its Great Traffic and Population,” is a detailed description of the population and life in the city of Cambaluc (Daidu/Beijing). According to Marco Polo's account: “ You must know that the city of Cambaluc hath such a multitude of houses, and such a vast population inside the walls and outside, that it seems quite past all possibility. There is a suburb outside each of the gates, which are twelve in number; and these suburbs are so great that they contain more people than the city itself [for the suburb of one gate spreads in width till it meets the suburb of the next, whilst they extend in length some three or four miles]. In those suburbs lodge the foreign merchants and travellers, of whom there are always great numbers who have come to bring presents to the Emperor, or to sell articles at Court, or because the city affords so good a mart to attract traders. [There are in each of the suburbs, to a distance of a mile from the city, numerous fine hostelries for the lodgment of merchants from different parts of the world, and a special hostelry is assigned to each description of people, as if we should say there is one for the Lombards, another for the Germans, and a third for the Frenchmen.] And thus there are as many good houses outside of the city as inside, without counting those that belong to the great lords and barons, which are very numerous. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903) Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“You must know that it is forbidden to bury any dead body inside the city. If the body be that of an Idolater it is carried out beyond the city and suburbs to a remote place assigned for the purpose, to be burnt. And if it be of one belonging to a religion the custom of which is to bury, such as the Christian, the Saracen, or what not, it is also carried out beyond the suburbs to a distant place assigned for the purpose. And thus the city is preserved in a better and more healthy state. Moreover, no public woman resides inside the city, but all such abide outside in the suburbs. And ‘tis wonderful what a vast number of these there are for the foreigners; it is a certain fact that there are more than 20,000 of them living by prostitution. And that so many can live in this way will show you how vast is the population.

“[Guards patrol the city every night in parties of 30 or 40, looking out for any persons who may be abroad at unseasonable hours, i.e. after the great bell hath stricken thrice. If they find any such person he is immediately taken to prison, and examined next morning by the proper officers. If these find him guilty of any misdemeanour they order him a proportionate beating with the stick. Under this punishment people sometimes die; but they adopt it in order to eschew bloodshed; for their "basis" say that it is an evil thing to shed man’s blood.] To this city also are brought articles of greater cost and rarity, and in greater abundance of all kinds, than to any other city in the world. For people of every description, and from every region, bring things (including all the costly wares of India, as well as the fine and precious goods of Cathay itself with its provinces), some for the sovereign, some for the court, some for the city which is so great, some for the crowds of Barons and Knights, some for the great hosts of the Emperor which are quartered round about; and thus between court and city the quantity brought in is endless.

“As a sample, I tell you, no day in the year passes that there do not enter the city 1,000 cartloads of silk alone, from which are made quantities of cloth of silk and gold, and of other goods. And this is not to be wondered at; for in all the countries round about there is no flax, so that everything has to be made of silk. It is true, indeed, that in some parts of the country there is cotton and hemp, but not sufficient for their wants. This, however, is not of much consequence, because silk is so abundant and cheap, and is a more valuable substance than either flax or cotton.

“Round about this great city of Cambaluc there are some 200 other cities at various distances, from which traders come to sell their goods and buy others for their lords; and all find means to make their sales and purchases, so that the traffic of the city is passing great..”

Marco Polo on Hangzhou

Marco Polo statue in Hangzhou

Marco Polo described Hangzhou, capital of the Southern Song, as "the greatest city which may be found in this world." Situated at the southern end of the Grand Canal about 175 kilometers from present-day Shanghai, Hangzhou was a natural center for trade. Marco Polo reported that it had a population of 1.5 million people, 15 times more than his native Venice” and had ten marketplaces, each half a mile long, where 40,000 to 50,000 people would go to shop on any given day, and 10,000 bridges (a later traveler could only find 347). There were also numerous restaurants, a "great quantity of rich palaces" and bathhouses with hot or cold water baths, where "a hundred men or a hundred women can well bathe". [Source: National Geographic, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

