N OW Venice at this time was full of enterprising merchants—merchants such as we hear of in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Among these were two Venetians, the brothers Polo. Rumours had reached them of the wealth of the mysterious land of Cathay, of the Great Khan, of Europeans making their way, as we have seen, through barren wildernesses, across burning deserts in the face of hardships indescribable, to open up a highway to the Far East.
So off started Maffio and Niccolo Polo on a trading enterprise, and, having crossed the Mediterranean, came "with a fair wind and the blessing of God" to Constantinople, where they disposed of a large quantity of their merchandise. Having made some money, they directed their way to Bokhara, where they fell in with a Tartar nobleman, who persuaded them to accompany him to the Court of the Great Khan himself. Ready for adventure, they agreed, and he led them in north-easterly direction; now they were delayed by heavy snows, now by the swelling of unbridged rivers, so that it was a year before they reached Pekin, which they considered was the extremity of the East. They were courteously received by the Great Khan, who questioned them closely about their own land, to which they replied in the Tartar language which they had learnt on the way.
How the brothers Polo set out from Constantinople with their nephew Marco for China.
Now since the days of Friar John there was a new Khan named Kublai, who wished to send messengers to the Pope to beg him to send a hundred wise men to teach the Chinese Christianity. He chose the Polo brothers as his envoys to the Pope, and accordingly they started off to fulfil his behests. After an absence of fifteen years they again reached Venice. The very year they had left home Niccolo's wife had died, and his boy, afterwards to become the famous traveller, Marco Polo, had been born. The boy was now fifteen.
The stories told by his father and uncle of the Far East and the Court of the greatest Emperor on earth filled the boy with enthusiasm, and when in 1271 the brothers Polo set out for their second journey to China, not only were they accompanied by the young Marco, but also by two preaching friars to teach the Christian faith to Kublai Khan.
Polo lands at Ormuz.
Their journey lay through Armenia, through the old city of Nineveh to Bagdad, where the last Khalif had been butchered by the Tartars. Entering Persia as traders, the Polo family passed on to Ormuz, hoping to take ship from here to China. But, for some unknown reason, this was impossible, and the travellers made their way north-eastwards to the country about the sources of the river Oxus. Here young Marco fell sick of a low fever, and for a whole year could not proceed. Resuming their journey at last "in high spirits," they crossed the great highlands of the Pamirs, known as the "roof of the world," and, descending on Khotan, found themselves face to face with the great Gobi Desert. For thirty days they journeyed over the sandy wastes of the silent wilderness, till they came to a city in the province of Tangut, where they were met by messengers from the Khan, who had heard of their approach. But it was not till May 1275 that they actually reached the Court of Kublai Khan after their tremendous journey of "one thousand days." The preaching friars had long since turned homewards, alarmed at the dangers of the way, so only the three stout-hearted Polos were left to deliver the Pope's message to the ruler of the Mongol Empire.
"The lord of all the earth," as he was called by his people, received them very warmly. He inquired at once who was the young man with them.
"My lord," replied Niccolo, "he is my son and your servant."
"Then," said the Khan, "he is welcome. I am much pleased with him."
So the three Venetians abode at the Court of Kublai Khan. His summer palace was at Shang-tu, called Xanadu by the poet Coleridge—
"In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sacred sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground,
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossom'd many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery."
So the three Venetians abode at the Court of the Chinese Emperor for no less than seventeen years. Young Marco displayed so great intelligence that he was sent on a mission for the Khan some six months' journey distant; and so well did he describe the things he had seen and the lands through which he had passed, that the Khan heaped on him honours and riches. Let us hear what Marco says of his lord and master.
"The Great Khan, lord of lords, named Kublai, is of middle stature, neither too full nor too short: he has a beautiful fresh complexion, his colour is fair, his eyes dark."
The capital of the Empire, Pekin, two days' journey from the sea, and the residence of the Court during the months of December, January, and February, called out the unbounded enthusiasm of the Polos. The city, two days' journey from the ocean, in the extreme north-east of Cathay, had been newly rebuilt in a regular square, six miles on each side, surrounded by walls of earth and having twelve gates.
