Mongol Group D3

Historical Fact or Fictional Exaggeration:

Marriage Customs in The Description of the World

Sabrina Song

Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, followed his father from Venice to China via Eurasia between 1271 and 1295 and recorded what he saw and heard in the book The Description of the World (DW). The book covered many countries in Eurasia, with a focus on China, especially on the palaces, capitals, religions, and customs, etc. under Kublai Khan’s reign. Meanwhile, the controversy about whether DW is factual and credible continues for centuries. This page will mainly address the credibility of DW from the perspective of marriage customs described by Marco Polo, especially his accounts of the polygamy system, the levirate practice, and the ghost marriage.[1] The accounts of the Mongol Empire by other travelers in the thirteenth century, such as John of Plano Carpini[2] and William of Rubruck[3], Chinese source Yuan-shih as well as other secondary sources all provide valuable references to verify the credibility of Marco Polo’s descriptions.


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


Polygamy is a form of marriage in which a man remains married to several women at the same time. Macro Polo depicted such a custom when passing through Ganzhou and Liangzhou during his travel to the Great Khan’s court:

“They take up to thirty wives-more or less according to their wealth and how many they can keep; but know that he holds the first one to be the best.”[4]

“each man can take as many wives as he likes up to a hundred, if he is able to maintain them all; but know that they hold the first wife to be the truest and the best.” [5]


Emissaries who also visited the Mongol Empire in the Middle Ages recounted similar polygamy practices. According to John of Plano Carpini, “each man has as many wives as he can keep, one a hundred, another fifty, another ten; one more, another less.”[6] In the later 19th century, George Timkowski, a scholar who came from Russia to Mongolia, not only narrated the polygamy system, but also confirmed the supremacy of the first wife as described by Marco Polo: “the Mongols are not prohibited from having a plurality of wives; the first manages the domestic concerns and is the most respected.” [7]

In addition to primary sources brought by these travelers, a large number of secondary sources also recorded the polygamy system and the higher status of the first wife. According to Sechin Jagchid, polygamy was common among the Mongols. The first wife was senior and spoken of as abali gergen (“first legitimate wife”) or yeke ekener (“major wife”), and only the son of the abali gergen could “succeed the father and receive the greater part of the inheritance.”[8]

In fact, Chingiz Khan’s numerous wives and concubines could already confirm Marco Polo’s words of polygamy. During 1195 and 1215, Chingiz Khan acquired the wives from the conquered princesses or queens: the Kereit, Ibaqa; the Uhaz Merkit, etc.[9] but only sons by the chief wife Borte were eligible for the succession. [10]

Therefore, the polygamy system was common in the Mongol society, where the number of wives a man could take depended on his ability and wealth, and the first wife was the most honored, often only the son of the first wife had the right to inherit from his father. Marco Polo’s description is consistent with other travelers’ accounts of Mongolian marriages, and secondary sources likewise attest to the authenticity of Marco Polo’s account.



Levirate is a unique Mongol marriage custom under the polygamy system, which refers to the practice that a woman will be married to another male in her husband’s family after the husband’s death. There were cases where Mongols took the wife of their brothers from the same generation or took the wife from a generation to their fathers.

Marco Polo depicted the levirate marriage in this way:

“They marry their cousins and, when the father dies, his oldest son marries his father’s wife, as long as she is not his mother; he also takes his brother’s wife if he dies.”[11] “They do not regard as sins many of our grave sins, for they live like animals.” [12]


John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck also recounted in their Mongol accounts respectively: “it is the general custom for them to marry any of their relations, with the exception of their mother, daughter and sister by the same mother.”[13] “sometimes a son takes to wife all his father’s wives, except his own mother.”[14] Actually, there were records of levirate marriages in China as early as the Xiongnu period. Records of the Grand Historian《史记·匈奴列传》recorded: “The Huns, when the father dies, take his wife; when a brother dies, takes his wives.” [15]



During the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols’ ruling group tried to implement the levirate practice among Han Chinese, but due to the different cultural backgrounds of Han Chinese and the Mongols, there were controversies about whether it was legal or moral to take the levirate marriages.

Before the Yuan dynasty, remarry was legal for a widow in China, and a wife’s property and her husband’s property were often separate so that she could carry her assets from the first marriage to the second. But in steppe society, rights to the women were transferred to the groom’s family in return for a payment of bride price. In this way, levirate marriage played an important economic role in the Mongol society: it provided wives for younger males without paying bride price, prevented the loss of the labor power of the woman herself, and ensured the assets given to the woman stayed in the family. Therefore, while the Chinese believed levirate was incest, Mongols never considered remarrying an outsider.