According to Marco Polo: “When you have left the city of Changan and have travelled for three days through a splendid country, passing a number of towns and villages, you arrive at the most noble city of Kinsay [Hangzhou], a name which is as much as to say in our tongue “The City of Heaven,” as I told you before. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVI: Description of the Great City of Kinsay, Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi” and “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVII: Further Particulars Concerning the Great City of Kinsay,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. The excerpted text is from pages 179-180, 182, and 190-191 of this online text /]

“And since we have got thither I will enter into particulars about its magnificence; and these are well worth the telling, for the city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world.... First and foremost, then, [the city of Kinsay is] so great that it hath an hundred miles of compass. And there are in it twelve thousand bridges of stone, for the most part so lofty that a great fleet could pass beneath them. And let no man marvel that there are so many bridges, for you see the whole city stands as it were in the water and surrounded by water, so that a great many bridges are required to give free passage about it. /

“All the streets of the city are paved with stone or brick, as indeed are all the highways throughout Manzi, so that you ride and travel in every direction without inconvenience. Were it not for this pavement you could not do so, for the country is very low and flat, and after rain ’tis deep in mire and water. /

“You must know also that the city of Kinsay has some 3000 baths, the water of which is supplied by springs. They are hot baths, and the people take great delight in them, frequenting them several times a month, for they are very cleanly in their persons. They are the finest and largest baths in the world; large enough for 100 persons to bathe together...At the opposite side the city is shut in by a channel, perhaps 40 miles in length, very wide, and full of water derived from the river aforesaid, which was made by the ancient kings of the country in order to relieve the river when flooding its banks. This serves also as a defence to the city, and the earth dug from it has been thrown inwards, forming a kind of mound enclosing the city.” /

Marco Polo on Hangzhou Markets

According to Marco Polo: In this part are the ten principal markets, though besides these there are a vast number of others in the different parts of the town. The former are all squares of half a mile to the side, and along their front passes the main street, which is 40 paces in width, and runs straight from end to end of the city, crossing many bridges of easy and commodious approach. At every four miles of its length comes one of those great squares of 2 miles (as we have mentioned) in compass. So also parallel to this great street, but at the back of the market places, there runs a very large canal, on the bank of which towards the squares are built great houses of stone, in which the merchants from India and other foreign parts store their wares, to be handy for the markets. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVI: Description of the Great City of Kinsay, Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi” and “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXVII: Further Particulars Concerning the Great City of Kinsay,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. The excerpted text is from pages 179-180, 182, and 190-191 of this online text./]

Song-era market

“In each of the squares is held a market three days in the week, frequented by 40,000 or 50,000 persons, who bring thither for sale every possible necessary of life, so that there is always an ample supply of every kind of meat and game, as of roebuck, red-deer, fallow-deer, hares, rabbits, partridges, pheasants, francolins, quails, fowls, capons, and of ducks and geese an infinite quantity; for so many are bred on the Lake that for a Venice groat of silver you can have a couple of geese and two couple of ducks. Then there are the shambles where the larger animals are slaughtered, such as calves, beeves, kids, and lambs, the flesh of which is eaten by the rich and the great dignitaries. /

“Those markets make a daily display of every kind of vegetables and fruits; and among the latter there are in particular certain pears of enormous size, weighing as much as ten pounds apiece, and the pulp of which is white and fragrant like a confection; besides peaches in their season both yellow and white, of every delicate flavour. Neither grapes nor wine are produced there, but very good raisins are brought from abroad, and wine likewise. The natives, however, do not much are about wine, being used to that kind of their own made from rice and spices. /

