Mongol Group c2

Is Marco Polo’s description of cities and stories in Chapter 1 reliable?



Marco Polo’s accounts of the province of Tangut[1] in the first chapter of the Description of the World cover the cities of Shazhou, Suzhou, and Ganzhou[2], presenting a vivid picture which depicts a variety of intriguing customs that were practiced within the province. In history, even though debates over whether Polo’s description in the book is credible never cease, rarely have historians mainly focused on specifically examining the authenticity of his description of Tangut.

Therefore, to assess the credibility of Polo’s description of Tangut, this paper consults with sources from famous orientalists, such as Henry Yule and Paul Pelloit, as well as those from contemporary history researchers who focus on the cultures of Central Asia and East Asia, mainly examining the validity of religious rituals and burial customs that are practiced in the city of Shazhou of Tangut Province. The credibility of Marco Polo’s account of Tangut would serve as a critical way to verify the validity of the larger picture Polo presents in the first chapter, with its prominent geographical position as the bridge between Central Asia and China.


[1] Tangut is both the Mongol name and Turkic name for Xi Xia, which includes regions of modern Gansu and Shanxi (Pelloit, Vol 1, pp 8, 125, 126). From 982 and 1227, Xi Xia had remained as an independent kingdom; it was conquered by Cinggis Qan and brought under the Mongol’s rule in 1227 (Samosyuk, 165).

[2] Shazhou, Suzhou, and Ganzhou refer to modern Dunhuang, Jiuquan, and Zhangye (Kinoshita, 45n63, 49n71, 50n74).



Marco Polo’s Description of Buddhism in Shazhou

Overall, Shazhou was indeed a city where Buddhism was prevailing, just as Polo emphasized in section 58 of the Description of the World, as well as a city where there were many idolators, as well as churches and abbeys full of idols, to which the idolators made sacrifice and showed great honor reverence. Noticeably, even though the words “Buddhism” or “Buddhist” are never mentioned in the text, according to Henry Yule, Marco Polo used the term “idolators” to denote “Buddhists,” as the Buddhists worship idols with their statues, in contrast to Christians, who worship God (Yule, 207). Shazhou’s wealthiness of Buddhism culture is further validated by Kinoshita’s annotation that ever since the fourth century, the city has been an important center of Buddhism, as the valley surrounding the city contains hundreds of temples cut into the rock, decorated with murals and filled with clay statues (Kinoshita, 45). Here, by mentioning “hundreds of temples cut into the rock”, Kinoshita might refer to the Mogao Cave, a large temple site which was “hewn out of the gravel hills near the oasis town of Dunhuang from the fourth century” and consisted of about 500 cave temples that are carved into a cliff face[3].

Although Polo precisely described Shazhou as an important center of Buddhism, it seems that he never visited the temples, which thus results in a rough description of the richness in Buddhism culture by merely mentioning the substantial number of Buddhists and temples in the city. In fact, what appears impressive about the Mogao Cave is not only the huge number of temples inside the cave, but also its wealthiness of Buddhism art treasure, including murals, sculptures, and artifacts that decorates the temples[4]. If he ever entered the temples, it would be impossible for Polo to ignore the impressive artworks inside, especially as one who encounters such a scale of spectacular Buddhism artwork for the first time.


[3] Based on my research, Dunhuang’s status as an important center of Buddhism is manifested by at least three facts. First, throughout history, monks and Buddhists from neighboring cities, including Jiuquan and Zhangye, came to Mogao caves for pilgrim and exchange of scriptures and Buddhism artworks. In addition, temples in Mogao Cave provided a large number of scriptures and copies of Buddhism literature for the temples of neighboring cities, especially in the tenth century (Russell-Smith, 408). Last but not least, contemporary historians’ studies on Dunhuang manuscripts, which were sealed in Mogao Cave and discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century, reveal that these manuscripts recorded materials regarding the origin of Buddhism (Schaik, 1).

[4] Since Tang Dynasty (618-907), Mogao Cave had been seeing a variety of art activities related to Buddhism, including paining and sculpturing, and developed into a treasury of arts of Buddhism (Lee, 1).



