Mongol Group D3

Historical Fact or Fictional Exaggeration:

Examination on 5 places in Chapter 2, The Description of the World: facts or myths?

Hanyi Yu


The subjects I would focus on are three residences of the Great Khan, Qaraqorum, Xanadu and Khanbaliq, and the itinerary about Liangzhou and Eriqaya, located in Chapter 2, The Description of the World (DW)[1].

To meet the group question “Historical fact or fictional exaggeration”, my goal would be investigating the credibility of all the descriptions in DW. For Qaraqorum, it used to be Mongol imperial capital, and it was very briefly described in DW. Xanadu, built by Kubilai Khan who paid great attention to it, was designed to be a strategic operational base and administrative center. It was a great city with sophisticated palaces. Khanbaliq was also another important place, where the Great Khan had his great palaces. The great kingdom of Liangzhou and the province of Eriqaya were also included in the itinerary. After reading descriptions of these places in DW, I am curious about whether all the accounts are true or not, which is very crucial. In the following, I will explain my research on all these places in details, with four subsections.


The description of Qaraqorum, or Karakorum, in DW was very brief, and it was truly one of the residences of the Great Khan. It was located near the Orkhon River, which was indicated in the footnote of DW, also confirmed by “Karakorum”[2]. In the rest of the section, DW introduced Tartars, ruled by Prester John, which was also a basic fact, confirmed by “Prester John.”[3] Yet for how the Tartars stopped paying tributes to Prester John, mentioned in DW, I did not find matching descriptions in other sources.


For Xanadu, or Shangdu, it was originally named after Kaipingfu, or Kaiping, and it was constructed as a strategic operational base[4]. According to “Was ‘da Yuan’ a Chinese Dynasty?”[5], in 1259, after hearing that Möngke, brother and predecessor of Qubilai, died while conquering the Southern Song, “Qubilai passed the Huai River and arrived at the bank of the Yangtze, suddenly turned back north and stopped at the place called Kaiping, which had been his base camp and would later become his summer capital—Shangdu.” The basic description and the time Kubilai Khan in DW was there was true, and the details of the intricate palaces were also based on facts. In DW, it mentioned that there was a very great palace built in marble and stone, which was verified in “Exorcising the Dragon: A Legend About the Building of the Mongolian Upper Capital (Shangdu).” The latter also pointed out that the engineers assigned to build the palace used the main material marble. In DW, it said “from the palace, there is a wall that encloses a good 16 miles of land, in which there are many springs, rivers and plains.” it was also verified: in “ED”, it said that the palace was built at a lake site, with many springs and rivers around there. Therefore the account states true. Yet in the last part of Xanadu in DW, there were accounts of the Great Khan and enchanters, or religious men, like bacsi, which I did not find exactly matching words in other sources. But here’s what I found about Indian bacsi: “Arghun Khan of Persia (see Prologue, ch. xvii.), who was much given to alchemy and secret science, had asked of the Indian Bakhshi[6] how they prolonged their lives to such an extent. They assured him that a mixture of sulphur and mercury was the Elixir of Longevity. Arghun accordingly took this precious potion for eight months, and died shortly after!”[7] Hence, the description of the religious men could probably be true but I did not confirm that.


Khanbaliq, or Cambaluc, refers to the capital of Cathay, where the Great Khan spent three months, December, January and February, with his great palace, according to DW. In The book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, it also said that “after the Great Kaan had defeated Nayan in the way you have heard, he went back to his capital city of Cambaluc and abode there, taking his ease and making festivity.” The information about the time when the Great Khan stayed in Cambaluc in DW is based on fact. However, it is more important to examine the details of the palaces, which were introduced later in DW. Both DW and The book of Ser Marco Polo indicated that “The encompass of the square wall was 4 miles; At each angle of the wall there is a very fine and rich palace in which the war-harness of the Emperor is kept, such as bows and quivers,- saddles and bridles, and bowstrings, and everything needful for an army.” The two sources also mentioned that “the walls were covered with gold and silvers”, “the hall of the palace is large enough to keep 6000 people”, “between the two walls of the enclosure there are fine parks, beautiful trees and various animals”, and “in the northwest corner, there is a large lake.” In The book of Ser Marco Polo, it mentioned the construction information of the walls: “According to the Cliite kcng hi, translated by Brctschncitlcr, 25, ‘the wall surrounding the palace … is constructed of bricks, and is 35 ch’i in height. The construction was begun in a.d. 1271, on the 17th of the 8th month, between three and five o’clock in the afternoon, and finished next year on the 15th of the 3rd month.’” Here’s a picture named “Ideal Plan of the Ancient Palaces of the Mongol Emperors at Khanbaligh[8], from The book of Ser Marco Polo.



Nevertheless, the details of the palace introduced above are possibly incredible. In the article “Haeger, John W. “Marco Polo in China? Problems with Internal Evidence”[9], the author Haeger indicated that “the vivid and compelling descriptions of Kubilai himself, his palaces at Xanadu and Cambaluc, his seasonal hunts and the feasts of the Mongol year contrast sharply with the insipid imagery and hollow grandiosity.” The author cast doubt on the credibility of the description of the palace in a scientific research way; the article mentioned “A century of extremely erudite scholarship had failed to reconstruct the China itineraries” and other evidence. Therefore, while the basic information like the time was credible, we may not be able to fully believe the specific statement of the palace at Khanbaliq.



Liangzhou and Eriqaya

In the itinerary in DW, Liangzhou was described as a place with Nestorian Christians, idolators, and worshippers of Muhammad. In the footnote, Liangzhou was said to be a Buddhist center. This can be verified through “Liangzhou”[10], which mentioned that Köden Khan summoned Sa skya Pandita Kun dga’ rgyal mtshan (1182-1251) to Liangzhou in 1244, which impacted some temples and stimulated the Buddhism. For Eriqaya, it was described to be a part of Tangut and that was true. According to Rashīd al-Dīn[11], Eriqaya was described as the residence of the ruler.


By looking into the subsections, I came to the conclusion that the accounts of residences of Kubilai Khan and other places were mostly factual descriptions rather than fictional myths, which serves as an answer to the group question about the credibility. Some instances of facts would be the description of the physical location of Qaraqorum, the months the Great Khan stayed in the residences, and the properties of the palace in Xanadu. Nonetheless, there are still some exceptions. In this category, there are examples like the accounts of the Great Khan and the enchanters in Xanadu and the very details of the palaces at Khanbaliq. Therefore, while basic information about a place in chapter 2, DW is very likely to be true, we need to be very cautious with the following vivid and detailed descriptions, which might not be easily proved to be factual.