Mongol Group D3

Historical Fact or Fictional Exaggeration:

DW’s Description on the Yuan Mongol Monetary and Mongol Yam Administration

Yuyang Xu

The Mongol Empire, especially the Yuan dynasty, has very advanced administrative designs, and the administrative features are being described by Marco Polo in his famous work “The Description of the World”. Although being accurate to some extent, the description of Yuan administration by Marco Polo in his book had many errors, and sometimes are different from the historical reality. These errors can potentially twist the reader’s perception of the historical reality. Moreover, Macro Polo failed to mention some important parts of the Yuan administration. With important parts lost, what Marco Polo presented in his book can hardly be considered as an accurate description on Mongol administrations. In this article, I will discuss the difference between Marco Polo’s description and the historical reality, as well as missing parts about Mongol administrations in “The Description of the World”. In terms of types of administrations, chapter 2 mainly discusses two types of administration, which are monetary administration of the Yuan dynasty, and the administration of the Yam system of the Mongol Empire, and I will cover these two kinds of administration in the essay as well.

First part of the Mongol administration that I wish to discuss is monetary policies and fiscal policies implemented by the Yuan government, which Marco Polo had some extensive descriptions in his book. Treasury management and budget balance can be critical to the sustenance of Mongol Empire, since waging war and managing an empire to this geographical span can be costly. In Marco Polo’s book, he did mention the widespread use of paper money as an instrument of value transfer between money market participants. In Marco Polo’s account, there is an obvious abstraction of reality that can be observed: “All these notes are stamped with the seal of the great lord; he has them made in such a great quantity that he could buy all the treasure in the world.”[1] (Polo, page 87). Moreover, Marco Polo mentioned several times that people can buy virtually anything using paper money issued by the Mongol Empire, mainly in the Yuan dynasty, due to the large quantity of issuance of this kind of currency. This is a false statement. As time went, paper money being supplied in large quantities in the Yuan dynasty resulted in a significant problem, and led to the mammoth increase in inflation rate. Moreover, at the beginning of the issuance of paper money in Yuan, the money was backed by precious metals like silver and gold. The very reason for money as an instrument of value transference in the Yuan dynasty is its sole legal representation of precious metals. However, the government was forced to abandon the precious metal standard, and to print more and more money to finance its fiscal deficit[2] (Guan, Mao). This signified the collapse of Yuan monetary administration and the ultimate failure of Mongol monetary system in the Yuan dynasty. The treasure that can be bought, or in other words, the value that signified by the Yuan paper money reduced over time, and Marco Polo’s description of the correlation between quantity of issuance of money and the purchasing power of a unit of currency is false, and is an exaggeration from historical fact. Marco Polo’s arguments are accurate in terms of widespread use of currency in the Yuan dynasty, yet inaccurate in terms of the stability and powerfulness of Yuan monetary administration. In fact, the Yuan monetary administration praised by Marco Polo was full of chaos, and the use of counterfeit currency was widespread. The involvement of making and using counterfeit currency spread from the capital Dadu to the regional area, and from top officials to people. The widespread fake money increased the real supply of money in the Yuan money market, and this is extremely difficult to trace by the monetary administration (Bin, Su)[3]. The monetary administration failed to fulfill the very goal it established, which is to regulate Yuan dynasty’s money market, and this historical fact made Marco Polo’s account seem like an exaggeration, disagreed by historical reality.

Another untruthful description that Marco Polo had in his book about Yuan’s monetary administration is he was attempting to describe the paper money used by the Yuan as a single type of currency set. In his description, Marco Polo did mention that book values of different currencies are different, and the exchange rate between Yuan currency and Venetian currency. In his book, Marco Polo mentioned that “…another is worth half a Venetian silver groat; another is worth 2 groats; another 5 groats, another 10 groats…” (Polo, page 86-87)[4]. Marco Polo failed to describe the historical fact that the Yuan dynasty had issued various sets of currencies under one monetary administration, and the floating exchange rate in the premature international monetary market back then. I will begin with the false account of exchange rates between Yuan currency and Venetian currency. The rate of exchange and relative value between Yuan currency and Venetian currency was not the same over time. Using basic macroeconomic theories, it can be deduced that the inflation resulting from the over issuance of a single set of currency in the Yuan dynasty shows reduced value of paper money under the monetary administration of Yuan dynasty not only to this kind of paper money itself compared to before, but also its relative value with foreign currencies like Venetian ones. Moreover, the change between issuance of different sets of currencies made the change of exchange rate even more erratic.

