The largest contiguous overland empire in the history of the world can trace its origin back to 1162, when a boy named Temüjin was born in the Khentii Mountains far to the north of Inner China. The region is today a part of the country of Mongolia, and even then the people who lived there were known as the Mongols. Unlike many of those whom the Chinese dubbed “barbarians,” these people came close to earning that name according to modern lights. They lacked a written language, as they did any knowledge of or interest in agriculture or handcrafts. Instead they roamed vast swaths of land on horseback, living mostly on mutton and goat milk, trading with other, sedentary peoples for essentials when it was possible and when it suited them, raiding them for provisions when it was not or did not.

Mongol politics were loosely structured at best. Within the individual tribes, the role of supreme leader went to whichever man was strong enough to grab hold of it, and remained with him for exactly as long as he could prevent its being pried out of his grip. An especially ambitious, strong, and clever tribal chieftain might be able to convince or coerce some of the other tribes to accept him as their king, or “khan,” and declare their allegiance to him.

Temüjin was such an ambitious man. From early boyhood, he methodically worked his way up through the hierarchies of power. First he seized control of his family; at the age of just thirteen, he murdered his troublesome half-brother in cold blood to secure the position of head of his household. Next he fought his way to the position of head of his tribe. And after that, he began to bring the other tribes under his sway through a mixture of promises and threats. Already by about 1185, when he was still in his early twenties, he had cajoled several of them into naming him their khan. But he wasn’t satisfied with even that feat; he wanted to be the king of all the Mongols, a title no one else had ever won. Temüjin did so in 1206, when the Mongol tribes came together to rename him Genghis Khan — their “fierce king.” Historian of the Mongols Morris Rossabi calls this forging of a union out of a people practically defined by their fractiousness “perhaps his greatest achievement” of them all.

But more than enough was still to come to justify Rossabi’s equivocal “perhaps.” The newly minted Genghis Khan now set out to overrun as much non-Mongol territory as he possibly could. Historians have been debating ever since what drove his lust to subjugate. He himself never bothered to take rhetorical refuge in even any of the usual shallow pretexts for conquest, so speculation is all we are left with. He wasn’t motivated by religion; he had little of it, beyond a hazy faith in the spirits of his ancestors and a firm conviction that they had chosen him to rule over all the world. He wasn’t motivated by ideology; he was no deep thinker upon any subject other than military tactics. He most definitely wasn’t motivated by some desire to civilize; most of the people he conquered were far more culturally advanced than his own by all of the standard metrics. Some have postulated that it was essential for Genghis Khan to be perpetually at war with an external enemy in order to prevent the old Mongol fractiousness from reasserting itself and challenging his supremacy. And yet it is doubtful whether he thought about what he did in even those realpolitical terms. Making war, it seems, was simply what he believed himself to have been born to do.

The Mongols weren’t overwhelming in terms of raw numbers — their entire population probably numbered no more than 1 million — but they were as fearsome warriors as could be found anywhere in the world. Their horses, which they treated with at least as much care as their children, were among the best in the world, and the one area where they were notably inventive in a technological sense was that of weaponry; their compound bows, which they could fire with uncanny accuracy from atop their galloping horses, had a range up to 50 percent farther than those of their opponents. Using these advantages, Genghis Khan vanquished the other peoples of the steppes with shocking speed, adding some of their numbers to his own. And so his campaigns soon brought him close to the northern border of Inner China. It took only a few bloody raids to convince the Western Xia dynasty to accept vassal status. Next he turned his attention to the Jin dynasty, which controlled most of Northern Inner China.

By this time, the cold war between the Jin in the North and the Song in the South had been underway for many decades. As we learned in the last chapter, the founders of the Jin had been the Jurchen, themselves a people of the steppes. But, as usual, the soft power of Chinese civilization had been worming its slow, relentless way into their worldview. The Jin emperors were becoming more and more culturally Chinese. (This only increased the ire of the Song emperors, who saw themselves as the only legitimate Sons of Heaven in Inner China.) Thus as the Mongols drew closer to their borders, the Jin emperors turned to a classically Chinese defensive gambit: the building of a Great Wall to keep the barbarians out.

