Mongol Group A3

Is Marco Polo’s Description of Qubilai Khan’s Court Reliable?


    According to The Description of the World (D.W), Marco Polo met Qubilai Khan in the capital of the Yuan Dynasty, Khanbaliq (Dadu), after arriving in China in 1275.[1] In chapter 2 of D.W, Marco Polo talked about Qubilai Khan’s royal court in detail. In my opinion, this is the most important part of his visit to Khanbaliq, and the trustworthiness of it directly influences the credibility of him being in Khanbaliq physically. Whether Polo traveled to Khanbaliq or not is probably not the main concern for scholars like Frances Wood who believe that Marco Polo didn’t travel to China at all [2]but those who think that Marco Polo went to China sometimes have different opinions about the validity of him visiting Khanbaliq. This essay will examine different aspects of Qubilai Khan’s court mentioned in Chapter 2, focusing not only on the architecture and design of the palace but also on the residents living and serving in or around it.

Geographical Location

    Marco Polo says that Qubilai Khan had his capital city built right next to an ancient city called Khanbaliq to prevent the ancient city from rising against him one day.[3] This seems confusing at first because the capital city is also called Khanbaliq, so how can there be two

 Khanbaliqs? Actually, for the Mongols and other nomadic people in the steppe, “Khanbaliq” means “the lord’s city” instead of a fixed location. Chingz Khanthe grandfather of Qubilai Khan, conquered the capital of the Jin Dynasty, Zhongdu, in 1215 and destroyed it. [4] Zhongdu was called “Khanbaliq” at that time. Qubilai Khan must know this and fear that the descendants of the Jin Dynasty might come back one day to overthrow him, as a precaution the new Khanbaliq was built next to the ruins of the old Khanbaliq, and all residents in old Khanbaliq were moved to the new capital. Marco Polo’s description here is reliable.

Qubilai Khan’s Palace

Marco Polo talks about Qubilai Khan’s Palace in great length. At one point, he writes that the palace has no upper floor, and the paving of it is about ten palms higher than the ground.[5] The palace that Polo refers to is called “Ta-ming tien” by Chinese sources, and it is Chinese tradition that such tiens should only have one floor, which fits Marco’s description.[6] It is also recorded that this Ta-ming tien is about 10 chi (traditional Chinese unit of length) above the ground, which is a similar height as that of ten palms.[7] Marco Polo in D.W also mentions beautiful sights in the garden of the palace. There was a lake full of different fish, a green mound where all kinds of trees are planted, and many animals roaming in the garden.[8] The details of these views can be found in a book devoted to the descriptions of the palace of the Mongols and adjacent palace grounds.[9] Overall, the way that Marco Polo writes about the architectural style and the decorations of Qubilai Khan’s palace is convincing.

Qubilai Khan’s Wives and Sons

Marco Polo claims in Chapter 2 that Qubilai Khan had four wives and a great number of concubines dwelling in his palace. [10] As far as I am concerned, Polo might have made a mistake regarding the number of legitimate wives of Qubilai Khan. Qubilai Khan probably only had two legitimate wives titled “Khatun” in Mongol fashion. The first wife is the Empresses Cabi,[11] and the second wife is Empresses Nambui. [12Marco Polo may have mistaken one or two of the concubines as legitimate wives. Marco Polo also says that Qubilai Khan received 100 beautiful virgins as his mistresses every year and divided them into groups of six and each group would serve him for three days.[13] There is no evidence to support or question this story.

D.W states that each of Qubilai Khan’s wife had a court of her own with up to 10,000 male and female servants. [14] This actually reflects a great difference between the Mongol society and the sedentary societies. Mongol women enjoyed much higher status than women in sedentary societies. They could participate in military affairs and had a lot of say in politics.[15] They could also have their own courts called “Ordo”. Each noblewoman can receive money from the state’s income to run her Ordo. Ordo not only provided the noblewomen with means of living but also served as a place for them to socialize with others and exert influence. [16] Marco Polo’s description here fits the Mongol custom very well and is thus convincing.

Marco Polo also says that Qubilai Khan had 22 sons in total. [17] Qubilai probably did have a lot of sons due to the large number of partners he had. Marco Polo especially points out that prince Temur was the appointed successor of Qubilai, as he was the son of Qubilai’s eldest son Chingz. [18] Temur did succeed Qubilai as the Great Khan. However, Qubilai’s eldest son was not named after the late Chingz Khan. Actually, his name was Jingim. The similar pronunciation of “Jingim” and “Chingz” might have caused the error. [19] This leads me to doubt that Marco Polo might have written down what he heard from others who are clearly not experts on this issue about Qubilai’s family members, thus copying the error in his writings. In conclusion, the description of Qubilai Khan’s family members by Marco Polo is somewhat problematic and should not be taken as simple truth.

