The Travels of Marco Polo/Preface/Chapter 15

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How the Emperor Sent Mark on an Embassy of His[edit]

Now it came to pass that Marco, the son of Messer Nicolo, sped wondrously in learning the customs of the Tartars, as well as their language, their manner of writing, and their practice of war; in fact he came in brief space to know several languages, and four sundry written characters. And he was discreet and prudent in every way, insomuch that the Emperor held him in great esteem.[1] And so when he discerned Mark to have so much sense, and to conduct himself so well and beseemingly, he sent him on an ambassage of his, to a country which was a good six months' journey distant.[2] The young gallant executed his commission well and with discretion. Now he had taken note on several occasions that when the Prince's ambassadors returned from different parts of the world, they were able to tell him about nothing except the business on which they had gone, and that the Prince in consequence held them for no better than fools and dolts, and would say: "I had far liever hearken about the strange things, and the manners of the different countries you have seen, than merely be told of the business you went upon;"--for he took great delight in hearing of the affairs of strange countries. Mark therefore, as he went and returned, took great pains to learn about all kinds of different matters in the countries which he visited, in order to be able to tell about them to the Great Kaan.[3]



  1. The word Emperor stands here for Seigneur.

    What the four characters acquired by Marco were is open to discussion.

    The Chronicle of the Mongol Emperors rendered by Gaubil mentions, as characters used in their Empire, the Uighur, the Persian and Arabic, that of the Lamas (Tibetan), that of the Niuche, introduced by the Kin Dynasty, the Khitan, and the Bashpah character, a syllabic alphabet arranged, on the basis of the Tibetan and Sanskrit letters chiefly, by a learned chief Lama so-called, under the orders of Kublai, and established by edict in 1269 as the official character. Coins bearing this character, and dating from 1308 to 1354, are extant. The forms of the Niuche and Khitan were devised in imitation of Chinese writing, but are supposed to be syllabic. Of the Khitan but one inscription was known, and no key. "The Khitan had two national scripts, the 'small characters' (hsiao tzu) and the 'large characters' (ta tzu)." S. W. Bushell, Insc. in the Juchen and Allied Scripts, Cong. des Orientalistes, Paris, 1897.--Die Sprache und Schrift der Juchen von Dr. W. Grube, Leipzig, 1896, from a polyglot MS. dictionary, discovered by Dr. F. Hirth and now kept in the Royal Library, Berlin.--H. Y. and H. C.

    Chinghiz and his first successors used the Uighur, and sometimes the Chinese character. Of the Uighur character we give a specimen in Bk. IV. It is of Syriac origin, undoubtedly introduced into Eastern Turkestan by the early Nestorian missions, probably in the 8th or 9th century. The oldest known example of this character so applied, the Kudatku Bilik, a didactic poem in Uighur (a branch of Oriental Turkish), dating from A.D. 1069, was published by Prof. Vambery in 1870. A new edition of the Kudatku Bilik was published at St. Petersburg, in 1891, by Dr. W. Radloff. Vambery had a pleasing illustration of the origin of the Uighur character, when he received a visit at Pesth from certain Nestorians of Urumia on a begging tour. On being shown the original MS. of the Kudatku Bilik, they read the character easily, whilst much to their astonishment they could not understand a word of what was written. This Uighur is the basis of the modern Mongol and Manchu characters. (Cf. E. Bretschneider, Mediaeval Researches, I. pp. 236, 263.)--H. Y. and H. C. [At the village of Keuyung Kwan, 40 miles north of Peking, in the sub- prefecture of Ch'ang Ping, in the Chih-li province, the road from Peking to Kalgan runs beyond the pass of Nankau, under an archway, a view of which will be found at the end of this volume, on which were engraved, in 1345, two large inscriptions in six different languages: Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongol, Bashpah, Uighur, Chinese, and a language unknown till recently. Mr. Wylie's kindness enabled Sir Henry Yule to present a specimen of this. (A much better facsimile of these inscriptions than Wylie's having since been published by Prince Roland Bonaparte in his valuable Recueil des Documents de l'Epoque Mongole, this latter is, by permission, here reproduced.) The Chinese and Mongol inscriptions have been translated by M. Ed. Chavannes; the Tibetan by M. Sylvain Levi (Jour. Asiat., Sept.-Oct. 1894, pp. 354-373); the Uighur, by Prof. W. Radloff (Ibid. Nov.-Dec. 1894, pp. 546, 550); the Mongol by Prof. G. Huth. (Ibid. Mars-Avril 1895, pp. 351-360.) The sixth language was supposed by A. Wylie (J. R. A. S. vol. xvii. p. 331, and N.S., vol. v. p. 14) to be Neuchih, Niuche, Niuchen or Juchen. M. Deveria has shown that the inscription is written in Si Hia, or the language of Tangut, and gave a facsimile of a stone stele (pei) in this language kept in the great Monastery of the Clouds (Ta Yun Ssu) at Liangchau in Kansuh, together with a translation of the Chinese text, engraved on the reverse side of the slab. M. Deveria thinks that this writing was borrowed by the Kings of Tangut from the one derived in 920 by the Khitans from the Chinese. (Stele Si-Hia de Leang-tcheou ... J. As., 1898; L'ectriture du royaumes de Si-Hia ou Tangout, par M. Deveria ... Ext. des Mem ... presentes a l'Ac. des. Ins. et B. Let. 1'ere Ser. XI., 1898.) Dr. S. W. Bushell in two papers (Inscriptions in the Juchen and Allied Scripts, Actes du XI. Congres Orientalistes, Paris, 1897, 2nd. sect., pp. 11, 35, and the Hsi Hsia Dynasty of Tangut, their Money and their peculiar Script, J. China Br. R. A. S., xxx. N.S. No. 2, pp. 142, 160) has also made a special study of the same subject. The Si Hia writing was adopted by Yuan Ho in 1036, on which occasion he changed the title of his reign to Ta Ch'ing, i.e. "Great Good Fortune." Unfortunately, both the late M. Deveria and Dr. S. W. Bushell have deciphered but few of the Si Hia characters.--H. C.]

