The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Author: Marco Polo  | Date: A.D. 1271

Height of the Mongol Power in China

A.D. 1271


The celebrated traveller, Marco Polo, was born at Venice in 1254, and died there in 1334. His father, a Venetian merchant, had passed many years in Tartary, where he was hospitably treated by Kublai Khan, to whose court, at an early age, Marco was taken, and there was received into the Khan’s service. The training be acquired there fitted him to become a professional politician rather than a traveller, in the ordinary sense of the word; hence his more intimate acquaintance with the social and political systems which he describes.

Possessing, in a high degree, the versatility and subtlety seen in so many of his nation, and improving his new opportunities, he soon became among the high-class Tartars as one of themselves. He adopted their dress and manners, and learned the four languages spoken in the Khan’s dominions, of which he left a famous description in his book of travels.

The empire seems at this time to have been at the height of its splendor, and historians, as well as students and readers of history, have been fortunate in possessing the shrewd and candid observations of Marco Polo, whose unique narratives still preserve their simple charm, nowise impaired by comparison with our stricter historical methods.

It is our desire to treat of the great and admirable achievements of the Grand Khan now reigning, who is styled Kublai Khan; the latter word implying, in our language, lord of lords, and with much propriety added to his name; for in respect to number of subjects, extent of territory, and amount of revenue he surpasses every sovereign that has heretofore been or that now is in the world; nor has any other been served with such implicit obedience by those whom he governs.

Kublai Khan is the lineal and legitimate descendant of Genghis Khan, the first emperor, and the rightful sovereign of the Tartars. He obtained the sovereignty by his consummate valor, his virtues, and his prudence, in opposition to the designs of his brothers, supported by many of the great officers and members of his own family. But the succession appertained to him of right. It is forty-two years since he began to reign, and he is fully eighty-five years of age. Previously to his ascending the throne he had served as a volunteer in the army, and endeavored to take a share in every enterprise. Not only was he brave and daring in action, but in point of judgment and military skill he was considered to be the most able and successful commander that ever led the Tartars to battle. From that period, however, he ceased to take the field in person, and intrusted the conduct of expeditions to his sons and his captains; excepting in one instance, the occasion of which was as follows.

A certain chief named Nayan, who, although only thirty years of age, was kinsman to Kublai, had succeeded to the dominion of many cities and provinces, which enabled him to bring into the field an army of four hundred thousand horse. His predecessors, however, had been vassals of the Grand Khan. Actuated by youthful vanity upon finding himself at the head of so great a force, he formed, in the year 1286, the design of throwing off his allegiance, and usurping the sovereignty. With this view he privately despatched messengers to Kaidu, another powerful chief, whose territories lay toward the greater Turkey, and who, although a nephew of the Grand Khan, was in rebellion against him, and bore him determined ill-will, proceeding from the apprehension of punishment for former offences. To Kaidu, therefore, the propositions made by Nayan were highly satisfactory, and he accordingly promised to bring to his assistance an army of a hundred thousand horse. Both princes immediately began to assemble their forces, but it could not be effected so secretly as not to come to the knowledge of Kublai, who, upon hearing of their preparations, lost no time in occupying all the passes leading to the countries of Nayan and of Kaidu, in order to prevent them from having any information respecting the measures he was himself taking.

He then gave orders for collecting, with the utmost celerity, the whole of the troops stationed within ten days’ march of the city of Kambalu. These amounted to three hundred and sixty thousand horse, to which was added a body of a hundred thousand foot, consisting of those who were usually about his person, and principally his falconers and domestic servants. In the course of twenty days they were all in readiness. Had he assembled the armies kept up for the constant protection of the different provinces of Cathay, it must necessarily have required thirty or forty days; in which time the enemy would have gained information of his arrangements, and been enabled to effect their junction, and to occupy such strong positions as would best suit with their designs. His object was, by promptitude, which is ever the companion of victory, to anticipate the preparations of Nayan, and, by falling upon him while single, destroy his power with more certainty and effect than after he should have been joined by Kaidu.