Marco Polo’s Description of Sheep Sacrifice in Shazhou

Marco Polo’s description of sheep sacrifice as a prevailing practice among Buddhists in Shazhou, where people with children took the sheep to the idols to pray for their children peace and safety, ate the sheep with reverence after praying, and kept the bones securely in a chest, is reliable. Although little source from scholars that describes sheep sacrifice in Shazhou is found, we might be able to study this religious practice through analogies. According to Henry Yule, the practice in Shazhou described by Marco Polo resembles that has existed among the Buddhist Kalmak[5] throughout centuries, who choose a ram for dedication, slaughter it, eat it and burn its bone on the altar when it gets old, saying that this would bring people health and luck (Yule, 207). Buddhist Kalmaks’ practice might be used to validate Polo’s account of the practice among Shazhou Buddhists, since Shazhou and Western Mongolia sharing similar religious practices might be explained by the fact that the Buddhism in these two geographically close regions is highly influenced by Buddhism of Tibet[6], where sheep has been seen with reverence as it could bring people health and peace[7] throughout history.

In addition, Polo also encountered a similar practice of sheep sacrifice in Zardandan[8], where people killed the sheep and spread its blood in a specific place in honor and sacrifice to the spirit for enchanting the spirit and curing the sicks. Noticeably, Zardandan is also a neighboring county of Shazhou’s, and it seems unlikely that Marco Polo would intentionally make up accounts of similar practices in two nearby cities. Therefore, subject to the existence of similar practice in nearby regions and the cultural relations among these regions, Marco Polo’s accounts of sheep sacrifice in Tangut might be reliable.


[5] Kalmak refers to Oirats, the westernmost group of the Mongols whose ancestral home is the region

shown by Figure.1 (Kara, 1).

[6] The form of Buddhism adopted by the Mongols was mainly Buddhism of Tibet, and from the 1240s the Mongols have maintained relations with a number of Buddhist sects in Tibet (Morgan, 110). However, Shamanism also imposes influences on Buddhism of Western Mongol, shaping the rituals practiced by local Buddhists (Yule, 207). Meanwhile, according to scholarly studies, Buddhism of Tangut consists of Tibetan and Sinitic Buddhism as two major constituents yet with local elements are also added overtime and gradually evolves into “Tangut Buddhism (Solonin, 160).

[7] In Tibet, Sheep is regarded as sacred spirituals, which bring people health, peace, and luck. However, despite their reverence towards sheep, Tibetans, instead of practicing sheep sacrifice, tend to use sheep models which are made of wood and paper during the sacrificial ritual, trying to limit killing of animals little as possible, which is said to be one of the important practices in Buddhism (桑吉扎西,2). Therefore, I speculate that Shazhou Buddhists and Buddhist Kalmaks might inherit the reverence of sheep, as well as the belief in sheep bringing peace and health, from Tibetan Buddhists, yet the actual practice of sheep sacrifice might be related to their local rituals, rather than Buddhism of Tibet.

[8] Zardandan refers to Yongchang in Modern China, which is also a county in Gansu (Kinoshita, 107). The county is about 800 kilometers away from Dunhuang.

Marco Polo’s Description of Burial Rituals in Shazhou

Overall, Marco Polo’s account of cremation practiced in Shazhou is credible. Since burial customs in Tangut are influenced by both Chinese and Tibetan rituals[9], I would like to examine the credibility of burial rituals in Shazhou described by Marco Polo by comparing the actual practices to those existing in Chinese and Tibetan traditions, respectively.

According to Yule, some of the Tangut burial rituals described by Marco Polo are of sophisticated Chinese traditions, such as forming coffins, keeping the body in the house, serving the dead man wine and food, and burning the dead body with paper coins and paper-made slave and animal figures[10]. The existence of these Chinese practices is validated by the accounts in the book Social Life of the Chinese, composed by American Board missionary to China Justus Doolittle[11]. In addition, Polo’s accounts of burial practices in Tangut also echo his description of Chinese burial practices, where people burn horses, slaves, camels, and gold cloths made of paper (Kinoshita 135). The similarities in Polo’s accounts of Tangut and Quisai[12] align with cotemporary historians’ belief that Chinese burial rituals have significant impacts on the Tangut’s, which, in turn, could serve as an evidence of the credibility of Polo’s account.