During 1260-1271, there was a separation of Mongol and Chinses Law, and the levirate marriage was outlawed for Chinese. According to Yuan-shih 《元史》: “people who are not their own customs, dare to have a brother to receive his sister-in-law, or the son to receive the concubine mother, committing the crime.”[16] “people do not adhere to this custom, the people of all countries follow their own customs. It is because the Han and southerners should observe the rules and regulations, but the people of the country and all countries do not have to do so……’” [17] However, in 1276, a new provision allowed widows to evade levirate marriage by staying chaste, which applied to all nationalities and reached an agreement between Chinese notions of widow chastity and the Mongol custom.

The European travelers’ accounts, Yuan-shih, and other historical records all mentioned the levirate marriage of Mongolia, confirming what Marco Polo told in DW are facts. However, just as Marco Polo’s skeptics have suggested he did not mention tea, the Great Wall, and foot-binding, etc., Marco Polo failed to mention such a controversy between the Mongols and Han Chinese regarding the legality or morality of levirate. Probably this is because levirate marriage reached a compromise between Han Chinese and Mongols during the time Marco Polo arrived in China [18], or that Marco Polo might not have known or paid attention to this controversy. We may only speculate as to why a man centuries ago did not mention something, but we can confirm that the levirate described by Marco Polo in DW is an objective fact.


Ghost Marriage

The ghost marriage is a wedding ceremony for two deceased people. People believe that young men and women who unfortunately die unmarried are incomplete and missing the rituals of life that they must go through. Specifically, in terms of traditional Chinese belief, marriage implies true adulthood, and the ghost marriage enables two deceased people to be accompanied in the next life. [19]

Marco Polo described the ghost marriage: “when there are two men, one who has had a male child who died at four years old or what you will, and another has had a female child who also died, they marry them, for they give the dead woman to the dead child as wife and make a contract…[20]


Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

According to the research, post-mortem marriages were most prevalent in the Song Dynasty. If two unmarried youth died, the two families charged a match-maker for a marriage. They used a lottery, and if the lottery predicted a good match, the match-maker then placed the wedding garments in the groom’s grave and followed the normal steps of the wedding ceremony.[21] During the Yuan Dynasty, Yuan-shih 《元史》 recorded “the son died without a wife, seek the bones of the deceased female buried together.”[22] And Yang Yung-siu, scholars in the Ming dynasty, believed such marriages must have prevailed under former dynasties and still practiced in his time. [23]


As a cultural phenomenon, ghost marriage has been inherited from dynasty to dynasty with different customs followed by different regions and ethnic groups. It is a folk custom that combines both the rites of marriage and funeral, and Marco Polo’s description depicted more funeral culture:

they have men who look like them painted and depicted on paper, along with horses, cloths, bezants, and equipment; then they burn it, saying that their children in the otherworld will have all of these things that they have had portrayed and burned.[24]

Burning paper money or other paper objects are common funeral rites. People wish the deceased will still have abundant money to use and live happily in the afterlife. [25] Such a wish can also be applied to Marco’s description that deceased children will receive the “horses, cloths, bezants, and equipment” burned by their family.

However, the ghost marriage is primarily an ancient Chinese marriage practice. There is a great deal of documentation on Chinese ghost marriages, but little on Mongolian one, and neither Carpini nor Rubruck mention the ghost marriage in their accounts of the Mongol society. Henry Yule pointed out we may trust Marco for its being a Tartar custom also[26 ]but without providing relevant historical texts to prove. Perhaps Marco Polo might have mistaken Chinese customs for Mongolian customs, or the Mongols might have been influenced by the Han Chinese to hold ghost marriages as well, but in any case the existence of the ghost marriage and the related funeral culture mentioned by Marco Polo is undoubted.


In general, Marco Polo’s description of marriage customs is credible and authentic. Despite few minor omittances such as failing to mention the controversy about levirate marriage during the Yuan Dynasty or possibly mistaking a Chinese custom for Mongolian one, the polygamy system, the levirate practice, and the ghost marriage described by Marco Polo are all consistent with those recorded in primary sources of the same period, and are also attested in a large number of secondary sources. Overall, the marriage customs in The Description of the World are factual events rather than fictional exaggerations.


