The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xliii.

Of the Province of Sukchur.

On leaving the province of which I spoke before,1 you ride ten days between north-east and east, and in all that way you find no human dwelling, or next to none, so that there is nothing for our book to speak of.

At the end of those ten days you come to another province called SUKCHUR, in which there are numerous towns and villages. The chief city is called SUKCHU.2 The people are partly Christians and partly Idolaters, and all are subject to the Great Kaan.

The great General Province to which all these three provinces belong is called TANGUT.

Over all the mountains of this province rhubarb is found in great abundance, and thither merchants come to buy it, and carry it thence all over the world.3 [Travellers, however, dare not visit those mountains with any cattle but those of the country, for a certain plant grows there which is so poisonous that cattle which eat it lose their hoofs. The cattle of the country know it and eschew it.4] The people live by agriculture, and have not much trade. [They are of a brown complexion. The whole of the province is healthy.]

NOTE 1. — Referring apparently to Shachau; see Note 1 and the closing words of last chapter.

NOTE 2. — There is no doubt that the province and city are those of SUHCHAU, but there is a great variety in the readings, and several texts have a marked difference between the name of the province and that of the city, whilst others give them as the same. I have adopted those to which the resultants of the readings of the best texts seem to point, viz. Succiur and Succiu, though with considerable doubt whether they should not be identical. Pauthier declares that Suctur, which is the reading of his favourite MS., is the exact pronunciation, after the vulgar Mongol manner, of Suh-chau-lu, the Lu or circuit of Suhchau; whilst Neumann says that the Northern Chinese constantly add an euphonic particle or to the end of words. I confess to little faith in such refinements, when no evidence is produced.

[Suhchau had been devastated and its inhabitants massacred by Chinghiz Khan in 1226. — H. C.]

Suhchau is called by Rashiduddin, and by Shah Rukh’s ambassadors, Sukchú, in exact correspondence with the reading we have adopted for the name of the city, whilst the Russian Envoy Boikoff, in the 17th century, calls it “Suktsey, where the rhubarb grows”; and Anthony Jenkinson, in Hakluyt, by a slight metathesis, Sowchick. Suhchau lies just within the extreme north-west angle of the Great Wall. It was at Suhchau that Benedict Goës was detained, waiting for leave to go on to Peking, eighteen weary months, and there he died just as aid reached him.

NOTE 3. — The real rhubarb [Rheum palmatum] grows wild, on very high mountains. The central line of its distribution appears to be the high range dividing the head waters of the Hwang–Ho, Yalung, and Min–Kiang. The chief markets are Siningfu (see ch. lvii.), and Kwan–Kian in Szechwan. In the latter province an inferior kind is grown in fields, but the genuine rhubarb defies cultivation. (See Richthofen, Letters, No. VII. p. 69.) Till recently it was almost all exported by Kiakhta and Russia, but some now comes viâ Hankau and Shanghai.

[“See, on the preparation of the root in China, Gemelli–Careri. (Churchill’s Collect., Bk. III. ch. v. 365.) It is said that when Chinghiz Khan was pillaging Tangut, the only things his minister, Yeh-lü Ch’u-ts’ai, would take as his share of the booty were a few Chinese books and a supply of rhubarb, with which he saved the lives of a great number of Mongols, when, a short time after, an epidemic broke out in the army.” (D’Ohsson, I. 372. — Rockhill, Rubruck, p. 193, note.)

“With respect to rhubarb . . . the Suchowchi also makes the remark, that the best rhubarb, with golden flowers in the breaking, is gathered in this province (district of Shan-tan), and that it is equally beneficial to men and beasts, preserving them from the pernicious effects of the heat.” (Palladius, l.c. p. 9.)— H. C.]

NOTE 4. — Erba is the title applied to the poisonous growth, which may be either “plant” or “grass.” It is not unlikely that it was a plant akin to the Andromeda ovalifolia, the tradition of the poisonous character of which prevails everywhere along the Himalaya from Nepal to the Indus.

It is notorious for poisoning sheep and goats at Simla and other hill sanitaria; and Dr. Cleghorn notes the same circumstance regarding it that Polo heard of the plant in Tangut, viz. that its effects on flocks imported from the plains are highly injurious, whilst those of the hills do not appear to suffer, probably because they shun the young leaves, which alone are deleterious. Mr. Marsh attests the like fact regarding the Kalmia angustifolia of New England, a plant of the same order (Ericaceae). Sheep bred where it abounds almost always avoid browsing on its leaves, whilst those brought from districts where it is unknown feed upon it and are poisoned.

Firishta, quoting from the Zafar-Námah, says: “On the road from Kashmir towards Tibet there is a plain on which no other vegetable grows but a poisonous grass that destroys all the cattle that taste of it, and therefore no horsemen venture to travel that route.” And Abbé Desgodins, writing from E. Tibet, mentions that sheep and goats are poisoned by rhododendron leaves. (Dr. Hugh Cleghorn in J. Agricultural and Hortic. Society of India, XIV. part 4; Marsh’s Man and Nature, p. 40; Briggs Firishta, IV. 449; Bul. de la Soc. de Géog. 1873, I. 333.)

[“This poisonous plant seems to be the Stipa inebrians described by the late Dr. Hance in the Journal of Bot. 1876, p. 211, from specimens sent to me by Belgian Missionaries from the Ala Shan Mountains, west of the Yellow River.” (Bretschneider, Hist. of Bot. Disc. I. p. 5.)

“M. Polo notices that the cattle not indigenous to the province lose their hoofs in the Suh-chau Mountains; but that is probably not on account of some poisonous grass, but in consequence of the stony ground.” (Palladius, l.c. p. 9.)— H. C.]

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