The Jin actually built two lines of defense: one in the form of a half-circle around the outer reaches of their territory in northern and western Manchuria, the other passing just north of their capital of Xijin. The latter marked the first time that a wall was built in roughly the place where tourists to Beijing visit the Great Wall today. In terms of construction, the structure fell somewhere between the simple packed-earth walls of China’s past and the supremely ostentatious one known to those modern tourists.

But both the outer and inner Jin walls were just like many of the border walls of the past in that they proved completely ineffective. Genghis Khan’s armies swept past the Jin’s second and final line of defense in 1217. By the time the Mongols rode into Xijin proper, the Jin emperor had fled south to set up a new capital in Kaifeng, the former home of the Song dynasty when it had ruled all of Inner China. In the emperor’s absence, the Mongols proceeded to massacre the remaining population almost to a person and to raze Xijin to the ground; the ruins reportedly burned for a month.

All of Inner China now lay seemingly defenseless at the feet of the mighty armies of Genghis Khan. But the Jin and the Song alike got an unexpected respite. A Central Asian shah offended Mongol honor by killing a group of Mongol visitors whom he suspected, probably accurately, to be spies reconnoitering for an eventual attack on his lands. This event prompted Genghis Khan to alter his timetable of conquest, to let the rest of Inner China be for the moment and lead his armies west. His orgy of destruction in these Muslim lands lasted several years; one Iranian chronicle tells how “a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert, and the greater part of the living dead, and their skin and bones crumbling dust.” On his way back east afterward, Genghis Khan decided that Western Xia wasn’t living up to its vassal status to his satisfaction, and launched an attack there as a prelude to an invasion of Jin China. But he died in the midst of his war against Western Xia, in 1227, most likely of natural causes after his 65 years of hard living.

The demise of Genghis Khan didn’t remove the threat the Mongols posed to Inner China; the fire he had ignited in his people had grown bigger than any one leader, no matter how ferocious. Nevertheless, it was incredibly fortuitous for the Chinese. Genghis Khan had grown up a bandit raider, and had never lost that mentality. His instinct was not to govern the places his armies overran, but rather to strip them of everything of any value and then move on to greener pastures to repeat the process. He was a purely destructive force. But his successors — the first of whom was his third son, Ögedei Khan — would prove capable of embracing a more conventional, sustainable imperial mentality. They could see that the wiser course was to leave more or less intact the lands they added to their domains, so that they could continue to contribute to their coffers for many years to come. If one must be conquered by the Mongols, in other words, it was far better to be conquered by one of Genghis Khan’s successors than by the founding father himself. Thanks to that intemperate Central Asian shah, Inner China was at least this fortunate.

So, when Ögedei Khan finally got around to toppling the hapless Jin dynasty in 1234, he didn’t burn and pillage all of Northern Inner China as his father might have done. For that matter, he didn’t attack the Song dynasty behind the Qinling Mountains at all; the terrain of Southern Inner China presented all of the difficulties to the Mongols that it had to the Jin before them, and Ögedei Khan saw lower-hanging fruit elsewhere. He sent his armies westward again — far westward, through modern-day Russia and Ukraine and into Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland.

It was an absolutely extraordinary military achievement. In the span of two generations, the Mongols transformed themselves from being hardscrabble outcasts of little interest to anyone except the people they pettily harassed to the owners of the majority of Asia and much of Eastern Europe. “It was as if, in the late nineteenth century,” writes John Man, “Geronimo at the head of his Apaches had united the many Indian tribes, made an empire of all North America, and claimed the world. A Mongol in the heart of [Xijin] or at the gates of Vienna was as unlikely as an Apache in the White House in 1880.”

