Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Palace of Kublai Khan

In the middle of the thirteenth century two eminent Venetian merchants, Nicolo and Matteo Polo, of noble birth and adventurous spirit, left their native city for a long journey to the East, their purposes being those of ordinary travel and also of barter, for which they took with them a stock of jewels, as the commodity of most worth with least weight. Visiting Constantinople and several Russian cities, they journeyed to the capital of the khan of Kaptchak, where they remained three years, trading and studying the Mongol language. Subsequently they met in Bokhara a Persian ambassador on the way to the court of Kublai Khan, and were persuaded to keep him company as far as Kambalu (the modern Peking), the capital of the Mongol emperor of Cathay, or China.

Their journey led them through Samarcand, Cashgar, and other cities of the far East, a whole year passing before they reached the capital of the great potentate, by whom they were graciously received. Kublai asked them many questions about their country, and was very curious about the pope, to whom he in the end sent them as ambassadors, bidding them return to him with a hundred Europeans learned in the arts and sciences, for the instruction of his people. They reached Venice in 1269, after an absence of fifteen years.

In 1271 they set out again for China, bearing despatches from the pope, but without the learned Europeans they were to bring. Marco, the young son of Nicolo, accompanied them on their journey, which occupied three and a half years. Kublai, though he had nearly forgotten their existence, received them as graciously as before, and was particularly pleased with young Marco, giving him a high office and employing him on important missions throughout the empire. In truth, he took so strong a fancy to his visitors that they were not suffered to leave China for years, and finally got away in 1291 only as escort to a Mongol princess who was sent as a bride to Persia.

Twenty-four years had elapsed from the time they left Venice before they appeared in that city again. They were quite forgotten, but the wealth in precious stones they brought with them soon freshened the memory of their relatives, and they became the heroes of the city. Marco took part in a war then raging with Genoa, was taken prisoner, and long lay in a dungeon, where he dictated to a fellow-prisoner the story of his adventures and the wonderful things he had seen in the dominions of the Great Khan of Cathay. This was afterwards published as "Il Milione di Messer Marco Polo Veneziano," and at once gained a high reputation, which it has preserved from that day to this. Though long looked on by many as pure fable, time has proved its essential truth, and it is now regarded as the most valuable geographical work of the Middle Ages.

We cannot undertake to give the diffuse narrative of Marco Polo's book, but a condensed account of a few of his statements may prove of interest, as showing some of the conditions of China in this middle period of its existence. His description of the great palace of Kublai, near his capital city of Kambalu, much the largest royal residence in the world, is of sufficient interest to be given in epitome. The palace grounds included a great park, enclosed by a wall and ditch eight miles square, with an entrance gate midway of each side. Within this great enclosure of sixty-four square miles was an open space a mile broad, in which the troops were stationed, it being bounded on the interior by a second wall six miles square. This space, twenty-eight square miles in area, held an army of more than a hundred thousand men, nearly all cavalry.

Within the second wall lay the royal arsenals and the deer-park, with meadows and handsome groves, and in the interior rose a third wall of great thickness, each side of which was a mile in length, while its height was twenty-five feet. This last enclosure, one square mile in area, contained the palace, which reached from the northern to the southern wall and included a spacious court. Though its roof was very lofty, it was but one story in height, standing on a paved platform of several feet elevation, from which extended a marble terrace seven feet wide, surrounded by a handsome balustrade, which the people were allowed to approach.

Carved and gilt dragons, figures of warriors and animals, and battle-scenes ornamented the sides of the great hall and the apartments, while the roof was so contrived that only gilding and painting were to be seen. On each side of the palace a grand flight of marble steps ascended to the marble terrace which surrounded the building. The interior contained an immense ball, capable of serving as a banqueting-room for a multitude of guests, while the numerous chambers were all of great beauty and admirably arranged.

The roof on the exterior was painted red, green, azure, and violet, the colors being highly durable, while the glazing of the windows was so neatly done that they were transparent as crystal. In the rear of the palace were arranged the treasure-rooms, which contained a great store of gold and silver bullion, pearls and precious stones, and valuable plate. Here also were the family apartments of the emperor and his wives. Opposite the grand palace stood another, very similar in design, where dwelt his eldest son, the heir to the throne.

