Kessi Lin

Marco Polo and His Descriptions of Fujian

Sugar, Tax revenue and dialect

Marco Polo described Fujian as “The kingdom of Fugiu”, which was one of the 8 kingdoms consisting of Mangi, Southern Song before the Yuan Dynasty took over. within location 155-157[1] of his book The Description of the World, he described how he visited the four main cities in Fujian Province, Quenlinfu, Fujian [Unquen], Fuzhou [Fugiu] and Zaytun[Quanzhou]. Marco Polo marked several interesting points about what he saw in this Fugiu kingdom, where nowadays is Fujian Province in China. Firstly, he points out that cities in Fujian like Unquen produced a big amount of sugar which Marco Polo directly referred to as “the city of sugar”. Born in merchant’s family, he spoke highly of Fuzhou and Zaytun as there were lots of trading activities so that not only cultural exchanges but economical vibrancy within these cities. Marco Polo specifically pointed out the tax revenue and his realization of the comparison of the monetary system in Zayton with his past experience with European money. He also pointed out things that appeared culturally interesting to him such as the kingdom was full of idolaters, which alludes to the believers of Buddhism. Yet Marco Polo did not describe everything right which aroused scholars’ questioning the reliability of his descriptions as well as his actual arrival in Fujian[2]. For example, he refers the city of Unquen as Fujian and the kingdom of Fujian as “Fugiu” but actually that was the city of Fuzhou; he also prompted strange accounts which does not match the reality of Fujian such as the massive quantity of wild animals like lions, people eating men’s flesh and mistaking China pot’s colors (Marco Polo, Section 155). Scholars across the world discuss whether his descriptions matched Fujian’s history and whether the several mistakes he made in his descriptions could be signs for the argument that he never went to Fujian, Southern Song’s regions and China. I will be focusing on these accounts above later. By comparing Marco Polo’s description with other scholars’ research, we might see the authenticity of Marco’s words as well as evaluation of other scholars’ research. Besides, from analyzing his descriptions, we might get to know Marco Polo more, regarding his habits, personal preferences as well as personalities. This is useful in all research on the account of Marco Polo.

History of Sugar

In Ronald A. Edwards’s Sugarcane and sugar, he provides a brief history of how and when sugar and sugarcane was used and developed in China, including Fujian[3], he argues that sugarcane was used and made into sweeteners and syrup in food and drink. For example from Western Han Dynasty.It was also used to be a kind of medicine as Edward describes that “sugarcane syrup (蔗漿) could be used to relieve hangover”. The earliest dated time for using sugarcane was in the era of wartimes– Chu (楚國, BC 11 century –BC 223). And gradually, sugarcane was planted in Jiangnan (江南 means Jiangnan dongxi lu 江南東西 路, Liangzhe 兩浙, Fujian 福建, Guangnan dongxi lu 廣南東西路) and Sichuan (四川), also spread to Jiangsu (江蘇/蘇), Hubei (湖北/鄂), Hunan (湖南/赣) and Anhui (安徽)during the Song Dynasty. Specifically, Sha tang (沙糖) was produced in Quanzhou (泉州 in Fujian), Fuzhou (福州 in Fujian), Jingzhou (荊州 in Jiangxi 江西), and Guangzhou (廣州 in Guangdong) in Song Dynasty”. The author argues that Fujian became the leading sugar producing region. Even though the production of sugar was laid in Song Dynasty, there were signs to hint that Marco Polo was very possible to sense the massive production in Fujian.

Sugar Industry in Fujian

Marco Polo described the city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province as an “important center of commerce in pearls and other precious stones…so well provided with every amenity that it is a veritable marvel.” The Fujian city was “a great resort of ships and merchandises…that is one of the two ports in the world with the biggest flow of merchandise.”Regarding how Fujian province made a contribution to the sugar production and trading activities, the author argues that “the distribution of sugar industry in Song corresponds to that of the present, and “Fujian was one of the main places of production. Thus, the product economy in Fujian was prosperous. The quantity of the sugar Fujian sold to Jiangnan and the northern market was very large”[4] R.E. refers to solid evidence to contend that the sugar industry was rapidly growing from Song Dynasty to Yuan Dynasty. He says that “the sugar industry in China got consolidated during the Southern Song Dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty, and sugar production places moved from the interior area to the coastal areas such as Fujian and Guangdong…” [5]Before Song Dynasty, the sugar was limited provided to the rich and those with high social status. Yet the suagr industry significantly expanded starting from Yuan Dynasty and made Fujian one of the major cities with sugar tradings. This was especially important as it shows that Marco Polo’s focus on sugar was grounded. Fujian was just started to increase the scheme of sugar trading.


