Mongol Group A4

Marco Polo in zaytun



In The Description of the World, Marco Polo unfolds the account of his travel to China, where he learned abundant Chinese customs, histories, and traditions. Referred to as Mangi, Southern China under Qubilai Khan’s rule was an important part of the Mongol Empire. This large region relied heavily on water transport and maritime trade——namely, movements of goods, wealth, as well as people. For example, Zaytun was a city known for its bustling port, around which gathered almost all the Chinese merchants at that time [1]. It generated enormous prosperity not only to itself but also for the entire realm, despite being located far away from the imperial capital. According to Polo, Zaytun was so flourishing that it even ranked as one of the world’s top [2]. Nevertheless, some scholars such as Frances Wood questioned the validity of such description, arguing the Venetian traveler had actually never arrived in East Asia [3]. Still, I personally believe his report of China (at least that of Zaytun) is somewhat reliable, regardless of his presence at this marvelous place. Through comparison between the DW and other sources, I found a few details provided by both sides indicative of an overlap of evidence. In other words, Marco Polo’s narration does fit some external texts on these aspects, including Zaytun’s gains from import taxes, trade with India, and export of Chinese porcelains.

Quanzhou, Fujian, China in 2018

Map of Fujian Province


Features of Zaytun:


Port in Zaytun

“the Preeminent Port City of Maritime Asia”

Also translated as Caiton in Arabic or alternatively Zaytun as used by Marco Polo, the city of Quanzhou (its name in Chinese) yielded unparalleled affluence at its zenith during the 13th century. One extraordinary respect was tax revenue, which considerably supported the Mongol’s court as a long-term financial income. It is discussed in the book that “the Great Khan receives very great duties [droit] … that … has a very great quantity of treasure in this city.” In particular, such substantial profits were made by taxing all the mercantile ships 10% of the commodities they carried [4]. Every import brought into the Khan’s lands not only meant market and selling, but also rendered money in circulation from foreign traders to the supreme ruler. A comprehensive article by John Chaffee coincides with gains of taxation involved in this port: the city’s development undoubtedly contributed to the dynasty’s maritime tariff revenues, which rapidly grew as even more people converged in the port to do business [5]. Thus, such evidence validates Marco Polo’s portrayal of Zaytun of both economic and political significance to the Great Yuan. This is further reflected in several historical records representing the city as a superintendency of maritime trade in China. Since set up by the Mongols in 1277, Zaytun became a burgeoning intersection of commercial activities and enjoyed its high status indispensable to the empire as a whole [6]. The port assisted Qubilai Khan to rule, organize, and finance his court through channeling huge amounts of import tariffs. In addition, Zaytun is outlined by Ibn Batuta as “the greatest haven in the world,” and Rashid al-Din “a great shipping-port.” The Book of Ser Marco Polo proves Marco Polo’s record reliable, since knowledge about Quanzhou named in Chinese histories undeniably corresponds to contemporary documents of Western versions concerning Zaytun [7]. Meanwhile, trade necessitated migration and facilitated cross-regional interaction between diverse ethnic groups, the dynamics of cultural exchange shown in the following paragraph.


Trade with India

As mentioned above, Zaytun intensely engaged in shipping and maritime business, especially noteworthy for its incorporation of foreign merchants who came to, traveled around, and departed from China. Along with their visits, they would take luxuries into and out of the empire so that gradually, promoting communication amid different civilizations. Among all Marco Polo specifically illustrated the city’s commercial activities with India, that “in this city … all the Indian ships come, with many commodities and luxuries.” [8] As a result, migration was boosted and foreigners (mainly Southeast Asians) moved about more often than ever before. Some even evolved into a local community inhabiting Zaytun and speaking Tamil, a language widely used in Southern India nowadays. People mingled together, speaking their native tongue yet interacting with each other in the diverse cultural environment——they retained their original identity while simultaneously integrating into the regional, Chinese society [9]. The Tamil Hindu population manifests themselves through a bilingual inscription inscribing either a temple or an image to Siva in 1281. In fact, a Yuan dynasty envoy was dispatched to South India during the exact same year, showing the truthful existence of Indians living in China [10]. Meanwhile, economic exchange between domestic and overseas markets can be traced back from a shipwreck found in Quanzhou. It contained imports that were described in historical records such as exotic wood and incense, and probably came from the southeast coast of Thailand based on many scholars’ conjecture. In turn, numerous ceramics exported by China were found along the coast, corresponding to the tight connection of the Mongol Empire with remote areas elsewhere [11]. In regard to international trade, Marco Polo provides fundamentally accurate information about Zaytun; yet the port went far beyond just exporting goods abroad. It participated in commerce within the realm as well, remarkably, cooperating with another city that was famous for ceramic production.

