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Marco Polo reporting from Kinsay – A new jade hotspot in Hangzhou

My frequent travels to Hangzhou and the fact that I studied near Venice/Italy, brings me this time to report on the local Jade scene via a small detour through the history of Marco Polo’s travel to China and his description of ancient Kinsay or Cansays or Lin’an or Hangzhou.

Marco Polo reported on Jade in Khotan and was particular fond of the beautiful city of Lin’an, the modern Hangzhou, and the last capital of the Southern Song Dynasty before it finally fell to the Yuan Dynasty and Kublai Khan.


Marco Polo’s statue in the park near the West Lake in Hangzhou

1) The story of Marco Polo’s travels to China

From: http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml

When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason, falling asleep or anything else, he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travellers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travellers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have been a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray....Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travellers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."

---- Marco Polo’, Travels

Marco Polo (1254-1324), is probably the most famous Westerner travelled on the Silk Road. He excelled all the other travellers in his determination, his writing, and his influence. His journey through Asia lasted 24 years. He reached further than any of his predecessors, beyond Mongolia to China. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294). He travelled the whole of China and returned to tell the tale, which became the greatest travelogue.


The route of Marco Polo’s father and uncle in 1260 and then of himself in 1271 to and from China

i) The Polo Brothers

In 1260 two Venetian merchants arrived at Sudak, the Crimean port. The brothers Maffeo and Niccolo Polo went on to Surai, on the Volga River, where they traded for a year. Shortly after a civil war broke out between Barka and his cousin Hulagu, which made it impossible for the Polo’s to return with the same route as they came. They therefore decide to make a wide detour to the east to avoid the war and found themselves stranded for 3 years at Bukhara.

The marooned Polo brothers were abruptly rescued in Bukhara by the arrival of a VIP emissary from Hulagu Khan in the West. The Mongol ambassador persuaded the brothers that Great Khan would be delighted to meet them for he had never seen any Latin and very much wanted to meet one. So they journeyed eastward. They left Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, then came the murderous obstacle of the Gobi desert. Through the northern route they reached Turfan and Hami, and then headed south-east to Dunhuang. Along the Hexi Corridor, they finally reached the new capital of the Great Khan, Bejing in 1266.

The Great Khan, Mangu's brother, Kublai, was indeed hospitable. He had set up his court at Beijing, which was not a Mongol encampment but an impressive city built by Kublai as his new capital after the Mongols took over China in 1264 and established Yuan dynasty (1264-1368). Kublai asked them all about their part of the world, the Pope and the Roman church. Niccolo and Matteo, who spoke Turkic dialects perfectly, answered truthfully and clearly. The Polo brothers were well received in the Great Khan's capital. One year later, the Great Khan sent them on their way with a letter in Turki addressed to Pope Clement IV asking the Pope to send him 100 learned men to teach his people about Christianity and Western science. He also asked Pope to procure oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

To make sure the brothers would be given every assistance on their travels, Kublai Khan presented them with a golden tablet (or paiza in Chinese, gerege in Mongolian) a foot long and three inches wide and inscribed with the words: "By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan's name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed." The golden tablet was the special VIP passport, authorizing the travellers to receive throughout the Great Khan's dominions such horses, lodging, food and guides as they required. It took the Polo’s three full years to return home, in April 1269.

Although the Polo brothers blazed a trail of their own on their first journey to the East, they were not the first Europeans to visit the Mongols on their home ground. Before them Giovanni di Piano Carpini in 1245 and Guillaume de Rubrouck in 1253 had made the dangerously journey to Karakorum and returned safely; however the Polo’s travelled farther than Carpini and Rubrouck and reached China.

ii) Marco Polo's Birth and Growing Up

According to one authority, the Polo family were great nobles originating on the coast of Dalmatia. Niccolo and Maffeo had established a trading outpost on the island of Curzola, off the coast of Dalmatia; it is not certain whether Marco Polo was born there or in Venice in 1254. The place Marco Polo grew up, Venice, was the centre for commerce in the Mediterranean. Marco had the usual education of a young gentleman of his time. He had learned much of the classical authors, understood the texts of the Bible, and knew the basic theology of the Latin Church. He had a sound knowledge of commercial French as well as Italian. From his later history we can be sure of his interest in natural resources, in the ways of people, as well as strange and interesting plants and animals.



