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Marco Polo om Kina 1275-91

Primary Source Readings: From The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. [Note: Dr. Sue Gronewald, a specialist in Chinese history, was the consultant for this section. These selections, edited by Dr. Gronewald , are from The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, Volumes 1 and 2, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903)]

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Cambaluc (Beijing):
Concerning The Palace Of The Great Khan

You must know that for three months of the year, December, January, and February, the Great Khan resides in the capital city of Cathay (China), which is called Cambaluc (Beijing), and which is at the north-eastern extremity of the country. In that city stands his great palace, and now I will tell you what it is like.

It is enclosed all round by a great wall forming a square, each side of which is a mile in length. It is also very thick, and a good ten paces in height, whitewashed and loop-holed all round. At each angle of the wall there is a very fine and rich palace in which the war-harness of the Emperor is kept, such as bows and arrows, saddles and bridles, and bowstrings, and everything necessary for an army. Also midway between every two of these corner palaces there is another of the like' so that in the whole enclosure you find eight vast palaces where the Great Lord's harness of war are stored. Only one kind of article is assigned to each palace; thus, one is stored with bows, a second with saddles, a third with bridles, and so on.

The great wall has five gates on its southern face, the middle one being the great gate which is never opened on any occasion except when the Great Khan himself goes forth or enters. Close on either side of this great gate is a smaller one by which all other people pass; and then towards each angle is another great gate, also open to people in general; so that on that side there are five gates in all.

Inside this wall there is a second wall. Inside this wall, there are eight palaces like those of the outer wall, and stored like them with the Lord's harness of war. This wall also has five gates on the southern face, and one gate on each of the other faces. In the middle of the second enclosure is the Lord's Great Palace.

This is the greatest palace that ever was. Towards the north it is in contact with the outer wall, whilst towards the south there is a vacant space which the barons and the soldiers are constantly traversing. The palace itself has no upper story, but is all on the ground floor, except the basement is raised a bit above the surrounding soil. The roof is very lofty, and the walls of the palace are all covered with gold and silver. They are also adorned with representations of dragons (sculptured and gilt), beasts and birds, knights and gods, and other subjects. And on the ceiling, too, you see nothing but gold and silver and painting. (On each of the four sides there is a great marble staircase leading to the top of the marble wall, and forming the approach to the palace.)

The hall of the palace is so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people; and it is quite a marvel to see how many rooms there are besides. The building is altogether so vast, so rich, and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior to it. The outside of the roof is all colored with vermilion and yellow and green and blue and other colors, which are fixed with a varnish so fine and exquisite that they shine like crystal, and lend a luster to the palace so it can be seen from a great distance. This roof is made too with such strength and solidity that it is fit to last forever.

On the interior side of the palace are large buildings with halls and chambers, where the emperor's private property is placed, such as his treasures of gold, silver, gems, pearls, and gold plate, and in which reside the ladies and secondary wives. These rooms are only for him, and no one else has access to them.

Between the two walls of the enclosure which I have described, there are fine parks and beautiful trees bearing a variety of fruits. There are beasts, such as white stags and fallow deer, gazelles and roebucks, and fine squirrels of various sorts, and all manner of other beautiful creatures, that the whole place is full of them. (The parks are covered with abundant grass; and since the roads through them are all paved and raised above the surface, they never become muddy.)

To the northwest there extends a fine lake, containing fish of different kinds which the emperor ordered put in there, so that whenever he desires any he can have them. A river enters this lake and flows from it, but there is a grating of iron or brass put up so that the fish cannot escape.

On the north side of the palace, there is a hill which has been made (from the earth dug out of the lake). It is a good hundred paces in height and a mile in compass. This hill is entirely covered with trees that never lose their leaves, but remain ever green. And I assure you that wherever a beautiful tree may exist, and the emperor gets news of it, he sends for it and has it transported with all its roots and the earth attached to them, and planted on that hill of his. No matter how big the tree may be, he gets it carried by his elephants; and in this way he has got together the most beautiful collection of trees in the whole world. He has also ordered the whole hill to be covered with green stones. Thus not only are the trees all green, but the hill itself is all green likewise; and there is nothing to be seen on it that is not green; and hence it is rightly called the Green Mount.

