Mongol Group A4

Is Marco Polo's Description about Quinsai reliable?



Quinsai, that is Xingzai 行在 in Chinese, was a Southern Song usage for modern Hangzhou, the capital of Southern Song Dynasty from 1138 to 1276. After the Mongols defeated Southern Song and occupied the city, Quinsai still remained as a business and cultural center of the Da Yuan Dynasty. In fact, the name “Quinsai” was officially banned by the Mongols during the Da Yuan Dynasty, as Yuanshi, Juan 9 noted: “庚子,命中书省檄谕中外,江南既平,宋宜曰亡宋,行在宜曰杭州” (the Central Secretariat was commanded to proclaim to China and abroad that the region south of the Yangtze has been subdued, and that the Song should now be called the late Song and Xingzai should be called “Hangzhou”) [1]. However, Marco Polo still used this colloquial usage.

In paragraph 152 and 153 in The Description of the World, Marco Polo claimed that he had “saw the city openly with his eyes” [2] and offered a comprehensive and detailed description of Quinsai that no descriptions of other places can compare with. In fact, according to Marco Polo’s trace in the book, he should visited the city more than once: besides what he claimed in paragraph 152, he should visited Quinsai twice during his trip to and back from India through the sea. This is because Marco Polo must depart from the port in Quanzhou in order to travel through the sea. And to reach Quanzhou, he must travel southward through the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal, which passes Hangzhou [3]. For the same reason, he also had to pass Quinsai to reach the port in Quanzhou during his mission of accompanying Princess Kökechin to Persia, as Yang Zhijiu suggested [4]. Therefore, studying whether Marco Polo’s description of Quinsai is reliable is not only important to the study of whether his description of Mangi is reliable, but also crucial to the study of whether he went to China or not.

This page aims at studying the reliability of Marco Polo’s description of Quinsai from three perspectives: the place, people’s lives, and businesses. Among these, the first subsection: The Place, is the main focus. The method of study used is to compare Marco Polo’s descriptions with words in contemporary Chinese sources, especially the local chronicles, to prove or disprove the reliability of his descriptions.

Noted that the version of The Description of the World mainly used in this page is the version translated by Sharon Kinoshita. In fact, there’re great differences about the description of Quinsai between different translation versions of the DW [5], which will be somehow mentioned later.

Also noted that since most quotations in the page are from Chinese primary sources, which don’t have English translated versions, I quoted them in Chinese and included my own translation of these quotations in the parentheses following the texts.


The Place:

In paragraph 152 in The Description of the World, Marco Polo described the natural and human landscapes of Quinsai detailedly. Many of these descriptions can be verified by contemporary Chinese materials. One important feature of Quinsai he mentioned was that “the city catches fire very often, for there are several houses of wood” [6]. This description can be verified by 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”) , a book introducing the Southern Song capital Linan (another name for Hangzhou) written in 1274. In 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”) juan 10, the author writes “临安城郭广阔,户口繁夥,民居屋宇高森,接栋连檐,寸尺无空,巷陌壅塞,街道陕小,不堪其行,多为风烛之患” (“There’s a large number of residential buildings connecting with each other closely. The streets are narrow to pass, leading to fire hazard”) [7]. Marco Polo also mentioned that “inside the city there is a mound with a tower on top, and on top of this tower is a wooden tablet, which a man holds in his hand and strikes from the inside with a mallet, making a sound heard from afar. This drum sounds every time a fire breaks out in the city or some outcry happens in the city” [8]. Similar description could be found in 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”) that “盖官府以潜火为重,于诸坊界置立防隅官屋,屯驻军兵,及于森立望楼,朝夕轮差,兵卒卓望,如有烟处,以其帜指其方向为号,夜则易以灯。” (“Aware of fire hazard, the governors build high towers and order soldiers to guard it. Whenever there’s a fire breaks out, the soldiers will raise a flag pointing at the fire’s direction. At night they use lights instead”) [9]. Noted that there were some deviations between these two descriptions in the form of fire alarm: Marco Polo described the alarm as a “drum”, while 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”) described it as flags and lights. However, since 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”) described the situation during Southern Song, it was possible that the Mongols changed the form of fire alarm after they occupied Quinsai. No matter how, Marco Polo’s description did capture this unique feature of Quinsai.