“From the Ocean Sea also come daily supplies of fish in great quantity, brought 25 miles up the river, and there is also great store of fish from the lake, which is the constant resort of fishermen, who have no other business. Their fish is of sundry kinds, changing with the season; and, owing to the impurities of the city which pass into the lake, it is remarkably fat and savoury. Any one who should see the supply of fish in the market would suppose it impossible that such a quantity could ever be sold; and yet in a few hours the whole shall be cleared away; so great is the number of inhabitants who are accustomed to delicate living. Indeed they eat fish and flesh at the same meal.All the ten market places are encompassed by lofty houses, and below these are shops where all sorts of crafts are carried on, and all sorts of wares are on sale, including spices and jewels and pearls. Some of these shops are entirely devoted to the sale of wine made from rice and spices, which is constantly made fresh and fresh, and is sold very cheap.” /

Marco Polo on Yangtze River Traffic

Marco Polo was amazed at the boat traffic on the Yangtze River. He claimed to have seen no fewer than 15,000 vessels at one city on the river, and said other towns had even more: You must know that when you leave the city of Yanju, after going 15 miles south-east, you come to a city called SINJU, of no great size, but possessing a very great amount of shipping and trade.... And you must know that this city stands on the greatest river in the world, the name of which is KIAN [Yangzi].... This it is that brings so much trade to the city we are speaking of; for on the waters of that river merchandize is perpetually coming and going, from and to the various parts of the world, enriching the city, and bringing a great revenue to the Great Kaan. [Source: Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXI: Concerning the City of Sinju and the Great River Kian,” in “The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Chapter LXXI begins on page 167 of this online text /]

“And I assure you this river flows so far and traverses so many countries and cities that in good sooth there pass and repass on its waters a great number of vessels, and more wealth and merchandize than on all the rivers and all the seas of Christendom put together! It seems indeed more like a Sea than a River. Messer Marco Polo said that he once beheld at that city 15,000 vessels at one time. And you may judge, if this city, of no great size, has such a number, how many must there be altogether, considering that on the banks of this river there are more than sixteen provinces and more than 200 great cities, besides towns and villages, all possessing vessels?” /

Song-era boats

Marco Polo’s Description of the Mongol Postal System

According to the Silk Road Foundation: Marco was very much impressed “with the efficient communication system in the Mongol world. There were three main grades of dispatch, which may be rendered in modern terms as 'second class', 'first class', and 'On His Imperial Majesty's Service: Top Priority'. 'Second class' messages were carried by foot-runners, who had relay-stations three miles apart. Each messenger wore a special belt hung with small bells to announce his approach and ensure that his relief was out on the road and ready for a smooth takeover. This system enabled a message to cover the distance of a normal ten-day journey in 24 hours. At each three miles station a log was kept on the flow of messages and all the routes were patrolled by inspectors. 'First class' business was conveyed on horseback, with relay-stages of 25 miles. But the really important business of Kublai empire was carried by non-stop dispatch-riders carrying the special tablet with the sign of the gerfalcon. At the approach to each post-house the messenger would sound his horn; the ostlers would bring out a ready-saddled fresh horse, the messenger would transfer to it and gallop straight off. Marco affirmed that those courier horsemen could travel 250 or 300 miles in a day.” [Source: Silk Road Foundation]

“Chapter XXVI: How the Kaan's Posts and Runners Are Sped through Many Lands and Provinces” is a detailed description of the postal system in Mongol China. According to Marco Polo's account: “Now you must know that from this city of Cambaluc proceed many roads and highways leading to a variety of provinces, one to one province, another to another; and each road receives the name of the province to which it leads; and it is a very sensible plan. And the messengers of the Emperor in travelling from Cambaluc, be the road whichsoever they will, find at every twenty-five miles of the journey a station which they call "Yamb", or, as we should say, the “Horse-Post-House.” And at each of those stations used by the messengers, there is a large and handsome building for them to put up at, in which they find all the rooms furnished with fine beds and all other necessary articles in rich silk, and where they are provided with everything they can want. If even a king were to arrive at one of these, he would find himself well lodged. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903). Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“At some of these stations, moreover, there shall be posted some four hundred horses standing ready for the use of the messengers; at others there shall be two hundred, according to the requirements, and to what the Emperor has established in each case. At every twenty-five miles, as I said, or anyhow at every thirty miles, you find one of these stations, on all the principal highways leading to the different provincial governments; and the same is the case throughout all the chief provinces subject to the Great Kaan. Even when the messengers have to pass through a roadless tract where neither house nor hostel exists, still there the station-houses have been established just the same, excepting that the intervals are somewhat greater, and the day’s journey is fixed at thirty-five to forty-five miles, instead of twenty-five to thirty. But they are provided with horses and all the other necessaries just like those, we have described, so that the Emperor’s messengers, come they from what region they may, find everything ready for them.