On top of the hill there is another fine big palace which is all green inside and out. Thus, the hill, the trees, and the palace form together a charming spectacle. It is marvelous to see them. Everybody who sees them is delighted. The Great Khan built this beautiful prospect for the comfort and solace and enjoyment of his heart.

Now I am going to tell you of the chief city of Cathay, in which these palaces stand; and why it was built, and how.

Concerning The City of Cambaluc (Beijing)

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 words "The city of the Emperor." But the Great Khan was informed by his astrologers that this city would later be rebellious against his imperial authority. So he ordered the present city to be built close beside the old one, with only a river between them and he caused the people of the old city to be removed to the new town that he had founded.

As regards the size of this (new) city, it is 24 square miles, since each side is 6 miles long. It is walled around with walls of earth, 10 paces thick at bottom, and a height of more than 10 paces.

There are 12 gates, and over each gate there is a great and handsome palace, so that there are on each side of the square 3 gates and 5 palaces; for there is at each angle also a great and handsome palace. In the palaces there are vast halls in which are kept the arms of the city guard.

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 inns 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. Each square plot is surrounded by handsome streets for the traffic. Thus the whole city is arranged in squares just like a chessboard.)

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 honor for the sovereign, who resides there, and to prevent thieves from doing mischief in the town.

Concerning the City of Cambaluc, and Its Great Traffic and Population

The city of Cambaluc has 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 12 in number, and these suburbs are so great that they contain more people than in the city itself. In those suburbs live foreign merchants and travelers, of whom there are always great numbers who have come to bring presents to the emperor, to sell articles at court, or because the city affords so good a market to attract traders. And thus there are as many good houses outside the city as inside, without counting those that belong to the great lords and barons, which are very numerous.

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 has struck three times). 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 misdemeanor they order him a beating with the stick.

To the 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, from every region bring things (including all the costly wares of India, as well as the fine and precious goods of Cathay itself), 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 carts of silk alone, from which are made quantities of cloth of silk and gold, and of other goods.

Round about this city there are some 200 other cities, from which traders come.

The Fashion of The Great Khan's Table at His High Feasts

Whenever the Great Khan sits at the table on any great court occasion, his table is elevated a good deal above the others, and he sits at the north end of the hall, looking towards the south, with his chief wife beside him on the left. On his right but lower sit his sons and his nephews, and other kinsmen of the Blood Imperial, with their heads on a level with the emperor's feet. The other barons sit at other tables lower still. The women--all the wives of the Lord's sons, and of his nephews and other kinsmen--sit at the lower table to his right; and below them again are the ladies of the other barons and knights, each in the place assigned by the Lord's orders. The tables are so disposed that the emperor can see all of them from end to end. Most of the soldiers and their officers sit at their meal in the hall on the carpets. Outside the hall are more than 40,000 people; for there is always a great crowd of folk bringing presents to the Lord, or coming from foreign countries with curiosities.

In a part of the hall near where the Great Khan holds his table, there is set a large and very beautiful piece of workmanship in the form of a square buffet, about three paces each way, exquisitely wrought with figures of animals, finely carved and gilt. The middle is hollow, and in it stands a great dish of pure gold. At each corner is one of smaller size and from the former the wine or beverage flavored with fine and costly spices is poured into the latter. On the buffet are placed all the Lord's drinking vessels, among which are certain pitchers of the finest gold, which are big enough to hold drink for eight or ten persons. And one of these is put between every two persons, besides a couple of golden cups with handles, so that every man helps himself from the pitcher that stands between him and his neighbor. Ladies are supplied in the same way. The value of these pitchers and cups is something immense. In fact, the Great Khan has such a quantity of this kind of plate, and of gold and silver in other shapes, as no one ever before saw or heard tell of, or could believe.

Certain barons are specially chosen to see that foreigners, who do not know the court customs, are given places. These barons are continually moving to and from in the hall, looking out for the wants of the guests at the table, and ordering servants to supply them promptly with wine, milk, meat, or whatever they lack.

Those who wait upon the Great Khan with his dishes and his drink are some of the great barons. They have the mouth and nose muffled with fine napkins of silk and gold, so that no breath nor odor from their persons should taint the dish or the goblet presented to the Lord. And when the emperor is going to drink, all the musical instruments, of which he has vast stores of every kind, begin to play. When he takes the cup, all the barons and the rest of the company drop on their knees and make the deepest bow before him. Then the emperor drinks. Each time he does so the whole ceremony is repeated.

