The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 2/Chapter 11

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Concerning the City of Cambaluc[edit]

Now there was on that spot in old times a great and noble city called CAMBALUC, which is as much as to say in our tongue "The city of the Emperor."[1] But the Great Kaan was informed by his Astrologers that this city would prove rebellious, and raise great disorders against his imperial authority. So he caused the present city to be built close beside the old one, with only a river between them.[2] And he caused the people of the old city to be removed to the new town that he had founded; and this is called TAIDU. [However, he allowed a portion of the people which he did not suspect to remain in the old city, because the new one could not hold the whole of them, big as it is.]

As regards the size of this (new) city you must know that it has a compass of 24 miles, for each side of it hath a length of 6 miles, and it is four-square. And it is all walled round with walls of earth which have a thickness of full ten paces at bottom, and a height of more than 10 paces;[3] but they are not so thick at top, for they diminish in thickness as they rise, so that at top they are only about 3 paces thick. And they are provided throughout with loop-holed battlements, which are all whitewashed.

There are 12 gates, and over each gate there is a great and handsome palace, so that there are on each side of the square three gates and five palaces; for (I ought to mention) there is at each angle also a great and handsome palace. In those palaces are vast halls in which are kept the arms of the city garrison.[4]

The streets are so straight and wide that you can see right along them from end to end and from one gate to the other. And up and down the city there are beautiful palaces, and many great and fine hostelries, and fine houses in great numbers. [All the plots of ground on which the houses of the city are built are four-square, and laid out with straight lines; all the plots being occupied by great and spacious palaces, with courts and gardens of proportionate size. All these plots were assigned to different heads of families. Each square plot is encompassed by handsome streets for traffic; and thus the whole city is arranged in squares just like a chess-board, and disposed in a manner so perfect and masterly that it is impossible to give a description that should do it justice.][5]

Moreover, in the middle of the city there is a great clock--that is to say, a bell--which is struck at night. And after it has struck three times no one must go out in the city, unless it be for the needs of a woman in labour, or of the sick.[6] And those who go about on such errands are bound to carry lanterns with them. Moreover, the established guard at each gate of the city is 1000 armed men; not that you are to imagine this guard is kept up for fear of any attack, but only as a guard of honour for the Sovereign, who resides there, and to prevent thieves from doing mischief in the town.[7]




  1. 1.0 1.1 + The history of the city on the site of Peking goes back to very old times, for it had been [under the name of Ki] the capital of the kingdom of Yen, previous to B.C. 222, when it was captured by the Prince of the T'sin Dynasty. [Under the T'ang dynasty (618-907) it was known under the name of Yu-chau.] It became one of the capitals of the Khitans in A.D. 936, and of the Kin sovereigns, who took it in 1125, in 1151 under the name of Chung-tu. Under the name of Yenking, [given to this city in 1013] it has a conspicuous place in the wars of Chinghiz against the latter dynasty. He captured it in 1215. In 1264, Kublai adopted it as his chief residence, and founded in 1267, the new city of TATU ("Great Court"), called by the Mongols TAIDU or DAITU since 1271 (see Bk. I. ch. lxi. note 1), at a little distance--Odoric says half a mile--to the north-east of the old Yenking. Tatu was completed in the summer of 1267.

    Old Yenking had, when occupied by the Kin, a circuit of 27 li (commonly estimated at 9 miles, but in early works the li is not more than 1/5 of a mile), afterwards increased to 30 li. But there was some kind of outer wall about the city and its suburbs, the circuit of which is called 75 li. ["At the time of the Yuen the walls still existed, and the ancient city of the Kin was commonly called Nan-ch'eng (Southern city), whilst the Mongol capital was termed the northern city." Bretschneider, Peking, 10.--H. C.] (Lockhart; and see Amyot, II. 553, and note 6 to last chapter.)

    Polo correctly explains the name Cambaluc, i.e. Kaan-baligh, "The City of the Kaan."

  2. 2.0 2.1 The river that ran between the old and new city must have been the little river Yu, which still runs through the modern Tartar city, and fills the city ditches.