“And in sooth this is a thing done on the greatest scale of magnificence that ever was seen. Never had emperor, king, or lord, such wealth as this manifests! For it is a fact that on all these posts taken together there are more than 300,000 horses kept up, specially for the use of the messengers. And the great buildings that I have mentioned are more than 10,000 in number, all richly furnished, as I told you. The thing is on a scale so wonderful and costly that it is hard to bring oneself to describe it.

Marco Polo’s Description of the Mongol Postal System Runners

“Chapter XXVI” the goes on to describe Mongol postal system runners. According to Marco Polo's account: “But now I will tell you another thing that I had forgotten, but which ought to be told whilst I am on this subject. You must know that by the Great Kaan’s orders there has been established between those post houses, at every interval of three miles, a little fort with some forty houses round about it, in which dwell the people who act as the Emperor’s foot-runners. Everyone of those runners wears a great wide belt, set all over with bells, so that as they run the three miles from post to post their bells are heard jingling a long way off. And thus on reaching the post the runner finds another man similarly equipt, and all ready to take his place, who instantly takes over whatsoever he has in charge, and with it receives a slip of paper from the clerk, who is always at hand for the purpose; and so the new man sets off and runs his three miles. At the next station he finds his relief ready in like manner; and so the post proceeds, with a change at every three miles. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903). Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“And in this way the Emperor, who has an immense number of these runners, receives despatches with news from places ten days’ journey off in one day and night; or, if need be, news from a hundred days off in ten days and nights; and that is no small matter! (In fact in the fruit season many a time fruit shall be gathered one morning in Cambaluc, and the evening of the next day it shall reach the Great Kaan at Chandu, a distance often days’ journey. The clerk at each of the posts notes the time of each courier’s arrival and departure; and there are often other officers whose business it is to make monthly visitations of all the posts, and to punish those runners who have been slack in their work.) The Emperor exempts these men from all tribute, and pays them besides.

“Moreover, there are also at those stations other men equipt similarly with girdles hung with bells, who are employed for expresses when there is a call for great haste in sending despatches to any governor of a province, or to give news when any Baron has revolted, or in other such emergencies; and these men travel a good two hundred or two hundred and fifty miles in the day, and as much in the night. I’ll tell you how it stands. They take a horse from those at the station which are standing ready saddled, all fresh and in wind, and mount and go at full speed, as hard as they can ride in fact. And when those at the next post hear the bells they get ready another horse and a man equipt in the same way, and he takes over the letter or whatever it be, and is off full-speed to the third station, where again a fresh horse is found all ready, and so the despatch speeds along from post to post, always at full gallop, with regular change of horses. And the speed at which they go is marvellous. (By night, however, they cannot go so fast as by day, because they have to be accompanied by footmen with torches, who could not keep up with them at full speed.)

“Those men are highly prized; and they could never do it, did they not bind hard the stomach, chest and head with strong bands. And each of them carries with him a "ger" falcon tablet, in sign that he is bound on an urgent express; so that if perchance his horse breakdown, or he meet with other mishap, whomsoever he may fall in with on the road, he is empowered to make him dismount and give up his horse. Nobody dares refuse in such a case; so that the courier hath always a good fresh nag to carry him.