View of  Korcula/Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea halfway between Split and Dubrovnik, and Venice/Italy, both town contenders for the birthplace of Marco Polo,

Marco Polo was only 6 years old when his father and uncle set out eastward on their first trip to Cathay (China). He was by then 15 years old when his father and his uncle returned to Venice and his mother had already passed away. He remained in Venice with his father and uncle for two more years and then three of them embarked the most courageous journey to Cathay the second time.

iii) The Long and Difficult Journey to Cathay

At the end of year 1271, receiving letters and valuable gifts for the Great Khan from the new Pope Tedaldo (Gregory X), the Polo’s once more set out from Venice on their journey to the east. They took with them 17-year-old Marco Polo and two friars. The two friars hastily turned back after reaching a war zone, but the Polo’s carried on. They passed through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamir, and all along the Silk Road to China.


Illustration of the Polo’s leaving Venice in one of the early 15th century publications of the “il Millione”

Avoiding travelling the same route the Polo’s did 10 years ago; they made a wide swing to the north, first arriving to the southern Caucasus and the kingdom of Georgia. Then they journeyed along the regions parallel to the western shores of the Caspian Sea, reaching Tabriz and made their way south to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. They intended to take sea route to the Chinese port. From Hormuz, however, finding the ships "wretched affairs....only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut", they decided to go overland to Cathay and continued eastwards. From Hormuz to Kerman, passing Herat, Balkh, they arrived Badakhshan, where Marco Polo convalesced from an illness and stayed there for a year. On the move again, they found themselves on "the highest place in the world, the Pamirs", with its name appeared in the history for the first time.

When the Polo’s arrived the Taklamakan desert (or Tarim Basin), this time they skirted around the desert on the southern route, passing through Yarkand, Khotan, Cherchen, and Lop-Nor. Marco's keen eye picked out the most notable peculiarities of each. At Yarkand, he described that the locals were extremely prone to goitre, which Marco blamed on the local drinking water. In the rivers of Pem province were found "stones called jasper and chalcedony in plenty" - a reference to jade. At Pem, "when a woman's husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than 20 days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, and this she is fully entitled to do by local usage. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way." Cherchen was also a noted jade source.


Illustration showing a Xinjiang shepherd’s camp in the 14th century book “Le Livre des Merveilles”

It is the Gobi desert where Marco Polo left us the feeling of awe for the vastness of desert and its effects on those hardy enough to penetrate it: "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat." Despite the dangers encountered during the Gobi crossing, Marco's account suggests that the route was safe and well established during Mongol's reign. After they left Gobi, the first major city they passed was Suchow (Dunhuang), in Tangut province, where Marco stayed for a year. Marco also noted the centre of the asbestos industry in Uighuristan, with its capital Karakhoja; he added that the way to clean asbestos cloth was to throw it into a fire, and that a specimen was brought back from Cathay by the Polo’s and presented to the Pope.

The fact that Marco was not a historian did not stop him offering a long history about the Mongols. He provided a detailed account of the rise of Mongol and Great Khan's life and empire. He described the ceremonial of a Great Khan's funeral - anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world, Mangu Khan's corpse scoring over twenty thousand victims. He told of life on the steppes, of the felt-covered yurt drawn by oxen and camels, and of the household customs. What impressed Marco most was the way in which the women got on with the lion's share of the work: "the men do not bother themselves about anything but hunting and warfare and falconry." In term of marriage, Marco described that the Mongols practiced polygamy. A Mongol man could take as many wives as he liked. On the death of the head of the house the eldest son married his father's wives, but not his own mother. A man could also take on his brother's wives if they were widowed. Marco rounded off his account of Mongol's home life by mentioning that alcoholic standby which had impressed Rubrouck before him: "They drink mare's milk subjected to a process that makes it like white wine and very good to drink. It is called koumiss"

Marco's account of the Mongol's life is particularly interesting when compared to the tale of many wonders of Chinese civilization which he was soon to see for himself. Kublai Khan, though ruling with all the spender of an Emperor of China, never forgot where he had come from: it is said that he had had seeds of steppe grass sown in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace so that he could always be reminded of his Mongol homeland. During his long stay in Cathay and Marco had many conversations with Kublai, Marco must have come to appreciate the Great Khan's awareness of his Mongol origins, and the detail in which the Mongols are described in his book suggests that he was moved to make a close study of their ways.

