The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xl.

Concerning the Great Province of Tangut.

After you have travelled thirty days through the Desert, as I have described, you come to a city called SACHIU, lying between north-east and east; it belongs to the Great Kaan, and is in a province called TANGUT.1 The people are for the most part Idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and some Saracens. The Idolaters have a peculiar language, and are no traders, but live by their agriculture.2 They have a great many abbeys and minsters full of idols of sundry fashions, to which they pay great honour and reverence, worshipping them and sacrificing to them with much ado. For example, such as have children will feed up a sheep in honour of the idol, and at the New Year, or on the day of the Idol’s Feast, they will take their children and the sheep along with them into the presence of the idol with great ceremony. Then they will have the sheep slaughtered and cooked, and again present it before the idol with like reverence, and leave it there before him, whilst they are reciting the offices of their worship and their prayers for the idol’s blessing on their children. And, if you will believe them, the idol feeds on the meat that is set before it! After these ceremonies they take up the flesh and carry it home, and call together all their kindred to eat it with them in great festivity [the idol-priests receiving for their portion the head, feet, entrails, and skin, with some part of the meat]. After they have eaten, they collect the bones that are left and store them carefully in a hutch.3

And you must know that all the Idolaters in the world burn their dead. And when they are going to carry a body to the burning, the kinsfolk build a wooden house on the way to the spot, and drape it with cloths of silk and gold. When the body is going past this building they call a halt and set before it wine and meat and other eatables; and this they do with the assurance that the defunct will be received with the like attentions in the other world. All the minstrelsy in the town goes playing before the body; and when it reaches the burning-place the kinsfolk are prepared with figures cut out of parchment and paper in the shape of men and horses and camels, and also with round pieces of paper like gold coins, and all these they burn along with the corpse. For they say that in the other world the defunct will be provided with slaves and cattle and money, just in proportion to the amount of such pieces of paper that has been burnt along with him.4

But they never burn their dead until they have [sent for the astrologers, and told them the year, the day, and the hour of the deceased person’s birth, and when the astrologers have ascertained under what constellation, planet, and sign he was born, they declare the day on which, by the rules of their art, he ought to be burnt]. And till that day arrive they keep the body, so that ’tis sometimes a matter of six months, more or less, before it comes to be burnt.5

Now the way they keep the body in the house is this: They make a coffin first of a good span in thickness, very carefully joined and daintily painted. This they fill up with camphor and spices, to keep off corruption [stopping the joints with pitch and lime], and then they cover it with a fine cloth. Every day as long as the body is kept, they set a table before the dead covered with food; and they will have it that the soul comes and eats and drinks: wherefore they leave the food there as long as would be necessary in order that one should partake. Thus they do daily. And worse still! Sometimes those soothsayers shall tell them that ’tis not good luck to carry out the corpse by the door, so they have to break a hole in the wall, and to draw it out that way when it is taken to the burning.6 And these, I assure you, are the practices of all the Idolaters of those countries.

However, we will quit this subject, and I will tell you of another city which lies towards the north-west at the extremity of the desert.

NOTE 1. —[The Natives of this country were called by the Chinese T’ang-hiang, and by the Mongols T’angu or T’ang-wu, and with the plural suffix Tangut. The kingdom of Tangut, or in Chinese, Si Hia (Western Hia), or Ho si (West of the Yellow River), was declared independent in 982 by Li Chi Ch’ien, who had the dynastic title or Miao Hao of Tai Tsu. “The rulers of Tangut,” says Dr. Bushell, “were scions of the Toba race, who reigned over North China as the Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386–557), as well as in some of the minor dynasties which succeeded. Claiming descent from the ancient Chinese Hsia Dynasty of the second millennium B.C., they adopted the title of Ta Hsia (‘Great Hsia’), and the dynasty is generally called by the Chinese Hsi Hsia, or Western Hsia.” This is a list of the Tangut sovereigns, with the date of their accession to the throne: Tai Tsu (982), Tai Tsung (1002), Ching Tsung (1032), Yi Tsung (1049), Hui Tsung (1068), Ch’ung Tsung (1087), Jen Tsung (1140), Huan Tsung (1194), Hsiang Tsung (1206), Shên Tsung (1213), Hien Tsung (1223), Mo Chu (1227). In fact, the real founder of the Dynasty was Li Yuan-hao, who conquered in 1031, the cities of Kanchau and Suhchau from the Uighúr Turks, declaring himself independent in 1032, and who adopted in 1036 a special script of which we spoke when mentioning the archway at Kiuyung Kwan. His capital was Hia chau, now Ning hia, on the Yellow River. Chinghiz invaded Tangut three times, in 1206, 1217, and at last in 1225; the final struggle took place the following year, when Kanchau, Liangchau, and Suhchau fell into the hands of the Mongols. After the death of Chinghiz (1227), the last ruler of Tangut, Li H’ien, who surrendered the same year to Okkodaï, son of the conqueror, was killed. The dominions of Tangut in the middle of the 11th century, according to the Si Hia Chi Shih Pên Mo, quoted by Dr. Bushell, “were bounded, according to the map, by the Sung Empire on the south and east, by the Liao (Khitan) on the north-east, the Tartars (Tata) on the north, the Uighúr Turks (Hui-hu) on the west, and the Tibetans on the south-west. The Alashan Mountains stretch along the northern frontier, and the western extends to the Jade Gate (Yü Mên Kwan) on the border of the Desert of Gobi.” Under the Mongol Dynasty, Kan Suh was the official name of one of the twelve provinces of the Empire, and the popular name was Tangut.