    The orders of the Great Kaan are stated to have been published habitually in six languages, viz., Mongol, Uighur, Arabic, Persian, Tangutan (Si-Hia), and Chinese.--H. Y. and H. C.

    Ghazan Khan of Persia is said to have understood Mongol, Arabic, Persian, something of Kashmiri, of Tibetan, of Chinese, and a little of the Frank tongue (probably French).

    The annals of the Ming Dynasty, which succeeded the Mongols in China, mention the establishment in the 11th moon of the 5th year Yong-lo (1407) of the Sse yi kwan, a linguistic office for diplomatic purposes. The languages to be studied were Niuche, Mongol, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Bokharan (Persian?) Uighur, Burmese, and Siamese. To these were added by the Manchu Dynasty two languages called Papeh and Pehyih, both dialects of the S.W. frontier. (See infra, Bk. II. ch. lvi.-lvii., and notes.) Since 1382, however, official interpreters had to translate Mongol texts; they were selected among the Academicians, and their service (which was independent of the Sse yi kwan when this was created) was under the control of the Han-lin-yuen. There may have been similar institutions under the Yuen, but we have no proof of it. At all events, such an office could not then be called Sse yi kwan (Sse yi, Barbarians from four sides); Niuche (Niuchen) was taught in Yong-lo's office, but not Manchu. The Sse yi kwan must not be confounded with the Hui t'ong kwan, the office for the reception of tributary envoys, to which it was annexed in 1748. (Gaubil, p. 148; Gold. Horde, 184; Ilchan. II. 147; Lockhart in J. R. G. S. XXXVI. 152; Koeppen, II. 99; G. Deveria, Hist. du College des Interpretes de Peking in Melanges Charles de Harlez, pp. 94-102; MS. Note of Prof. A. Vissiere; The Tangut Script in the Nan-K'ou Pass, by Dr. S. W. Bushell, China Review, xxiv. II. pp. 65-68.)--H. Y. and H. C.

    Pauthier supposes Mark's four acquisitions to have been Bashpah-Mongol, Arabic, Uighur, and Chinese. I entirely reject the Chinese. Sir H. Yule adds: "We shall see no reason to believe that he knew either language or character" [Chinese]. The blunders Polo made in saying that the name of the city, Suju, signifies in our tongue "Earth" and Kinsay "Heaven" show he did not know the Chinese characters, but we read in Bk. II. ch. lxviii.: "And Messer Marco Polo himself, of whom this Book speaks, did govern this city (Yanju) for three full years, by the order of the Great Kaan." It seems to me [H. C.] hardly possible that Marco could have for three years been governor of so important and so Chinese a city as Yangchau, in the heart of the Empire, without acquiring a knowledge of the spoken language.--H. C. The other three languages seem highly probable. The fourth may have been Tibetan. But it is more likely that he counted separately two varieties of the same character (e.g. of the Arabic and Persian) as two "lettres de leur escriptures"--H. Y. and H. C.

  2. .[Ramusio here adds: "Ad und citta, detta Carazan," which, as we shall see, refers to the Yun-nan Province.]--H. C.
  3. From the context no doubt Marco's employments were honourable and confidential; but Commissioner would perhaps better express them than Ambassador in the modern sense. The word Ilchi, which was probably in his mind, was applied to a large variety of classes employed on the commissions of Government, as we may see from a passage of Rashiduddin in D'Ohsson, which says that "there were always to be found in every city from one to two hundred Ilchis, who forced the citizens to furnish them with free quarters," etc., III. 404. (See also 485.)