“Now all these numbers of post-horses cost the Emperor nothing at all; and I will tell you the how and the why. Every city, or village, or hamlet that stands near one of those poststations has a fixed demand made on it for as many horses as it can supply, and these it must furnish to the post. And in this way are provided all the posts of the cities, as well as the towns and villages round about them; only in uninhabited tracts the horses are furnished at the expense of the Emperor himself.

“(Nor do the cities maintain the full number, say of 400 horses, always at their station, but month by month 200 shall be kept at the station, and the other 200 at grass, coming in their turn to relieve the first 200. And if there chance to be some river or lake to be passed by the runners and horse-posts, the neighbouring cities are bound to keep three or four boats in constant readiness for the purpose.) And now I will tell you of the great bounty exercised by the Emperor towards his people twice a year.”

Marco Polo’s Description of Paper Money and How It is Made

20080212-paper money brook.jpg
Early paper money
“Chapter XXIV: How the Great Kaan Causeth the Bark of Trees, Made into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money over All His Country” is a description of paper money and how it was made and circulated in Mongol China. According to Marco Polo's account: “Now that I have told you in detail of the splendour of this City of the Emperor’s, I shall proceed to tell you of the Mint which he hath in the same city, in the which he hath his money coined and struck, as I shall relate to you. And in doing so I shall make manifest to you how it is that the Great Lord may well be able to accomplish even much more than I have told you, or am going to tell you, in this Book. For, tell it how I might, you never would be satisfied that I was keeping within truth and reason! The Emperor’s Mint then is in this same City of Cambaluc, and the way it is wrought is such that you might say he hath the Secret of Alchemy in perfection, and you would be right! For he makes his money after this fashion. [Source: “Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East,” translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (London: John Murray, 1903)Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“He makes them take of the bark of a certain tree, in fact of the Mulberry Tree, the leaves of which are the food of the silkworms.. these trees being so numerous that whole districts are full of them. That which they take is a certain fine white bast or skin which lies between the wood of the tree and the thick outer bark, and this they make into something resembling sheets of paper, but black. When these sheets have been prepared they are cut up into pieces of different sizes. The smallest of these sizes is worth a half tornesel; the next, a little larger, one tornesel; one, a little larger still, is worth half a silver groat of Venice; another a whole groat; others yet two groats, five groats, and ten groats.

“There is also a kind worth one bezant of gold, and others of three bezants, and so up to ten. All these pieces of paper are issued with as much solemnity and authority as, if they were of pure gold or silver; and on every piece a variety of officials, whose duty it is, have to write their names, and to put their seals. And when all is prepared duly, the chief officer deputed by the Kaan smears the Seal entrusted to him with vermilion, and impresses it on the paper, so that the form of the Seal remains printed upon it in red; the Money is then authentic. Anyone forging it would be punished with death. And the Kaan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money, which costs him nothing, that it must equal in amount all the treasure in the world.

Marco Polo’s Description of the Use of Mongol Paper

“Chapter XXIV” then describes how the paper money is circulated in Mongol China. According to Marco Polo's account: “With these pieces of paper, made as I have described, he causes all payments on his own account to be made; and he makes them to pass current universally over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories, and whithersoever his power and sovereignty extends. And nobody, however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain of death. And indeed everybody takes them readily, for wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan’s dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold. And all the while they are so light that ten bezants’ worth does not weigh one golden bezant.