(Dr. S. W. Bushell: Inscriptions in the Juchen and Allied Scripts and The Hsi Hsia Dynasty of Tangut. See above, p. 29.)

“The word Tangutan applied by the Chinese and by Colonel Prjevalsky to a Tibetan-speaking people around the Koko-nor has been explained to me in a variety of ways by native Tangutans. A very learned lama from the Gserdkog monastery, south-east of the Koko-nor, told me that Tangutan, Amdoans, and Sifan were interchangeable terms, but I fear his geographical knowledge was a little vague. The following explanation of the term Tangut is taken from the Hsi-tsang-fu. ‘The Tangutans are descendants of the Tang-tu-chüeh. The origin of this name is as follows: In early days, the Tangutans lived in the Central Asian Chin-shan, where they were workers of iron. They made a model of the Chin-shan, which, in shape, resembled an iron helmet. Now, in their language, “iron helmet” is Tang-küeh, hence the name of the country. To the present day, the Tangutans of the Koko-nor wear a hat shaped like a pot, high crowned and narrow, rimmed with red fringe sewn on it, so that it looks like an iron helmet, and this is a proof of [the accuracy of the derivation].’ Although the proof is not very satisfactory, it is as good as we are often offered by authors with greater pretension to learning.

“If I remember rightly, Prjevalsky derives the name from two words meaning ‘black tents.’” (W. W. Rockhill, China Br. R. As. Soc., XX. pp. 278–279.)

“Chinese authorities tell us that the name [Tangut] was originally borne by a people living in the Altaï’, and that the word is Turkish. . . . The population of Tangut was a mixture of Tibetans, Turks, Uighúrs, Tukuhuns, Chinese, etc.” (Rockhill, Rubruck, p. 150, note. — H. C.)]

Sachiu is SHACHAU, “Sand-district,” an outpost of China Proper, at the eastern verge of the worst part of the Sandy Desert. It is recorded to have been fortified in the 1st century as a barrier against the Hiongnu.

[The name of Shachau dates from A.D. 622, when it was founded by the first emperor of the T’ang Dynasty. Formerly, Shachau was one of the Chinese colonies established by the Han, at the expense of the Hiongnu; it was called T’ung hoang (B.C. 111), a name still given to Shachau; the other colonies were Kiu-kaan (Suhchau, B.C. 121) and Chang-yé (Kanchau, B.C. 111). (See Bretschneider, Med. Res. II. 18.)

“Sha-chow, the present Tun-hwang-hien (a few li east of the ancient town). . . . In 1820, or about that time, an attempt was made to re-establish the ancient direct way between Sha-chow and Khotan. With this object in view, an exploring party of ten men was sent from Khotan towards Sha-chow; this party wandered in the desert over a month, and found neither dwellings nor roads, but pastures and water everywhere. M. Polo omits to mention a remarkable place at Sha-chow, a sandy hillock (a short distance south of this town) known under the name of Ming-sha shan — the ‘rumbling sandhill.’ The sand, in rolling down the hill, produces a particular sound, similar to that of distant thunder. In M. Polo’s time (1292), Khubilaï removed the inhabitants of Sha-chow to the interior of China; fearing, probably, the aggression of the seditious princes; and his successor, in 1303, placed there a garrison of ten thousand men.” (Palladius, l.c. p. 5.)

“Sha-chau is one of the best oases of Central Asia. It is situated at the foot of the Nan-shan range, at a height of 3700 feet above the sea, and occupies an area of about 200 square miles, the whole of which is thickly inhabited by Chinese. Sha-chau is interesting as the meeting-place of three expeditions started independently from Russia, India, and China. Just two months before Prjevalsky reached this town, it was visited by Count Szechényi [April, 1879], and eighteen months afterwards Pundit A-k, whose report of it agrees fairly well with that of our traveller, also stayed here. Both Prejevalsky and Szechényi remark on some curious caves in a valley near Sha-chau containing Buddhistic clay idols.* These caves were in Marco Polo’s time the resort of numerous worshippers, and are said to date back to the Han Dynasty.” (Prejevalsky’s Journeys . . . by E. Delmar Morgan, Proc. R. G. S. IX. 1887, pp. 217–218.)— H. C.]