"The streets are so broad and so straight," says Marco, "that from one gate another is visible. It contains many beautiful houses and palaces, and a very large one in the midst, containing a steeple with a large bell which at night sounds three times, after which no man must leave the city. At each gate a thousand men keep guard, not from dread of any enemy, but in reverence of the monarch who dwells within it, and to prevent injury by robbers."
From an old Chinese Encyclopedia at Paris.
This square form of Pekin, the great breadth of the straight streets, the closing of the gates by sound of a bell—the largest in the world—is noted by all travellers to this far-eastern city of Cathay.
But greater even than Pekin was the city of Kin-sai (Hang-tcheou-fou), the City of Heaven, in the south of China. It had but lately fallen into the hands of Kublai Khan.
"And now I will tell you all its nobleness," says Marco, "for without doubt it is the largest city in the world. The city is one hundred miles in circumference and has twelve thousand stone bridges, and beneath the greater part of these a large ship might pass. And you need not wonder there are so many bridges, because the city is wholly on the water and surrounded by it like Venice. The merchants are so numerous and so rich that their wealth can neither be told nor believed. They and their ladies do nothing with their own hands, but live as delicately as if they were kings. These females also are of most angelic beauty, and live in the most elegant manner. The people are idolaters, subject to the Great Khan, and use paper money. They eat the flesh of dogs and other beasts, such as no Christian would touch for the world. In this city, too, are four thousand baths, in which the citizens, both men and women, take great delight and frequently resort thither, because they keep their persons very cleanly. They are the largest and most beautiful baths in the world, insomuch that one hundred of either sex may bathe in them at once. Twenty-five miles from thence is the ocean, and there is a city (Ning-po) which has a very fine port, with large ships and much merchandise of immense value from India and other quarters."
But though Marco revels in the description of wonderful cities, he is continually leading us back to the Great Khan himself. His festivals were splendid. The tables were arranged so that the Emperor sat higher than all the others, always with his face to the south. His sons and daughters were placed so that their heads were on a level with his feet. Some forty thousand people feast on these occasions, but the Khan himself is served only by his great barons, their mouths wrapped in rich towels embroidered in gold and silver, that their breath might not blow upon the plates. His presents were on a colossal scale; it was no rare occurrence for him to receive five thousand camels, one hundred thousand beautiful horses, and five thousand elephants covered with cloth of gold and silver.
"And now I will relate a wonderful thing," says Marco. "A large lion is led into his presence, which, as soon as it sees him, drops down and makes a sign of deep humility, owning him its lord and moving about without any chain."
His kingdom was ruled by twelve barons all living at Pekin. His provinces numbered thirty-four, hence their method of communication was very complete.
"The Unrolling of the clouds"—III.
The world as known at the end of the thirteenth century after the travels of Marco Polo and his contemporaries.
"Messengers are sent to divers provinces," says Marco, "and on all the roads they find at every twenty-five miles a post, where the messengers are received. At each is a large edifice containing a bed covered with silk and everything useful and convenient for a traveller . . . here, too, they find full four hundred horses, whom the prince has ordered to be always in waiting to convey them along the principal roads. . . . Thus they go through the provinces, finding everywhere inns and horses for their reception. Moreover, in the intervals between these stations, at every three miles are erected villages of about forty houses inhabited by foot-runners also employed on these dispatches. They wear large girdles set round with bells, which are heard at a great distance. Receiving a letter or packet, one runs full speed to the next village, when his approach being announced by bells, another is ready to start and proceed to the next, and so on. By these pedestrian messengers the Khan receives news in one day and night from places ten days' journey distant; in two days from those twenty off, and in ten from those a hundred days' journey distant. Thus he sends his messengers through all his kingdoms and provinces to know if any of his subjects have had their crops injured through bad weather; and, if any such injury has happened, he does not exact from them any tribute for that season—nay, he gives them corn out of his own stores to subsist on."
This first European account of China is all so delightful that it is difficult to know where to stop. The mention of coal is interesting. "Throughout the whole province of Cathay," says Marco, "are a kind of black stones cut from the mountains in veins, which burn like logs. They maintain the fire better than wood. If you put them on in the evening they will preserve it the whole night, and it will be found burning in the morning. Throughout the whole of Cathay this fuel is used. They have also wood, but the stones are much less expensive."
