The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 2/Chapter 30

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Concerning the Black Stones that are Dug in Cathay, and Are Burnt for Fuel[edit]

It is a fact that all over the country of Cathay there is a kind of black stones existing in beds in the mountains, which they dig out and burn like firewood. If you supply the fire with them at night, and see that they are well kindled, you will find them still alight in the morning; and they make such capital fuel that no other is used throughout the country. It is true that they have plenty of wood also, but they do not burn it, because those stones burn better and cost less.[1]

[Moreover with that vast number of people, and the number of hot baths that they maintain--for every one has such a bath at least three times a week, and in winter if possible every day, whilst every nobleman and man of wealth has a private bath for his own use--the wood would not suffice for the purpose.]




  1. 1.0 1.1 There is a great consumption of coal in Northern China, especially in the brick stoves, which are universal, even in poor houses. Coal seems to exist in every one of the eighteen provinces of China, which in this respect is justly pronounced to be one of the most favoured countries in the world. Near the capital coal is mined at Yuen-ming-yuen, and in a variety of isolated deposits among the hills in the direction of the Kalgan road, and in the district round Siuen-hwa-fu. (Sindachu of Polo, ante ch. lix.) But the most important coal-fields in relation to the future are those of Shan-tung Hu-nan, Ho-nan, and Shan-si. The last is eminently the coal and iron province of China, and its coal-field, as described by Baron Richthofen, combines, in an extraordinary manner, all the advantages that can enhance the value of such a field except (at present) that of facile export; whilst the quantity available is so great that from Southern Shan-si alone he estimates the whole world could be supplied, at the present rate of consumption, for several thousand years. "Adits, miles in length, could be driven within the body of the coal.... These extraordinary conditions ... will eventually give rise to some curious features in mining... if a railroad should ever be built from the plain to this region ... branches of it will be constructed within the body of one or other of these beds of anthracite." Baron Richthofen, in the paper which we quote from, indicates the revolution in the deposit of the world's wealth and power, to which such facts, combined with other characteristics of China, point as probable; a revolution so vast that its contemplation seems like that of a planetary catastrophe. In the coal-fields of Hu-nan "the mines are chiefly opened where the rivers intersect the inclined strata of the coal-measures and allow the coal-beds to be attacked by the miner immediately at their out-croppings." At the highest point of the Great Kiang, reached by Sarel and Blakiston, they found mines on the cliffs over the river, from which the coal was sent down by long bamboo cables, the loaded baskets drawing up the empty ones. [Many coal-fields have been explored since; one of the most important is the coal-field of the Yun-nan province; the finest deposits are perhaps those found in the bend of the Kiang; coal is found also at Mong-Tzu, Lin-ngan, etc.; this rich coal region has been explored in 1898 by the French engineer A. Leclere. (See Congres int. Geog., Paris, 1900, pp. 178-184.)--H. C.] In various parts of China, as in Che-kiang, Sze-ch'wan, and at Peking, they form powdered coal, mixed with mud, into bricks, somewhat like our "patent fuel." This practice is noticed by Ibn Batuta, as well as the use of coal in making porcelain, though this he seems to have misunderstood. Rashiduddin also mentions the use of coal in China. It was in use, according to citations of Pauthier's, before the Christian era. It is a popular belief in China, that every provincial capital is bound to be established over a coal-field, so as to have a provision in case of siege. It is said that during the British siege of Canton mines were opened to the north of the city. (The Distribution of Coal in China, by Baron Richthofen, in Ocean Highways, N.S., I. 311; Macgowan in Ch. Repos. xix. 385-387; Blakiston, 133, 265; Mid. Kingdom, I. 73, 78; Amyot, xi. 334; Cathay, 261, 478, 482; Notes by Rev. A. Williamson in J. N. Ch. Br. R. A. S., December, 1867; Hedde and Rondot, p. 63.) Aeneas Sylvius relates as a miracle that took place before his eyes in Scotland, that poor and almost naked beggars, when stones were given them as alms at the church doors, went away quite delighted; for stones of that kind were imbued either with brimstone or with some oily matter, so that they could be burnt instead of wood, of which the country was destitute. (Quoted by Jos. Robertson, Statuta Eccles. Scotic. I. xciii.)