(Ritter, II. 205; Neumann, p. 616; Cathay, 269, 274; Erdmann, 155; Erman, II. 267; Mag. Asiat. II. 213.)

* M. Bonin visited in 1899 these caves which he calls “Grottoes of Thousand Buddhas” (Tsien Fo tung). (La Géographie, 15th March, 1901, p. 171.) He found a stèle dated 1348, bearing a Buddhist prayer in six different scripts like the inscription at Kiu Yung Kwan. (Rev. Hist. des Religions, 1901, p. 393.)— H. C.

NOTE 2. — By Idolaters, Polo here means Buddhists, as generally. We do not know whether the Buddhism here was a recent introduction from Tibet, or a relic of the old Buddhism of Khotan and other Central Asian kingdoms, but most probably it was the former, and the “peculiar language” ascribed to them may have been, as Neumann supposes, Tibetan. This language in modern Mongolia answers to the Latin of the Mass Book, indeed with a curious exactness, for in both cases the holy tongue is not that of the original propagators of the respective religions, but that of the hierarchy which has assumed their government. In the Lamaitic convents of China and Manchuria also the Tibetan only is used in worship, except at one privileged temple at Peking. (Koeppen, II. 288.) The language intended by Polo may, however, have been a Chinese dialect. (See notes 1 and 4.) The Nestorians must have been tolerably numerous in Tangut, for it formed a metropolitan province of their Church.

NOTE 3. — A practice resembling this is mentioned by Pallas as existing among the Buddhist Kalmaks, a relic of their old Shaman superstitions, which the Lamas profess to decry, but sometimes take part in. “Rich Kalmaks select from their flock a ram for dedication, which gets the name of Tengri Tockho, ‘Heaven’s Ram.’ It must be a white one with a yellow head. He must never be shorn or sold, but when he gets old, and the owner chooses to dedicate a fresh one, then the old one must be sacrificed. This is usually done in autumn, when the sheep are fattest, and the neighbours are called together to eat the sacrifice. A fortunate day is selected, and the ram is slaughtered amid the cries of the sorcerer directed towards the sunrise, and the diligent sprinkling of milk for the benefit of the Spirits of the Air. The flesh is eaten, but the skeleton with a part of the fat is burnt on a turf altar erected on four pillars of an ell and a half high, and the skin, with the head and feet, is then hung up in the way practised by the Buraets.” (Sammlungen, II. 346.)

NOTE 4. — Several of the customs of Tangut mentioned in this chapter are essentially Chinese, and are perhaps introduced here because it was on entering Tangut that the traveller first came in contact with Chinese peculiarities. This is true of the manner of forming coffins, and keeping them with the body in the house, serving food before the coffin whilst it is so kept, the burning of paper and papier-maché figures of slaves, horses, etc., at the tomb. Chinese settlers were very numerous at Shachau and the neighbouring Kwachau, even in the 10th century. (Ritter, II. 213.) [“Keeping a body unburied for a considerable time is called khng koan, ‘to conceal or store away a coffin,’ or thîng koan, ‘to detain a coffin.’ It is, of course, a matter of necessity in such cases to have the cracks and fissures, and especially the seam where the case and the lid join, hermetically caulked. This is done by means of a mixture of chunam and oil. The seams, sometimes even the whole coffin, are pasted over with linen, and finally everything is varnished black, or, in case of a mandarin of rank, red. In process of time, the varnishing is repeated as many times as the family think desirable or necessary. And in order to protect the coffin still better against dust and moisture, it is generally covered with sheets of oiled paper, over which comes a white pall.” (De Groot, I. 106.)— H. C.] Even as regards the South of China many of the circumstances mentioned here are strictly applicable, as may be seen in Doolittle’s Social Life of the Chinese. (See, for example, p. 135; also Astley, IV. 93–95, or Marsden’s quotations from Duhalde.) The custom of burning the dead has been for several centuries disused in China, but we shall see hereafter that Polo represents it as general in his time. On the custom of burning gilt paper in the form of gold coin, as well as of paper clothing, paper houses, furniture, slaves, etc., see also Medhurst, p. 213, and Kidd, 177–178. No one who has read Père Huc will forget his ludicrous account of the Lama’s charitable distribution of paper horses for the good of disabled travellers. The manufacture of mock money is a large business in Chinese cities. In Fuchau there are more than thirty large establishments where it is kept for sale. (Doolittle, 541.) [The Chinese believe that sheets of paper, partly tinned over on one side, are, “according to the prevailing conviction, turned by the process of fire into real silver currency available in the world of darkness, and sent there through the smoke to the soul; they are called gûn-tsoá, ‘silver paper.’ Most families prefer to previously fold every sheet in the shape of a hollow ingot, a ‘silver ingot,’ gûn-khò as they call it. This requires a great amount of labour and time, but increases the value of the treasure immensely.” (De Groot, I. 25.) “Presenting paper money when paying a visit of condolence is a custom firmly established, and accordingly complied with by everybody with great strictness. . . . The paper is designed for the equipment of the coffin, and, accordingly, always denoted by the term koan-thaô-tsoá, ‘coffin paper.’ But as the receptacle of the dead is, of course, not spacious enough to hold the whole mass offered by so many friends, it is regularly burned by lots by the side of the corpse, the ashes being carefully collected to be afterwards wrapped in paper and placed in the coffin, or at the side of the coffin, in the tomb.” (De Groot, I. 31–32.)— H. C.] There can be little doubt that these latter customs are symbols of the ancient sacrifices of human beings and valuable property on such occasions; so Manetho states that the Egyptians in days of yore used human sacrifices, but a certain King Amosis abolished them and substituted images of wax. Even when the present Manchu Dynasty first occupied the throne of China, they still retained the practice of human sacrifice. At the death of Kanghi’s mother, however, in 1718, when four young girls offered themselves for sacrifice on the tomb of their mistress, the emperor would not allow it, and prohibited for the future the sacrifice of life or the destruction of valuables on such occasions. (Deguignes, Voy. I. 304.)