    [Dr. Bretschneider (Peking, 49) thinks that there is a strong probability that Polo speaks of the Wen-ming ho, a river which, according to the ancient descriptions, ran near the southern wall of the Mongol capital.--H. C.]

  3. 3.0 3.1 This height is from Pauthier's Text; the G. Text has, "twenty paces," i.e. 100 feet. A recent French paper states the dimensions of the existing walls as 14 metres (45-1/2 feet) high, and 14.50 (47-1/4 feet) thick, "the top forming a paved promenade, unique of its kind, and recalling the legendary walls of Thebes and Babylon." (Ann. d'Hygiene Publique, 2nd s. tom, xxxii. for 1869, p. 21.)

    [According to the French astronomers (Fleuriais and Lapied) sent to Peking for the Transit of Venus in December, 1875, the present Tartar city is 23 kil. 55 in circuit, viz. if 1 li = 575 m., 41 li; from the north to the south 5400 metres; from east to west 6700 metres; the wall is 13 metres in height and 12 metres in width.--H. C.]

  4. 4.0 4.1 Our attempted plan of Cambaluc, as in 1290, differs somewhat from this description, but there is no getting over certain existing facts.

    The existing Tartar city of Peking (technically Nei-ch'ing, "The Interior City," or King-ch'ing, "City of the Court") stands on the site of Taidu, and represents it. After the expulsion of the Mongols (1368) the new native Dynasty of Ming established their capital at Nanking. But this was found so inconvenient that the third sovereign of the Dynasty re- occupied Taidu or Cambaluc, the repairs of which began in 1409. He reduced it in size by cutting off nearly a third part of the city at the north end. The remains of this abandoned portion of wall are, however, still in existence, approaching 30 feet in height all round. This old wall is called by the Chinese The Wall of the Yuen (i.e. the Mongol Dynasty), and it is laid down in the Russian Survey. [The capital of the Ming was 40 li in circuit, according to the Ch'ang an k'o hua.] The existing walls were built, or restored rather (the north wall being in any case, of course, entirely new), in 1437. There seems to be no doubt that the present south front of the Tartar city was the south front of Taidu. The whole outline of Taidu is therefore still extant, and easily measurable. If the scale on the War Office edition of the Russian Survey be correct, the long sides measure close upon 5 miles and 500 yards; the short sides, 3 miles and 1200 yards. Hence the whole perimeter was just about 18 English miles, or less than 16 Italian miles. If, however, a pair of compasses be run round Taidu and Yenking (as we have laid the latter down from such data as could be had) together, the circuit will be something like 24 Italian miles, and this may have to do with Polo's error.

    ["The Yuen shi states that Ta-tu was 60 li in circumference. The Ch'ue keng lu, a work published at the close of the Yuen Dynasty, gives the same number of li for the circuit of the capital, but explains that li of 240 pu each are meant. If this statement be correct, it would give only 40 common or geographical li for the circuit of the Mongol town." (Bretschneider, Peking, 13.) Dr. Bretschneider writes (p. 20): "The outlines of Khanbaligh, partly in contradiction with the ancient Chinese records, if my view be correct, would have measured about 50 common li in circuit (13 li and more from north to south, 11.64 from east to west.")--H. C.]

    Polo [and Odoric] again says that there were 12 gates--3 to every side. Both Gaubil and Martini also say that there were 12 gates. But I believe that both are trusting to Marco. There are 9 gates in the present Tartar city--viz. 3 on the south side and 2 on each of the other sides. The old Chinese accounts say there were 11 gates in Taidu. (See Amyot, Mem. II. 553.) I have in my plan, therefore, assumed that one gate on the east and one on the west were obliterated in the reduction of the enceinte by the Ming. But I must observe that Mr. Lockhart tells me he did not find the traces of gates in those positions, whilst the 2 gates on the north side of the old Mongol rampart are quite distinct, with the barbicans in front, and the old Mongol bridge over the ditch still serving for the public thoroughfare.