By the latter thirteenth century, the Mongol Empire had been split into four kingdoms, or khanates: the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanate, the Chaghadai Khanate, and the Empire of the Great Khan — i.e., the Yuan dynasty of China. (Public Domain)

But for all of the stupendousness of Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan’s feats elsewhere, it was left to the former’s grandson Kublai Khan, who came to power in 1260, to complete the task of adding all of Inner China to the Mongol Empire. By now the empire as a whole was well into the shift from warmongering for the sake of it to administrating its holdings; it had reached a degree of accommodation with the Christian and Muslim worlds, and stopped pushing into those regions. Kublai Khan was only the easternmost of four khans who each took a part of the far-flung empire to rule in relative amity with one another — for the time being, at any rate. But the beleaguered Song dynasty, isolated behind its mountain range on what was now thanks to newer agricultural techniques some of the most productive land in all of Asia, was just too tempting a target to resist. The Mongol armies may not have been naturally suited for warfare on the watery terrain of the South, but Kublai Khan was willing to take it slowly and methodically. The last Song emperor, a boy of about five years old, was killed in a battle that took place in 1279, leaving Inner China entirely in Mongol hands at last.

Chinese engraving of Kublai Khan. (Public Domain)

What followed was one of the most unusual of all eras of Chinese history. On the surface, Mongol and Chinese culture were chalk and cheese. Consider, for example, the role of women. Like those of many nomadic peoples, Mongol women were expected to be as hardy and self-reliant as the men; it was often left to them to hunt and herd and take care of all of the other practical tasks of survival while their husbands were out fighting wars. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast to the closeted females of Song China, hobbling about on their tiny, mangled feet, intentionally rendered useless for any practical purpose.

Kublai Khan’s own attitude toward China resists easy explication. On the one hand, the official caste system he installed placed Mongols firmly at the top, followed by other steppe peoples, Northern Han Chinese, and finally the Southerners who had defied him for so long. He abolished the system of examination for the civil service that the Confucianists so favored. And yet he went to the trouble of declaring himself the founder of a new dynasty on the Chinese model, the new claimant to the Mandate of Heaven: the Yuan dynasty, whose name meant “origin,” emphasizing its role as a fresh start for China that nonetheless mixed the new with the old to a surprising extent. Many of the organs of local and regional government were allowed to continue just as they had before, and followers of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were all left alone to practice their religions as they wished. Even as he abolished the examination system, Kublai Khan adopted many other Confucian trappings, going so far as to hire a Confucian tutor for his son and recruit one of the most senior Confucian intellectuals of the day to become his chief advisor, whose guidance he always listened to even if he didn’t always follow. He became a generous patron of Chinese theater and painting; the Yuan dynasty is still remembered as a golden age for those two art forms. “They have no need to be ashamed even if compared to the model officials of the Han and Tang dynasties,” wrote one Confucian mandarin of his foreign overlords.

Kublai Khan chose to build a new capital for his entire empire right next to the blasted remnants of Xijin. The new city was given the name of Dadu, and was laid out in best Chinese imperial style, with a shining marble palace in its exact center behind several rings of ornate walls. To ensure a ready supply of water for his plants, fountains, and ponds, Kublai Khan extended a canal from the Yangtze River in the South all the way to his capital, a staggering project in terms of expense, labor, and sheer engineering know-how. From his lap of luxury, he watched over his domains. The contrast with the rude life of war and violence and very little else that his grandfather had known is well-nigh breathtaking.

During the century that the Yuan dynasty lasted, China was if anything even more open to the world than it had been during the heyday of the Tang dynasty. For the first and only time in its history, Inner China was the seat of an empire that did not see it as the Middle Kingdom around which the rest of the world revolved; it was merely a vibrant part of a larger whole.

Muslim geographers arrived in China with meticulous maps of the world, and Muslim astronomers came with an array of new instruments, which helped a scholar named Guo Shouking to revise the Chinese calendar into the configuration it still has today. Likewise, with travel between China and the Christian world faster and safer than it had ever been before, the Silk Road trade increased by an order of magnitude. Chickpeas, carrots, eggplants, and Western-style pasta reached China, while Chinese porcelain reached the West in significant quantities for the first time, prompting gasps of wonder from everyone who saw it. It was also during this Pax Mongolica that China received its most famous single Western visitor of all.