“There may be some exaggeration in this statement, but Marco Polo was by no means the only contemporary foreigner to praise the excellence of Chinese sugar. Abu’l Abba Ahmad Shinab al-Din al-“Umari (d. +1338), in his Masalik al-Absar fiMamalik al-Amsar (Ways of the Eyes to Survey the Provinces of the Great States) spoke of the great skill of Chinese artisans in making sugar candy.”[6]

Sugar in the city of Unquen

In Marco Polo’s description, the city Unquen was about three days of his journey in the kingdom of Fugiu. He refers this city as “the city of sugar”[7]as where there was “an immense quantity of sugar made. He continues to add that “from this city the Great Kaan gets all the sugar for the use of his Court, a quantity worth a great amount of money”. He also says that “and before this city came under the Great Kaan these people knew not how to make fine sugar; they only used to boil and skim the juice, which when cold left a black paste. But after they came under the Great Kaan some men of Babylonia who happened to be at the Court proceeded to this city and taught the people to refine the sugar with the ashes of certain trees…” This matches with the history of sugar which was imported from China.

In Stephen G, Haw’s Marco Polo in “Mangi”: Kuizhou, Fuling, Houguan, and the Pontoon Bridge at Fuzhou, he argues that Marco Polo’s mentioning of sugar matched with the history of Fujian province’s cities, such as Fuzhou, Jianningfu and HouguanHaw referenced the Chinese resources which marks that recorded in 1849, “in the valley of the Min upstream from Fuzhou, sugar-cane and tobacco are extensively grown in all the fields……”. As this was about “a century before Marco was in the area”, it presented a valid fact that Marco Polo did not make up his descriptions of these “cities of sugars”. What deserves to mark is that Houguan was still noted for its sugar and sugarcane during the Ming dynasty” …[8]


Tax Revenue in Zayton

Scholars believe that it is because Marco Polo’s merchant family experience with tradings, he paid specifc attention in the monetary exchange between Chinese currency with European one. In Hans Ulrich Vogel’s Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues, the author focuses on the description of ‘currencies, salts, and revenues in Yuan China’ in the Travels of Marco Polo. (p. 1) The author claims that many of the descriptions concerning the above aspects are supported by Chinese sources – official and private historic records and historical relics. He argues that no contemporaries of Marco Polo produced similarly accurate accounts related to these aspects of the economy in Yuan China; therefore, the only way Marco Polo could have provided such precise information was if he had actually been there.[9]

Scholars has made comparisons with what Marco Polo had said in his text with Chinese records on the account of tax revenue as well as solid evidence of trading between Chinese and Western merchants, they found that Marco Polo’s sayings matched with what Chinese historians and researchers recorded. Continuing with the review of Hans Ulrich Vogel’s text, scholars found thatchapter six compares Marco Polo’s figures on the tax revenue of Zayton (Quanzhou). To analyze the data on the salt tax revenue and other fiscal resources of this region, and the customs and revenue of Kinsay and its territories exclusive of the salt income, Vogel converts these data into gold liang and Zhongtong guan paper money. He then compares these figures with established knowledge of the Yuan financial system, especially in the Hangzhou region.[10] Vogel uses the analyses of Franz Schurmann, Chen Gaohua, Shi Weimin and Herbert Franke on tax items, revenues and expenditures in money or kind from 1263–1329 to estimate the general quantitative and qualitative trends in public revenue in the Yuan.[11] He concludes that considering all the complexities of the currency situation, state revenue system, price developments and market conditions, Marco Polo’s figures are in accordance with the Yuan monetary conditions and the fiscal regime. He then discusses how and from where Marco Polo obtained the information. He believes Marco Polo belonged to local administrative provisions that demanded daily participation by all ranked officials such as overseers, assistant overseers and lower-level local officials. According to Vogel, Marco Polo also provided precise information on the taxation of a number of commodities. He recorded that all spices and other commodities were subject to a tax of three and a third percent of their value. He also noticed that rice wine and silk made great returns. Marco Polo stated that all ships arriving at Zayton (Quanzhou) harbour, from the Indies were charged ten per cent duty on all commodities.[12] Vogel tracks the history of government regulation of maritime trade in the Yuan and obtains average values for basic monetary and metrological units such as grosso, saggio, libbra, miskal and liang. Besides the mean values, he also provides the highest and lowest values to indicate the range of possible variation. Vogel proves that Marco Polo’s one-tenth rate and his statement about freights costs and profit shares matched perfectly with Chinese sources”.[13]Regarding the monetary system, Marco Polo described in details how galangel could be bought in Zaytun. In Professor Weng’s article, he translated Marco Polo’s descriptions and confirmed the details by saying “生姜,高良姜产很多,马可波罗说用意大利归搦齐亚城的银钱一 枚可购买四谤生姜…”.