In every province of Cathay and of Manji,1

as well as in other parts of his dominions, there were many disloyal and seditious persons, who at all times were disposed to break out in rebellion against their sovereign, and on this account it became necessary to keep armies in such of the provinces as contained large cities and an extensive population, which are stationed at the distance of four or five miles from those cities, and can enter them at their pleasure. These armies the Grand Khan makes it a practice to change every second year, and the same with respect to the officers who command them. By means of such precautions the people are kept in quiet subjection, and no movement nor innovation of any kind can be attempted. The troops are maintained not only from the pay they receive out of the imperial revenues of the province, but also from the cattle and their milk, which belong to them individually, and which they send into the cities for sale, furnishing themselves from thence, in return, with those articles of which they stand in need. In this manner they are distributed over the country, in various places, to the distance of thirty, forty, and even sixty days’ journey. If even the half of these corps were to be collected in one place, the statement of their number would appear marvellous and scarcely entitled to belief.

Having formed his army in the manner above described, the Grand Khan proceeded toward the territory of Nayan, and by forced marches, continued day and night, he reached it at the expiration of twenty-five days. So prudently, at the same time, was the expedition managed, that neither that Prince himself nor any of his dependents were aware of it, all the roads being guarded in such a manner that no persons who attempted to pass could escape being made prisoners. Upon arriving at a certain range of hills, on the other side of which was the plain where Nayan’s army lay encamped, Kublai halted his troops and allowed them two days of rest. During this interval he called upon his astrologers to ascertain, by virtue of their art, and to declare in presence of the whole army, to which side the victory would incline. They pronounced that it would fall to the lot of Kublai. It has ever been the practice of the grand khans to have recourse to divination for the purpose of inspiriting their men.

Confident, therefore, of success, they ascended the hill with alacrity the next morning, and presented themselves before the army of Nayan, which they found negligently posted, without advanced parties or scouts, while the chief himself was asleep in his tent, accompanied by one of his wives. Upon awaking, he hastened to form his troops in the best manner that circumstances would allow, lamenting that his junction with Kaidu had not been sooner effected. Kublai took his station in a large wooden castle, borne on the backs of four elephants, whose bodies were protected with coverings of thick leather hardened by fire, over which were housings of cloth of gold. The castle contained many cross-bowmen and archers, and on the top of it was hoisted the imperial standard, adorned with representations of the sun and moon. His army, which consisted of thirty battalions of horse, each battalion containing ten thousand men, armed with bows, he disposed in three grand divisions; and those which formed the left and right wings he extended in such a manner as to outflank the army of Nayan. In front of each battalion of horse were placed five hundred infantry, armed with short lances and swords, who, whenever the cavalry made a show of fight, were practised to mount behind the riders and accompany them, alighting again when they returned to the charge, and killing, with their lances, the horses of the enemy. As soon as the order of battle was arranged, an infinite number of wind instruments of various kinds were sounded, and these were succeeded by songs, according to the custom of the Tartars before they engage in fight, which commences upon the signal given by the cymbals and drums, and there was such a beating of the cymbals and drums, and such singing, that it was wonderful to hear. This signal, by the orders of the Grand Khan, was first given to the right and left wings; and then a fierce and bloody conflict began. The air was instantly filled with a cloud of arrows that poured down on every side, and vast numbers of men and horses were seen to fall to the ground.