Marco Polo’s star was crossed by that of China before he was even born. He was conceived in 1253 in the Republic of Venice, very possibly the night before his father and his uncle, merchants and traders of some note, departed the family home to seek out opportunities in the vaguely defined East of their world. They imagined that they would be gone for no more than a year or two, being not at all certain that they would end up traveling any farther than Constantinople. But one thing led to another, and they went at last all the way to China, where they spent time in the court of Kublai Khan himself. They didn’t return to Venice until sixteen years after their departure, by which time Marco Polo’s mother was dead and the boy who had never met his father had become a strapping adolescent with a longing for adventure.

Just two years after their return, his father and uncle set off again for the land which they and most other Europeans of the time knew as Cathay. (The name was apparently a distorted attempt at a transliteration of the Mongolian word for China, Khiatad.) In addition to wagons full of trade goods, they brought with them this time some holy oil from Jerusalem, two Christian priests, and the seventeen-year-old Marco Polo. It took the party four years to make its meandering way from Venice to China, thanks to other profitable business opportunities that were encountered en route. When they finally neared their goal in the summer of 1275, they didn’t travel to the official Yuan capital of Dadu, but rather to a spot 220 miles (350 kilometers) north of it, where the city of Shangdu had been built as the khan’s summer residence, in a temperate highland region of the steppes that provided relief from the blistering summer temperatures in Dadu and everywhere else near it. Five centuries later, the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would immortalize Shangdu in the consciousness of the West as “Xanadu” in the lines of “Kubla Khan,” his fever dream of oriental decadence.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree…
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

In addition to the opium he was smoking in large quantities, Coleridge was inspired by Marco Polo’s hardly less fantastical account of Shangdu.

There is at [Shangdu] a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this palace a wall is built, enclosing a compass of 16 miles [26 kilometers], and inside the park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such which are of a ferocious nature), which the emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these there are more than 200 gerfalcons alone, without reckoning the other hawks…

You must know that the khan keeps an immense stud of white horses and mares; in fact, more than 10,000 of them, and all pure white without a speck. The milk of these mares is drunk by himself and his family, and no one else…

During the three months of every year that the lord resides at that place, if it should happen to be bad weather, there are certain crafty enchanters and astrologers in his train, who are such adepts in necromancy and the diabolic arts that they are able to prevent any cloud or storm from passing over the spot on which the emperor’s palace stands…

When the great khan is seated at his table, which stands on a platform some 12 feet [3.5 meters] above the ground, his cups are set before him and filled with wine. Now when the lord desires to drink, enchanters cause the cups to move from their place without being touched by anybody and to present themselves to the emperor! This everyone present may witness, and there are ofttimes more than 10,000 persons thus present. Tis a truth and no lie!

Being a 21-year-old man with a typical young man’s interests, Marco Polo was particularly intrigued by Kublai Khan’s prodigious conjugal arrangements.

The personal appearance of the great khan, lord of lords, whose name is Kublai, is such as I shall now tell you. He is of a good stature, neither tall nor short, but of a middle height. He has a becoming amount of flesh, and is very shapely in all his limbs. His complexion is red and white, the eyes black and fine, the nose well formed and well set on. He has four wives, whom he retains permanently as his legitimate consorts, and the eldest of his sons by these four wives ought by rights to be emperor when his father dies. These four ladies are called empresses, but each is distinguished also by her proper name. And each of them has a special court of her own, very great and ample; no one of them having fewer than 300 fair and charming damsels. They have also many pages and eunuchs and a number of other attendants of both sexes, so that each of these ladies has not fewer than 10,000 persons attached to her court.

When the emperor desires the society of one of these four consorts, he will sometimes send for the lady to his apartment and sometimes visit her at her own. He has also a great number of concubines, and I will tell you how he obtains them.

