Mongol Group c3

Is Marco Polo’s account of Western China reliable?


By Nancy 


My project is on the reliability of Marco Polo’s description of Mien in the Description of the World. The description of this region can be divided into two parts: one is the great battle between Mien and the Great Khan Qubilai, and another one is the description of the City of Mien. Marco Polo spent most of his words in describing the great battle. Therefore, the focus of this project is also on the battle, and the description of the city only locates Mien and serves as an introduction of it. Mien is located on the southwestern of China, neighbor to the modern-day Yunnan Province. At Marco Polo’s time, Mien was next to Zardandan and had communications and conflicts with it. Overall, it acted as an important part in the southwestern of the Yuan Dynasty, and could also provide useful information for another individual project in our group on Zardandan.



Marco Polo’s description of the City of Mien is relatively short and vague. He focused on two pagodas in the city but did not provide an accurate geographical location for it. However, the word “Mien” could actually give us many information. According to Geoff Wade[i], Mien (Mian) 緬is the Chinese name for the Burman polity centered at Pagan, which was the Pagan Kingdom at Marco`s time. The name “Mien” only begins to occur in Chinese texts in the 13th century, and in earlier times, the polity was called “the Piao county” (驃國) and “the country of Pugan” (蒲甘國). The city, according to him in DW, was “very great and noble and the capital of the kingdom.” Therefore, we can locate this city as Pagan (Bagan), the capital of Pagan Kingdom, in modern day Burma (Myanmar).

According to Marco Polo, the city of Mien was belonging to the Great Khan. Since the Pagan Kingdom was toppled by the Mongols in 1287, it’s impossible for Marco Polo to visit the city before this date. How can a city remain to be a capital after the dissolution of the kingdom? Even though the Pagan Kingdom collapsed in 1287, Bagan remained to be the capital of that region until 1297. However, we do not have an exact date on which Marco Polo traveled to the Burman polity. According to the notes in The Travels of Marco Polo[ii], it is quite possible that some negotiations between 1277 and 1281 may have given him the opportunity of visiting Burma. Therefore, even if he traveled to the region, there’s a great possibility that he may not have reached the capital. What’s more, since his description of such a “great and noble” capital is limited to the animals and the two gold and silver pagodas in the city, whether Marco Polo himself visited the city should be doubted.



In Marco Polo’s description, there was a great battle took place in the kingdom of Vocian (Vochan/Yongchang), the capital of the Province of Zardandan. In 1272, the Great Khan Qubilai sent a force to Vocian and Qarajang to protect local people. The king[iii] of Mien and Bangala, who had not subjected to the Great Khan yet at the time, was upset at the occupation of the region by Yuan forces. He considered such force as a threat and therefore made great preparations for war. He had 50,000 horsemen and 2,000 elephants, on top of each were at least 12 fighting men. On the other side, the leader of the Khan’s army was Nasir al-Din 納速剌丁(Nescradin). He, with all of his 12,000 horsemen, defeated the Mien people and captured more than 200 elephants for Qubilai.

Besides Marco Polo’s description, I could not find any other source proving that there was such a battle between Yuan Dynasty and Mien in the year 1272. In Yuan Shi juan (chapter) 210[iv], the first battle between Yuan and Mien happened in 1277. In the third month of the 14th year of the reign [March 1277], the Mien people were angered by the submission of A He 阿禾, the commander of Jinchi[v], to the Yuan court, and attacked his territory. The Mien force had 40,000 to 50,000 men, 800 elephants, and 10,000 horses, intending to take over the place between Tengyue and Yongchang. Nasir al-Din was not mentioned in this battle. Instead, the Mien force was defeated by the Mongol commander Hudu 忽都[vi] with only 700 men. Description from the New Yuan Shi[vii] are similar, only identifying the date as the battle as March, rather than April, of 1277. This battle is also verified in History of Burma[viii]According to the book, Mien people again invaded Jinchi in 1277, and the leader of which asked the Yuan Dynasty for help. Contradicting to the place Vocian(Yongchang) given by Yuan ShiHistory of Burma[ix] states that the two forces actually fought at Ngasaunggyan, a place 110 km southwest of Vocian, and therefore the battle was called Battle of Ngasaunggyan 牙嵩延之战 in Burmese. Except the date, the overall description of this battle looks similar to the one described in DW. In the notes of The Travels of Marco Polo[x], Henry Yule also suggested that the date should be fixed to 1277, and 1272, MCCLXXII in Roman numerals, might be a clerical error for 1277 (MCCLXXVII).

