By Sean


One of the Mongols’ enduring legacies in China was the incorporation of Yunnan into China1. The province of Qarajang, which is believed to be the Mongol equivalent of what the Chinese called Yunnan, was described by Marco Polo. The details in Polo’s account of the two cities in the province—Yachi and Qarajang—will be discussed.

An Overall Image for Yachi and Qarajang

Yachi was the capital and largest city in Qarajang, and it took Marco Polo five days’ journey westwards across the Brius river (the upper Yangtze) to arrive at this charming city. At Marco Polo’s time, the king was Esen Temur, who was Qubilai’s grandson. Agriculture was not an important part for this city,  and the local economy was mainly dependent on the contributions of merchants and craftsmen. King Esen Temur was in charge of the salt monopoly and gain a huge profit from it. People fed on rice and use white cowrie shells as their money. In Yachi, there’s no religious persecution, so that one could see a religious diversity here: Mohammedans, Buddhists, and Christians were in harmony. Some local customs could be special: folks allowed others to dispose of their wives if their wives were willing to, and, though mostly poor men, people eat the raw flesh of animals.

10 more days’ travel to further westwards, Marco Polo arrived at the city of Qarajang. The  king was Cagacin, who was the son of Qubilai. The dominant religion is Buddhism, and idolators were all over the city. Folks also used cowrie shells that came from India as currency, but the local economy was depended on gold-digging. Gold resources were wealthy that gold dust could be found in the river and gold heavier than dust could be found in the lakes and mountains. The army was among the greatest: soldiers were armed with plated armor made by buffalo skin; soldiers were equipped with the finest lance, shield, crossbow, and arrows with poison. There was a kind of large serpent that was about 10 paces long and 10 palms around. Its flesh was edible and tasted great. Its gall could be used to make highly valuable medicine that can cure rabies and Dystocia, thus many folks made living hunting this kind of serpent. During Marco Polo’s time, Qarajang also had international trade with India, in which trade local folks would sell large horses to India. Normally, people remove 2-3 joints from horses so that they cannot swish the rider with its tail.2 

The Authenticity of Marco Polo’s Account

1. The name of Qarajang

It is believed by many scholars including Henry Yule that Laci(Yachi), the main city of Qarajang, could be the capital of Yunnan, the modern Yun-nan-fu3. Rashid al-Din’s book Collections of Histories was regarded as solid proof of this matter as he regarded Yachi as the principal of Qarajang. However, Marco Polo described another large city westward of Yachi, where another capital of the kingdom existed, a city was called Qarajang—the same as the province’s name . Herman and Yule, followed by a lot of latter scholars, both argued that this city should be the kingdom of Ta-li, which means that Marco Polo was wrong about the actual name of Qarajang4. This mistake, however, was what granted Marco Polo credibility in his account.

According to Pilleot, this mistake shall be attributed to the history of Qarajang province5. Before Qubilai’s conquered the region of Qarajang, there used to be a kingdom called Ta-li. The chief capital was Ta-li (Qarajang) and the second capital was Yun-nan-fu (Yachi). The Mongols’ conquest of Ta-li was part of its strategy to attack the Southern Song from the southwest. When the Mongol attack from the north-west, they first took Ta-li given its geographical closeness. The king of Ta-li, Dun Xingzhi, acknowledged himself Mongke’s vassal in 1256, and in 1274, the area was incorporated into the new territorial unit of Yunnan. It was probably at the time of that campaign that “the name ‘Qarajang’, was first used or at least won popular recognition”6, and became fixed among the Mongols. It would not be surprising if the Mongols had used the name of the kingdom as a designation of its capital, and this was probably what Polo’s words amount to. 

Evidence can be found in Chinese resources. In 1273 Sayyid Ajall was sent to establish a “moving Grand Secretarist” in Yun-nan, and it was recorded as to “govern the barbarians of Ha-la-chang (Qarajang), Ya-ch’ih (Yachi), Ch’ih-k’o, Chin-ch’ih, and Ch’a-han-chang (统合刺章鸭赤赤科金齿茶罕章诸蛮)”7. The name Ha-la-chang and Ya-ch’ih were no doubt indicating the two main parts in Qarajang described by Marco Polo. If Ya-ch’ih designated Yun-nan-fu (Yachi), Ha-la-chang (Qarajang) must be used among the Mongols as the name of the main capital Ta-li, which was located in the western part of Yunnan. Another text was written in 1267, which recorded the mission of a prince named Hugaci to Yunnan. It was recorded that Hugaci was “to control the various regions called Ta-li, Shan-Shan, Ch’a-han-chang, Ch’ih-t’u-ko-erh, and Chin-ch’ih (镇大理鄯善茶罕章赤秃哥儿金齿等处)”8. Shan-Shan was known to be the Chinese name of Yun-nan-fu, which was called Yachi by the Mongols. Other place names were the same as the first text above. The remaining name is Ta-li, which would indicate that Ta-li and Qarajang were the same places. If Marco Polo heard the description or read relevant sources about Qarajang rather than visit the place directly, he would very possibly recorded the name as Ta-li, which the majority of the document named it. Consequently, Marco Polo was justified when he gave Qarajang as being at the same time the name of the kingdom of Yunnan and the city of Ta-li. Further, this justification should be proof of Marco Polo’s authenticity in his account. 