You must know that there is a tribe of Turks who are noted for their beauty. Now every year a hundred of the most beautiful maidens of this tribe are sent to the great khan, who commits them to the charge of certain elderly ladies dwelling in his palace. And these old ladies make the girls sleep with them, in order to ascertain if they have sweet breath and do not snore, and are sound in all their limbs. Then such of them as are of approved beauty, and are good and sound in all respects, are appointed to attend on the emperor by turns. Thus six of these damsels take their turns for three days and three nights, and wait on him when he is in his chamber and when he is in his bed, to serve him in any way, and to be entirely at his orders. At the end of three days and three nights, they are relieved by another six. And so throughout the year, there are reliefs of maidens six and six, changing every three days and nights.

When Kublai Khan and his court left Shangdu to return to Dadu, their European visitors accompanied them. And so Marco Polo was able to provide us with a rare glimpse of the Yuan dynasty’s capital at its peak. The words of this outsider remain so valuable to us because the forthrightly descriptive style he employs isn’t typically found in Chinese writing of this period.

You must know that [Dadu] has a compass of 24 miles [40 kilometers], for each side of it hath a length of 6 miles [10 kilometers], and it is four-square. And it is all walled round with walls of earth which have a thickness of ten full paces at bottom, and a height of more than ten paces, but they are not so thick at top, for they diminish in thickness as they rise, so that at top they are only about three paces thick. And they are provided throughout with loop-holed battlements, which are all whitewashed.

There are twelve gates, and over each gate there is a great and handsome palace, so that there are on each side of the square three gates and five palaces, for there is at each angle also a great and handsome palace. In those palaces are vast halls in which are kept the arms of the city garrison.

The streets are so straight and wide that you can see right along them from end to end and from one gate to the other. And up and down the city there are beautiful palaces, and many great and fine hostelries, and fine houses in great numbers. All the plots of ground on which the houses of the city are built are four-square, and laid out with straight lines, all the plots being occupied by great and spacious palaces, with courts and gardens of proportionate size. All these plots were assigned to different heads of families. Each square plot is encompassed by handsome streets for traffic, and thus the whole city is arranged in squares just like a chessboard, and disposed in a manner so perfect and masterly that it is impossible to give a description that should do it justice.

Moreover, in the middle of the city there is a great clock — that is to say, a bell — which is struck at night. And after it has struck three times no one must go out in the city, unless it be for the needs of women in labor or of the sick. And those who go about on such errands are bound to carry lanterns with them. The established guard at each gate of the city is 1000 men — not that you are to imagine this guard is kept up for any fear of attack, but only as a guard of honor for the sovereign, and to prevent thieves from doing mischief in town.

It seems unlikely on the face of it that Kublai Khan or anyone else in his court even noticed Marco Polo when he first arrived; he was, after all, merely an apprentice attached to a middling trade delegation from a part of the world much less rich and technologically advanced than China itself. As time went on, however, the young man slowly ingratiated himself with the imperial court. He learned to speak fluent Mongolian and Chinese, and came to serve as a translator, advisor, and diplomat. Indeed, it appears that he went native with all the zeal of a thirteenth-century Lawrence of Arabia. And why not? The imperial favor that was bestowed upon him very possibly came complete with a modest harem of his own. It must have seemed quite an enviable life to a young man brought up amidst the repressive social mores of late Medieval Europe.

Still, there did finally come a time, nearly twenty years after their arrival, when Marco Polo and his doughty father and uncle decided to go home. Will Durant imagines in his usual vivid way the trio of travelers that returned to Venice in about 1295.

Two old men and a man of middle age, worn with hardship, laden with bundles, dressed in rags and covered with the dust of many roads, begged and then forced their way into the home from which, they claimed, they had set forth 26 years before. They had (they said) sailed many dangerous seas, scaled high mountains and plateaus, crossed bandit-ridden deserts, and passed four times through the Great Wall; they had stayed twenty years in Cathay, and had served the mightiest monarch in the world. They told of an empire vaster, of cities more populous, and of a ruler far richer than any known in Europe; of stones that were used for heating, of paper accepted in place of gold, and of nuts larger than a man’s head; of nations where virginity was an impediment to marriage, and of others where strangers were entertained by the free use of the host’s willing daughters and wives. No man would believe them, and the people of Venice gave to the youngest and most garrulous of them the nickname “Marco Millions” because his tale was full of numbers large and marvelous.

