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Pictures Regarding Prester John, See Ken’s Section

The “Paiza” as an archeological evidence for “Yam” system,

see Yuyang’s section

Tolui (son of Genghis Khan) and his wife Sorghaghtani. 

See Sabrina’s Section

Battles of Kublai Khan against Nayan

See Fiona’s Section


The Description of the World (DW) is a book by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa, focusing on Polo’s travels through Euroasian continents between 1271 and 1295, together with his experiences at Da Yuan Dynasty ruled by Kubilai Khan. Despite the intriguing stories, one thing worth studying is the credibility of such chronicles. The credibility of DW determines if it could be counted as a reliable primary source to study on Mongol history around the 13th century, which is the importance of our research. Our group took a close look into Chapter 2 of DW, which expands on details of Mongol court, customs, administration, and warfare. We discovered that Chapter 2 is a mixture of both fictional, exaggerated, mistold stories, together with historical facts offering valuable references on Mongol lifestyle and events.

Hence, with the group topic of “Historical Fact or Fictional Exaggeration: Discussion on Details of the Mongol Empire and the Court of the Great Khan in The Description of the World”, we specified our individual research areas into 5 parts:

  1. Prester John by Ken Yan

  2. Three residences and itinerary by Hanyi Yu

  3. Nayan’s Rebellion by Fiona Xie

  4. Marriage Customs under Kubilai’s Reign by Sabrina Song

  5. Mongol Administration by Yuyang Xu

In brief, our group considered DW, in terms of Chapter 2, a rather story-telling based fictional piece of work, however originating on factual historical events to a certain extent. Perhaps a better way to view DW, other than reliable primary sources or purely fictional stories, is to figure out the historical, factual kernel underneath the cover of exaggerated, fictional stories.

To view detailed individual research projects, simply click on the navigation bar buttons on the top right part of this page, and return to homepage by clicking on “Homepage”.

Ken Yan, in terms of the chronological evidence and other sources, claims that Polo’s description of Prester John had confused timelines and conflated stories. Ong Khan and Liao emperor Yelü Deguang were both viewed as Prester Johns from Polo’s interpretation. The mixed-up and conflated stories were pointed out in the detailed research, and comparisons were made to verify what in DW indeed happened, or to show what was coined or missed by Polo. To expand on, the article started with identifying the multiple Prester Johns, then took a close look at Prester John vs. Chingiz Khan, and Prester John vs. the Golden King. Several reasons were given, including the false preconception from William the Rubruck that misguided Polo to consider Ong Khan as a Qara Khitai leader, thus confused with Yelü Deguang; the social identity reasons of Rustichello as Arthurian romance writer and Polo as a merchant were also considered: their priority was to make stories appealing rather than being a precise historian. The most fundamental reason was that, originated from A Letter from Prester John in 1165, the European people needed a symbol of a powerful foreign leader (Mongol Khan in Polo’s perspective) to be a Christian-firendly and trustworthy ally. Hence, intentional details of Prester John would be added to DW, together with conflation of stories onto one single Prester John figure. Multiple sources were used to approach the picturing of Prester John; different versions of DW and various notes on DW were referred, together with The Secret History of Mongols (SHM) and William the Rubruck’s chronicles.

Hanyi Yu, focusing on the three residences and the itinerary, came to the conclusion that accounts of residences of Kubilai Khan and other places were mostly factual descriptions rather than myths. The description of Qaraqorum in DW was very brief and it was truly one of the residences of the great Khan. It was located near the Orkhon River. For Xanadu, it was originally named after Kaiping, and it was constructed as a strategic operational base. The basic description and the time Kubilai Khan in DW was there was true, and the details of the intricate palaces were also mostly based on facts. For example, in other sources, it was verified that the palace was built at a lake site, with many springs and rivers around there. Yet the account of the enchanters might be hard to verify. Descriptions for Khanbaliq, Liangzhou and Eriqaya were also verified.

Fiona Xie focuses on Marco Polo’s descriptions of Nayan’s rebellion in chapter 2 of DW. The battle happened in 1287, while Marco Polo mistakenly said that it was in 1286. Marco Polo claimed that Nayan was the uncle of Marco Polo, which is an inaccurate statement. According to multiple historical sources, Nayan was, in fact, a cousin younger by three generations to Kubilai. Marco Polo also stated that Nayan was sentenced to death after the battle, which is true and has been verified by various historians. By examining other details of the battle, such as Nayan’s reason for the rebellion, the encounter of the two forces, and Nayan’s execution, Fiona asserts that most of the descriptions of the battle between Kublai and Nayan in DW are factual, while with some faulty and exaggerated statements can also be found.

Sabrina Song focuses on the marriage customs under Kubilai’s reign, especially the polygamy system, the levirate practice, and the ghost marriage. These marriage customs can all be confirmed in the contemporary sources of John of Plano, William of Rubruck, Yuan-shih, etc., as well as several secondary sources. Despite Marco Polo may fail to mention the levirate disputes between Mongols and Han Chinese in the Yuan dynasty and may mistake a Chinese custom for a Mongol one, the existence of these marriage customs depicted by Marco Polo is undisputed.

Yuyang Xu, who investigated the description of money administration (in the Yuan dynasty part of the Mongol Empire) as well as the administration of the Yam system in the Mongol Empire, found that Macro Polo had a certain degree of exaggeration when describing two kinds of Mongol administration in his book “The Description of the World”. In terms of the description of money administration, Marco Polo exaggerated the stability of currency used in Yuan dynasty and failed to mention a significant amount of inflation that is being experienced by currency issued by money authority of Yuan dynasty, and the fact that this type of currency had been issued with many versions, which signified its instability from another perspective. Moreover, the exchange rate of the Yuan currency being described in “The Description of the World” is also far from the reality. Due to the change in relative value of the Yuan currency, the untable exchange rate is also different from what Marco Polo described in his book. In terms of the Mongol Yam administration being described in Marco Polo’s book, many of the descriptions were relatively accurate, yet there are some exaggerations with regards to the condition on the Yam route. In fact, due to the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, the instability along the Yam route was gradually increasing. Apart from some primary sources and consult toward “The Description of the World”, multiple outside sources are being used to construct the argument on money and Yam administrations in the Mongol Empire.



Reference List for The Group

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Ghost Marriage].” 贵州师范大学 , 2016.