Marco Polo: The Glories Of Kinsay [Hangchow] (c. 1300)
Marco Polo returned to Venice, his hometown, in 1295 after
an absence of twenty-five years in the East. He claimed to have
spent seventeen years in the service of Kublai Khan, ruler of
the Mongols and of the largest empire in the world. He had many
stories to tell. These stories were eventually written down by
Rustichiello of Pisa, who heard them while sharing a Genoese prison
with Polo, sometimes after 1298. Here is the account in the book
of Hangchow, called "Kinsay". Although Kublai Khan's
capital was in the north, at the city later called Beijing, Hanchow
had served as the capital of the Southern Song dynasty until 1279
and was a major cultural and political center.
The is some dispute as to the reliability of the Travels
of Marco Polo. Several authorities, including Frances Wood
of the British Museum, point out that Polo uses Persian words
to describe Chinese sights, omits descriptions of phenomena which
would have been hard to miss [for instance footbinding or even
the Great Wall], and gives an account of his own career under
Kublai Khan which go beyond belief. Wood suggests that many of
the stories may have been picked up from Persian merchants in
This does not mean that all the information is useless, but
much could be replicated from Chinese sources - with China we
are dealing with a country whose rulers almost obsessively recorded
everything and where the unbroken historiographical tradition
is the longest on record. The real importance of the text is what
it says about Europe. Here we see the beginnings of an effort
to collect information on other parts of the world - however inaccurate
to begin with - and a clear interest in the wealth that might
be found and made there. This tradition of collecting information
was to continue. When European society began to overtake other
world cultures in technological, industrial and military strength,
it was also equipped with a much greater amount of knowledge about
the world. Imperialism and orientalism may have been born together.
Description of the Great City of Kinsay, which is the Capital
of the Whole Country of Manzi
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.
1. Kinsay is the modern Hangchow
2. Manzi comprised the greater part of China, being all
the territory south of the Hwang-Ho (the Yellow River} in the
East and the province of Shensi in the West.]
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 hath 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 be so high the approaches
are so well contrived that carts and horses do cross them.
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 fatber'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 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
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 an 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.
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
ioo 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 Ts'ien T'ang] flows from the city of Kinsay to that
sea-haven, by which vessels can come up to the city itself. I
This river extends also to other places further inland.
Know also that the Great Kaan hath distributed the territory of
Manzi into nine parts, which he hath 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
I repeat that everything appertaining to this city is on so vast
a scale, and the Great Kaan's yearly revenues therefrom 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 journev is put off till
such day as the astrologer may recommend. These astrologers are
very skillful at their business, and of-ten 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 (an
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 hvmns that have been chaunted, shall
also be produced again to welcome him in the next world; and that
the idols themselves will come to do him honour.
Furthermore there exists in this city the palace of the king who
fled, him who was Emperor of Manzi [the Emperor Tu-Tsong],
and that is the greatest palace in the world, as I shall tell
you more particularly. For you must know its demesne hath 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.
Moreover, I must tell you that in this citv 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 vou that every hosteler who keeps an 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 hath 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 readilv 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
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 Venice 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 bv 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
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.
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
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 bate 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.
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. Any one 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.
Treating of the Great Yearly Revenue That the Great Kaan Hath
Now I will tell you about the great revenue which the Great Kaan
draweth every year from the said city of Kinsav and its territory,
forming a ninth part of the whole countrv of Manzi.
First there is the salt, which brings in a 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.
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 spicery 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
Now we will quit this city and speak of others.
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
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(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996