The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 2/Chapter 10

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Concerning the Palace of the Great Kaan[edit]

You must know that for three months of the year, to wit December, January, and February, the Great Kaan resides in the capital city of Cathay, which is called CAMBALUC, [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; that is to say, the whole compass thereof is four miles. This you may depend on; it is also very thick, and a good ten paces in height, whitewashed and loop-holed all round.[1] 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 quivers,[2] saddles and bridles, and bowstrings, and everything needful for an army. Also midway between every two of these Corner Palaces there is another of the like; so that taking the whole compass of the enclosure you find eight vast Palaces stored with the Great Lord's harness of war.[3] And you must understand that each Palace is assigned to only one kind of article; thus one is stored with bows, a second with saddles, a third with bridles, and so on in succession right round.[4]

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 Kaan 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.[5]

Inside of this wall there is a second, enclosing a space that is somewhat greater in length than in breadth. This enclosure also has eight palaces corresponding to those of the outer wall, and stored like them with the Lord's harness of war. This wall also hath five gates on the southern face, corresponding to those in the outer wall, and hath one gate on each of the other faces, as the outer wall hath also. In the middle of the second enclosure is the Lord's Great Palace, and I will tell you what it is like.[6]

You must know that it 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.[7] The Palace itself] hath no upper story, but is all on the ground floor, only the basement is raised some ten palms above the surrounding soil [and this elevation is retained by a wall of marble raised to the level of the pavement, two paces in width and projecting beyond the base of the Palace so as to form a kind of terrace-walk, by which people can pass round the building, and which is exposed to view, whilst on the outer edge of the wall there is a very fine pillared balustrade; and up to this the people are allowed to come]. 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 idols, and sundry 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.] [8]

The Hall of the Palace is so large that it could easily dine 6000 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 also is all coloured with vermilion and yellow and green and blue and other hues, which are fixed with a varnish so fine and exquisite that they shine like crystal, and lend a resplendent lustre to the Palace as seen for a great way round.[9] This roof is made too with such strength and solidity that it is fit to last for ever.

[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 concubines. There he occupies himself at his own convenience, and no one else has access.]

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 also of sundry kinds, such as white stags and fallow deer, gazelles and roebucks, and fine squirrels of various sorts, with numbers also of the animal that gives the musk, and all manner of other beautiful creatures,[10] insomuch that the whole place is full of them, and no spot remains void except where there is traffic of people going and coming. [The parks are covered with abundant grass; and the roads through them being all paved and raised two cubits above the surface, they never become muddy, nor does the rain lodge on them, but flows off into the meadows, quickening the soil and producing that abundance of herbage.]

From that corner of the enclosure which is towards the north-west there extends a fine Lake, containing foison of fish of different kinds which the Emperor hath caused to be put in there, so that whenever he desires any he can have them at his pleasure. A river enters this lake and issues from it, but there is a grating of iron or brass put up so that the fish cannot escape in that way.[11]

Moreover on the north side of the Palace, about a bow-shot off, there is a hill which has been made by art [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 bodily 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 all the world. And he has also caused the whole hill to be covered with the ore of azure,[12] which is very green. And 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 called the GREEN MOUNT; and in good sooth 'tis named well.[13]

On the top of the hill again there is a fine big palace which is all green inside and out; and thus the hill, and the trees, and the palace form together a charming spectacle; and it is marvellous to see their uniformity of colour! Everybody who sees them is delighted. And the Great Kaan had caused this beautiful prospect to be formed for the comfort and solace and delectation of his heart.

You must know that beside the Palace (that we have been describing), i.e. the Great Palace, the Emperor has caused another to be built just like his own in every respect, and this he hath done for his son when he shall reign and be Emperor after him.[14] Hence it is made just in the same fashion and of the same size, so that everything can be carried on in the same manner after his own death. [It stands on the other side of the lake from the Great Kaan's Palace, and there is a bridge crossing the water from one to the other.][15] The Prince in question holds now a Seal of Empire, but not with such complete authority as the Great Kaan, who remains supreme as long as he lives.

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.