2.The Cowrie Shell as Currency


Cowrie shells circulated widely as currency around the Indian Ocean and western China in Qarajang. They were “durable, easy to handle, and impossible to counterfeit, they could be traded by weight, volume or unit”9. The scale is
described by Marco Polo as 80 cowries being worth a saggio of silver/ two Venetian goats, of which eight saggi of pure silver is worth one saggio of gold. Marco Polo’s mention of 80 cowries passing for a single weight of silver is very important, for this number can be precisely achieved after some calculations provided by Chinese sources. It was recorded that “they use shells in trade: these shells are colloquially called ba. One is a zhuang (莊); four zhuang are one shou (手); four shou are one miao (苗); five miao are one suo (索). They are even used for paying taxes”10 11. The important point here was that one suo, the biggest unit in the value scale, equals 4 × 4 × 5 = 80 zhuang, which was the smallest unit. So when Marco Polo told about the value of 80 cowrie shells, he clearly had in mind a recognized unit—the suo of 80 cowry shells12. Conclusion can be made that the cowrie shell currency proved Marco Polo’s authenticity in his portrait of Qarajang.

3. The purpose of Marco Polo’s travel in Qarajang

It was stated that in the Description of the World that Qubilai was so impressed with Marco’s mastery of Mongol custom, wisdom, and prudence that he “sent him as a messenger on some important royal business”13 to Qarajang. He performed so well in Qarajang and presented a perfect and precise report that Qubilai thereafter set him over all his embassies. So for the next 17 years, Polo went through different countries wherever the Lord sent him and brought him back news from all parts. There were two main problems with the description of his autobiography. Firstly, Qubilai’s decision to let Marco Polo replace all other “ambassadors” to deal with his business in East and Southeast Asia after the mission of Qarajang was dubious. It meant that Marco Polo, at that time a 22 years old boy, performed more outstandingly than the other ambassadors by his sheer talent and perspicacity, and grabbed Qubilai’s attention immediately for his first trip to Qarajang. Given the huge human resources in Qubilai’s court—Chinese like  Pingchung Liu and Hsu Heng, Khitans leftover from the Chin, Central Asians such as the Uighur Turks, and also Qubilai himself was “a man who drew heavily from Chin and Sung to build a sophisticated administration”14, it would be hardly possible for the story to go that way. Another problem was that Marco Polo’s reports about Qarajang were not valuable enough to support his claims, given it was safe to assume the information Marco Polo told in the Description of the World was essentially the same, counting some parts may differ from what he told Rusticheno, as what he presented to Qubilai. He did include a lot of information about Qarajang (see the overall image section), but overall it was too spotty, bland and would not be useful as military resources. The geographical information was also far less precise than information from Chinese sources readily available to the Qubilai, and the cultural information could not have been especially novel either15. Though it was only an assumption, it did bring some insight about the authenticity matter. For this part of Marco Polo and Qarajang, we need to put a question mark here and reconsider its credibility.


Marco Polo did fit in the image what people would generally expect from a traveller to Qarajang, which would lend him the credence of his presentation of Qarajang province. He called the city of Qarajang in a quite local way and he knew the conversion scale of local currency. His description of Qarajang would be regarded as a rather good presentation of the real Qarajang if it was not the importance of his report that he emphasized improperly. Because of this one single questionable matter, it could only be concluded that the information Marco Polo provided in his description of Qarajng was generally authentic, but if one wish to take it for granted and make sure it is one hundred percent valid, more investigations and researches into the specific subjects are needed.  


  1. Morgan, David. The Mongols. 2 ed. Vol. 3175. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007. 1-3175. p.538
  2. Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central 
  3. Yule, Henry, The Book of Ser Marco Polo (ed. Cordier), London, 1921, 2 vol. p.12
  4. Yule, Henry, Cathay and the Way Thither (ed. Cordier), London, 1913-1916, 4 vol. p.26
  5. Paul Pelliot , Notes on Marco Polo , Vol.2. pp. 169-181. Paris : Impri merie nationale, 1963. Volume II p. 175
  6. Paul Pelliot , Notes on Marco Polo , Vol.2. pp. 169-181. Paris : Impri merie nationale, 1963. Volume II p. 176
  7. Yuan che (ed. Kouo-tseu-kien de Nankin des Ming), 8, 2b 
  8. Yuan che (ed. Kouo-tseu-kien de Nankin des Ming), 6, 5b
  9. Haw, Stephen G. “The Overview of the Unified Territories of the Great Yuan and Marco Polo’s Account of the Empire of Qubilai Qa’an.” Zeitschrift Der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, vol. 170, no. 1, 2020, pp. 215–236. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Dec. 2020.
  10. Liu Yingli 劉應李 (1307): Da Yuan hunyi fangyu shenglan 大元混一方輿勝覽. Rev. Zhan Youliang 詹友諒, ed. Guo Shengbo 郭聲波. 2 vols. Chengdu 2003. p.453
  11. Guo Songnian 郭松年: Dali xing ji jiaozhu 大理行記校注/Li Jing 李京,  Yunnan zhilüe jijiao 雲南志略輯校. Ed. Wang Shuwu 王叔武. Kunming 1986. p.88
  12. Vogel, H. U. 2013: Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. Leiden/Boston.
  13. Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central
  14. Haeger, John W. “MARCO POLO IN CHINA? PROBLEMS WITH INTERNAL EVIDENCE.” Bulletin of Sung and Yüan Studies, no. 14, 1978, pp. 22–30. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Dec. 2020. p. 47
  15. Haeger, John W. “MARCO POLO IN CHINA? PROBLEMS WITH INTERNAL EVIDENCE.” Bulletin of Sung and Yüan Studies, no. 14, 1978, pp. 22–30. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Dec. 2020. p. 59


The Mongols Web Project [C3]

Group C3 Members: Nancy, Zheng Han, Sean, Hanson, Zach, and Daniel