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Marco Polo Discussion
From your reading of “Description of the Great City of Kinsay (Hangchow) Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi (South China),” do you think Marco Polo was ever actually in China? Why or why not? Which parts of the text can you point to in supporting your answer? What do you look for in a historical traveler’s account to determine authenticity? What about today, with the many social media and internet options for publishing travel accounts — what do you look for in seeking an authentic, reliable depiction?
Description of the Great City of Kinsay (Hangchow) Which Is the Capital of the Whole Country of Manzi (South China)
[Note: Kinsay, or Hangchow, was the capital of the Southern Sung dynasty when the Mongols captured it, thereby taking over all of China and establishing the Yuan dynasty in 1279. Hangchow, with a population of more than a million, was indeed the largest city in the world at the time, several times larger than the cities of Europe. It greatly impressed Marco Polo, as we shall see. Today Hangchow is still one of the most beautiful cities in all China, with its West Lake.]
When you have left the city of Soochow and have traveled for four days through a splendid country, passing a number of towns and villages, you arrive at the most noble city of Kinsay, which is in our language “City of Heaven.” I will enter into particulars about its magnificence since the city is beyond dispute the finest and noblest in the world.
First and foremost, then, Kinsay is so great that it is 200 square miles. In it there are 12,000 bridges of stone, with most 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 around it.
In this city there are 12 guilds of different crafts, and each guild has 12,000 houses in the occupation of its workmen. Each of these houses contain at least 12 men, while some contain 20 and some 40, including the apprentices who work under the masters. All these craftsmen had full employment since many other cities of the kingdom are supplied by this city.
Inside the city there is a lake of some 30 miles: and all round it are 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 two islands, on each of which stands a rich, beautiful, and spacious edifice, furnished in such style fit for the palace of an emperor. And when anyone of the citizens desire to hold a marriage feast or to give any other entertainment, it is 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 needed. The king made this provision for the gratification of his people, and the place was open to everyone who desired to give an entertainment. (Sometimes there would be at these palaces a hundred different parties; some holding a banquet, others celebrating a wedding; and yet all would find good accommodations in the different apartments and pavilions, and that all was so well ordered 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.
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.
Since the Great Khan occupied the city he has ordained that each of the 12,000 bridges be provided with a guard of ten men, in case of any disturbances or of any being so bold as to plot treason or rebellion against him.
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 anyone 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 extinguish it, and to save the goods of the merchants or others, either by removing them to the towers 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 clock to help of whom there shall come one or two thousand at least.
The Khan watches this city with special diligence because it forms the head of this part of China and because he has an immense revenue from the taxes levied on the trade here, the amount of which is so high no one would believe it.
All the streets of the city are paved with stone or brick, as indeed are all the highways throughout this area so that you ride and travel in every direction without inconvenience. Were it not for this pavement you cannot do so, for the country is very low and flat, and after rain deep in mud and water.
The city of Kinsay has some 3,000 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 100 persons to bathe together.
This city of Kinsay is the seat of one of the kings who rules over 100 great and wealthy cities. For in the whole of this part of the country, there are more than 1,200 great cities, without counting the towns and villages, which are also in great numbers. In each of those 1,200 cities the Great Khan has a garrison, and the smallest of such garrisons musters 1,000 men; while there are some of 10,000, 20,000, and 30,000; so that the total number of troops is something scarcely calculable. You must not suppose they are by any means all cavalry; a very large proportion are foot-soldiers, according to the special requirements of each city. And all of them belong to the army of the Great Khan.
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 everyone knows the day of his birth. And when anyone intends a journey he goes to the astrologers, and gives the particulars of his birth in order to learn whether he shall have good luck.
Sometimes they will say no, and in that case the journey is put off till such day as the astrologer may recommend. These astrologers are very skillful at their business, and often their words come to pass, so the people have great faith in them.
It is also the custom for every burgess of this city, and in fact for every 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 in his house, and also the number of animals that he keeps. And if anyone 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 ruler is able to know exactly the population of the city. And this is the practice also throughout the country.
In this part are the ten main markets, though besides these there are a vast number of others in the different parts of town. They 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. At every four miles of its length comes one of those great squares of two miles in compass. In each of the squares is held a market three days a week, frequented by 40,000 or 50,000 persons, who bring there for sale every possible necessity 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, quails, fowls, ducks and geese. Then there are the buildings where the large animals are slaughtered, such as calves, beef, kids, and lambs, the flesh of which is eaten by the rich and the great dignitaries.
Those markets make a daily display of every kind of vegetable and fruit; and among the latter there are in particular certain pears of enormous size, weighing as much as ten pounds apiece, and pulp of which is white and fragrant like a confection, besides peaches in their season both yellow and white, of every delicate flavor.
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 this 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 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 it is remarkably fat and tasty. Anyone 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 eat fish and flesh at the same meal.
All the ten market places are encompassed by lofty houses, and below these shops is 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.
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 you.
The natives of this 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 dissentions 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 neighborly attachment among both men and women that you would take the people who live in the same street to be all one family.
They treat the foreigners who visit them with great politeness and entertain them in the most winning manner, offering advice on their business.
On the lake 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 afloat. Anyone who desires to go with the women or with a party 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 stands and poles the boat along whithersoever may be desired for the lake is not more than two paces in depth. The inside of this roof and the rest of the interior is covered with ornamental painting in gay colors, 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. 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 finished the day’s business, to pass the afternoon in enjoyment with their ladies, either in these barges or in driving about the city in carriages.