Overall, in his descriptions of Zaytun, we can see that Marco Polo has identified the 10% taxation fees with goods imported. Besides, Marco Polo pointed out that there were exports of ceramic production in Southern Fuzhou and there were massive number of Indian ships carrying commodities and luxuries which matched source as well.



Quenlinfu was a city that was affluent with resources, just like other cities in the kingdom of Fugiu. Quenlinfu, nowadays referring to Jianningfu 建寜府, was an economic center filled with “production of silk, fruits and other trading activities”. The fact that Marco Polo refers to this city as Quenlinfu shows that he was affected by the Fujian accent. Stephen G Haw explains that “for Dialectical consideration, Marco Polo did record Fuzhou as “Fugiu”, which is a standard pronunciation that he no doubt heard from officials in the city, but in Houguan town, there were no officials even of county level. The pronunciation of the name as he heard it in the town of Houguan was therefore the local dialect version……”[14][15] In Marco Polo’s own description, he referred the kingdom of Fuzhou to “Choncha” directly in his previous explanations of Mangi, or other kingdoms, and cultural representations as well. As “Fugiu”, “Quenlinfu”,”Unquen” and “Choncha”were all derived from Fujian dialects where Marco Polo observed, perceived and remembered on his own.


In conclusion, from all the sources discussed above, it is quite sure that Marco Polo had stayed in China and did go to Fujian. By acknowledging the massive sugar production as well as the sugar industry growth in Quenlinfu and Unquen, by spending time and efforts figuring out how the tax revenue worked and describing the monetary system in detail, and by directly using Fujian dialects to refer to many places and places of interests, Marco Polo addressed his personal interests while visiting different cities within Fujian. [16]In Marco Polo’s narration, we can see there are exaggerations over things that looked spectacular to him. For instance, he referred “the wild animals“, which were tigers, to lions; and people conducting religious activities or fold belief activities as [people] “willingly eat men’s flesh, as long as they have not died a natural death”. However, just like tea made no interests to him, he was a person with his own interests. It is understandable for him to talk on things that inspired him to talk on. The fact that we don’t see descriptions in Chinese sources might not prove that he had not been to China, only proved that he might not be as important as he described himself in The Description of the World. From the exaggerations he made in his visits, we might know that he had been a person used to exaggerate and make up things that appeared unreal to attract his readers. [17][18]


[1] Polo, Marco. The description of the world. Hackett Publishing, 2016.

[2] Wood, Frances. “Did Marco Polo Go to China?” Asian Affairs 27.3 (1996): 296-304.

[3] Ronald A. Edwards. Sugarcane and sugar甘蔗與糖,2012

[4] Daniels, Christian (1996) Agro-industries: Sugarcane Technology in Science & Civilisation in China Volume 6: Biology and Biological Technology Part 3, edited by Joseph Needham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Tai Kokuki 戴国輝 (1967),Chūgoku kansho tōgyōno tenkai,《中国甘蔗糖業の展 開》. Tōkyō: Ajia keizai kenkyūjo, 東京: アジア経済研究所。

[6] Needham, Joseph. Science and civilization in China. Vol. 5. Cambridge University Press, 1976.

[7] Pelliot, Paul, and Louis Hambis. Notes on Marco Polo. Vol. 3. Paris: Impr. nationale, 1959.

[8] Haw, Stephen G. “Marco Polo in “Mangi”: Kuizhou, Fuling, Houguan, and the Pontoon Bridge at Fuzhou.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 170.2 (2020): 445-466.

[9] Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo was in China: new evidence from currencies, salts and revenues. Brill, 2013.