Neither can we pass over Marco's account of the wonderful stone bridge with its twenty-four arches of pure marble across the broad river, "the most magnificent object in the whole world," across which ten horsemen could ride abreast, or the Yellow River (Hoang-ho), "so large and broad that it cannot be crossed by a bridge, and flows on even to the ocean," or the wealth of mulberry trees throughout the land, on which lived the silkworms that have made China so famous for her silk.
Then there are the people famous for their manufacture of fine porcelain ware. "Great quantities of porcelain earth were here collected into heaps and in this way exposed to the action of the atmosphere for some forty years, during which time it was never disturbed. By this process it became refined and fitted for manufacture." Such is Marco's only allusion to china ware. With regard to tea he is entirely silent.
But he is the first European to tell us about the islands of Japan, fifteen hundred miles from the coast of China, now first discovered to the geographers of the West.
"Zipangu," says Marco, "is an island situated at a distance from the mainland. The people are fair and civilised in their manners—they possess precious metals in extraordinary abundance. The people are white, of gentle manners, idolaters in religion under a king of their own. These folk were attacked by the fleet of Kublai Khan in 1264 for their gold, for the King's house, windows, and floors were covered with it, but the King allowed no exportation of it."
From a woodcut in the first printed edition of Marco Polo's Travels, 1477.
Thus Marco Polo records in dim outline the existence of land beyond that ever dreamed of by Europeans—indeed, denied by Ptolemy and other geographers of the West. In the course of his service under Kublai Khan he opened up the eight provinces of Tibet, the whole of south-east Asia from Canton to Bengal, and the archipelago of farther India. He tells us, too, of Tibet, that wide country "vanquished and wasted by the Khan for the space of twenty days' journey"—a great wilderness wanting people, but overrun by wild beasts. Here were great Tibetan dogs as large as asses. Still on duty for Kublai Khan, Marco reached Bengal, "which borders upon India." But he was glad enough to return to his adopted Chinese home, "the richest and most famous country of all the East."
At last the Polo family wearied of Court honours, and they were anxious to return to their own people at Venice. However, the Khan was very unwilling to let them go. One day their chance came. The Persian ruler was anxious to marry a princess of the house of Kublai Khan, and it was decided to send the lady by sea under the protection of the trusted Polos, rather than to allow her to undergo the hardships of an overland journey from China to Persia.
So in the year 1292 they bade farewell to the great Kublai Khan, and with the little princess of seventeen and her suite they set sail with an escort of fourteen ships for India. Passing many islands "with gold and much trade," after three months at sea they reached Java, at this time supposed to be the greatest island in the world, above three thousand miles round. At Sumatra they were detained five months by stress of weather, till at last they reached the Bay of Bengal. Sailing on a thousand miles westwards, they reached Ceylon—"the finest island in the world," remarks Marco. It was not till two years after their start and the loss of six hundred sailors that they arrived at their destination, only to find that the ruler of Persia was dead. However, they gave the little bride to his son and passed on by Constantinople to Venice, where they arrived in 1295.
And now follows a strange sequel to the story. After their long absence, and in their travel-stained garments, their friends and relations could not recognise them, and in vain did they declare that they were indeed the Polos—father, son, and uncle—who had left Venice twenty-four long years ago. It was no use; no one believed their story. So this is what they did. They arranged for a great banquet to be held, to which they invited all their relations and friends. This they attended in robes of crimson satin. Then suddenly Marco rose from the table and, going out of the room, returned with the three coarse, travel-stained garments. They ripped open seams, tore out the lining, and a quantity of precious stones, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds poured forth. The company were filled with wonder, and when the story spread all the people of Venice came forth to do honour to their famous fellow-countrymen.
Marco was surnamed Marco of the Millions, and never tired of telling the wonderful stories of Kublai Khan, the great Emperor who combined the "rude magnificence of the desert with the pomp and elegance of the most civilised empire in the Old World."
A Japanese fight against the chinese at the time when Marco Polo first saw Japanese.