Notice that none of the three sources above mentioned Nasir al-Din in the Battle of Ngasaunggyan in March/April 1277. In fact, he was recorded as the commander of another battle in October 1277. In the tenth month [October 1277][xi], as recorded in Yuan Shi, Nasir al-Din, the Pacification Commissioner[xii] and Commander-in-Chief of the various Route Commands in Yunnan, led a troop of more than 3,840 men to Jiangtou 江头[xiii], and brought 35,200 households to surrender. New Yuan Shi’s description of this event is identical to that of Yuan Shi, but Pelliot’s Notes on Marco Polo[xiv] suggests something different. As Pelliot described, Nasir al-Din, the commander of troops at Yunnan-fu, led an army against Zardandan and Burma in1277, and went to the Court to offer 12 tame elephants on his way return. The mention of Zardandan and elephants suggests that it’s more likely the battle in March/April of 1277, but the part of 12 tame elephants still contradicted with the record of more than 200 elephants in DW.

There was actually a battle happened in the year 1272. According to Yuan Shi and translation and conclusion done by Wade, ruler of Mien hated A Bi, the ruler of Jinchi, for having guided Yuan envoys, who demanded tribute, to Mien in 1271. Therefore, in April 1272, the Mien ruler, Narathihapate, attacked the polity of Jinchi and captured A Bi with a troop of more than ten thousand men[xv][xvi]. Since both events in April 1272 and March/April 1277 were military actions toward Jinchi, it’s possible for Marco Polo to accidentally combine them into one battle.

What’s more, in History of Burma[xvii]the battle in April 1277 was only considered as a border conflict by the Yuan Dynasty. At that time, Qubilai was said to have no intention in invading Pagan and was busy with wars in other region. The battle was not considered important by the Court, and the task was given to the army of Yunnan province. In the notes of The Travels of Marco Polo[xviii], Henry Yule also pointed out that Nasir al-Din had represented the conquest of Mien as a very easy task, and Qubilai may have in jest asked his gleemen if they would undertake it. Therefore, being a representative of Qubilai, Marco Polo should be unlikely to record the 1277 battle as the GREAT Battle between Mien and the Khan.

In conclusion, Marco Polo most likely conflated a series of military actions related to Pagan Kingdom between 1272-1287. The battle recorded by Marco Polo is more likely to be the Battle of Ngasaunggyan, in the year 1277, during the First Mongol Invasion of Burma, which in the end toppled the 250-year-old Pagan Kingdom. He appeared to confuse this battle, conducted by Hudu, with the battle a few months later led by Nasir al-Din and another one in 1272 against Jinchi.



Overall, Marco Polo’s description of Mien in DW should not be considered reliable. His words for both the city of Mien and the battle between Mien and the Yuan Dynasty provided only basic information, and his description of “the great battle” was also suspicious. The details, unfortunately, were largely vague and incorrect. There’s no sufficient evidence to whether Marco Polo visited Mien, but it is doubtful whether he visited the city of Mien himself. However, from other primary and secondary sources, the two wars in 1272 and 1277 identified in this research could possibly be proved to be related to Zardandan.

[i] Wade (2009), 26

[ii] The Travels of Marco Polo, book 2, chapter 54

[iii] Can be identified as Narathihapate, the last king of the kingdom reigned from 1256 to 1287. He is known in Burmese history as the “Taruk-Pyay Min” (“the King who Fled from the Taruk”)

[iv] Yuan Shi juan 210:十四年三月,緬人以阿禾內附,怨之,攻其地,欲立寨騰越、永昌之間。時大理路蒙古千戶忽都、大理路總管信苴日、總把千戶脫羅脫孩奉命伐永昌之西騰越、蒲、驃、阿昌、金齒未降部族,駐札南甸。阿禾告急,忽都等晝夜行,與緬軍遇一河邊,其眾約四五萬,象八百,馬萬匹。忽都等軍僅七百人。緬人前乘馬,次象,次步卒;象被甲,背負戰樓,兩旁挾大竹CP,置短槍數十於其中,乘象者取以擊刺。忽都下令:「賊眾我寡,當先沖河北軍。」親率二百八十一騎為一隊,信苴日以二百三十三騎傍河為一隊,脫羅脫孩以一百八十七人依山為一隊。交戰良久,賊敗走。信苴日追之三里,抵寨門,旋濘而退。忽南面賊兵萬餘,繞出官軍後。信苴日馳報,忽都復列為三陣,進至河岸,擊之,又敗走。追破其十七寨,逐北至窄山口,轉戰三十餘里,賊及象馬自相蹂死者盈三巨溝。日暮,忽都中傷,遂收兵。明日,追之,至千額,不及而還。捕虜甚眾,軍中以一帽或一兩靴一氈衣易一生口。其脫者又為阿禾、阿昌邀殺,歸者無幾。官軍負傷者雖多,惟一蒙古軍獲一象不得其性被擊而斃,餘無死者。