The loud cries and shouts of the men, together with the noise of the horses and the weapons, were such as to inspire terror in those who heard them. When their arrows had been discharged, the hostile parties engaged in close combat with their lances, swords, and maces shod with iron; and such was the slaughter, and so large were the heaps of the carcasses of men, and more especially of horses, on the field, that it became impossible for the one party to advance upon the other. Thus the fortune of the day remained for a long time undecided, and victory wavered between the contending parties from morning until noon; for so zealous was the devotion of Nayan’s people to the cause of their master, who was most liberal and indulgent toward them, that they were all ready to meet death rather than turn their backs to the enemy. At length, however, Nayan, perceiving that he was nearly surrounded, attempted to save himself by flight, but was presently made prisoner, and conducted to the presence of Kublai, who gave orders for his being put to death. This was carried into execution by enclosing him between two carpets, which were violently shaken until the spirit had departed from the body; the motive for this peculiar sentence being that the sun and the air should not witness the shedding of the blood of one who belonged to the imperial family. Those of his troops which survived the battle came to make their submission and swear allegiance to Kublai.

Nayan, who had privately undergone the ceremony of baptism, but never made open profession of Christianity, thought proper, on this occasion, to bear the sign of the cross in his banners, and he had in his army a vast number of Christians, who were among the slain. When the Jews and the Saracens perceived that the banner of the cross was overthrown, they taunted the Christian inhabitants with it, saying: "Behold the state to which your (vaunted) banners, and those who followed them, are reduced!" On account of these derisions the Christians were compelled to lay their complaints before the Grand Khan, who ordered the former to appear before him, an(i sharply rebuked them. "If the cross of Christ," he said, "has not proved advantageous to the party of Nayan, the effect has been consistent with reason and justice, inasmuch as he was a rebel and a traitor to his lord, and to such wretches it could not afford its protection. Let none therefore presume to charge with injustice the God of the Christians, who is himself the perfection of goodness and of justice."

The Grand Khan, having obtained this signal victory, returned with great pomp and triumph to the capital city of Kanbalu. This took place in the month of November, and he continued to reside there during the months of February and March, in which latter was our festival of Easter. Being aware that this was one of our principal solemnities, he commanded all the Christians to attend him, and to bring with them their book, which contains the four gospels of the evangelists. After causing it to be repeatedly perfumed with incense, in a ceremonious manner, he devoutly kissed it, and directed that the same should be done by all his nobles who were present. This was his usual practice upon each of the principal Christian festivals, such as Easter and Christmas; and he observed the same at the festivals of the Saracens, Jews, and idolaters.2

Upon being asked his motive for this conduct, he said: "There are four great prophets who are reverenced and worshipped by the different classes of mankind. The Christians regard Jesus Christ as their divinity; the Saracens, Mahomet; the Jews, Moses;3 and the idolaters, Sogomombar-khan,4 the most eminent among their idols. I do honor and show respect to all the four, and invoke to my aid whichever among them is in truth supreme in heaven."

But from the manner in which his majesty acted toward them, it is evident that he regarded the faith of the Christians as the truest and the best; nothing, as he observed, being enjoined to its professors that was not replete with virtue and holiness. By no means, however, would he permit them to bear the cross before them in their processions, because upon it so exalted a personage as Christ had been scourged and (ignominiously) put to death. It may perhaps be asked by some why, if he showed such a preference to the faith of Christ, he did not conform to it and become a Christian? His reason for not so doing he assigned: "Wherefore should I become a Christian? The Christians of these countries are ignorant, inefficient persons, who do not possess the faculty of performing anything (miraculous); whereas the idolaters can do whatever they will. When I sit at table the cups that were in the middle of the hall come to me filled with wine and other beverage, spontaneously and without being touched by human hand, and I drink from them. They have the power of controlling bad weather and obliging it to retire to any quarter of the heavens, with many other wonderful gifts of that nature. Their idols have the faculty of speech, and predict to them whatever is required. Should I become a convert to the faith of Christ and profess myself a Christian, the nobles of my court and other persons who do not incline to that religion will ask me what sufficient motives have caused me to receive baptism and to embrace Christianity. ’What extraordinary powers,’ they will say, ’what miracles, have been displayed by its ministers?’ Whereas, the idolaters declare that what they exhibit is performed through their own sanctity and the influence of their idols.