Reference List

[1]Broadbridge, Anne F.. Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire. United Kingdom,

Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[2] Dawson, Christopher, editor. “History of the Mongol by John of Plano Carpini. The Mongol mission : narratives and letters of the Franciscan missionaries in Mongolia and China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Translated by a nun of Stanbrook Abbey, pp. 3-73.

[3] Groot, Jan Jakob Maria. “The Religious System of China: book I. Disposal of the dead.” Belgium, E.J. Brill, 1894.

[4] 李祥林 Li, Xianglin. “亡灵奠祭中的生命祈盼——“烧纸钱”民俗别解 [Prayers for life in the sacrifice

of the dead – “burning paper money” folklore] .” 2005.

[5] Jagchid, Sechin. “Mongolia’s Culture And Society”. United States, Taylor & Francis, 2019.

[6] Morgan, David. The Mongols. Second ed.

[7] Polo, Marco, and Rustichello da Pisa. Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Translated

by Sharon Kinoshita.

[8] Rockhill, William Woodville, translator. The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern

Parts of the world, 1253-5.

[9] 司马迁 Sima, Qian. 《史记》[Records of the Grand Historian].

[10] 宋濂 Song, Lian. 《元史》[History of Yuan].

[11] Timkowski, George. Travels of the Russian mission through Mongolia to China. vol. 2.

[12] 严娜 Yan, Na. “论冥婚的历史表现及文化意蕴[On the Historical Expression and Cultural

Implications of Ghost Marriage].” 贵州师范大学 , 2016.

[14] Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo Vol. I, II. 1973.

[15 ]Polo, Marco. The Book of Marco Polo I, II. Third edition (1903) of Henry Yule’s annotated translation.




[1] Marco polo also described the marriage customs in Tibetan in Chapter 3, but here the page will focus more on marriage customs under the Great Khan’s reign.

[2] In the 1240s, John of Plano Carpini sailed from France on a mission to the Mongol Empire by the orders of Pope Innocent IV. He traveled as papal ambassadors and recounted his discovery of the Mongol Empire including locations, customs, warfare, etc. in the book History of the Mongols by John of Plano Carpini. Since the Mongols conquered most of East and Central Asia and advanced towards Europe in the 13th century, the mission of Carpini was mainly to spy on the military power of the Mongols

[3] William of Rubruck was sent by Louis IX of France in the 1250s. He visited the Mongol Empire and recounted his travel narratives in the book The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the world, 1253-5.

[4] Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Chapter 1, para62.

[5] Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Chapter 2, para69.

[6] History of the Mongols by John of Plano Carpini. Chapter 2, p7.

[7] Travels of the Russian mission through Mongolia to China. p310; quoted in The Book of Marco Polo. p256, Note 5.

[8] Mongolia’s Culture And Society

[9] Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire. p74.

[10] The Mongols, p37.

[11] Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Chapter 2, para69.

[12] Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Chapter 2, para62.

[13] History of the Mongols by John of Plano Carpini. p7.

[14] The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the world, 1253-5. p78.

[15] 《史记·匈奴列传》:“匈奴, 父死, 妻其后母。兄弟死, 皆取其妻妻之。

[16] 《元史·文宗本纪》所载:“敕:诸人非其本俗,敢有弟收其嫂、子收庶母者,坐罪”

[17] 《元史·乌古孙良桢传》载:“又以国俗父死则妻其从母,兄弟死则收其妻,父母死无忧制,遂言:”纲常皆出于天而不可变,议法之吏,乃言国人不拘此例,诸国人各从本俗。是汉、南人当守纲常,国人、诸国人不必守纲常也……”

[18] Marco Polo arrived in China in 1275 and the new provision of leveirate marriage started in 1276.

[19] 论冥婚的历史表现及文化意蕴, p9.

[20] Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Chapter 2, para 70.

[21] The Religious System of China: book I. Disposal of the dead, p803-804.

[22] 《元史·列女传》载:“子死而无妻者,或求亡女骨合葬之。”

[23] The Religious System of China: book I. Disposal of the dead. p803-804.

[24] DW BOOK Two para 70 Here the Tartar’s god and religion are described:

[25] 亡灵奠祭中的生命祈盼——“烧纸钱”民俗别解, p1.

[26] The Book of Marco Polo. vol 1, p268, Note 3.