Finally the long journey was nearly over and the Great Khan had been told of their approach. He sent out a royal escort to bring the travellers to his presence. In May 1275 the Polo’s arrived to the original capital of Kublai Khan at Shang-tu (then the summer residence), subsequently his winter palace at his capital, Cambaluc (Beijing). By then it had been 3 and half years since they left Venice and they had travelled total of 5600 miles on the journey. Marco recalled it in detail on the greatest moment when he first met the Great Khan:

"They knelt before him and made obeisance with the utmost humility. The Great Khan bade them rise and received them honourably and entertained them with good cheer. He asked many questions about their condition and how they fared after their departure. The brothers assured him that they had indeed fared well, since they found him well and flourishing. Then they presented the privileges and letters which the Pope had sent, with which he was greatly pleased, and handed over the holy oil, which he received with joy and prized very highly. When the Great Khan saw Marco, who was then a young stripling, he asked who he was. 'Sir' said Messier Niccolo, 'he is my son and your liege man.' 'He is heartily welcome,' said the Khan. What need to make a long story of it? Great indeed were the mirth and merry-making with which the Great khan and all his Court welcomed the arrival of these emissaries. And they were well served and attended to in all their needs. They stayed at Court and had a place of honour above the other barons."

iv) Years Serviced in Khan's Court

Marco, a gifted linguist and master of four languages, became a favourite with the khan and was appointed to high posts in his administration. He served at the Khan's court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India. Many places which Marco saw were not seen again by Europeans until last century. Marco went on great length to describe Kublai's capital, ceremonies, hunting and public assistance, and they were all to be found on a much smaller scale in Europe. Marco Polo fell in love with the capital, which later became part of Beijing, then called Cambaluc or Khanbalig, meant 'city of the Khan.' This new city, built because astrologers predicted rebellion in the old one, was described as the most magnificent city in the world. He marvelled the summer palace in particular. He described "the greatest palace that ever was". The walls were covered with gold and silver and the Hall was so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people. The palace was made of cane supported by 200 silk cords, which could be taken to pieces and transported easily when the Emperor moved. There too, the Khan kept a stud of 10,000 speck-less white horses, whose milk was reserved for his family and for a tribe which had won a victory for Genghis Khan." fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts....all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment." This description later inspired the English poet Coleridge to write his famous poem about Kublai Khan's "stately pleasure-dome" in Xanadu (or Shang-du).


Illustration showing Kublai Khan’s Palace in Beijing in the 14th century book “Le Livre des Merveilles”



Posthumous portraits of Kublai Khan and of Marco Polo

However there were some phenomena which were totally new to him. The first we have already met, asbestos, but the other three beggared his imagination, and they were paper currency, coal and the imperial post.

The idea of paper substituting gold and silver was a total surprise even to the mercantile Polo’s. Marco attributed the success of paper money to Kublai stature as a ruler. "With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything. And I can tell you that the papers that reckon as ten bezants ( Byzantium ’s currency) do not weight one." Marco's expressions of wonder at "stones that burn like logs" show us how ignorant even a man of a leading Mediterranean sea power could be in the 13th century. Coal was by no means unknown in Europe but was new to Marco.

“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 house....so these stones, being very plentiful and very cheap, effect a great saving of wood."

Marco was equally 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 jostlers 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.

Marco Polo travelled 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.

Kublai Khan appointed Marco Polo as an official of the Privy Council in 1277 and for 3 years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou, a city on the Grand Canal, northeast of Nanjing. He also visited Karakorum and part of Siberia. Meanwhile his father and uncle took part in the assault on the town of Siang Yang Fou, for which they designed and constructed siege engines. He frequently visited Hangzhou, another city very near Yangzhou. At one time Hangzhou or LinAn was the capital of the Song dynasty and had a beautiful lake and many canals, like Marco's hometown, Venice. Marco fell in love with it.

v) Coming Home

The Polo’s stayed in Khan's court for 17 years, acquiring great wealth in jewels and gold. They were anxious to be on the move since they feared that if Kublai - now in his late seventies - were to die, they might not be able to get their considerable fortune out of the country. The Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed to let them return after they escorted a Mongol princess Kokachin to marry to a Persian prince, Arghun.