Qubilai Khan’s Palace Guards

Marco Polo tells readers that Qubilai Khan was guarded by 12,000 horsemen called Quesitan. These 12,000 guards were then divided into four groups led by four captains.[20] Quesitan had a long history. It was actually the Imperial Guard set up by Chingz Khan as an elite force of the Mongol army. By 1206 this force consisted of about 10,000 men,[21] 8,000 of them served as day guards and 2,000 of them worked as night guards. Chingz Khan also appointed four generals that he could trust to lead the Imperial Guard. The soldiers in this legion enjoyed very high status.[22] The number of soldiers enlisted probably grew between the reign of Chingz Khan and Qubilai Khan from 10,000 to roughly 12,000. Therefore, Marco Polo is right in terms of the structure and the strength of this force.

The Luxurious Lifestyle of Qubilai Khan in His Court

Marco Polo claims that one example depicting Qubilai Khan’s luxurious lifestyle was the number of gold vessels he had for use in banquets held in his palace. He says that Qubilai Khan had a very large pot of pure gold put in the center of the hall to store wine. There were also many smaller pots of pure gold to store other drinks surrounding the large pot. Between every two guests, there was a large gold bowl filled with drinks. Each person used his/her gold cup to get the wine from the large gold bowl.[23] This certainly sounds very impressive. For Han Chinese, using so many gold artifacts may seem overly extravagant. But it was a habit for steppe people to use gold vessels if they could afford them. The Mongols loved gold artifacts.[24] Marco Polo’s description is in accordance with the Mongol customs and thus reliable.



Overall, Marco Polo showed a good level of knowledge about Qubilai Khan’s court and the city of Khanbaliq. His claim about the geographical location of Khanbaliq is backed up by ample historical records. His descriptions of Qubilai Khan’s palace were perfect without any noticeable flaws. I believe that it serves as strong proof that he actually visited the palace. His accounts of the Mongol Imperial Guards, the courts of the noblewomen (Ordo)and the banquets of Qubilai Khan all fit what other sources and Mongol customs have to say. The only issues he seems to get wrong are those concerning Qubilai Khan’s family. But I believe that those are minor mistakes that can be neglected. I come to believe that Marco Polo’s account of Qubilai Khan’s court is mostly reliable, thus proving that he has physically visited Khanbaliq.


Marco Polo met Qubilai Khan for the first time in Shangdu, Inner Mongolia; they later met in Dadu. Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. Prologue.

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo go to China?

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. P.75.

The Secret History of the Mongols. P.167.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. P.74 Location 2462.

Yule, Henry. The Book of Marco Polo I. P. 369.

Ku kung i lu

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. P.74 Location 2475.

Ch’ue keng lu. P.25.

10 Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. P.72. Location 2428.

11 Cleaves, Francis Woodmen. Biography of Empress Cabi.

12 Qubilai Khan married Nambui after Cabi’s death. Man, John. Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection.

13 Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. P.72. Location 2435.

14 Same as note 10.

15 Nicola, Bruno De. Women’s Role and Participation in Warfare in the Mongol Empire. P.95-p.112.

16 The Constantinople princess Maria Palaiologina who married Hulegu Khan’s son had her own court in Ilkhanate. Prazniak, Roxann. Constantinople in Rum. P.62.

17 Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. P.73. Location 2442.

18 Same as note 17.

19 Polo, Marco. The Description of the world. Footnote 48.

20 Polo, Marco. The Description of the world. P.76. Location 2510.

21 Morgan, David. The Mongols. Location 1005.

22 The Secret History of the Mongols. P. 143.

23 Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. P.76. Location 2520.

24 Watt, James. The Decorative Arts. P.18.

List of References

Morgan, David. The Mongols.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World.

Yule, Henry. The Book of Marco Polo I and II.

Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo Vols. 1 and 2.

Wood, Francis. Did Marco Polo go to China?

The Secret History of the Mongols.

Cleaves, Francis Woodmen. Biography of Empress Cabi.

Man, John. Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection.

Prazniak, Roxann. Constantinople in Rum.

10 Nicola, Bruno De. Women’s Role and Participation in Warfare in the Mongol Empire.

11 Biran, Michal. 1997. Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia.

12 Rossabi, Morris. 1988. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times.

Ch’ue kelig lu

14 Watt, James C. Y. 2010a. “The Decorative Arts.”

15 Ku kung i lu

16Picture by SY – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,