The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xiv.

Concerning the Great Feast Held by the Grand Kaan Every Year on His Birthday.

You must know that the Tartars keep high festival yearly on their birthdays. And the Great Kaan was born on the 28th day of the September moon, so on that day is held the greatest feast of the year at the Kaan’s Court, always excepting that which he holds on New Year’s Day, of which I shall tell you afterwards.1

Now, on his birthday, the Great Kaan dresses in the best of his robes, all wrought with beaten gold;2 and full 12,000 Barons and Knights on that day come forth dressed in robes of the same colour, and precisely like those of the Great Kaan, except that they are not so costly; but still they are all of the same colour as his, and are also of silk and gold. Every man so clothed has also a girdle of gold; and this as well as the dress is given him by the Sovereign. And I will aver that there are some of these suits decked with so many pearls and precious stones that a single suit shall be worth full 10,000 golden bezants.

And of such raiment there are several sets. For you must know that the Great Kaan, thirteen times in the year, presents to his Barons and Knights such suits of raiment as I am speaking of.3 And on each occasion they wear the same colour that he does, a different colour being assigned to each festival. Hence you may see what a huge business it is, and that there is no prince in the world but he alone who could keep up such customs as these.

On his birthday also, all the Tartars in the world, and all the countries and governments that owe allegiance to the Kaan, offer him great presents according to their several ability, and as prescription or orders have fixed the amount. And many other persons also come with great presents to the Kaan, in order to beg for some employment from him. And the Great Kaan has chosen twelve Barons on whom is laid the charge of assigning to each of these supplicants a suitable answer.

On this day likewise all the Idolaters, all the Saracens, and all the Christians and other descriptions of people make great and solemn devotions, with much chaunting and lighting of lamps and burning of incense, each to the God whom he doth worship, praying that He would save the Emperor, and grant him long life and health and happiness.

And thus, as I have related, is celebrated the joyous feast of the Kaan’s birthday.4

Now I will tell you of another festival which the Kaan holds at the New Year, and which is called the White Feast.

NOTE 1. — The Chinese Year commences, according to Duhalde, with the New Moon nearest to the Sun’s Passage of the middle point of Aquarius; according to Pauthier, with the New Moon immediately preceding the Sun’s entry into Pisces. (These would almost always be identical, but not always.) Generally speaking, the first month will include part of February and part of March. The eighth month will then be September–October (v. ante, ch. ii. note 2).

[According to Dr. S. W. Williams (Middle Kingdom, II. p. 70): “The year is lunar, but its commencement is regulated by the sun. New Year falls on the first new moon after the sun enters Aquarius, which makes it come not before January 21st nor after February 19th.” “The beginning of the civil year, writes Peter Hoang (Chinese Calendar, p. 13), depends upon the good pleasure of the Emperors. Under the Emperor Hwang-ti (2697 B.C.) and under the Hsia Dynasty (2205 B.C.), it was made to commence with the 3rd month yin-yüeh [Pisces]; under the Shang Dynasty (1766 B.C.) with the 2nd month ch’ou-yüeh [Aquarius], and under the Chou Dynasty (1122 B.C.) with the 1st month tzu-yüeh [Capricorn].”— H. C.]

NOTE 2. — The expression “à or batuz” as here applied to robes, is common among the mediaeval poets and romance-writers, e.g. Chaucer:—

“Full yong he was and merry of thought,

And in samette with birdes wrought

And with gold beaten full fetously,

His bodie was clad full richely.”

Rom. of the Rose, 836–839.

M. Michel thinks that in a stuff so termed the gold wire was beaten out after the execution of the embroidery, a process which widened the metallic surface and gave great richness of appearance. The fact was rather, however, according to Dr. Rock, that the gold used in weaving such tissues was not wire but beaten sheets of gold cut into narrow strips. This would seem sufficient to explain the term “beaten gold,” though Dr. Rock in another passage refers it to a custom which he alleges of sewing goldsmith’s work upon robes. (Fr. Michel, Recherches, II. 389, also I. 371; Rock’s Catalogue, pp. xxv. xxix. xxxviii. cvi.)

