The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxviii.

Concerning the Castle of Caichu.

On leaving Pianfu you ride two days westward, and come to the noble castle of CAICHU, which was built in time past by a king of that country, whom they used to call the GOLDEN KING, and who had there a great and beautiful palace. There is a great hall of this palace, in which are pourtrayed all the ancient kings of the country, done in gold and other beautiful colours, and a very fine sight they make. Each king in succession as he reigned added to those pictures.1

[This Golden King was a great and potent Prince, and during his stay at this place there used to be in his service none but beautiful girls, of whom he had a great number in his Court. When he went to take the air about the fortress, these girls used to draw him about in a little carriage which they could easily move, and they would also be in attendance on the King for everything pertaining to his convenience or pleasure.2]

Now I will tell you a pretty passage that befell between the Golden King and Prester John, as it was related by the people of the Castle.

It came to pass, as they told the tale, that this Golden King was at war with Prester John. And the King held a position so strong that Prester John was not able to get at him or to do him any scathe; wherefore he was in great wrath. So seventeen gallants belonging to Prester John’s Court came to him in a body, and said that, an he would, they were ready to bring him the Golden King alive. His answer was, that he desired nothing better, and would be much bounden to them if they would do so.

So when they had taken leave of their Lord and Master Prester John, they set off together, this goodly company of gallants, and went to the Golden King, and presented themselves before him, saying that they had come from foreign parts to enter his service. And he answered by telling them that they were right welcome, and that he was glad to have their service, never imagining that they had any ill intent. And so these mischievous squires took service with the Golden King; and served him so well that he grew to love them dearly.

And when they had abode with that King nearly two years, conducting themselves like persons who thought of anything but treason, they one day accompanied the King on a pleasure party when he had very few else along with him: for in those gallants the King had perfect trust, and thus kept them immediately about his person. So after they had crossed a certain river that is about a mile from the castle, and saw that they were alone with the King, they said one to another that now was the time to achieve that they had come for. Then they all incontinently drew, and told the King that he must go with them and make no resistance, or they would slay him. The King at this was in alarm and great astonishment, and said: “How then, good my sons, what thing is this ye say? and whither would ye have me go?” They answered, and said: “You shall come with us, will ye: nill ye, to Prester John our Lord.”

Illustration: The “Roi d’Or.” (From a MS. in the Royal Asiatic Society’s Collection.)

“Et en ceste chastians ha un mout bians paleis en quel a une grandisme sale là ou il sunt portrait à mont belles pointures tout les rois de celes provences que furent ansienemant, et ce est mout belle viste à voir.”

NOTE 1. — The name of the castle is very doubtful. But of that and the geography, which in this part is tangled, we shall speak further on.

Whilst the original French texts were unknown, the king here spoken of figured in the old Latin versions as King Darius, and in Ramusio as Re Dor. It was a most happy suggestion of Marsden’s, in absence of all knowledge of the fact that the original narrative was French, that this Dor represented the Emperor of the Kin or Golden Dynasty, called by the Mongols Altun Khán, of which Roi D’Or is a literal translation.

Of the legend itself I can find no trace. Rashiduddin relates a story of the grandfather of Aung Khan (Polo’s Prester John), Merghuz Boirúk Khan, being treacherously made over to the King of the Churché (the Kin sovereign), and put to death by being nailed to a wooden ass. But the same author tells us that Aung Khan got his title of Aung (Ch. Wang) or king from the Kin Emperor of his day, so that no hereditary feud seems deducible.

Mr. Wylie, who is of opinion, like Baron Richthofen, that the Caichu which Polo makes the scene of that story, is Kiai-chau (or Hiai-chau as it seems to be pronounced), north of the Yellow River, has been good enough to search the histories of the Liao and Kin Dynasties,1 but without finding any trace of such a story, or of the Kin Emperors having resided in that neighbourhood.

On the other hand, he points out that the story has a strong resemblance to a real event which occurred in Central Asia in the beginning of Polo’s century.

The Persian historians of the Mongols relate that when Chinghiz defeated and slew Taiyang Khan, the king of the Naimans, Kushluk, the son of Taiyang, fled to the Gur–Khan of Karakhitai and received both his protection and the hand of his daughter (see i. 237); but afterwards rose against his benefactor and usurped his throne. “In the Liao history I read,” Mr. Wylie says, “that Chih-lu-ku, the last monarch of the Karakhitai line, ascended the throne in 1168, and in the 34th year of his reign, when out hunting one day in autumn, Kushluk, who had 8000 troops in ambush, made him prisoner, seized his throne and adopted the customs of the Liao, while he conferred on Chih-lu-ku the honourable title of Tai-shang-hwang ‘the old emperor.’"2

It is this Kushluk, to whom Rubruquis assigns the rôle of King (or Prester) John, the subject of so many wonderful stories. And Mr. Wylie points out that not only was his father Taiyang Khan, according to the Chinese histories, a much more important prince than Aung Khan or Wang Khan the Kerait, but his name Tai–Yang-Khan is precisely “Great King John” as near as John (or Yohana) can be expressed in Chinese. He thinks therefore that Taiyang and his son Kushluk, the Naimans, and not Aung Khan and his descendants, the Keraits, were the parties to whom the character of Prester John properly belonged, and that it was probably this story of Kushluk’s capture of the Karakhitai monarch (Roi de Fer) which got converted into the form in which he relates it of the Roi d’Or.

The suggestion seems to me, as regards the story, interesting and probable; though I do not admit that the character of Prester John properly belonged to any real person.

I may best explain my view of the matter by a geographical analogy. Pre–Columbian maps of the Atlantic showed an Island of Brazil, an Island of Antillia, founded — who knows on what? — whether on the real adventure of a vessel driven in sight of the Azores or Bermudas, or on mere fancy and fogbank. But when discovery really came to be undertaken, men looked for such lands and found them accordingly. And there they are in our geographies, Brazil and the Antilles!

The cut which we give is curious in connection with our traveller’s notice of the portrait-gallery of the Golden Kings. For it is taken from the fragmentary MS. of Rashiduddin’s History in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society, a MS. believed to be one of those executed under the great Vazír’s own supervision, and is presented there as the portrait of the last sovereign of the Dynasty in question, being one of a whole series of similar figures. There can be little doubt, I think, that these were taken from Chinese originals, though, it may be, not very exactly.

NOTE 2. — The history of the Tartar conquerors of China, whether Khitan, Churché, Mongol, or Manchu, has always been the same. For one or two generations the warlike character and manly habits were maintained; and then the intruders, having adopted Chinese manners, ceremonies, literature, and civilization, sank into more than Chinese effeminacy and degradation. We see the custom of employing only female attendants ascribed in a later chapter (lxxvii.) to the Sung Emperors at Kinsay; and the same was the custom of the later Ming emperors, in whose time the imperial palace was said to contain 5000 women. Indeed, the precise custom which this passage describes was in our own day habitually reported of the T’ai-P’ing sovereign during his reign at Nanking: “None but women are allowed in the interior of the Palace, and he is drawn to the audience-chamber in a gilded sacred dragon-car by the ladies” (Blakiston, p. 42; see also Wilson’s Ever–Victorious Army, p. 41.)

1 [There is no trace of it in Harlez’s French translation from the Manchu of the History of the Kin Empire, 1887. — H.C.]

2 See also Oppert (p. 157), who cites this story from Visdelou, but does not notice its analogy to Polo’s.

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