When all have dined and the tables have been removed, then come in a great number of jugglers and players, skilled at every sort of wonderful feat. They perform before the emperor and the rest of the company, creating great diversion and mirth, so that everybody is full of laughter and enjoyment. And when the performance is over, the company breaks up and everyone goes back to his quarters.

Concerning the Rice-Wine Drunk by the People of Cathay

Most of the people of Cathay drink wine of the kind that I shall now describe. It is a liquor which they brew of rice with a quantity of excellent spice, in such fashion that it makes better drink than any other kind of wine; it is not good, but clear and pleasing to the eye. And being very hot stuff, it makes one drunk sooner than any other wine.

Concerning the Black Stones Dug in Cathay and Burnt for Fuel

All over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stone 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 fine fuel that no other is used throughout the country. It is true that they have plenty of wood also, but they do not burn it, because those stones burn better and cost less. Moreover, with the vast number of people and the number of baths they maintain--at least three times a week, and in winter if possible every day--wood would not suffice for the purpose.

Twelve Barons Who Are Set Over All the Affairs of The Great Khan

The Great Khan chose 12 barons to whom he entrusted all the necessary affairs of 34 provinces of Cathay (China). These 12 barons reside all together in a very rich and handsome palace, which is inside the city of Cambaluc (Beijing), and consists of a variety of buildings with many suites of apartments. To every province is assigned a judge and several clerks; and all reside in this palace, where each has his separate quarters. These judges and clerks administer all the affairs of the provinces to which they are attached, under the direction of the 12 barons. Howbeit, when an affair is of very great importance, the 12 barons lay in before the emperor, and he decides as he thinks best. But the power of those 12 barons is so great that they choose the governors for all those 34 great provinces that I have mentioned. Only after they have chosen do they inform the emperor of their choice. This he confirms, and grants to the person nominated a tablet of gold such as is appropriate to the rank of his government.

Those 12 barons also have such authority that they can send the armed forces wherever and in whatever strength they please. This is done of course with the emperor's awareness, but still the orders are issued on their authority. They are called "The Supreme Court," as is the palace where they abide. This body forms the highest authority at the court of the Great Khan; and indeed they can favor and promote whomever they wish.

How The Khan's Posts and Runners Are Sped Through Many Lands and Provinces

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. The traveling messengers of the emperor find at every 25 miles of the journey a station called a "Horse Post-House." At each of those stations used by the messengers, there is a large and handsome building for them to stay at, in which they find all the rooms furnished with fine beds and all other necessary articles in silk, and where they are provided with everything they can want. Even if a king were to arrive at one of these, he would be pleased with his lodgings. At some of these stations, there are some 400 horses standing ready for the use of the messengers; at others there are 200. Even when the messengers have to pass through a roadless expanse where there are neither houses or hostels, the station houses have been established there just the same.

And this is done on the greatest scale of magnificence that ever was seen. It is a fact that if all these posts are taken together there are more than 300,000 horses kept up specially for the use of the messengers. And the great buildings are over 10,000 in number, all richly furnished. Yet all these numbers of post-houses cost the emperor nothing at all. Every city, or village, or hamlet that stands near one has a fixed demand made on it for as many horses as it can supply. Only in uninhabited tracts the horses are furnished at the expense of the emperor himself.

The Great Yearly Revenue The Great Khan Receives From Hangchow

Now I will tell you about the great revenue the Great Khan draws every year from the said city of Kinsay (Hangchow) and its territory, which forms a ninth of the country.

First there is the salt, which brings in a great revenue. For its produces every year, in round numbers, a vast sum of money! (This province, you see, adjoins the ocean, on the shores of which are many lagoons or salt marshes, in which the sea-water dries up during the summer time; and thence they extract such a quantity of salt as suffices for the supply of five of the kingdoms of Manzi (South China) besides this one.)

In this city and its dependencies they make great quantities of sugar, as indeed they do in the other eight divisions of the country; so that I believe the whole of the rest of the world together does not produce such a quantity, at least, if that be true which many people have told me; and the sugar alone again produces an enormous revenue. All spices pay three and a third percent on the value; and all merchandise likewise pays three and a third percent. (But sea-borne goods from India and other distant countries pay 10 percent.) The rice-wine also makes a great return, as does coal, of which there is a great quantity; and so do the twelve guilds of craftsmen that I told you of, with their 12,000 stations apiece, for they must pay tax on every article they make. The silk which is produced in such abundance brings an immense return since they must pay 10 percent on it or more as on many other articles.