Yuan dynasty banknote printing plate

“Furthermore all merchants arriving from India or other countries, and bringing with them gold or silver or gems and pearls, are prohibited from selling to any one but the Emperor. He has twelve experts chosen for this business, men of shrewdness and experience in such affairs; these appraise the articles, and the Emperor then pays a liberal price for them in those pieces of paper. The merchants accept his price readily, for in the first place they would not get so good a one from anybody else, and secondly they are paid without any delay. And with this paper-money they can buy what they like anywhere over the Empire, whilst it is also vastly lighter to carry about on their journeys. And it is a truth that the merchants will several times in the year bring wares to the amount of 400,000 bezants, and the Grand Sire pays for all in that paper. So he buys such a quantity of those precious things every year that his treasure is endless, whilst all the time the money he pays away costs him nothing at all. Moreover, several times in the year proclamation is made through the city that anyone who may have gold or silver or gems or pearls, by taking them to the Mint shall get a handsome price for them. And the owners are glad to do this, because they would find no other purchaser give so large a price. Thus the quantity they bring in is marvellous, though these who do not choose to do so may let it alone.

“Still, in this way, nearly all the valuables in the country come into the Kaan’s possession. When any of those pieces of paper are spoilt.. not that they are so very flimsy neither – the owner carries them to the Mint, and by paying three percent on the value he gets new pieces in exchange. And if any Baron, or anyone else soever, hath need of gold or silver or gems or pearls, in order to make plate, or girdles, or the like, he goes to the Mint and buys as much as he list, paying in this paper-money.

“Now you have heard the ways and means whereby the Great Kaan may have, and in fact has, more treasure than all the Kings in the World; and you know all about it and the reason why. And now I will tell you of the great Dignitaries which act in this city on behalf of the Emperor.”

Marco Polo’s Accounts of Paper Money and Salt: Proof He Went to China

Yuan dynasty banknote

In “Marco Polo was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues, Hans Ulrich Vogel, a Sinologist at University of Tübingen, argues Marco Polo’s descriptions of currency, salt production and revenues from the salt monopoly are proof that he went to China. Sciene Daily reports: “Vogel concludes that no other Western, Arab, or Persian observer reported in such accurate and unique detail about the currency situation in Mongol China. The Venetian traveler is the only one to describe precisely how paper for money was made from the bark of the mulberry tree. He not only details the shape and size of the paper, he also describes the use of seals and the various denominations of paper money. He reports on the monopolizing of gold, silver, pearls and gems by the state – which enforced a compulsory exchange for paper money – and the punishment for counterfeiters, as well as the 3 percent exchange fee for worn-out notes and the widespread use of paper money in official and private transactions. [Sources: Science Daily, April 16, 2012, “Marco Polo was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues, (Brill Verlag)”, Hans Ulrich Vogel, Universitaet Tübingen +++]

“Marco Polo is also the only one among his contemporaries to explain that paper money was not in circulation in all parts of China. It was used primarily in the north and in the regions along the Yangtze, but not in Fujian and certainly not in Yunnan, where according to Polo, cowries, salt, gold and silver were the main currencies. This information is confirmed by Chinese sources and by archaeological evidence. Most of these sources were collated or translated long after Marco Polo’s time – so he could not have drawn on them. He could not read Chinese. +++

Marco Polo’s description of salt production is also accurate and unique. He lists the most important salt production centers known to him: Changlu, Lianghuai, Liangzhe, and Yunnan, as well as the authorities administering them. On salt production in the Changlu salt region in present-day Hebei province, Marco Polo wrote: “Men take a sort of earth which is very saline, and of this they make great mounds. Over these they pour a lot of water so that it trickles through it and becomes briny… Then they collect the water by means of pipes and put it in great vats and iron cauldrons not more than four fingers deep and boil it thoroughly. The salt produced is very pure and fine grained…. [It] is a great source of wealth to the inhabitants and of revenue to the Great Khan.” +++

His report of the methods used to make salt in Changlu checks out with Chinese documents of the Yuan era. Salt in the Venetian monopoly was produced in a different way. Marco Polo’s claims of the value of salt production – for instance, that the revenues from Kinsay brought in 5.8 million saggi of gold annually – can be checked against the exchange rate for paper money.” Vogel’s book, based on work carried out in the DFG Research Training Group 596 “Monies, Markets and Finance in China and East Asia, 1500-1900”. +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei;Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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