Marco Polo would doubtless have been forgotten by history along with his tall tales had this irredeemably adventurous soul not elected to take command of a Venetian galley and sail it to war against the rival Italian republic of Genoa three years after his return from China. Alas, this adventure proved less dazzling than those that had come before: his ship was quickly captured, and he was thrown unceremoniously into a Genoese prison to await ransom. His cellmate happened to be a fellow named Rustichello, who was a citizen of Pisa and a writer of slapdash Arthurian romances when he wasn’t fighting wars. When Marco Polo started to share with him some of his exploits in Asia to pass the long hours of their captivity, Rustichello couldn’t believe his luck. He begged his fellow prisoner to slow down and tell him the whole story from the beginning, while he wrote it all down.

No other book has an historical importance as out of keeping with its purely literary value as does The Travels of Marco Polo. In a bid for literary respectability, Rustichello chose to write the whole thing in French rather than his native Italian. Unfortunately, he was far from fluent in that language. The result is “an uncouth French mingled with Italian,” as one early critic put it. “The author is at war with all the practices of French grammar: subject and object, numbers, moods, and tenses are in consummate confusion,” said another. “Italian words are constantly introduced, either quite in the crude or rudely Gallicized.”

Rustichello seems to have written the story down just as it came out of its protagonist’s mouth there in the dank prison cell, then never bothered to edit, revise, or polish one word of it after the fact. The book is a disorganized mess, filled with clumsy stream-of-consciousness interpolations like “Oh, I forgot to tell you [X] about [Y],” or “just one more word about [something I described five chapters ago].” A great deal of it is patently impossible to take seriously; you may have noticed just from the extracts above that there seem to be 10,000 of just about everything in Marco Polo’s world. (This likely stems from a Chinese habit of using 10,000 as a metaphor for simply “a lot,” which Marco Polo adopted but Rustichello took literally.) His ghostwriter couldn’t even decide whether to write the book in the first or third person; its protagonist goes back and forth between “I” and “he” throughout.

To make matters still worse, there exists nothing like an authoritative edition of this literary abomination. Being written a century and a half before Gutenberg’s printing press came to be, the book could be duplicated only by copying it out by hand. Seemingly every scribe who did so — even those who weren’t translating it into another European language at the same time — made their own edits, corrections, and quite likely additions. The original version of the book, the one that came directly from the hand of Rustichello, is long lost today, while the handful of pre-Gutenberg editions we do have range in length from 60,000 to 140,000 words, and are all substantially different from one another; they cannot even agree on their title, ranging from the matter-of-fact Travels of Marco Polo to the overblown A Description of the World. All of this has prompted some scholars to ask whether the whole book was a fraud from day one, whether Marco Polo ever really visited China at all. Such skeptics have noted some curious omissions. For example, Marco Polo, nothing if not a keen observer of women, doesn’t say a word about foot binding, a practice which would surely have struck a European like him as bizarre if not distasteful. And then there is the fact that this foreigner who claimed to have been so favored by the emperor shows up nowhere in any of the Chinese chronicles of the Yuan dynasty.

In truth, though, the preponderance of the evidence comes down heavily on the side of him having actually made the journey he claimed to have made. Once one filters out all of the fanciful, credulous, and supernatural claims — which may have come from Marco Polo himself, from Rustichello, or from some later scribe or translator — one is left with a solid core of established facts about China and other Asian lands that were never written down by any European before him as far as we can tell. It might even be wiser to use some of the seeming discrepancies to amend our view of Chinese history rather than to cast doubt on the book’s own veracity. Foot binding, for instance, may very well have fallen out of fashion during the Yuan dynasty, only to come roaring back when a Han Chinese took the imperial throne again; it was, as we’ve learned, never a practice that found much favor with the Mongols. On the other hand, the lack of mention of Marco Polo in Chinese sources really may indicate that he exaggerated his standing at court — but such an exaggeration doesn’t mean that everything else he wrote was untrue.