 

 
 

Source: Guan, Mao

 

The “Paiza” that messengers need to carry when travelling on the Yam route [8]

It can be seen from this chart that the exchange rate between different sets of currencies are different. When shifting between sets of currency issued by the monetary authority, the unavoidable fluctuations in terms of values made the currency’s value not stable at all. Although the Yuan monetary administration attempted to handle the fluctuations of price in its territory by fixing exchange rates between paper money and silver, the actual exchange rate was different from the legal book value of its exchange rate (Guan, Mao). The erratic changes in real market value of Yuan currencies made its relative value constantly changing in relation to foreign currency, and this fact rendered Marco Polo’s exaggeration on the stability and effectiveness of Yuan currency and its monetary administration false.

Another description of Mongol’s administration described in Marco Polo’s book “The Description of the World” is the idea of Yam. Yan is a kind of postal system and route with checkpoints that stretches all across the Mongol Empire, and connect different parts of the empire. In Marco Polo’s book, he described that the Yam was in excellent condition, and even a king came to a post station on the Yam, “he would be well lodged” (Polo, page 89)[5]. However, the situation was different compared to what Marco Polo described in the book. In fact, some scholars argued, during the time when Marco Polo arrived in the Mongol Empire, the empire was gradually disintegrating. During this period of disintegration, the relationship between different countries under the Mongol Empire was not as unified as before, and some of the countries even had conflicts with each other. This affected the stability on the road, and made the condition of the Yam worse (Silverstein)[6]. The destabilization along the road reduced the quality of services being provided on the road. Moreover, during the Mongke administration, the Yam route was restricted for merchants to use, since the Mongke administration believes that the roles that international merchants played in the dissemination of information about distant lands and in supplying the political elite with merchandise explain why the Yam was at their disposal.” (Silverstein).[7] This is also an aspect of history that Marco Polo failed to describe in his book, where he mentioned only messengers for the great khan, instead of giving a general and objective view on the real situation of the Yam system.

However, in many parts of Marco Polo’s description toward how messengers will use the Yam system is clear and not in contrast with the reality. According to Marco Polo, messengers will need to use a kind of identification called “Paiza” along the Yam route, which is also in accordance with historical fact.

 

 

In conclusion, 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 unstable 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. In summary, the accurate documentation of historical facts were accompanied by a huge amount of exaggerated accounts of the Mongol money administration and Mongol Yam administration in Marco Polo’s description of the Mongol Empire.

 

 

Reference List

Guan, Haihui, and Jie Mao. “The Silver Standard as a Discipline on Money over-Issuance: The Mechanism of Paper Money in Yuan China, by Hanhui Guan; Jie Mao.” Working Papers, Economic History Society, 2 Feb. 2018, ideas.repec.org/p/ehs/wpaper/18013.html.

Su, Bin. “TECHNICAL REASON ON THE OVERFLOW OF COUNTERFEIT MONEY IN YUAN DYNASY.” TECHNICAL REASON ON THE OVERFLOW OF COUNTERFEIT MONEY IN YUAN DYNASY–《China Numismatics》2004年04期, 2004, en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTOTAL-ZGQB200404006.htm.

David Morgan, “The Mongols”

Silverstein, Adam J. “The Mongol Yām and Its Legacy (Chapter 4) – Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, July 2009, www.cambridge.org/core/books/postal-systems-in-the-premodern-islamic-world/mongol-yam-and-its-legacy/090AB53E36D25FBB7089C4ACA28F43A1.

“Movement.” Thundering Off the Steppe – Life amongst the Mongols, onlineacademiccommunity.uvic.ca/mongols/gallery/movement/.

 

Footnotes

[1] “The Description of the World”, page 87

[2]The Silver Standard, Warfare and Inflation: The Mechanism of Paper Money in Yuan China”P3, P5

[3] Technical Reason on the Overflow of Counterfeit Money in Yuan Dynasty” P22

[4] “The Description of the World”, page 86-87

[5] “The Description of the World”, page 89

[6] “The Mongol Yām and its legacy”P152-153

[7] “The Mongol Yām and its legacy”

[8] “Thundering Off the Steppe”

 

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