Marco Polo, who relates all this, was several times sent by the Great Khan to inspect the amount of his customs and revenue from this ninth part of the country, and he found it to be one of the most enormous revenues that ever was heard of. And if the ruler has such a revenue from one-ninth of the country, you may judge what he must have from the whole of it! However, this part of the country is the greatest and most productive; and because of the great revenue that the Great Khan derives from it, it is his favorite province, and he takes all the more care to watch it well, and to keep the people contented.

On the Noble City of Soochow

Soochow is a very great and noble city. The people are subjects of the Great Khan, and have paper money. They possess silk in great quantities, from which they make gold brocade and other stuffs, and they live by their manufactures and trade.

The city is very great, as large as 60 square miles. It contains merchants of great wealth and an incalculable number of people. Indeed, if the men of this city and of the rest of the country had the spirit of soldiers they would conquer the world; but they are not soldiers at all, only accomplished traders and most skilled craftsmen. There are also in this city many great philosophers and others who do not appear to work.

In this city there are 6,000 bridges, all of stone, and so lofty that two ships together could pass underneath them.

In the mountains belonging to this city, rhubarb and ginger grow in great abundance. The city has 16 other great trading cities under its rule.

Description of the Great City of Kinsay (Hangchow) Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi (South China)

[Note: Kinsay, or Hangchow, was the capital of the Southern Sung dynasty when the Mongols captured it, thereby taking over all of China and establishing the Yuan dynasty in 1279. Hangchow, with a population of more than a million, was indeed the largest city in the world at the time, several times larger than the cities of Europe. It greatly impressed Marco Polo, as we shall see. Today Hangchow is still one of the most beautiful cities in all China, with its West Lake.]

When you have left the city of Soochow and have traveled for four days through a splendid country, passing a number of towns and villages, you arrive at the most noble city of Kinsay, which is in our language "City of Heaven." I will enter into particulars about its magnificence since the city is beyond dispute the finest and noblest in the world.

First and foremost, then, Kinsay is so great that it is 200 square miles. In it there are 12,000 bridges of stone, with most 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 around it.

In this city there are 12 guilds of different crafts, and each guild has 12,000 houses in the occupation of its workmen. Each of these houses contain at least 12 men, while some contain 20 and some 40, including the apprentices who work under the masters. All these craftsmen had full employment since many other cities of the kingdom are supplied by this city.

Inside the city there is a lake of some 30 miles: and all round it are beautiful palaces and mansions, of the richest and most exquisite structure that you can imagine, belonging to the nobles of the city. There are also two islands, on each of which stands a rich, beautiful, and spacious edifice, furnished in such style fit for the palace of an emperor. And when anyone of the citizens desire to hold a marriage feast or to give any other entertainment, it is done at one of these palaces. And everything would be found there ready to order, such as silver plate, trenchers, and dishes (napkins and table cloths), and whatever else was needed. The king made this provision for the gratification of his people, and the place was open to everyone who desired to give an entertainment. (Sometimes there would be at these palaces a hundred different parties; some holding a banquet, others celebrating a wedding; and yet all would find good accommodations in the different apartments and pavilions, and that all was so well ordered that one party was never in the way of another.)

The houses of the city are provided with lofty towers of stone in which articles of value are stored for fear of fire; for most of the houses themselves are of timber and fires are very frequent in the city.

Both men and women are fair and comely, and for the most part clothe themselves in silk, so vast is the supply of that material, both from the whole district of Kinsay and from the imports by traders from other provinces.

Since the Great Khan occupied the city he has ordained that each of the 12,000 bridges be provided with a guard of ten men, in case of any disturbances or of any being so bold as to plot treason or rebellion against him.

Part of the watch patrols the quarter, to see if any light or fire is burning after the lawful hours; if they find any they mark the door, and in the morning the owner is summoned before the magistrates, and unless he can plead a good excuse he is punished. Also if they find anyone going about the streets at unlawful hours they arrest him, and in the morning they bring him before the magistrates. Likewise if in the daytime they find any poor cripple unable to work for his livelihood, they take him to one of the hospitals, of which there are many, founded by the ancient kings, and endowed with great revenues. Or if he be capable of work they oblige him to take up some trade. If they see that any house has caught fire they immediately beat upon that wooden instrument to give the alarm, and this brings together the watchmen from the other bridges to help extinguish it, and to save the goods of the merchants or others, either by removing them to the towers or by putting them in boats and transporting them to the islands in the lake. For no citizen dares leave his house at night, or to come near the fire; only those who own the property, and those watchmen who clock to help of whom there shall come one or two thousand at least.