    ["The Yuen shi as well as the Ch'ue keng lu, and other works of the Yuen, agree in stating that the capital had eleven gates. They are enumerated in the following order: Southern wall--(1) The gate direct south (mid.) was called Li-cheng men; (2) the gate to the left (east), Wen-ming men; (3) the gate to the right (west), Shun-ch'eng men. Eastern wall--(4) The gate direct east (mid.), Ch'ung-jen men; (5) the gate to the south-east, Ts'i-hua men; (6) the gate to the north-east, Kuang-hi men. Western wall--(7) The gate direct west (mid.), Ho-i men; (8) the gate to the south-west, P'ing-tse men; (9) the gate to the north-west, Su-ts'ing men. Northern Wall--(10) The gate to the north-west, K'ien-te men; (11) the gate to the north-east, An-chen men." (Bretschneider, Peking, 13-14.)--H. C.]

    When the Ming established themselves on the old Mongol site, population seems to have gathered close about the southern wall, probably using material from the remains of Yenking. This excrescence was inclosed by a new wall in 1554, and was called the "Outer Town." It is what is called by Europeans the Chinese City. Its western wall exhibits in the base sculptured stones, which seem to have belonged to the old palace of Yenking. Some traces of Yenking still existed in Gaubil's time; the only relic of it now pointed out is a pagoda outside of the Kwang-An-Man, or western gate of the Outer City, marked in the War Office edition of the Russian Map as "Tower." (Information from Dr. Lockhart.)

    The "Great Palaces" over the gates and at the corner bastions are no doubt well illustrated by the buildings which still occupy those positions. There are two such lofty buildings at each of the gates of the modern city, the outer one (shown on p. 376) forming an elevated redoubt.

  5. 5.0 5.1 The French writer cited under note 3 says of the city as it stands: "La ville est de la sorte coupee en echiquier a peu pres regulier dont les quadres circonscrits par des larges avenues sont perces eux-memes d'une multitude de rues et ruelles ... qui toutes a peu pres sont orientees N. et S., E. et O. Une seule volonte a evidemment preside a ce plan, et jamais edilite n'a eu a executer d'un seul coup aussi vaste entreprise."
  6. 6.0 6.1 Martini speaks of the public clock-towers in the Chinese cities, which in his time were furnished with water-clocks. A watchman struck the hour on a great gong, at the same time exhibiting the hour in large characters. The same person watched for fires, and summoned the public with his gong to aid in extinguishing them.

    [The Rev. G. B. Farthing mentions (North-China Herald, 7th September, 1884) at T'ai-yuen fu the remains of an object in the bell-tower, which was, and is still known, as one of the eight wonders of this city; it is a vessel of brass, a part of a water-clock from which water formerly used to flow down upon a drum beneath and mark off time into equal divisions.--H. C.]

    The tower indicated by Marco appears still to exist. It occupies the place which I have marked as Alarm Tower in the plan of Taidu. It was erected in 1272, but probably rebuilt on the Ming occupation of the city. ["The Yuen yi t'ung chi, or 'Geography of the Mongol Empire' records: 'In the year 1272, the bell-tower and the drum-tower were built in the middle of the capital.' A bell-tower (chung-lou) and a drum-tower (ku-lou) exist still in Peking, in the northern part of the Tartar City. The ku-lou is the same as that built in the thirteenth century, but the bell-tower dates only from the last century. The bell-tower of the Yuen was a little to the east of the drum-tower, where now the temple Wan-ning sse stands. This temple is nearly in the middle of the position I (Bretschneider) assign to Khanbaligh." (Bretschneider, Peking, 20.)--H. C.] In the Court of the Old Observatory at Peking there is preserved, with a few other ancient instruments, which date from the Mongol era, a very elaborate water-clock, provided with four copper basins embedded in brickwork, and rising in steps one above the other. A cut of this courtyard, with its instruments and aged trees, also ascribed to the Mongol time, will be found in ch. xxxiii. (Atlas Sinensis, p. 10; Magaillans, 149-151; Chine Moderne, p. 26; Tour du Monde for 1864, vol. ii. p. 34.)

  7. 7.0 7.1 "Nevertheless," adds the Ramusian, "there does exist I know not what uneasiness about the people of Cathay."