  1. 1.0 1.1 [According to the Ch'ue keng lu, translated by Bretschneider, 25, "the wall surrounding the palace ... is constructed of bricks, and is 35 ch'i in height. The construction was begun in A.D. 1271, on the 17th of the 8th month, between three and five o'clock in the afternoon, and finished next year on the 15th of the 3rd month."--H. C.]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Tarcasci (G. T.) This word is worthy of note as the proper form of what has become in modern French carquois. The former is a transcript of the Persian Tarkash; the latter appears to be merely a corruption of it, arising perhaps clerically from the constant confusion of c and t in MSS. (See Defremery, quoted by Pauthier, in loco.) [Old French tarquais (13th century), Hatzfeldt and Darmesteter's Dict. gives; "Coivres orent ceinz et tarchais." (WACE, Rou, III., 7698; 12th century).]
  3. 3.0 3.1 ["It seems to me [Dr. Bretschneider] that Polo took the towers, mentioned by the Chinese author, in the angles of the galleries and of the Kung-ch'eng for palaces; for further on he states, that 'over each gate [of Cambaluc] there is a great and handsome palace.' I have little doubt that over the gates of Cambaluc, stood lofty buildings similar to those over the gates of modern Peking. These tower-like buildings are called lou by the Chinese. It may be very likely, that at the time of Marco Polo, the war harness of the Khan was stored in these towers of the palace wall. The author of the Ch'ue keng lu, who wrote more than fifty years later, assigns to it another place." (Bretschneider, Peking, 32.) --H.C.]
  4. 4.0 4.1 The stores are now outside the walls of the "Prohibited City," corresponding to Polo's Palace-Wall, but within the walls of the "Imperial City." (Middle Kingdom, I. 61.) See the cut at p. 376.
  5. 5.0 5.1 The two gates near the corners apparently do not exist in the Palace now. "On the south side there are three gates to the Palace, both in the inner and the outer walls. The middle one is absolutely reserved for the entrance or exit of the Emperor; all other people pass in and out by the gate to the right or left of it." (Trigautius, Bk. I. ch. vii.) This custom is not in China peculiar to Royalty. In private houses it is usual to have three doors leading from the court to the guestrooms, and there is a great exercise of politeness in reference to these; the guest after much pressing is prevailed on to enter the middle door, whilst the host enters by the side. (See Deguignes, Voyages, I. 262.) [See also H. Cordier's Hist. des Relat. de la Chine, III. ch. x. Audience Imperiale.]

    ["It seems Polo took the three gateways in the middle gate (Ta-ming men) for three gates, and thus speaks of five gates instead of three in the southern wall." (Bretschneider, Peking, 27, note.)--H. C.]

  6. 6.0 6.1 Ramusio's version here diverges from the old MSS. It makes the inner enclosure a mile square; and the second (the city of Taidu) six miles square, as here, but adds, at a mile interval, a third of eight miles square. Now it is remarkable that Mr. A. Wylie, in a letter dated 4th December 1873, speaking of a recent visit to Peking, says: "I found from various inquiries that there are several remains of a very much larger city wall, inclosing the present city; but time would not allow me to follow up the traces."

    Pauthier's text (which I have corrected by the G. T.), after describing the outer inclosure to be a mile every way, says that the inner inclosure lay at an interval of a mile within it!

    [Dr. Bretschneider observes "that in the ancient Chinese works, three concentric inclosures are mentioned in connection with the palace. The innermost inclosed the Ta-nei, the middle inclosure, called Kung-ch'eng or Huang-ch'eng, answering to the wall surrounding the present prohibited city, and was about 6 li in circuit. Besides this there was an outer wall (a rampart apparently) 20 li in circuit, answering to the wall of the present imperial city (which now has 18 li in circuit)." The Huang-ch'eng of the Yuen was measured by imperial order, and found to be 7 li in circuit; the wall of the Mongol palace was 6 li in circuit, according to the Ch'ue keng lu. (Bretschneider, Peking, 24.)--Marco Polo's mile could be approximately estimated = 2.77 Chinese li. (Ibid. 24, note.) The common Chinese li = 360 pu, or 180 chang, or 1800 ch'i (feet); 1 li = 1894 English feet or 575 metres; at least according to the old Venice measures quoted in Yule's Marco Polo, II., one pace = 5 feet. Besides the common li, the Chinese have another li, used for measuring fields, which has only 240 pu or 1200 ch'i. This is the li spoken of in the Ch'ue keng lu. (Ibid. 13, note.)--H. C.]