NOTE 5. — Even among the Tibetans and Mongols burning is only one of the modes of disposing of the dead. “They sometimes bury their dead: often they leave them exposed in their coffins, or cover them with stones, paying regard to the sign under which the deceased was born, his age, the day and hour of his death, which determine the mode in which he is to be interred (or otherwise disposed of). For this purpose they consult some books which are explained to them by the Lamas.” (Timk. II. 312.) The extraordinary and complex absurdities of the books in question are given in detail by Pallas, and curiously illustrate the paragraph in the text. (See Sammlungen, II. 254 seqq.) [“The first seven days, including that on which the demise has taken place, are generally deemed to be lucky for the burial, especially the odd ones. But when they have elapsed, it becomes requisite to apply to a day-professor. . . . The popular almanac which chiefly wields sway in Amoy and the surrounding country, regularly stigmatises a certain number of days as tîng-sng jít: ‘days of reduplication of death,’ because encoffining or burying a dead person on such a day will entail another loss in the family shortly afterwards.” (De Groot, I. 103, 99–100.)— H. C.]

NOTE 6. — The Chinese have also, according to Duhalde, a custom of making a new opening in the wall of a house by which to carry out the dead; and in their prisons a special hole in the wall is provided for this office. This same custom exists among the Esquimaux, as well as, according to Sonnerat, in Southern India, and it used to exist in certain parts both of Holland and of Central Italy. In the “clean village of Broek,” near Amsterdam, those special doors may still be seen. And in certain towns of Umbria, such as Perugia, Assisi, and Gubbio, this opening was common, elevated some feet above the ground, and known as the “Door of the Dead.”

I find in a list, printed by Liebrecht, of popular French superstitions, amounting to 479 in number, condemned by Maupas du Tour, Bishop of Evreux in 1664, the following: “When a woman lies in of a dead child, it must not be taken out by the door of the chamber but by the window, for if it were taken out by the door the woman would never lie in of any but dead children.” The Samoyedes have the superstition mentioned in the text, and act exactly as Polo describes.

[“The body [of the Queen of Bali, 17th century] was drawn out of a large aperture made in the wall to the right hand side of the door, in the absurd opinion of cheating the devil, whom these islanders believe to lie in wait in the ordinary passage.” (John Crawfurd, Hist. of the Indian Archipelago, II. p. 245.)— H. C.]

And the Rev. Mr. Jaeschke writes to me from Lahaul, in British Tibet: “Our Lama (from Central Tibet) tells us that the owner of a house and the members of his family when they die are carried through the house-door; but if another person dies in the house his body is removed by some other aperture, such as a window, or the smokehole in the roof, or a hole in the wall dug expressly for the purpose. Or a wooden frame is made, fitting into the doorway, and the body is then carried through; it being considered that by this contrivance the evil consequences are escaped that might ensue, were it carried through the ordinary, and, so to say, undisguised house-door! Here, in Lahaul and the neighbouring countries, we have not heard of such a custom.”

(Duhalde, quoted by Marsden; Semedo, p. 175; Mr. Sala in N. and Q., 2nd S. XI. 322; Lubbock, p. 500; Sonnerat I. 86; Liebrecht’s Gervasius of Tilbury, Hanover, 1856, p. 224; Mag. Asiat. II. 93.)

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