On the contrary, much of it rings very true. Throughout his book, he is exactly as awestruck with China as a visitor from a more backward culture like his own ought to have been. His description of paper currency — the first mention of such a thing anywhere in the Western canon — shows him grappling with the concept in just the way we might expect from a product of the Medieval mindset, for which wealth existed only in its most tangible form: “The khan causes every year to be made such a vast quantity of this money, which costs him nothing, [yet] it must equal in amount all the treasure in the world. You might say he hath the secret of alchemy, and you would be right!” Here Marco Polo is struggling openly and honestly to come to terms with what is arguably the most revolutionary idea in the history of economics. How, he is asking, can an intrinsically worthless thing be worth the value that is printed on its front just because everyone has agreed to say it is?

Whatever the details of its veracity, Marco Polo’s book was destined to remain the lengthiest description of China available to Europeans for centuries to come. For the era when ambitious traders like the Polos could make the journey from West to East without contending with too many hazards other than natural ones would prove to be extremely short-lived.

Kublai Khan died in 1294, not much if any time after his Venetian guests departed for home. (Some have speculated that their departure may have been connected to his death — perhaps the favor he had bestowed upon them was not forthcoming from his successor? — but Marco Polo’s book says nothing about either the khan’s demise or his own reasons for leaving China after so many years there.) About the same time, conflict among the khans began to splinter the larger Mongolian Empire in a serious way. So, rather than being the eastern wing of a sprawling pan-Asian empire, the Yuan dynasty of later years became more and more of an independent entity, ruling alone over Inner China and the lands to its immediate north. It would be 500 years before anyone else from the West would be able to repeat the overland journeys of Marco Polo and his peers who didn’t produce books about their adventures. China and the West, which had briefly seemed on the verge of being knowable and known to each another, receded from one another again, fading back into the shadowy realm of mutual myth and legend.

Meanwhile Yuan China passed through the familiar phases of dynastic decline on something of an accelerated timetable. In the 1340s, in the midst of disastrous flooding along the Yellow River which the government horribly mismanaged, an open revolt against Yuan rule erupted. In 1368, a Han Chinese leader named Zhu Yuanzhang succeeded in driving the Yuan court out of Dadu; the Mongolians were forced to retreat back to the region of the northern steppes where Genghis Khan had been born two centuries earlier. And so the wheel of history spun again. A new Chinese dynasty began, and the land reverted to its old vision of itself: insular, inviolate, and impregnable, the Middle Kingdom at the center of the world.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

9 Comments for "Chapter 11: The Yuan Dynasty"

  • Andrew Pam

    “where the city of Shangdu has been built” – probably “had” to maintain tense.

    “left Sangdu to return to Dadu” – “Shangdu”?

    “a part of the world must less rich and technologically advanced” – “much”?

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Michael

    I’m pretty sure the poem is called “Kubla Khan”, not “Kublai Khan” – I’m not sure why he left out the “i”, but I doubt that historical correctness was much of a priority for Coleridge.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Will Moczarski

    even if didn’t always follow it.
    -> even if he

    As time when on
    -> As time went on

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Jazerus

    “10,000” is a common expression in Chinese for “an uncountable number” – this is often rendered into English as “a myriad”. It seems Marco Polo picked up this particular expression in China, either interpreting it literally himself – which seems a bit unlikely after 20 years of immersion – or simply using it in his account to Rustichello without reflecting on the idea that the audience of his tale would take it literally.

    • Jazerus

      So, essentially, we should take Marco Polo saying there were “10,000” of something in the way you would take a modern English-speaker saying there were “a million” of something – that is, non-literally and equivalent to “a lot”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      I didn’t realize that. It’s really interesting, especially considering that early Greek number systems had their upper bound at the exact same place. I’ve added a parenthetical. Thanks!


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