How does the book reflect China at that time in a political context?

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Descriptions of the Chinese political structure are plentiful in The Travels of Marco Polo; additionally, the rich history of Mongol rule in China is well documented.

In the book, Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, is the founder of the Yuan dynasty in China. Marco's story reflects the power of the Khan by drawing our attention to how his administration is set up. He tells us that twelve barons are set up to rule over all thirty-four provinces in Kublai Khan's Chinese kingdom. These twelve barons are extremely powerful; it is the barons who appoint governors for each of the provinces. The clerks and judges of each province administer the rule of law under the authority of the governors and ultimately, the barons. Difficult court cases are tried under the jurisdiction of the barons, in consultation with the Khan.

Marco Polo also documents the reach of the Khan's power by highlighting the presence of 'Horse Post-Houses' in the kingdom. These post-houses, of which there are more than ten thousand in number, are basically rest areas for the thousands of traveling messengers who serve the Khan. Each rest area is a magnificent and lavish lodging, fit for kings, and always replenished with horses, from between two hundred to four hundred in number. All in all, more than three hundred thousand horses are kept for the ready use of Kublai Khan's thousands of messengers. These horses are supplied by the towns, cities, and even the Khan himself.

Marco Polo also tells us that the Khan receives yearly revenues from all the provinces. However, Kublai Khan's favorite province is Hangchow and its surrounding territories. Marco Polo relates how he has been sent on occasion to inspect the incredible revenues of salt, sugar, silk, rice wine, and coal from the region, an area which represents only a ninth of the country. Additionally, because of the fantastic tax revenues from trade, the Khan watches the city of Hangchow diligently. He loses no time in setting up guards to man each of the twelve thousand bridges in the city, in case anyone tries to foment a rebellion against him.

Aside from his great power in China, the Khan has also set up his male relatives as rulers of provinces in Mongolia as well as Manchuria. One of these, Nayan, who is described in the book as the ruler of Chorza, Karli, Barskol, and Sitingui, eventually sets himself up to challenge the power and rule of the Khan. Marco Polo documents Kublai's ruthless response to Nayan's treason. When the Khan first hears rumors of Nayan's bold challenge, he loses no time in cutting off the roads to Nayan's provinces so that none from the Mongolian side may ascertain what his own battle preparations are.

Immediately after this, the Khan calls up every troop within ten days march of the great city of Kambalu, some three hundred and sixty thousand horses and one hundred thousand infantry. His primary object is a lightning response to Nayan's act of treason. Marco tells us that it is the Khan's habit to keep standing armies ready, in large cities in every province because of frequent rebellions from many 'disloyal and seditious persons.'

In the end, the Khan is able to repel and to overwhelm Nayan's forces by a showing of overwhelming military power. He has Nayan executed quietly and privately as an act of respect for one who belongs to the imperial family.

So, you can see that the political structure in China (as documented by Marco Polo) reflected the power of the monarchy as invested in one sovereign, the Khan. As an all-powerful ruler, Kublai Khan fought ruthlessly to retain his own influence until his death in 1294.

Read the study guide:
The Travels of Marco Polo

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