Besides, details in Marco Polo’s description about the place could also be verified. For example, Marco Polo mentioned that “in this city, all the roads are paved with stone and baked brick” [10]. This can be verified in 《咸淳临安志》 (“Xianchun Linanzhi”), a local chronicle that described the city of Hangzhou during the late Southern Song Dynasty, that “自和宁门外至景灵宫前……咸淳七年……朝命缮修内六部桥路口……铺以石” (“From Hening Gate to Jingling Palace, the royal court asked local government to repair the roads in the year of 1271 and pave the roads with stones”) [11]. What’s more, in Chinese Historian Xiang Da’s translation version of The Description of the World, Marco Polo described that the roads in Quinsai were “ten steps wide” [12]. Here “step” is a length unit used in ancient China. It referred to the length between people’s two feet in a step, which is about 1.6 meter. Therefore, the roads under Marco Polo’s description were about 16 meters wide. In 《咸淳临安志》 (“Xianchun Linanzhi”), we can find description about roads in Quinsai that “跸道坦平 走毂结轸 若流水行地上 经涂九轨”(“The roads are flat and easy to walk on. The width of roads is nine gui”) [13]. Here “轨” is another ancient Chinese length unit. It referred to the distance between the two wheels of a carriage, which is about 1.8 meter. So the roads in 咸淳临安志》 (“Xianchun Linanzhi”) were 18 meters wide. We could find that Marco Polo’s descriptions were very close with the official Chinese record in terms of this tiny detail.

Above examples prove the reliability of Marco Polo’s descriptions of Quinsai from unique city features, such as fire hazard and alarm, to tiny details, such as the width of roads. However, when mentioning the numbers of constructions or facilities in the city, the numbers Marco Polo described was oftentimes much larger than the actual numbers. For example, Marco Polo mentioned that there were “12,000 stone bridges” in the city of Quinsai [14]. However, according to 《乾道临安志》(“Qiandao Linanzhi”), which was written in 1169, there were only 74 bridges with names in Quinsai during the early years of the the Southern Song [15]. This number increased to 216 in 《淳祐临安志》(“Chunyou Linanzhi”), which was written in 1268 (around 30 years before Marco Polo’s travel to China), but it was still much smaller than 12,000 [16].

Marco Polo also mentioned that there’re “a good 3,000 baths where men take great pleasure in going several times a month”, and “they are so big that 100 men or 100 women could bathe there at a time” [17]. The fact that Hangzhou citizens had the custom of taking bath in bathhouses can be verified in 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”). Bathhouses were called “香水堂” (House of perfume) during Song and Da Yuan Dynasty since people liked to add perfumes in bath water [18], and the bath industry was one of the most important and featured industry in Quinsai. But the number of bathhouses 3,000 is way too large, as the actual number were no more than dozens [19].


People’s Lives:

Besides the place itself, Marco Polo also described people in the city and their lives. He recorded the population in Quinsai as “160 tomains of houses”, where 1 tomain stands for 10,000, so that there’re 1,600,000 houses altogether [20]. To examine the reliability of this number, we found that in the three local chronicles:《乾道临安志》(“Qiandao Linanzhi”), 《淳祐临安志》(“Chunyou Linanzhi”), and《咸淳临安志》(“Xianchun Linanzhi”), the population of different districts of Hangzhou were recorded. By collecting these data, we can draw the following table:


From the increasing population trend in the table, it seems reasonable that the number of houses in Quinsai grew to around 1,600,000 during Marco Polo’s visit in China from 1275-1291 [21].

Another evidence that supports Marco Polo’s claim about Quinsai’s population is in 《梦梁录》 (“Menglianglu”), juan 19. The book noted that “驻跸几近二百余年,户口蕃息,近百万余家” (“The population raised dramatically in Hangzhou during the last two hundred years. Now there’s above 1,000,000 houses in Hangzhou”) [22]. This sentence suggests that Quinsai’s population raised above 1,000,000 in the year of 1274, when the book was written. Therefore, it’s possible for this number to increase to 1,600,000 by the time Marco Polo visited the city.

Marco Polo also described people’s customs. For example, he mentioned that people in Quinsai had the custom of cremation, and “when dead bodies are taken to be burned, all the relatives, women and men, dress in canvas for mourning and accompany the dead body …… They go along singing idolators’ prayers” [23]. It has been believed that the “idolators” Marco Polo mentioned in the text referred to buddhists. Buddhism were extremely popular in Hangzhou, as the city was once granted the title “东南佛国” (“The Southeast Country of Buddhism”) [24]. It was likely that Buddhism promoted the custom of cremation in Quinsai. Records of cremation can also be found in 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”) that “数中有好善积德者 ……. 或死无周身之具者,妻儿罔措,莫能支吾,则给散棺木,助其火葬,以终其事” (“There were many people doing good things in the city …… When they find dead bodies without relatives around, they take out the bodies from coffins and burn them, as a way to end their lives”) [25]. The “people doing good things” mentioned in the text probably also referred to buddhists in the city.

In short, Marco Polo’s description of Quinsai’s population was proved by estimation from the trend of population increase during the end of Southern Song and beginning of Da Yuan Dynasty. His description of cremation could also be verified in 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”). Therefore, his descriptions of people’s lives in Quinsai were reliable.