Marco did not provide full account of his long journey home. The sea journey took 2 years during which 600 passengers and crewed died. Marco did not give much clue as to what went wrong on the trip, but there are some theories. Some think they may have died from scurvy, cholera or by drowning; others suggest the losses were caused by the hostile natives and pirate attacks. This dreadful sea voyage passed through the South China Sea to Sumatra and the Indian Ocean, and finally docked at Hormuz. There they learned that Arghun had died two years previously so the princess married to his son, prince Ghazan, instead. In Persia they also learned of the death of Kublai Khan. However his protection outlived him, for it was only by showing his golden tablet of authority that they were able to travel safely through the bandit-ridden interior. Marco admitted that the passports of golden tablets were powerful:

"Throughout his dominions the Polo’s were supplied with horses and provisions and everything needful......I assure you for a fact that on many occasions they were given two hundred horsemen, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the number needed to escort them and ensure their safe passage from one district to another."

From Trebizond on the Black Sea coast they went by sea, by way of Byzantium ’s or Constantinople, to Venice, arriving home in the winter of 1295.

vi) The Book, Life in Venice and Controversies

Three years after Marco returned to Venice, he commanded a galley in a war against the rival city of Genoa. He was captured during the fighting and spent a year in a Genoese prison where one of his fellow-prisoners was a writer of romances named Rustichello of Pisa. It was only when prompted by Rustichello that Marco Polo dictated the story of his travels, known in his time as The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. His account of the wealth of Cathay (China), the might of the Mongol empire, and the exotic customs of India and Africa made his book the bestseller soon after. The book became one of the most popular books in medieval Europe and the impact of his book on the contemporary Europe was tremendous. It was known as Il Millione, The Million Lies and Marco earned the nickname of Marco Millione because few believed that his stories were true and most Europeans dismissed the book as mere fable.

In the summer of 1299 a peace was concluded between Venice and Genoa, and after a year of captivity, Marco Polo was released from the prison and returned to Venice. He was married to Donata Badoer and had three daughters. He remained in Venice until his death in 1324, aged 70. At his deathbed, he left the famous epitaph for the world: "I have only told the half of what I saw!" On Marco's will, he left his wife and three daughters substantial amount of money, though not an enormous fortune as Marco boasted. He also mentioned his servant, Peter, who came from the Mongols, was to set free. We also learned that 30 years after his return home, Marco still owned a quantity of cloths, valuable pieces, coverings, brocades of silk and gold, exactly like those mentioned several times in his book, together with other precious objects. Among them there was "golden tablet of command" that had been given him by the Great Khan on his departure from the Mongol capital.

Many people took his accounts with a grain of salt and some sceptics question the authenticity of his account. Many of his stories have been considered as fairytales: the strange oil in Baku and the monstrous birds which dropped elephants from a height and devoured their broken carcasses. His Travels made no mention about the Great Wall. While travelled extensively in China, Marco Polo never learned the Chinese language nor mentioned a number of articles which are part of everyday life, such as women's foot-binding, calligraphy, or tea. In additional, Marco Polo's name was never occurred in the Annals of the Empire (Yuan Shih), which recorded the names of foreign visitors far less important and illustrious than the three Venetians. So did Marco Polo ever go to China?

vii) Contribution

Fiction or not, his Travels has captured readers through the centuries. Manuscript editions of his work ran into the hundreds within a century after his death. The book was recognized as the most important account of the world outside Europe that was available at the time. Today there are more than 80 manuscript copies in various versions and several languages around the world.

We see that Marco Polo was in every way a man of his time. He was quite capable of comprehending cultures completely alien in spirit to his own. Traversing thousands of miles, on horseback mostly, through uncharted deserts, over steep mountain passes, exposed to extreme weathers, to wild animals and very uncivilized tribesmen, Marco's book has become the most influential travelogue on the Silk Road ever written in a European language, and it paved the way for t he arrivals of thousands of Westerners in the centuries to come.

Today there are a school of experts conducting research and authentication of Marco Polo and his Travels. Much of what he wrote, which regarded with suspicion at medieval time was, confirmed by travellers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Marco Polo is receiving deeper respect than before because these marvellous characters and countries he described did actually exist. What's more interesting is that his book becomes great value to Chinese historians, as it helps them understand better some of the most important events of the 13th century, such as the siege of Hsiangyang, the massacre of Ch'angchou, and the attempted conquests of Japan. The extant Chinese sources on these events are not as comprehensive as Marco's book.

Although Marco Polo received little recognition from the geographers of his time, some of the information in his book was incorporated in some important maps of the later Middle Ages, such as the Catalan World Map of 1375, and in the next century it was read with great interest by Henry the Navigator and by Columbus. His system of measuring distances by days' journey has turned out for later generations of explorers to be remarkably accurate. According to Henry Yule, the great geographer: "He was the first traveller to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom.....". Today topographers have called his work the precursor of scientific geography.

