Mongol Group D3

Historical Fact or Fictional Exaggeration:

On Nayan's Rebellion

Fiona Xie


Marco Polo was a famous Venetian merchant who traveled in Asia between 1271 and 1295. His work, The Description of the World (hereafter DW), composed with an Arthurian romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa in prison in Genoa in 1298, has profound impacts on modern scholars of Asian Studies. In his book, Marco Polo recorded the conditions and livelihood of the people in the Mongol Empire and China in detail. The oriental is depicted as an exotic and alluring place in Marco Polo’s book, which evoked great interest in numerous Westerners to explore Asia. However, not all the descriptions in Marco Polo’s work were factual. Famous scholars such as Henry Yule[1] and Paul Pelliot[2] from the 19th century carefully examined the validity of Marco Polo’s descriptions, finding many faulty and exaggerated statements. Frances Wood, an English librarian and historian, even claimed that Marco Polo might have never been to China. The book by Marco Polo, therefore, is covered with a mysterious veil, attracting scholars worldwide to devote themselves in examining it. In my individual research, I will focus on Marco Polo’s descriptions of Nayan’s rebellion[3] , which happened during Kublai’s reign. My research will be divided into three parts: 1) who was Nayan, 2) descriptions of the battle, and 3) Nayan’s death. This topic fits into the group question since it is one of the crucial parts in examining whether or not Marco Polo’s descriptions in chapter 2 of the DW are factual. By comparing Marco Polo’s book and various historical sources, factual statements are identified whereas exaggerated and faulty statements are disproved, ultimately culminating in the conclusion to our group topic that Marco Polo’s descriptions were a mixture of both historical record and fiction.


Who was Nayan?

As one of the major figures during the reign of Kublai, Nayan’s relationship with Kublai remained somewhat puzzling. In DW, Marco Polo stated that Nayan was the uncle of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khan[4] of the Mongols (Polo, p.76). However, according to Pelliot’s book Notes on Marco Polo, Nayan was, in fact, not the uncle of Kublai (Pelliot, Vol.2, p.788). Some of the sources have mistakenly claimed that Nayan was the descendant of Chingiz Khan’s half-brother Bälgüäi, which was also untrue (Pelliot, Vol.2, p.788). In fact, Nayan was the descendant of Chingiz Khan’s youngest brother, Temüge. To be more precise, Nayan was the great-great-grandson of Temüge, and hence Nayan was genealogically a cousin younger by three generations of Kublai (Pelliot, Vol.2, p.788). According to Pelliot, Nayan was not being put on the family’s genealogical tables, probably because his name was suppressed from the family records after he initiated the rebellion against Kublai and was eventually executed.

Marco Polo also said that Nayan was a baptized Christian (Polo, p.70). There are no existing historical Chinese sources explicitly confirming this fact, yet many of the Chinese scholars believe that it was highly possible that Nayan did convert to Christianity. Xinlong Wang, a contemporary Chinese historian, in his book The Yuan Dynasty (大元王朝), argued that it is reasonable to reckon that Nayan might have converted to Christianity[5] since the religion was prevailing under the reign of Kublai(Wang, p.1443). Furthermore, Li Tang, in her book East Syriac Christianity in Mongol-Yuan China (12th-14th centuries), also described Nayan as the “Mongol Christian prince” (Li, p.120). Although there were no existing Chinese historical sources proving that Nayan was a Christian, Pelliot claimed that he found an indication confirming Nayan’s religious faith. Pelliot said that Pozdneev[6] discovered an inscription which was “an extant in a grotto near the ancient town Ying-ch’ang of the Yuan period, and which commemorated an incident in Kublai’s campaign of 1287,” and it stated that “Nayan had then abandoned the true law of Buddha (Pelliot, Vol.2, p.789).” Both Pelliot and Pozdneev saw this sentence as a confirmation of Nayan’s Christian faith. Therefore, Marco Polo’s description of Nayan’s religious faith is likely a historical fact. In addition, Marco Polo claimed that Nayan was “a lord and sovereign of many lands and provinces” (Polo, p. 68). According to Yuanshi[7], Nayan occupied a large part of the northeastern part of China, also known as the “辽东地区.” Therefore, Marco Polo’s description here is also correct.