[10] 高田英樹. “ザイトン 泉州: マルコ・ポーロの東方 (1).” 国際研究論叢: 大阪国際大学紀要 23.2 (2010): 133-152.

[11] Barrett, T. H. “Hans Ulrich Vogel: Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. (Monies, Markets and Finance in East Asia, 1600–1900.) Xxxii, 643 Pp. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013. ISBN 978 90 04 23193 1.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014, pp. 401–402., doi:10.1017/S0041977X14000287.

[12] 叶向阳. “16、17世纪西方人眼中的福建——以《拉达行纪》与《新东印度纪事》为中心.” 闽台文化研究 000.003(2010):43-50.

[13] Moule, A. C. 1957: Quinsai, with other notes on Marco Polo. Cambridge.

[14] Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001

[15] John W. Haeger, ‘Marco Polo in China? Problems with internal evidence’, Bulletin of Sung and Yuan Studies, 14 (1978), 22–30.

[16] 翁国珍. “马哥·波罗及其福建之行.” 海交史研究 (1980).

[17] Lieu, Samuel NC. “Medieval Manichaean And Nestorian Remains In The Zayton (Quanzhou) Of Marco Polo.” New Light on Manichaeism. Brill, 2009. 181-199.

[18] Zhian, Li. “Professor Yang Zhijiu’s Achievements and Methodologies in Historical Studies.” Nankai Journal (Philosophy, Literature and Social Science Edition) 5 (2015): 8.


The Book of Ser Marco Polo V2: The Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Kessinger Publishing, 2006.

Jackson, Peter. “Marco Polo and His’ Travels’.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1998): 82-101.

Amitai, Reuven, and David Orrin Morgan, eds. The Mongol Empire and its legacy. Vol. 24. Brill, 1999.

Chen, Qing, et al. “An analysis of pigments from Sung and Yuan dynasty tomb wall paintings of Fujian province in China [Original title and text in Japanese].” Bunkazai Hozon-Syuhuku Gakkaisi 41 (1997): 78-87.

HE, Wei, and Wei-rong LIU. “The Development and Influence of Fujian Sugar Refining Technology in Song and Yuan Dynasty.” Journal of Putian University 3 (2013): 14.

Fan, Jiang. “Bring Marco Polo Back to China: Feng Chengjun and His Translation of Classics about Sino-Foreign Cultural Exchanges.” Chinese Translators Journal 2 (2006): 8.

Atwood, Christopher P. “Marco Polo’s Sino-Mongolian Toponyms, with Special Attention to the Transcription of the Character zhou 州.’.” Conference ‘Marco Polo and the Silk Road,’Yangzhou Museum, Yangzhou University, and International Academy of Chinese Studies of Peking University, Yangzhou, Jiangsu, China, September. 2015.


KatōShigeshi加藤繁 (1953),“Shinaniokerukanshooyobisatōnokigennitsuite, 支那における甘蔗及び砂糖の起源に就いて.”In Shinakeizaishikōshō《, 支那 経済史考証》, KatōShigeshicho, 加藤繁著, pp. 676 –687.Tōkyō:Tōyō Bunko, 東京:東洋文庫。

Shida Fudōmaro 志田不動麿 (1957),“Chūgokuni okeru satōno fukyū, 中國に於 ける砂糖の普及.”In TakikawaHakushikanrekikinenronbunshū–Tōyōshi hen, 《瀧川博士還暦記念論文集 –東洋史篇》, Takikawa Hakushi Kanreki KinenRonbunshūKankōIinkai, 瀧川博士還曆記念論文集刊行委員会, pp. 125 –139. Tōkyō: Nakazawa insatsu kabushiki kaisha, 東京:中沢印刷株式会 社。

Chen Xudong 陳旭東 (2003),“ShilunSongdaizhitangyedefazhan,試論宋代製 糖業的發展.”Xueshutansuo, 學術探索,83(11), 第11期 (總第83期),pp. 64 –66. (This author is a graduate student at 雲南大學中國經濟史研究所).

Dong Kaizhen 董愷枕、Fan Chuyu 范楚玉 (2000),Zhongguo ke xue ji shu shi: nong xue juan di shi er juan, 《中國科學技術史:農學卷 v. 12》, Lu Jiaxi 盧 嘉錫總主編. Beijing: Ke xue chu ban she, 北京:科學出版社。