However Marco Polo's best achievement is best said with his own words in his own book:

" I believe it was God's will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world, since, as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messier Marco, son of Messier Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice."

2) Marco Polo’s description of Kinsay

From The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, trans. and ed. by Henry Yule, 3rd ed. revised by Henri Cordier (London: John Murray, 1903), Vol II. Pp. 185-193, 200-205, 215-216. This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book . The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. (c)Paul Halsall 1996 halsall@murray.fordham.edu

Description of the Great City of Kinsay (Hangzhou), which is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi (Eastern China south of the Yellow River)


Map showing the extent of the territory controlled by the Southern Song Dynasty before the conquest by the Mongols and the arrival of 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, a name which is as much as to say in our tongue "The City of Heaven," as I told you before.

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. In this we shall speak according to the written statement which the Queen of this Realm sent to Bayan the conqueror of the country for transmission to the Great Kaan, in order that he might be aware of the surpassing grandeur of the city and might be moved to save it from destruction or injury. I will tell you all the truth as it was set down in that document. For truth it was, as the said Messer Marco Polo at a later date was able to witness with his own eyes. And now we shall rehearse those particulars.

First and foremost, then, the document stated the city of Kinsay to be so great that it had an hundred miles of compass. [note: probably a hundred Chinese li , about 4/10ths of a mile ] 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. And though the bridges are so high the approaches are so well contrived that carts and horses do cross them.


Satellite view of Hangzhou in the 21st century


Map of unknown date showing the walled city of Lin’an, the city gates, the Wu Hill within the town, the Xi Hu Lake to the west and the Qiantang River to the south

The document aforesaid also went on to state that there were in this city twelve guilds of the different crafts, and that each guild had 12,000 houses in the occupation of its workmen. Each of these houses contains at least 12 men, whilst some contain 20 and some 40, - not that these are all masters, but inclusive of the journeymen who work under the masters. And yet all these craftsmen had full occupation, for many other cities of the kingdom are supplied from this city with what they require.

The document aforesaid also stated that the number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, were so enormous that no man could form a just estimate thereof. And I should have told you with regard to those masters of the different crafts who are at the head of such houses as I have mentioned, that neither they nor their wives ever touch a piece of work with their own hands, but live as nicely and delicately as if they were kings and queens. The wives indeed are most dainty and angelical creatures! Moreover it was an ordinance laid down by the King that every man should follow his father's business and no other, no matter if he possessed 100,000 bezants [ note: a Byzantine coin, often used as a standard coinage ].

Inside the city there is a Lake which has a compass of some 30 miles [ note: probably 30 li] and all round it are erected 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 on its shores many abbeys and churches of the Idolaters. In the middle of the Lake are two Islands, on each of which stands a rich, beautiful and spacious edifice, furnished in such style as to seem fit for the palace of an Emperor. And when any one of the citizens desired to hold a marriage feast, or to give any other entertainment, it used to be 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 needful. The King made this provision for the gratification of his people, and the place was open to every one who desired to give an entertainment. Sometimes there would be at these palaces an hundred different parties; some holding a banquet, others celebrating a wedding; and yet all would find good accommodation in the different apartments and pavilions, and that in so well ordered a manner that one party was never in the way of another.


The Archers pavilion on West Lake


The West Lake and one of the numerous bridges which certainly recalled Marco his hometown Venice



Bridges of Venice

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.

The people are Idolaters; and since they were conquered by the Great Kaan they use paper-money. 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. And you must know they eat every kind of flesh, even that of dogs and other unclean beasts, which nothing would induce a Christian to eat.

Since the Great Kaan occupied the city he has ordained that each of the 12,000 bridges should be provided with a guard of ten men, in case of any disturbance, or of any being so rash as to plot treason or insurrection against him. Each guard is provided with a hollow instrument of wood and with a metal basin, and with a time-keeper to enable them to know the hour of the day or night. And so when one hour of the night is past the sentry strikes one on the wooden instrument and on the basin, so that the whole quarter of the city is made aware that one hour of the night is gone. At the second hour he gives two strokes, and so on, keeping always wide awake and on the look out. In the morning again, from the sunrise, they begin to count anew, and strike one hour as they did in the night, and so on hour after hour.