  7. 7.0 7.1 ["Near the southern face of the wall are barracks for the Life Guards." (Ch'ue keng lu, translated by Bretschneider, 25.)--H. C.]
  8. 8.0 8.1 This description of palace (see opposite cut), an elevated basement of masonry with a superstructure of timber (in general carved and gilded), is still found in Burma, Siam, and Java, as well as in China. If we had any trace of the palaces of the ancient Asokas and Vikramadityas of India, we should probably find that they were of the same character. It seems to be one of those things that belonged to some ancient Panasiatic fashion, as the palaces of Nineveh were of a somewhat similar construction. In the Audience Halls of the Moguls at Delhi and Agra we can trace the ancient form, though the superstructure has there become an arcade of marble instead of a pavilion on timber columns.

    ["The Ta-ming tien (Hall of great brightness) is without doubt what Marco Polo calls 'the Lord's Great Palace.'... He states, that it 'hath no upper story'; and indeed, the palace buildings which the Chinese call tien are always of one story. Polo speaks also of a 'very fine pillared balustrade' (the chu lang, pillared verandah, of the Chinese author). Marco Polo states that the basement of the great palace 'is raised some ten palms above the surrounding soil.' We find in the Ku kung i lu: 'The basement of the Ta-ming tien is raised about 10 ch'i above the soil.' There can also be no doubt that the Ta-ming tien stood at about the same place where now the T'ai-ho tien, the principal hall of the palace, is situated." (Bretschneider, Peking, 28, note.)

    The Ch'ue keng lu, translated by Bretschneider, 25, contains long articles devoted to the description of the palace of the Mongols and the adjacent palace grounds. They are too long to be reproduced here.--H. C.]

  9. 9.0 9.1 "As all that one sees of these palaces is varnished in those colours, when you catch a distant view of them at sunrise, as I have done many a time, you would think them all made of, or at least covered with, pure gold enamelled in azure and green, so that the spectacle is at once majestic and charming." (Magaillans, p. 353.)
  10. 10.0 10.1 [This is the Ling yu or "Divine Park," to the east of the Wan-sui shan, "in which rare birds and beasts are kept. Before the Emperor goes to Shang-tu, the officers are accustomed to be entertained at this place." (Ch'ue keng lu, quoted by Bretschneider, 36.)--H. C.]
  11. 11.0 11.1 "On the west side, where the space is amplest, there is a lake very full of fish. It is in the form of a fiddle, and is an Italian mile and a quarter in length. It is crossed at the narrowest part, which corresponds to gates in the walls, by a handsome bridge, the extremities of which are adorned by two triumphal arches of three openings each.... The lake is surrounded by palaces and pleasure houses, built partly in the water and partly on shore, and charming boats are provided on it for the use of the Emperor when he chooses to go a-fishing or to take an airing." (Ibid. 282-283.) The marble bridge, as it now exists, consists of nine arches, and is 600 feet long. (Rennie's Peking, II. 57.)

    Ramusio specifies another lake in the city, fed by the same stream before it enters the palace, and used by the public for watering cattle.

    ["The lake which Marco Polo saw is the same as the T'ai-yi ch'i of our days. It has, however, changed a little in its form. This lake and also its name T'ai-yi ch'i date from the twelfth century, at which time an Emperor of the Kin first gave orders to collect together the water of some springs in the hills, where now the summer palaces stand, and to conduct it to a place north of his capital, where pleasure gardens were laid out. The river which enters the lake and issues from it exists still, under its ancient name Kin-shui." (Bretschneider, Peking, 34.)--H. C.]

  12. 12.0 12.1 The expression here is in the Geog. Text, "Roze de l'acur," and in Pauthier's "de rose et de l'asur." Rose Minerale, in the terminology of the alchemists, was a red powder produced in the sublimation of gold and mercury, but I can find no elucidation of the term Rose of Azure. The Crusca Italian has in the same place Terra dello Azzurro. Having ventured to refer the question to the high authority of Mr. C. W. King, he expresses the opinion that Roze here stands for Roche, and that probably the term Roche de l'azur may have been used loosely for blue-stone, i.e. carbonate of copper, which would assume a green colour through moisture. He adds: "Nero, according to Pliny, actually used chrysocolla, the siliceous carbonate of copper, in powder, for strewing the circus, to give the course the colour of his favourite faction, the prasine (or green). There may be some analogy between this device and that of Kublai Khan." This parallel is a very happy one.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Friar Odoric gives a description, short, but closely agreeing in substance with that in the Text, of the Palace, the Park, the Lake, and the Green Mount.