Quanzhou—City of Light



In the kingdom of Fuzhou there was a city called Tiungiu, which according to Marco Polo, made the matchless porcelains across China. The Venetian traveler recounts his experience in visiting the markets there: people could buy cheap ceramics that were yet the best of quality and finest of beauty [12]. Based on a number of Chinese sources, such a place was possibly Fengzhou [13] or Tingzhou close to the boundary between today’s Fujian and Jiangxi provinces [14]. Southern Fuzhou also known as Minnan had mass production of potteries indeed, reflecting the booming industry that amazed any foreign visitor such as the European author from a distant land. Nevertheless, this thriving business did not start on its own as the nature of its competitiveness lied outside itself. Rather, the international export market provided by Zaytun facilitated Minnan’s porcelain manufacturing, while in turn earning substantial profits out of its transportation. Chinese research demonstrates how the port greatly promoted ceramic selling, given that Minnan ware was no more than of an ordinary standard in comparison to that of other towns in China. Instead of excelling by goods labeled at certain prices alone, traders focused on the process of bargaining as well utilizing powerful “marketing strategy and salesmanship.” Unparalleled tactics coupled with reliance on the busy port in Quanzhou naturally offered advantageous conditions for Tiungiu to achieve commercial success. Consequently, the former and latter were interdependent upon and benefited from each other, together witnessing the growth of pottery making as early as beginning since the late Song period [15]. The interrelation of Zaytun with Tiungiu stimulated development of the porcelain craft and created riches for both cities, which confirms Marco Polo’s words though the aesthetic value of such products were inevitably exaggerated to some extent.

A sculpture depicting

people hard working


The gate of the ancient city of Quanzhou in China

Zaytun’s bustling port


In general, Marco Polo’s account of Zaytun has been verified by multiple sources that cover the same or similar topics he included. It illustrates Southern Chinese society under the Mongols’ rule during the 13th century. Moreover, his travel plays an important role in world history by unveiling the previously imaginary Eastern territories to the far-off emperors and empresses in Europe. In particular, the city named Quanzhou significantly contributed to the great empire, not only enriching its local residents but also profiting foreign merchants coming from the rest of the world. Besides such economic prominence, the port supported the imperial court thus strengthening the khan’s reign and consolidating power of the Great Yuan as an exceedingly influential realm back then. The Venetian traveler presented a clear overview of Zaytun through highlighting its collection of duties, commerce with India, and shipping to sell porcelains. Responsible for both imports and exports, this amazing city expanded diverse industries ranging from exotic pearls to domestic pots in collaboration with its neighbor within China as well as states abroad. That’s why the description by Marco Polo is crucial for us to study, whose reliability guarantees readers how credible the home and overseas markets developed by Zaytun could be. It not only connected local and outside societies together but also opened up an era of unprecedented global exploration that would change human’s cognition ever since.



[1] The Description of the World, ch. 4, p. 141

[2] The Description of the World, ch. 4, p. 141

[3] Rachewiltz (1997), vol. 27, p. 34

[4] The Description of the World, ch. 4, p. 141

[5] Chaffee (2008), p. 108

[6] Brook (2010), p. 219

[7] Yule, et al. (1975), vol. 2, pp. 237–239

[8] The Description of the World, ch. 4, p. 141

[9] Chaffee (2008), pp. 110–111

[10] Guy (2001), pp. 295–296

[11] Stargardt (2001), p. 312, p. 372

[12] The Description of the World, ch. 4, pp. 141–142

[13] Vogel (2013), p. 204

[14] Haw (2006), p. 121

[15] Ho (2001), p. 258, pp. 262–263


List of references:

Brook, Timothy. 2010. The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Chaffee, John. 2008. “At the Intersection of Empire and World Trade: The Chinese Port City of Quanzhou (Zaitun), Eleventh-Fifteenth Centuries.” In Hall 2008, 99–122.

Guy, John. 2001. “Tamil Merchant Guilds and the Quanzhou Trade.” In Schottenhammer 2001, 283–308.

Haw, Stephen G. 2006. Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Routledge Studies in the Early History of Asia. London: Routledge.

{230} Ho, Chuimei. 2001. “The Ceramic Boom in Minnan during Song and Yuan Times.” In Schottenhammer 2001, 237–81.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. “Marco Polo Went to China.” Zentralasiatische Studien 27, 1997, pp. 34-92.

Stargardt, Janice. 2001. “Behind the Shadows: Archaeological Data on Two-Way Sea Trade between Quanzhou and Satingpra, South Thailand, 10th–14th Century.” In Schottenhammer 2001, 309–93.

Vogel, Hans Ulrich. 2013. Marco Polo was in China:New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. Monies, Markets, and Finance in East Asia, 1600–1900. Leiden: Brill.

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.

Yule, Henry, et al. The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East; Translated and Edited, with Notes, References, Appendices and Full Index. Amsterdam: Philo Press 1975, vol. 2.