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 any one 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 to extinguish it, and to save the goods of the merchants or others, either by removing them to the towers above mentioned, 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 flock to help, of whom there shall come one or two thousand at the least.

Moreover, within the city there is an eminence on which stands a Tower, and at the top of the tower is hung a slab of wood. Whenever fire or any other alarm breaks out in the city a man who stands there with a mallet in his hand beats upon the slab, making a noise that is heard to a great distance. So when the blows upon this slab are heard, everybody is aware that fire has broken out, or that there is some other cause of alarm.

The Kaan watches this city with especial diligence because it forms the head of all Manzi-, and because he has immense revenue from the duties levied on the transactions of trade therein, the amount of which is such that no one would credit it on mere hearsay.

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. But as the Great Kaan's couriers could not gallop their horses over the pavement, the side of the road is left unpaved for their convenience. The pavement of the main street of the city also is laid out in two parallel ways of ten paces in width on either side, leaving a space in the middle laid with fine gravel, under which are vaulted drains which convey the rain water into the canals; and thus the road is kept ever dry.


Ancient map showing the layout of the Southern Song Imperial Palace at the southern edge on Lin’an

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.

And the Ocean Sea comes within 25 miles of the city at a place called Ganfu, where there is a town [ note: since covered by the sea, which is much closer ] 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 [the Qiantang ] 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.

Know also that the Great Kaan had distributed the territory of Manzi into nine parts, which he had constituted into nine kingdoms. To each of these kingdoms a king is appointed who is subordinate to the Great Kaan, and every year renders the accounts of his kingdom to the fiscal office at the capital. This city of Kinsay is the seat of one of these kings, who rules over 140 great and wealthy cities. For in the whole of this vast country of Manzi there are more than 1200 great and wealthy cities, without counting the towns and villages, which are in great numbers. And you may receive it for certain that in each of those 1200 cities the Great Kaan has a garrison, and that the smallest of such garrisons musters 1000 men; whilst there are some of 10,000, 20,000, and 30,000; so that the total number of troops is something scarcely calculable. The troops forming these garrisons are not all Tartars. Many are from the province of Cathay, [ note: Cathay means China north of the Hwang-ho ] and good soldiers too. But you must not suppose they are by any means all of them cavalry; a very large proportion of them are foot-soldiers, according to the special requirements of each city. And all of them belong to the army of the Great Kaan.


Page in the book “Le Livre des Merveilles” relating Marco Polo’s travels and once owned by the French King Jean sans Peur (1371-1419). This book is now kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF 2810). The picture shows the town of Kinsay (Hangzhou). Illustration hand painted by the Egerton (UK) master

I repeat that everything appertaining to this city is on so vast a scale, and the Great Kaan's yearly revenues there from 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 skilful 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 of 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.


Illustration showing the rendition of Kinsay (Lin'an) to the Mongols in 1276 in the 14th century book “Le Livre des Merveilles”

Furthermore there exists in this city the palace of the king who fled, him who was Emperor of Manzi [ the Southern Song Dynasty Emperor Duzong ] , and that is the greatest palace in the world, as I shall tell you more particularly. For you must know its dimension had a compass of ten miles, all enclosed with lofty battlemented walls; and inside the walls are the finest and most delectable gardens upon earth, and filled too with the finest fruits. There are numerous fountains in it also, and lakes full of fish. In the middle is the palace itself, a great and splendid building. It contains 20 great and handsome halls, one of which is more spacious than the rest, and affords room for a vast multitude to dine. It is all painted in gold, with many histories and representations of beasts and birds, of knights and dames, and many marvellous things. It forms a really magnificent spectacle, for over all the walls and all the ceiling you see nothing but paintings in gold. And besides these halls the palace contains 1000 large and handsome chambers, all painted in gold and divers colours.


Southern Song Dynasty painting of a princely house


Winter plum tree flowering on the Solitary Island in the West Lake

Moreover, I must tell you that in this city there are 160 tomans of fires, or in other words 160 tomans of houses. Now I should tell you that the toman is 10,000, so that you can reckon the total as altogether 1,600,000 houses, among which are a great number of rich palaces. There is one church only, belonging to the Nestorian Christians.

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.

And I must tell you that every hosteller who keeps a hostel for travellers is bound to register their names and surnames, as well as the day and month of their arrival and departure. And thus the sovereign had the means of knowing, whenever it pleases him, who come and go throughout his dominions. And certes this is a wise order and a provident.