Description of the Battle

The reason why Nayan decided to rebel, according to Marco Polo, was because Nayan “no longer wanted to be under the Great Khan but said that he would take the lordship from him if he could” (Polo, p.68). However, the reasons for Nayan’s revolt were far more than just that. Numerous scholars[8] have studied the rebellion, and it is believed that the revolt was the conservative Mongol noblemen’s reaction to Kublai’s adoption of the Chinese style political system, which was the centralization of power. After his enthronement, Kublai moved the capital to Dadu (元大都), modern Beijing. Kublai also adopted the centralized political system, which consolidated the power of the central government and weakened the power of local governments. The political system in Kublai’s reign undermined the political power of many Mongol noblemen and evoked a strong aversion in rulers like Nayan. Therefore, Nayan’s rebellion was the manifestation of the division between the revolutionary forces represented by Kublai’s sect and the conservative power of the Mongolian nobility represented by Nayan.

While planning for the revolt, Nayan sent envoys to Qaidu[9] to convince him to join the revolt (Polo, p.68). Nayan attempted to attack Kublai from one side and have Qaidu come from the other side to seize Kublai’s land and lordship; Qaidu was pleased by Nayan’s plan and decided to ally with him (Polo, p.68). Marco Polo’s description here is a historical fact that Qaidu did support the rebellion. Qaidu controlled a huge chunk of the western part of the Yuan territory at that time, and hence by allying with Nayan, they were able to attack Kublai from both the east and west sides, posing great threat to Kublai (元史纪事本末卷一·北边诸王之乱).

Marco Polo said that the battle between Nayan and Kublai happened in the year of 1286, which is an inaccurate statement. According to 元史纪事本末卷一 , the section titled 北边诸王之乱, Nayan’s rebellion started in “世祖至元二十四年,” which was the year of 1287. Marco Polo did not mention where the battle took place either, aside from that it was on a “great plain” (Polo, p. 68). According to Yuanshi[10], in fact, it was in a place called “撒儿都鲁之地” that the two forces encountered. Besides, Yuanshi[11] also mentioned the day when the two forces met was on July 14th. Marco Polo also stated that when Kublai arrived, Nayan was with all his people, which was about 400,000 mounted men (Polo, p.68). This is an exaggeration. According to the multiple historical sources analyzed by Chinese scholars Taixiang Zhang, Guozhong Wei, and Wenxian Wu[12], it was impossible for Nayan to gather 400,000 mounted men at that time; Zhang, Wei, and Wu instead argued that Nayan’s troop might have only 40,000 to 60,000 soldiers.



According to Marco Polo, when Kublai arrived at the battlefield, he was “on a wooden tower arranged atop four elephants” (Polo, p.69). This is a historical fact, and it was recorded in both the Chinese historical source 桥吴集[13] and Rashīd Al-Dīn’s book The Successors of Genghis Khan[14]. Marco Polo further recorded that the fighting “lasted from morning to about noon,” which is untrue (Polo, p. 70), as the record in Yuanshi[15] shows that the battle lasted at least until the second day before Kublai could defeat Nayan.



Nayan’s Death

According to Marco Polo, Nayan and his men planned to retreat when they realized that they could not resist Kublai’s force; yet Nayan did not retreat successfully and was captured at the battlefield (Polo, p. 70). This is an inaccurate statement. According to Yuanshi[16], Nayan and his soldiers did escape from the scene to a place call borgutuboldagha[17]. Nayan was eventually captured by Kublai’s general in a place called “失列门林,” and was soon sentenced to death by Kublai, which fits into Marco Polo’s description that “When the Great Khan learned that Nayan had been captured, he ordered that he be put to death (Polo, p.70).”

In addition, Marco Polo said that Nayan was “wrapped in a carpet and dragged this way and that so severely that he died” because the Mongols did not “want the blood of the emperor’s lineage to be spilled on the ground in the sight of the sun and the air (Polo, p.70).” According to David Morgan, a British historian, this was a way of honorable execution in Mongol tradition. In his book, The Mongols, Morgan stated that “if the Mongols proposed to execute someone of royal or noble blood and wished to kill him honorably, they would inflict death by some method that did not involve the shedding of the victim’s blood (Morgan, p.133).” Since Nayan was indeed a descendant of the royal family, it is reasonable to reckon that Nayan died in a manner of honorable execution.


How The Mongols Executed Enemies With No Blood Spilled.



As can be seen from my research, Marco Polo’s descriptions of Nayan’s rebellion during Kublai’s reign are mostly factual, despite some occasional inaccuracies and exaggerations. Some details such as Nayan’s relationship with Kublai, the date and place where the battle happened, and Nanya’s alliance with Qaidu are inaccurate, while others such as Nayan’s religious faith, the appearance of elephants in the battle, and Nayan’s death are accurate. Likewise with other topics in chapter 2 of DW, Nayan’s rebellion is a mixture of both historical facts and fiction. Therefore, as readers, we must be careful when digesting Marco Polo’s book, for it offers invaluable historical facts alongside nonsensical fabrications.



Reference List