On the north side, between the palace and the adjoining wall, rose an artificial mound of earth, a hundred paces high and a mile in circuit at its base. Its slopes were planted with beautiful evergreen trees, which had been transported thither, when well grown, by the aid of elephants. This perpetual verdure gave it the appropriate name of the Green Mount. An ornamental pavilion crowned the summit, which, in harmony with the sides, was also made green. The view of the mount, with its ever-verdant trees and the richly decorated building on its summit, formed a scene delightful to the eyes of the emperor and the other inmates of the palace. This hill still exists, and is yet known by its original title of Kinshan, or the Green Mount.

The excavation made to obtain the earth for the mount was filled with water from a small rivulet, forming a lake from which the cattle drank, its over-flow being carried by an aqueduct along the foot of the Green Mount to fill another great and very deep excavation, made in the same manner as the former. This was used as a fish-pond, containing fish in large variety and number, sufficient to keep the table of the emperor constantly supplied. Iron or copper gratings at the entrance and exit prevented the escape of the fish along the stream. The pond was also stocked with swans and other aquatic birds, and a bridge across its width led from one palace to the other.

Such was the palace. The city was correspondingly great and prosperous, and had an immense trade. A thousand pack-horses and carriages laden with raw silk daily entered its gates, and within its workshops a vast quantity of silk and gold tissues was produced. As Hoangti made himself famous by the Great Wall, so Kublai won fame by the far more useful work of the Great Canal, which was largely due to his fostering care, and has ever since been of inestimable value to China, while the Wall never kept out a Tartar who strongly desired to get over its threatening but useless height.

Having said so much about the conditions of palace and capital, it may be of interest to extract from Polo's narrative some account of the method pursued in war during Kublai's reign. The Venetian attended a campaign made by the emperor against one of his kinsmen named Nayan, who had under him so many cities and provinces that he was able to bring into the field an army of four hundred thousand horse. His desire for sovereignty led him to throw off his allegiance, the more so as another rebel against the Grand Khan promised to aid him with a hundred thousand horsemen.

News of this movement soon reached Kublai, and he at once ordered the collection of all the troops within ten days' march of Kambalu, amounting in all to four hundred and sixty thousand men. By forced marches these were brought to Nayan's territory in twenty-five days, reaching there before the rebel prince had any warning of their approach. Kublai, having given his army two days' rest, and consulted his astrologers, who promised him victory, marched his army up the hill which had concealed them from the enemy, the great array being suddenly displayed to the astonished eyes of Nayan and his men.

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 spread housings of cloth of gold. His army was disposed in three grand divisions, each division consisting of ten battalions of horsemen each ten thousand strong, and armed with the great Mongol bow. The right and left divisions were disposed so as to outflank the army of Nayan. In front of each battalion were stationed five hundred infantry, who, whenever the cavalry made a show of flight, were trained to mount behind them, and to alight again when they returned to the charge, their duty being to kill with their lances the horses of the enemy.

As soon as the order of battle was arranged, wind instruments of various kinds and in great numbers were sounded, while the host of warriors broke into song, as was the Tartar practice before engaging in battle. The battle began with a signal from the cymbals and drums, the sound of the instruments and the singing growing deafening. At the signal both wings advanced, a cloud of arrows filling the air, while on both sides numbers of men and horses fell. Their arrows discharged, the warriors engaged in close combat with lances, swords, and iron-shod maces, while the cries of men and horses were such as to inspire terror or rouse all hearers to the battle-rage.

For a long time the fortune of the day remained undecided, Nayan's people fighting with great zeal and courage. But at length their leader, seeing that he was almost surrounded, attempted to save himself by flight. He was made prisoner, however, and brought before Kublai, who ordered him to be put to death on the spot. This was done by enclosing him between two carpets, which were violently shaken until the spirit departed from the body, the dignity of the imperial family requiring that the sun and the air should not witness the shedding of the blood of one who belonged to the royal stock.

These extracts from the narrative of the Venetian traveller may be fitly followed by a portion of Coleridge's remarkable dream-poem on the subject of Kublai's palace. The poet, having been reading from "Purchas's Pilgrimage" a brief description of the palace of the Great Khan,—not the one above described, but a pleasure-retreat in another section of his dominions,—fell asleep, and his dreams took the form of an extended poem on the subject. On waking he hastened to write it down, but was interrupted by a visitor in the midst of his task, and afterwards found himself unable to recall another line of the poem, only a shadowy image of which remained in his mind. The part saved is strangely imaginative.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree,

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round;

And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green bill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced,

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail;

And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war.