In addition, I also found strong similarities in the burial rituals in Tangut mentioned by Polo in similarity and those practiced in Tibet, which, again, aligns with historians’ belief in the cultural similarities between Tangut and Tibet. Specifically, according to Bogdanov, the ritual that having astrologist to determine the exact day the dead body should be burnt has been recorded in a Tibetan manuscript[13] as a Tibetan ritual as a perquisite of the dead person’s future rebirth[14]. However, in Kinoshita’s version, Marco Polo failed to mention that fact that determining the day depends not only horoscope but also on constellation of four elements, while this practice is properly mentioned in Yule’s version. Instead of suspecting the credibility of Polo’s account, I would argue that this might be due to the fact that two translators initially used different versions of manuscripts. Since the original manuscript is lost, and what have been used now are all copies[15], it is understandable that some information might be lost during the copying process.


[9] The connection with the Tibetan funeral ritual and the religious influences from Tibet is clearly stated in the Tangut manuscript that is found in the late 2000s by Professor E.I. Kychanov. The study of the manuscript is was conducted by E.I Kychanov and L.S Sativsky during the same period (Bogdanov, 64).

[10] Having astrologist to determine time of burning, based on horoscope and constellation of four elements, is critical as correct treatment of corpses is a prerequisite for the dead person’s future rebirth (Bogdanov, 64).

[11] None two of the surviving copies of manuscripts are exactly the same (Kinoshita, xv).

[12] The fact that religious and burial practices in Tangut are highly influenced by both China and Tibet is resulted from its geographical position between China and Tibet (Samosyuk,1). This fact is also validated by Henry Yule (Yule, 208).

[13] Serving food and wine and burning the dead body with paper coins and paper-made slave and animal figures is a ritual to wish the dead wealth and honor in the otherworld (Yule, 208).

[14] According to Yule, this book consists of detailed accounts of Chinese burial practices, which could serve to confirm Polo’s description of in Tangut (Yule, 208). However, this access of this book is not available online, so we are not able to validate Yule’s statement for now.

[15] Modern Hangzhou (Kinoshita, 136n19)


Due to the fact that Marco Polo’s accounts of religious practices and burial rituals are verified by the sources, I would conclude that Marco Polo’s accounts of Tangut are overall reliable, yet some important details of the city are missed in the account. Since speculating that Marco Polo’s accounts of other regions in the first chapter might be reliable yet lack great details. From here, I would infer that Marco Polo’s descriptions of cities and stories in the first chapter of DW might be credible in general, yet some important details of the cities which are described in the chapter might be imprecise or even missing.


1. Polo, M. (2016). The Description of the World (S. Kinoshita, Trans.). Hackett

2. Polo, M., Yule, H., Cordier, H., & Yule, A. F. (1903). The book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East / e3. ed. rev. throughout in the light of recent discoveries; Henry Cordier; With a memoir of Henry Yule by his daughter Amy Frances Yule. London.

3. Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

4. Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo ouvrage posthum, publié sous les auspices de lAcadémie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres et avec le concours du Centre national de la Recherche scientifique [Data set]. NII Digital Silk Road” / Toyo Bunko.

5. Sam van Schaik. The Tibetan Dunhuang Manuscripts in China.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 65, no. 1, 2002, pp. 129–139. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.

6. Lee, Sonya S. Repository of Ingenuity: Cave 61 and Artistic Appropriation in Tenth-Century Dunhuang.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 94, no. 2, 2012, pp. 199–225. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.

7. Samosyuk, Kira. “‘Donorsin the Tangut Painting from Khara—Khoto: Their Meaning and Function.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 26, no. 3/4, 2001, pp. 165–198. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.

8. Russell-Smith, Lilla Bikfalvy. WIVES AND PATRONS: UYGUR POLITICAL AND ARTISTIC INFLUENCE IN TENTH-CENTURY DUNHUANG.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, vol. 56, no. 2/4, 2003, pp. 401–428. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.

9. Kirill M. Bogdanov. Ritual Funeral Text Inv. 4084 from the Tangut Collection of IOM RAS. — A Brief Textual Study.” Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 57, 2014, pp. 61–69. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.Solonin

10. Kara, Dávid Somfai. “‘KALMAK: THE ENEMY IN THE KAZAK AND KIRGHIZ EPIC SONGS.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, vol. 63, no. 2, 2010, pp. 167–178. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.

11. Sangji Zhaxi 桑吉扎西: Xueyugaoyuan Zangzude Chongyang Xisu”雪域高原藏族的崇羊习俗,First published in The CPPCC Newspaper, 人民政协日报,2015.