Marco Polo Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Kublai Khan was one of the most powerful men on Earth when Marco Polo traveled to China in the 1270s. Reproduced by permission of the Library of Congress. Kublai Khan was one of the most powerful men on Earth when Marco Polo traveled to China in the 1270s. Published by Gale Cengage Library of Congress
Marco Polo kneels before Kublai Khan. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation. Marco Polo kneels before Kublai Khan. Published by Gale Cengage Corbis Corporation

Excerpt from The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East

Published in 1903

"I repeat that everything appertaining to this city is on so vast a scale, and the Great Kaan's yearly revenues therefrom are so immense, that it is not easy even to put it in writing, and it seems past belief to one who merely hears it told."

The Mongols were a nomadic, or wandering, people who lived in Central Asia between China and what is now Russia—the area of modern-day Mongolia. For a brief period during the 1200s, this small nation of warriors controlled much of the known world, thanks to a series of conquests begun by Genghis Khan (JING-us KAHN; c. 1162–1227). Under his leadership and that of those who followed, the Mongols took control of an area that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, a distance of about 4,500 miles.

After Genghis, the greatest Mongol khan, or ruler, was Kublai Khan (KOO-bluh; 1215–1294; ruled 1260–1294), who led the Mongols in the conquest of China. For centuries, the Chinese had regarded the Mongols and other nomadic tribes with distrust, and they regarded Kublai's victory over them in 1279 as a disaster. Yet the short-lived Mongol empire also had the effect of opening up trade routes, and as a result there was more contact between East and West than ever before.

This situation made possible one of the most celebrated journeys in history, by Marco Polo (1254–1324) and his father and uncle. Marco won such great favor with Kublai Khan

that the ruler made him a trusted official in his government, and as a result he had an opportunity to travel to lands that no European had ever seen. Marco marveled at the wonders of the Mongols' government, and at the highly advanced civilization of the Chinese they had conquered. Later, when he returned to his hometown of Venice, Italy, he recorded these and other observations in a work the English title of which became The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. (Ser is an abbreviation of the Italian term for "mister.")

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian

  • The passage that follows contains Marco Polo's description of a city in eastern China that he called Kinsay (kin-SY), but which is known today as Hangzhou (hahng-ZHOH). That city had been the capital of China prior to the Mongol conquest. He also used the term Manzi (mahn-ZEE) to describe southern China, and Cathay (kah-THY) for China as a whole. As for the port he described at Ganfu (gahn-FOO), that city has since been covered by ocean. Marco's use of the term "Ocean Sea" reflects a pre-modern European belief that all the world's land was surrounded by a single body of water.
  • When Marco referred to "miles," he was probably using a Chinese unit called a li (LEE), equal to about two-fifths of a mile. He also used an alternative spelling of khan, kaan. Other spellings in this document, such as armour or honour, however, are not necessarily Marco's but those of the translator, who was British. This also explains the use of the British term burgess for "citizen."
  • Europeans during the Middle Ages did not bathe on a regular basis, thinking it was unhealthy to do so; but Marco could not help being impressed—understandably so—by the cleanliness of the Chinese. In the latter part of this passage, he reveals the ill-will of the Chinese toward their Mongol conquerors, who they regarded both as outsiders and as barbarians, or uncivilized people; yet to judge from this account at least, they did not seem to treat Marco with similar scorn.
  • One fact that makes Marco's history of his journeys so entertaining is that he was more open-minded than most Europeans of his time; one would have to be to travel so far from home. Yet it was sometimes hard to keep his prejudices from showing through, as for instance when he referred to the Chinese as idol-worshipers. In fact the people of China subscribed to a number of religions, few of which could be considered any more idolatrous than the worship of saints practiced by European Christians at the time.

Excerpt from The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East

You must know also that 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.

And the Ocean Sea comes within 25 miles of the city at a place called Ganfu, where there is a town and an excellent haven, with a vast amount of shipping which is engaged in the traffic to and from India and other foreign parts, exporting and importing many kinds of wares, by which the city benefits. And a great river flows from the city of Kinsay to that sea-haven, by which vessels can come up to the city itself. This river extends also to other places further inland….

I repeat that everything appertaining

Marco Polo. Reproduced by permission of the Library of Congress. Marco Polo. Published by Gale Cengage Library of Congress
to this city is on so vast a scale, and the Great Kaan's yearly revenues therefrom are so immense, that it is not easy even to put it in writing, and it seems past belief to one who merely hears it told. But I will write it down for you.

First, however, I must mention another thing. 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 every one among them knows the day of his birth. And when any one intends a journey he goes to the astrologers and gives the particulars of his nativity in order to learn whether he shall have good luck or no. 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.

They burn the bodies of the dead. And when any one dies the friends and relations make a great mourning for the deceased, and clothe themselves in hempen garments, and follow the corpse playing on a variety of instruments and singing hymns to their idols. And when they come to the burning place, they take representations of things cut out of parchment, such as caparisoned horses, male and female slaves, camels, armour, suits of cloth or gold (and money), in great quantities, and these things they put on the fire along with the corpse, so that they are all burnt with it. And they tell you that the dead man shall have all these slaves and animals of which the effigies are burnt, alive in flesh and blood, and the money in gold, at his disposal in the next world; and that the instruments which they have caused to be played at his funeral, and the idol hymns that have been chanted, shall also be produced again to welcome him in the next world; and that the idols themselves will come to do him honour….

There is another thing I must tell you. It is the custom for every burgess of this city, and in fact for every description of 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 the inmates of his house, and also the number of animals that he keeps. And if any one 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 sovereign is able to know exactly the population of the city. And this is the practice also throughout all Manzi and Cathay.

For More Information

Books

MacDonald, Fiona. Marco Polo: A Journey through China. Illustrated by Mark Bergin, created and designed by David Salariya. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.

Polo, Marco. The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Translated and edited by Henry Yule, third edition revised by Henri Cordier. London: John Murray, 1903.

Roth, Susan L. Marco Polo: His Notebook. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Web Sites

"Marco Polo and His Travels." Silkroad Foundation. [Online] Available http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml (last accessed July 28, 2000).

Marco Polo: His Travels and Their Effects on the World. [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Maze/5099/sld001.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).

"Medieval Sourcebook: Marco Polo: The Glories of Kinsay [Hangchow] (c. 1300)." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/polo-kinsay.html (last accessed July 28,2000).