Marco Polo also described Quinsai as an extremely rich city and a business center. Street market, as Marco Polo mentioned, was one important feature about the city’s business. The prosperity of markets in Quinsai was also described in 《梦梁录》(“Menglianglu”) that “大抵杭城是行都之处,万物所聚,诸行百市……无一家不卖者” (“Hangzhou is the place that all businesses gathers. One can find markets everywhere in the city”) [26].

Moreover, in paragraph 153, Marco Polo described the Khan’s tax revenue from Quinsai. He specifically described the salt tax in the city, as he noted that “each year, the salt from this city customarily renders 80 tomains of gold; and each tomain is 70,000 saggi of gold, which amounts (the 80 tomains) to 5,000,000 [MMMMMM] and 600,000 [DCM] saggi of gold; and each saggio is worth more than a florin of gold or a ducat of gold” [27]. Chinese historian Chen Dezhi has testified this amount of annual salt tax by comparing it with the record in Yuanshi, Shihuozhi and concluded that the numbers “are roughly consistent” [28]. This works as a strong evidence that proves the reliability of Marco Polo’s descriptions of Quinsai’s business.



By comparing with contemporary Chinese sources, mostly local chronicles, we find that most of Marco Polo’s descriptions of Quinsai were reliable. In term of the place, he was able to capture the unique feature of the city, which was that the city catches fire very often and has high towers, so that soldiers on the towers inform people once fire break out. His description of details, such as the width of road in the city, was also accurate. In terms of people’s lives, the population of the city he gave, which is 1,600,000, could be verified by estimation from the trend of population increase during the end of Southern Song and beginning of Yuan Dynasty. His description of people’s custom, such cremation, could also be verified. In terms of businesses, the markets and the amount of salt taxes Marco Polo described all corresponded to Chinese sources. The only inaccuracy was that Marco Polo tended to exaggerate the number of constructions or facilities, such as the number of bridges and bathhouses. This inaccuracy may indicate that Marco Polo was lying about his travel to China, but it was also possible that Marco Polo, or other authors/translators, were intentionally exaggerating the number to catch their readers’ eyes.



1. Yuanshi, juan 9. 本纪第九·世祖六.

2. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3872.

3. Bao (2001), p49.

4. Yang (1985), p129.

5. Gong (1998), p35-36.

6. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3892.

7. 《梦梁录》(Menglianglu), juan 10.

8. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3902.

9. 《梦梁录》(Menglianglu), juan 10.

10. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3906.

11. 《咸淳临安志》(Xianchun Linanzhi), juan 21 “御街” (The Street).

12. Xiang (1929), p93.

13. 《咸淳临安志》(Xianchun Linanzhi), juan 21 “御街” (The Street).

14. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3878.

15. 《乾道临安志》(Qiandao Linanzhi), juan 2 “桥梁” (The Bridges).

16. 《淳祐临安志》(Chunyou Linanzhi), juan 7 “桥梁” (The Bridges).

17. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3906.

18. 《梦梁录》(Menglianglu), juan 10 《团行》(Industries).

19. Lin (2009), p47.

20. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3942.

21. Xiang (1929), p98-99.

22. 《梦梁录》(Menglianglu), juan 19 《塌房》(Houses).

23. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3925.

24. Lin (2009), p47.

25. 《梦梁录》(Menglianglu), juan 18 《恤贫济老》(Compassion to the Poor and the Old).

26. 《梦梁录》(Menglianglu), juan 10 《团行》(Industries).

27. The Description of the World, Kindle location 3960.

28. Bao (2001), p48.


List of references:

Yuanshi, by 宋濂 (Song Lian) &王祎(Wang Yi).

The Description of the World, by Marco Polo. Sharon Kinoshita translated. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

《梦梁录》(Menglianglu), by 吴自牧 (Wu Zimu). 1274.

《咸淳临安志》(Xianchun Linanzhi).

《乾道临安志》(Qiandao Linanzhi). 1169.

《淳祐临安志》(Chunyou Linanzhi). 1268.

Yang Zhijiu. 《元史三论》(“About Yuanshi”). People’s Publishing. 1985.

Stephen G. Haw. “Marco Polo in “Mangi”: Kuizhou, Fuling, Houguan, and the Pontoon Bridge at Fuzhou”. 2020.

Bao, Zhicheng. 《马克.波罗杭州行迹探究》 (“Marco Polo’s Trace in Hangzhou”). 杭州研究 Hangzhou Research, 4th ser. 2001.

Lin Zhengqiu.《马可波罗对于杭州的评说》(“Marco Polo’s account of Hangzhou”). 杭州通讯 Hangzhou Communication. 2009.

Xiang Da. 《元代马哥孛罗诸外国人所见之杭州》(“Hangzhou in the eyes of foreigners such as Marco Polo during the Da Yuan Dynasty”). East Journal, juan 26, number 10. 1929.

Gong Yingyan. 《马可波罗对杭州的记述》(“Marco Polo’s Description of Hangzhou”). Jan 1998.