"To this I shall not know what answer to make, and I shall be considered by them as laboring under a grievous error; while the idolaters, who by means of their profound art can effect such wonders, may without difficulty compass my death. But let the Pontiff send hither a hundred persons well skilled in Christian law, who being confronted with the idolaters shall have power to coerce them, and showing that they themselves are endowed with similar art, but which they refrain from exercising because it is derived from the agency of evil spirits, shall compel them to desist from practices of such a nature in their presence. When I am witness of this I shall place them and their religion under an interdict, and shall allow myself to be baptized. Following my example, all my nobility will then in like manner receive baptism, and this will be imitated by my subjects in general." From this discourse it must be evident that if the Pope had sent out persons duly qualified to preach the gospel, the Grand Khan would have embraced Christianity, for which, it is certainly known, he had a strong predilection.

The Grand Khan appoints twelve of the most intelligent among his nobles, whose duty it is to make themselves acquainted with the conduct of the officers and men of his army, particularly upon expeditions and in battles, and to present their reports to him, and he, upon being apprised of their respective merits, advances them in his service, raising those who commanded a hundred men to the command of a thousand, and presenting many with vessels of silver, as well as the customary tablets or warrants of command and of government. The tablets given to those commanding a hundred men are of silver; to those commanding a thousand, of gold or of silver gilt; and those who command ten thousand receive tablets of gold, bearing the head of a lion; the former being of the weight of a hundred and twenty saggi,5

and these with the lion’s head two hundred and twenty. At the top of the inscription on the tablet is a sentence to this effect: "By the power and might of the great God, and through the grace which he vouchsafes to our empire, be the name of the Khan blessed; and let all such as disobey (what is herein directed) suffer death and be utterly destroyed."

The officers who hold these tablets have privileges attached to them, and in the inscription is specified what are the duties and the powers of their respective commands. He who is at the head of a hundred thousand men, or the commander-in-chief of a grand army, has a golden tablet weighing three hundred saggi, with the sentence above mentioned, and at the bottom is engraved the figure of a lion, together with representations of the sun and moon. He exercises also the privileges of his high command, as set forth in this magnificent tablet. Whenever he rides in public, an umbrella is carried over his head, denoting the rank and authority he holds;6

and when he is seated, it is always upon a silver chair. The Grand Khan confers likewise upon certain of his nobles tablets on which are represented figures of the gerfalcon, in virtue of which they are authorized to take with them as their guard of honor the whole army of any great prince. They can also make use of the horses of the imperial stud at their pleasure, and can appropriate the horses of any officers inferior to themselves in rank.

Kublai is of the middle stature, that is, neither tall nor short; his limbs are well formed, and in his whole figure there is a just proportion. His complexion is fair, and occasionally suffused with red, like the bright tint of the rose, which adds much grace to his countenance. His eyes are black and handsome, his nose is well shaped and prominent. He has four wives of the first rank, who are esteemed legitimate, and the eldest born son of any one of these succeeds to the empire upon the decease of the grand khan. They bear equally the title of "empress," and have their separate courts. None of them has fewer than three hundred young female attendants of great beauty, together with a multitude of youths as pages, and other eunuchs, as well as ladies of the bedchamber; so that the number of persons belonging to each of their respective courts amounts to ten thousand.

The Grand Khan usually resides during three months of the year—December, January, and February—in the great city of Kanbalu,7

situated toward the northeastern extremity of Cathay; and here, on the southern side of the new city, is the site of his vast palace, in a square enclosed with a wall and deep ditch; each side of the square being eight miles in length, and having at an equal distance from each extremity an entrance gate. Within this enclosure there is, on the four sides, an open space one mile in breadth, where the troops are stationed, and this is bounded by a second wall, enclosing a square of six miles. The palace contains a number of separate chambers, all highly beautiful, and so admirably disposed that it seems impossible to suggest any improvement to the system of their arrangement. The exterior of the roof is adorned with a variety of colors—red, green, azure, and violet—and the sort of covering is so strong as to last for many years.