Further Particulars Concerning the Great City of Kinsay

The position of the city is such that it has on one side a lake of fresh and exquisitely clear water (already spoken of), and on the other a very large river. The waters of the latter fill a number of canals of all sizes which run through the different quarters of the city, carry away all impurities, and then enter the Lake; whence they issue again and flow to the Ocean, thus producing a most excellent atmosphere. By means of these channels, as well as by the streets, you can go all about the city. Both streets and canals are so wide and spacious that carts on the one and boats on the other can readily pass to and fro, conveying necessary supplies to the inhabitants.

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.


Qiantang River and the Pagoda of Six Harmonies south east of Hangzhou

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. 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 duck and geese an infinite quantity; for so many are bred on the Lake that for a Venician 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 care 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 cat fish and flesh at the same meal.


Giant carps, weighting up to 65Kg, in the Jade Spring basin

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 is sold very cheap.

Certain of the streets are occupied by the women of the town, who are in such a number that I dare not say what it is. They are found not only in the vicinity of the market places, where usually a quarter is assigned to them, but all over the city. They exhibit themselves splendidly attired and abundantly perfumed, in finely garnished houses, with trains of waiting-women. These women are extremely accomplished in all the arts of allurement, and readily adapt their conversation to all sorts of persons, insomuch that strangers who have once tasted their attractions seem to get bewitched, and are so taken with their blandishments and their fascinating ways that they never can get these out of their heads. Hence it comes to pass that when they return home they say they have been to Kinsay or the City of Heaven, and their only desire is to get back thither as soon as possible.

Other streets are occupied by the Physicians, and by the Astrologers, who are also teachers of reading and writing; and an infinity of other professions have their places round about those squares. In each of the squares there are two great palaces facing one another, in which are established the officers appointed by the King to decide differences arising between merchants, or other inhabitants of the quarter. It is the daily duty of these officers to see that the guards are at their posts on the neighbouring bridges, and to punish them at their discretion if they are absent.

All along the main street that we have spoken of, as running from end to end of the city, both sides are lined with houses and great palaces and the gardens pertaining to them, whilst in the intervals are the houses of tradesmen engaged in their different crafts. The crowd of people that you meet here at all hours, passing this way and that on their different errands, is so vast that no one would believe it possible that victuals enough could be provided for their consumption, unless they should see how, on every market-day, all those squares are thronged and crammed with purchasers, and with the traders who have brought in stores of provisions by land or water; and everything they bring in is disposed of.

To give you an example of the vast consumption in this city let us take the article of pepper; and that will enable you in some measure to estimate what must be the quantity of victual, such as meat, wine, groceries, which have to be provided for the general consumption. Now Messer Marco heard it stated by one of the Great Kaan's officers of customs that the quantity of pepper introduced daily for consumption into the city of Kinsay amounted to 43 loads, each load being equal to 2-23 lbs.

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 the 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 dissensions of any kind 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 neighbourly attachment among both men and women that you would take the people who live in the same street to be all one family.

And this familiar intimacy is free from all jealousy or suspicion of the conduct of their women. These they treat with the greatest respect, and a man who should presume to make loose proposals to a married woman would be regarded as an infamous rascal. They also treat the foreigners who visit them for the sake of trade with great cordiality, and entertain them in the most winning manner, affording them every help and advice on their business. But on the other hand they hate to see soldiers, and not least those of the Great Kaan's garrisons, regarding them as the cause of their having lost their native kings and lords.


A pleasure boat on the West Lake in Hangzhou

On the Lake of which we have spoken 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 their trim. Anyone who desires to go a-pleasuring with the women, or with a party of his own sex, 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 stand, and pole the boat along whithersoever may he desired, for the Lake is not more than 2 paces in depth. The inside of this roof and the rest of the interior is covered with ornamental painting in gay colours, 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. And truly a trip on this Lake is a much more charming recreation than can be enjoyed on land. For on the one side lies the city in its entire length, so that the spectators in the barges, from the distance at which they stand, take in the whole prospect in its full beauty and grandeur, with its numberless palaces, temples, monasteries, and gardens, full of lofty trees, sloping to the shore. And 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 disposed of the day's business, to pass the afternoon in enjoyment with the ladies of their families, or perhaps with others less reputable, either in these barges or in driving about the city in carriages.