The Khan watches this city with special diligence because it forms the head of this part of China and because he has an immense revenue from the taxes levied on the trade here, the amount of which is so high no one would believe it.

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

The city of Kinsay has some 3,000 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.

This city of Kinsay is the seat of one of the kings who rules over 100 great and wealthy cities. For in the whole of this part of the country, there are more than 1,200 great cities, without counting the towns and villages, which are also in great numbers. In each of those 1,200 cities the Great Khan has a garrison, and the smallest of such garrisons musters 1,000 men; while there are some of 10,000, 20,000, and 30,000; so that the total number of troops is something scarcely calculable. You must not suppose they are by any means all cavalry; a very large proportion are foot-soldiers, according to the special requirements of each city. And all of them belong to the army of the Great Khan.

The people of this country have a custom, that as soon as a child is born they write down the day and hour and the planet and sign under which its birth has taken place; so that everyone knows the day of his birth. And when anyone intends a journey he goes to the astrologers, and gives the particulars of his birth in order to learn whether he shall have good luck.

Sometimes they will say no, and in that case the journey is put off till such day as the astrologer may recommend. These astrologers are very skillful at their business, and often their words come to pass, so the people have great faith in them.

It is also the custom for every burgess of this city, and in fact for every person in it, to write over his door his own name, the name of his wife, and those of his children, his slaves, and all in his house, and also the number of animals that he keeps. And if anyone dies in the house then the name of that person is erased, and if any child is born its name is added, so in this way the ruler is able to know exactly the population of the city. And this is the practice also throughout the country.

In this part are the ten main markets, though besides these there are a vast number of others in the different parts of town. They 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. At every four miles of its length comes one of those great squares of two miles in compass. In each of the squares is held a market three days a week, frequented by 40,000 or 50,000 persons, who bring there for sale every possible necessity 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, quails, fowls, ducks and geese. Then there are the buildings where the large animals are slaughtered, such as calves, beef, 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 vegetable and fruit; and among the latter there are in particular certain pears of enormous size, weighing as much as ten pounds apiece, and pulp of which is white and fragrant like a confection, besides peaches in their season both yellow and white, of every delicate flavor.

Neither grapes nor wine are produced there, but very good raisins are brought from abroad, and wine likewise. The natives, however, do not much care about this 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 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 it is remarkably fat and tasty. Anyone 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 shops is 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.

The houses of the citizens are well built and elaborately finished; and the delight they take in decoration, in painting and in architecture, leads them to spend in this way sums of money that would astonish you.

The natives of this city are men of peaceful character, both from education and from the example of their kings, whose disposition was the same. They know nothing of handling arms, and keep none in their houses. You hear of no feuds or noisy quarrels or dissentions among them. Both in their commercial dealings and in their manufactures, they are thoroughly honest and truthful, and there is such a degree of good will and neighborly attachment among both men and women that you would take the people who live in the same street to be all one family.

They treat the foreigners who visit them with great politeness and entertain them in the most winning manner, offering advice on their business.

On the lake there are numbers of boats and barges of all sizes for parties of pleasure. These will hold 10, 15, 20, or more persons, and are from 15 to 20 paces in length, with flat bottoms and ample breadth of beam, so that they always keep afloat. Anyone who desires to go with the women or with a party hires one of these barges which are always to be found completely furnished with tables and chairs and all the other apparatus for a feast. The roof forms a level deck, on which the crew stands and poles the boat along whithersoever may be desired for the lake is not more than two paces in depth. The inside of this roof and the rest of the interior is covered with ornamental painting in gay colors, with windows all round that can be shut or opened, so that the party at table can enjoy all the beauty and variety of the prospects on both sides as they pass along. The lake is never without a number of other such boats, laden with pleasure parties, for it is the great delight of the citizens here, after they have finished the day's business, to pass the afternoon in enjoyment with their ladies, either in these barges or in driving about the city in carriages.