The glazing of the windows is so well wrought and so delicate as to have the transparency of crystal. In the rear of the body of the palace there are large buildings containing several apartments, where is deposited the private property of the monarch, or his treasure in gold and silver bullion, precious stones, and pearls, and also his vessels of gold and silver plate. Here are likewise the apartments of his wives and concubines; and in this retired situation he despatches business with convenience, being free from every kind of interruption.

His majesty, having imbibed an opinion from the astrologers that the city of Kanbalu was destined to become rebellious to his authority, resolved upon building another capital, upon the opposite side of the river, where stand the palaces just described, so that the new and the old cities are separated from each other only by the stream that runs between them. The new-built city received the name of Tai-du, and all those of the inhabitants who were natives of Cathay were compelled to evacuate the ancient city and to take up their abode in the new. Some of the inhabitants, however, of whose loyalty he did not entertain suspicion, were suffered to remain, especially because the latter, although of the dimensions that shall presently be described, was not capable of containing the same number as the former, which was of vast extent.

This new city is of a form perfectly square, and twenty-four miles in extent, each of its sides being neither more nor less than six miles. It is enclosed with walls of earth that at the base are about ten paces thick, but gradually diminish to the top, where the thickness is not more than three paces. In all parts the battlements are white. The whole plan of the city was regularly laid out by line, and the streets in general are consequently so straight that when a person ascends the wall over one of the gates, and looks right forward, he can see the gate opposite to him on the other side of the city. In the public streets there are, on each side, booths and shops of every description. All the allotments of ground upon which the habitations throughout the city were constructed are square and exactly on a line with each other; each allotment being sufficiently spacious for handsome buildings, with corresponding courts and gardens. One of these was assigned to each head of a family; that is to say, such a person of such a tribe had one square allotted to him, and so of the rest. Afterward the property passed from hand to hand. In this manner the whole interior of the city is disposed in squares, so as to resemble a chess-board, and planned out with a degree of precision and beauty impossible to describe.

The wall of the city has twelve gates, three on each side of the square, and over each gate and compartment of the wall there is a handsome building; so that on each side of the square there are five such buildings, containing large rooms, in which are disposed the arms of those who form the garrison of the city, every gate being guarded by a thousand men. It is not to be understood that such a force is stationed there in consequence of the apprehension of danger from any hostile power whatever, but as a guard suitable to the honor and dignity of the sovereign.

1By these we are to understand Northern and Southern China, separated by the great Hoang-ho on the eastern, and by the southern limits of Shen-si on the western side.

2This conduct toward the professors of the several systems of faith is perfectly consistent with the character of Kublai, in which policy was the leading feature. It was his object to keep in good humor all classes of his subjects, and especially those of the capital or about the court, by indulging them in the liberty of following unmolested their own religious tenets, and by flattering each with the idea of possessing his special protection. Many of the highest offices, both civil and military, were held by Mahometans.

3Neither do those who profess the Mussulman faith regard Mahomet as a divinity, nor do the Jews so regard Moses; but it is not to be expected that a Tartar emperor should make very accurate theological distinctions.

4This word, probably much corrupted by transcribers, must be intended for one of the numerous titles of Buddha.

5The saggio of Venice being equal to the sixth part of an ounce, these consequently weighed twenty ounces, and the others in proportion up to fifty ounces.

6In many parts of the East, the parasol or umbrella with a long handle, borne by an attendant, is a mark of high distinction, and even denotes sovereignty when of a particular color.

7This is a Polo’s name for Kublai’s capital—Khan-Balig ("the Khan’s city")—the Chinese Peking, captured by the Mongols in 1215. In 1264 Kublai made it his chief residence, and in 1267 he built a new city—Marco Polo’s Tai-du, more properly Ta-tu—a little to the northeast of the old one.


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Chicago: Marco Polo, "Height of the Mongol Power in China," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024,

MLA: Polo, Marco. "Height of the Mongol Power in China." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Polo, M, 'Height of the Mongol Power in China' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from