NOTE 3. — The number of these festivals and distributions of dresses is thirteen in all the old texts, except the Latin of the Geog. Soc., which has twelve. Thirteen would seem therefore to have been in the original copy. And the Ramusian version expands this by saying, “Thirteen great feasts that the Tartars keep with much solemnity to each of the thirteen moons of the year.”1 It is possible, however, that this latter sentence is an interpolated gloss; for, besides the improbability of munificence so frequent, Pauthier has shown some good reasons why thirteen should be regarded as an error for three. The official History of the Mongol Dynasty, which he quotes, gives a detail of raiment distributed in presents on great state occasions three times a year. Such a mistake might easily have originated in the first dictation, treize substituted for trois, or rather for the old form tres; but we must note that the number 13 is repeated and corroborated in ch. xvi. Odoric speaks of four great yearly festivals, but there are obvious errors in what he says on this subject. Hammer says the great Mongol Feasts were three, viz. New Year’s Day, the Kaan’s Birthday, and the Feast of the Herds.

Something like the changes of costume here spoken of is mentioned by Rubruquis at a great festival of four days’ duration at the court of Mangku Kaan: “Each day of the four they appeared in different raiment, suits of which were given them for each day of a different colour, but everything on the same day of one colour, from the boots to the turban.” So also Carpini says regarding the assemblies of the Mongol nobles at the inauguration of Kuyuk Kaan: “The first day they were all clad in white pourpre (? albis purpuris, see Bk. I. ch. vi. note 4), the second day in ruby pourpre, the third day in blue pourpre, the fourth day in the finest baudekins.” (Cathay, 141; Rubr. 368; Pl. Car. 755.)

[Mr. Rockhill (Rubruck, p. 247, note) makes the following remarks: “Odoric, however, says that the colours differed according to the rank. The custom of presenting khilats is still observed in Central Asia and Persia. I cannot learn from any other authority that the Mongols ever wore turbans. Odoric says the Mongols of the imperial feasts wore ‘coronets’ (in capite coronati).”— H. C.]

NOTE 4. —[“The accounts given by Marco Polo regarding the feasts of the Khan and the festival dresses at his Court, agree perfectly with the statements on the same subject of contemporary Chinese writers. Banquets were called in the common Mongol language chama, and festival dresses chisun. General festivals used to be held at the New Year and at the Birthday of the Khan. In the Mongol–Chinese Code, the ceremonies performed in the provinces on the Khan’s Birthday are described. One month before that day the civil and military officers repaired to a temple, where a service was performed to the Khan’s health. On the morning of the Birthday a sumptuously adorned table was placed in the open air, and the representatives of all classes and all confessions were obliged to approach the table, to prostrate themselves and exclaim three times: Wan-sui (i.e. ‘Ten thousand years’ life to the Khan). After that the banquet took place. In the same code (in the article on the Ye li ke un [Christians, Erke-un]) it is stated, that in the year 1304 — owing to a dispute, which had arisen in the province of Kiang-nan between the ho-shang (Buddhist priests) and the Christian missionaries, as to precedence in the above-mentioned ceremony — a special edict was published, in which it was decided that in the rite of supplication, Christians should follow the Buddhist and Taouist priests.” (Palladius, pp. 44–45.)— H. C.]

1 There are thirteen months to the Chinese year in seven out of every nineteen.

[“This interval of 10 years comprises 235 lunar months, generally 125 long months of 30 days 110 short months of 29 days, (but sometimes 124 long and 111 short months), and 7 intercalary months. The year of twelve months is called a common year, that of thirteen months, an intercalary year.” (P. Hoang, Chinese Calendar, p. 12. — H. C.)]

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24