Good time on the West Lake

Treating of the Great Yearly Revenue That the Great Kaan Had from Kinsay

Now I will tell you about the great revenue which the Great Kaan draweth every year from the said city of Kinsay and its territory, forming a ninth part of the whole country of Manzi.

First there is the salt, which brings in great revenue. For it produces every year, in round numbers, fourscore tomans of gold; and the toman is worth 70,000 saggi [A Venetian saggi was 1/6th of an ounce] of gold, so that the total value of the fourscore tomans will be five millions and six hundred thousand saggi of gold, each saggio being worth more than a gold florin or ducat; in sooth, 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 besides this one.]

Having told you of the revenue from salt, I will now tell you of that which accrues to the Great Kaan from the duties on merchandize and other matters.


Illustration showing the agents of Kublai Khan collecting taxes in Kinsay in the 14th century book “Le Livre des Merveilles”

You must know that in this city and its dependencies they make great quantities of sugar, as indeed they do in the other eight divisions of this 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.-However, I will not repeat the duties on every article separately, but tell you how they go in the lump. Well, all spices pays three and a third per cent on the value; and all merchandize likewise pays three and a third per cent. But sea-borne goods from India and other distant countries pay ten per cent. The rice-wine also makes a great return, and coals, 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 every article they make pays duty. And the silk which is produced in such abundance makes an immense return. But why should I make a long story of it? The silk, you must know, pays ten per cent, and many other articles also pay ten per cent.

And you must know that Messer Marco Polo, who relates all this, was several times sent by the Great Kaan to inspect the amount of his customs and revenue from this ninth part of Manzi, and he found it to be, exclusive of the salt revenue which we have mentioned already, 210 tomans of gold, equivalent to 14,700,000 saggi of gold; one of the most enormous revenues that ever was heard of. And if the sovereign has such a revenue from one ninth part of the country, you may judge what he must have from the whole of it! However, to speak the truth, this part is the greatest and most productive; and because of the great revenue that the Great Kaan derives from it, it is his favourite province, and he takes all the more care to watch it well, and to keep the people contented.

Now we will quit this city and speak of others.

3) Modern Hangzhou

The town of Hangzhou is aware of its cultural heritage and tries to preserve it also under the onslaught of China’s impressive economical growth and the ensuing building boom.

For this, in the southern part of the older town and at the foot of Wu Hill, described in a Yuan Dynasty poem as “Heavenly wind has brought me over the hill, with various peaks in a hump-shape high and low”, several cultural activities ranging from a “historical” shopping street to museums are assembled. In one of the new buildings, located where the Yanan road reaches Wushan square, the city government of Hangzhou tries to concentrate antiquity shops by offering one year rent free stay.

These antiquity shops, located on two floors, are best visited from about noon to late afternoon and carry a selection of porcelain, engravings, furniture and of course jades.


East entrance of the Wushan Antiquity Building on Yanan Road

Of these shops, located one the second floor and numbered A089, caught my eye as it showed in its windows an eclectic collection of jades of different styles and forms which I want to share with you.

As the shop was closed during both days of my visit, I could not get an idea about the prices asked but if you have chance to come to Hangzhou the shops of this building and their range of jades are certainly worth a call.


Antiquity shops galore on two floors


Song Dynasty Porcelain


Shop A089 on the second floor, a small paradise for jades of all kinds and shapes


White jades for you to choose


Round table screen in white jade on a wooden stand and showing three sages drinking tea beneath a banana tree.


Square dish in a greenish grey jade


Carved white jade mountain


Beautiful seal in a vivid green nephrite jade. (See also a carving in similar jade in Keverne Jade p.174 fig. 118)


Triple rectangular vase in green jade with cabochon decoration and white jade panels with inscribed poems


Lobed dish in white cloudy jade


Small basin in green nephrite jade


Carved white river jade boulder with russet skin


A fair selection of Khotan river jade


A “very old” Liangzhu Jade bracelet still with its original soil


Assorted Liangzhu jades. Note the “old jade” piece above the large ring


Fragment of a large Eastern Zhou or Han Dynasty Bi


Eastern Zhou Bi with grain pattern


Pebbles and thumb rings in jade waiting for you!


Nice pebbles and nice stands


A Buddha carved into a boulder of jadeite


More jadeite carvings


Show this to the taxi driver and he will bring you to jade heaven.


Section of a modern Hangzhou map, showing the area around Wu Shan square. The location of the antiquity shop building is marked with a star.

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