**至元十四年 1277

[v] Same as Zardandan in Marco Polo’s description

[vi] Yuan Shi juan 210: 大理路蒙古千戶

[vii] New Yuan Shi juan 252: 既而,金齒千額總管阿禾來附,具言國使前為蒲賊阻道,今蒲人降,國使已達,緬王留之不遣。無何,緬人以阿禾內附,怨之,攻其地,欲立砦騰越、永昌間。時萬戶忽都、總管信苴日、總把脫羅脫孩方奉命伐永昌之西騰越、蒲驃、阿昌、金齒未降諸部族,駐兵南甸。阿禾來告急,忽都等遂晝夜兼行,與緬軍遇,阻河為陣,眾約四五萬,忽都等兵僅七百人。緬人前乘馬,次象,次步卒,象被甲,背負戰樓,兩傍挾大竹筒及短槍。忽都下令:「賊眾我寡,當先衝河北賊。」親率二百八十騎為一隊,信苴日以二百三十三騎傍河為一隊,脫羅脫孩以一百八十七人依山為一隊。戰良久,蠻兵敗走。追之三里,抵砦門,阻淖而返。有蠻兵萬餘繞出官軍後,忽都複列為三陣,進至河岸擊之,又敗走。連破十七砦,逐北至窄山口,轉戰三十餘里,蠻兵為象馬所踐蹂,故大敗。日幕,忽都中傷,始收兵。明旦,追之至千額,不及而還。俘獲甚眾,軍中以一帽、一靴、一氈衣易一俘。其脫者又為阿禾、阿昌邀殺,歸者無幾,官軍惟一蒙古人獲一象,不得其性被擊死,餘無死者。時十四年三月也。

[viii] History of Burma, 120: 然至1277年,缅人又犯干额、金齿,其地在太平河(Taping River)旁, 距蛮莫凡七十哩。其首领已内附,因向元廷告急,世祖乃谕征之。

彼等进至干额,驱侵略者于境外,是役缅人称为“牙嵩延之战”(Battle of Ngasaunggyan)。

[ix] History of Burma, 121

[x] The Travels of Marco Polo, book 2, chapter 52, note 3

[xi] Yuan Shi juan 210:十月,雲南省遣雲南諸路宣慰使都元帥納速剌丁率蒙古、爨、僰、摩些軍三千八百四十餘人征緬,至江頭,深蹂酋首細安立寨之所,招降其磨欲等三百餘寨,土官曲蠟蒲折戶四千、孟磨愛呂戶一千、磨柰蒙匡裡答八剌戶二萬、蒙忙甸土官甫祿堡戶一萬、木都彈禿戶二百,凡三萬五千二百戶,以天熱還師。

[xii] Translation from Wade 2009: 36

[xiii] Wade (2009), 31, note 58: This was the city of Katha of the Pagan Kingdom. Some, however, suggest that this was Kaungton in the region of Bhamo.

[xiv] Pelliot Vol.II 793: 298. Nescradin.

[xv] Wade (2009), 20: 1272, April—Ruler of Mian attacked the polity of Jinchi (Gold Teeth) in punishment for having guided Yuan envoys to Mian. Captured A Bi, the ruler of Jinchi and took him back to the capital. He was ransomed by others of his polity and returned to Jinchi.

[xvi] Yuan Shi juan 210:十二年四月,建寧路安撫使賀天爵言得金齒頭目阿郭之言曰:「乞脫因之使緬,乃故父阿必所指也。至元九年三月,緬王恨父阿必,故領兵數萬來侵,執父阿必而去。不得已厚獻其國,乃得釋之。

[xvii] History of Burma, 120-121: 缅人视此战严重异常,以为中国已竭尽其能,倾百万雄兵以摧毁缅国,顾此战只一边境冲突耳,云南行省主其事,而世祖则方忙于调度其他战事,其间且有失利者,故缅甸之战,无关大要,朝廷不必发兵,世祖亦无侵缅之意,是以自始至终,委其事于行省驻军,并在华,掸族中略征附军而已。

[xviii] The Travels of Marco Polo, book 2, chapter 54, note 2



The Description of the World, by Marco Polo, translated by Kinoshita Sharon (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2016)


Yuan Shi 元史, by Song Lian 宋濂


New Yuan Shi 新元史, by Ke Shaowen柯劭忞


History of Burma 缅甸史, by G.E. Harvey, translated by Yao Ziliang 姚梓良 (Beijing: Shangwu Yinshu Guan 1973)


The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, ed. by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier (1903)


Pelliot, Paul (1959), “Notes on Marco Polo

Wade, Geoff (2009). Eugene Perry Link (ed.). The Scholar’s Mind: Essays in Honor of Frederick W. Mote. Chinese University Press. ISBN 9789629964030.