    A green mount, answering to the description, and about 160 feet in height, stands immediately in rear of the palace buildings. It is called by the Chinese King-Shan, "Court Mountain," Wan-su-Shan, "Ten Thousand Year Mount," and Mei-Shan, "Coal Mount," the last from the material of which it is traditionally said to be composed (as a provision of fuel in case of siege). Whether this is Kublai's Green Mount does not seem to be quite certain. Dr. Lockhart tells me that, according to the information he collected when living at Peking, it is not so, but was formed by the Ming Emperors from the excavation of the existing lake on the site which the Mongol Palace had occupied. There is another mount, he adds, adjoining the east shore of the lake, which must be of older date even than Kublai, for a Dagoba standing on it is ascribed to the Kin.

    [The "Green Mount" was an island called K'iung-hua at the time of the Kin; in 1271 it received the name of Wan-sui shan; it is about 100 feet in height, and is the only hill mentioned by Chinese writers of the Mongol time who refer to the palace grounds. It is not the present King-shan, north of the palace, called also Wan-sui-shan under the Ming, and now the Mei-shan, of more recent formation. "I have no doubt," says Bretschneider (Peking, l.c. 35), "that Marco Polo's handsome palace on the top of the Green Mount is the same as the Kuang-han tien" of the Ch'ue keng lu. It was a hall in which there was a jar of black jade, big enough to hold more than 30 piculs of wine; this jade had white veins, and in accordance with these veins, fish and animals have been carved on the jar. (Ibid. 35.) "The Ku kung i lu, in describing the Wan-sui-shan, praises the beautiful shady green of the vegetation there." (Ibid. 37.) --H. C.]

    ["Near the eastern end of the bridge (Kin-ao yue-tung which crosses the lake) the visitor sees a circular wall, which is called yuean ch'eng (round wall). It is about 350 paces in circuit. Within it is an imperial building Ch'eng-kuang tien, dating from the Mongol time. From this circular enclosure, another long and beautifully executed marble bridge leads northwards, to a charming hill, covered with shady trees, and capped by a magnificent white suburga." (Bretschneider, p. 22.)--H. C.]

    In a plate attached to next chapter, I have drawn, on a small scale, the existing cities of Peking, as compared with the Mongol and Chinese cities in the time of Kublai. The plan of the latter has been constructed (1) from existing traces, as exhibited in the Russian Survey republished by our War Office; (2) from information kindly afforded by Dr. Lockhart; and (3) from Polo's description and a few slight notices by Gaubil and others. It will be seen, even on the small scale of these plans, that the general arrangement of the palace, the park, the lakes (including that in the city, which appears in Ramusio's version), the bridge, the mount, etc., in the existing Peking, very closely correspond with Polo's indications; and I think the strong probability is that the Ming really built on the old traces, and that the lake, mount, etc., as they now stand, are substantially those of the Great Mongol, though Chinese policy or patriotism may have spread the belief that the foreign traces were obliterated. Indeed, if that belief were true, the Mongol Palace must have been very much out of the axis of the City of Kublai, which is in the highest degree improbable. The Bulletin de la Soc. de Geographie for September 1873, contains a paper on Peking by the physician to the French Embassy there. Whatever may be the worth of the meteorological and hygienic details in that paper, I am bound to say that the historical and topographical part is so inaccurate as to be of no value.

  14. 14.0 14.1 For son, read grandson. But the G. T. actually names the Emperor's son Chingkim, whose death our traveller has himself already mentioned.
  15. 15.0 15.1 ["Marco Polo's bridge, crossing the lake from one side to the other, must be identified with the wooden bridge mentioned in the Ch'ue keng lu. The present marble bridge spanning the lake was only built in 1392." "A marble bridge connects this island (an islet with the hall I- t'ien tien) with the Wan-sui shan. Another bridge, made of wood, 120 ch'i long and 22 broad, leads eastward to the wall of the Imperial Palace. A third bridge, a wooden draw-bridge 470 ch'i long, stretches to the west over the lake to its western border, where the palace Hing-sheng kung [built in 1308] stands." (Bretschneider, Peking, 36.)--H. C.]