The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter viii.

Concerning the Person of the Great Kaan.

The personal appearance of the Great Kaan, Lord of Lords, whose name is Cublay, is such as I shall now tell you. He is of a good stature, neither tall nor short, but of a middle height. He has a becoming amount of flesh, and is very shapely in all his limbs. His complexion is white and red, the eyes black and fine,1 the nose well formed and well set on. He has four wives, whom he retains permanently as his legitimate consorts; and the eldest of his sons by those four wives ought by rights to be emperor; — I mean when his father dies. Those four ladies are called empresses, but each is distinguished also by her proper name. And each of them has a special court of her own, very grand and ample; no one of them having fewer than 300 fair and charming damsels. They have also many pages and eunuchs, and a number of other attendants of both sexes; so that each of these ladies has not less than 10,000 persons attached to her court.2

When the Emperor desires the society of one of these four consorts, he will sometimes send for the lady to his apartment and sometimes visit her at her own. He has also a great number of concubines, and I will tell you how he obtains them.

You must know that there is a tribe of Tartars called UNGRAT, who are noted for their beauty. Now every year an hundred of the most beautiful maidens of this tribe are sent to the Great Kaan, who commits them to the charge of certain elderly ladies dwelling in his palace. And these old ladies make the girls sleep with them, in order to ascertain if they have sweet breath [and do not snore], and are sound in all their limbs. Then such of them as are of approved beauty, and are good and sound in all respects, are appointed to attend on the Emperor by turns. Thus six of these damsels take their turn for three days and nights, and wait on him when he is in his chamber and when he is in his bed, to serve him in any way, and to be entirely at his orders. At the end of the three days and nights they are relieved by other six. And so throughout the year, there are reliefs of maidens by six and six, changing every three days and nights.3

Illustration: Portrait of Kúblái Kaan. (From a Chinese Engraving.)

NOTE 1. — We are left in some doubt as to the colour of Kúblái’s eyes, for some of the MSS. read vairs and voirs, and others noirs. The former is a very common epithet for eyes in the mediaeval romances. And in the ballad on the death of St. Lewis, we are told of his son Tristram:—

“Droiz fu comme un rosel, iex vairs comme faucon,

Dès le tens Moysel ne nasqui sa façon.”

The word has generally been interpreted bluish-grey, but in the passage just quoted, Fr.-Michel explains it by brillans. However, the evidence for noirs here seems strongest. Rashiduddin says that when Kúblái was born Chinghiz expressed surprise at the child’s being so brown, as its father and all his other sons were fair. Indeed, we are told that the descendants of Yesugai (the father of Chinghiz) were in general distinguished by blue eyes and reddish hair. (Michel’s Joinville, p. 324; D’Ohsson, II. 475; Erdmann, 252.)

NOTE 2. — According to Hammer’s authority (Rashid?) Kúblái had seven wives; Gaubil’s Chinese sources assign him five, with the title of empress (Hwang-heu). Of these the best beloved was the beautiful Jamúi Khátún (Lady or Empress Jamúi, illustrating what the text says of the manner of styling these ladies), who bore him four sons and five daughters. Rashiduddin adds that she was called Kún Kú, or the great consort, evidently the term Hwang-heu. (Gen. Tables in Hammer’s Ilkhans; Gatibil, 223; Erdmann, 200.)

[“Kúblái’s four wives, i.e. the empresses of the first, second, third, and fourth ordos. Ordo is, properly speaking, a separate palace of the Khan, under the management of one of his wives. Chinese authors translate therefore the word ordo by ‘harem.’ The four Ordo established by Chingis Khan were destined for the empresses, who were chosen out of four different nomad tribes. During the reign of the first four Khans, who lived in Mongolia, the four ordo were considerably distant one from another, and the Khans visited them in different seasons of the year; they existed nominally as long as China remained under Mongol domination. The custom of choosing the empress out of certain tribes, was in the course of time set aside by the Khans. The empress, wife of the last Mongol Khan in China, was a Corean princess by birth; and she contributed in a great measure to the downfall of the Mongol Dynasty.” (Palladius, 40.)

I do not believe that Rashiduddin’s Kún Kú is the term Hwang-keu; it is the term Kiun Chu, King or Queen, a sovereign. — H. C.]

NOTE 3. — Ungrat, the reading of the Crusca, seems to be that to which the others point, and I doubt not that it represents the great Mongol tribe of KUNGURAT, which gave more wives than any other to the princes of the house of Chinghiz; a conclusion in which I find I have been anticipated by De Mailla or his editor (IX. 426). To this tribe (which, according to Vámbéry, took its name from (Turki) Kongur–At, “Chestnut Horse”) belonged Burteh Fujin, the favourite wife of Chinghiz himself, and mother of his four heirs; to the same tribe belonged the two wives of Chagatai, two of Hulaku’s seven wives, one of Mangku Kaan’s, two at least of Kúblái’s including the beloved Jamúi Khátún, one at least of Abaka’s, two of Ahmed Tigudar’s, two of Arghun’s, and two of Ghazan’s.

The seat of the Kungurats was near the Great Wall. Their name is still applied to one of the tribes of the Uzbeks of Western Turkestan, whose body appears to have been made up of fractions of many of the Turk and Mongol tribes. Kungurat is also the name of a town of Khiva, near the Sea of Aral, perhaps borrowed from the Uzbek clan.

The conversion of Kungurat into Ungrat is due, I suppose, to that Mongol tendency to soften gutturals which has been before noticed. (Erdm. 199–200; Hammer, passim; Burnes, III. 143, 225.)

The Ramusian version adds here these curious and apparently genuine particulars:—

“The Great Kaan sends his commissioners to the Province to select four or five hundred, or whatever number may be ordered, of the most beautiful young women, according to the scale of beauty enjoined upon them. And they set a value upon the comparative beauty of the damsels in this way. The commissioners on arriving assemble all the girls of the province, in presence of appraisers appointed for the purpose. These carefully survey the points of each girl in succession, as (for example) her hair, her complexion, eyebrows, mouth, lips, and the proportion of all her limbs. They will then set down some as estimated at 16 carats, some at 17, 18, 20, or more or less, according to the sum of the beauties or defects of each. And whatever standard the Great Kaan may have fixed for those that are to be brought to him, whether it be 20 carats or 21, the commissioners select the required number from those who have attained that standard, and bring them to him. And when they reach his presence he has them appraised anew by other parties, and has a selection made of 30 or 40 of those, who then get the highest valuation.”

Marsden and Murray miss the meaning of this curious statement in a surprising manner, supposing the carat to represent some absolute value, 4 grains of gold according to the former, whence the damsel of 20 carats was estimated at 13s. 4d.! This is sad nonsense; but Marsden would not have made the mistake had he not been fortunate enough to live before the introduction of Competitive Examinations. This Kungurat business was in fact a competitive examination in beauty; total marks attainable 24; no candidate to pass who did not get 20 or 21. Carat expresses n ÷ 24, not any absolute value.

Apart from the mode of valuation, it appears that a like system of selection was continued by the Ming, and that some such selection from the daughters of the Manchu nobles has been maintained till recent times. Herodotus tells that the like custom prevailed among the Adyrmachidae, the Libyan tribe next Egypt. Old Eden too relates it of the “Princes of Moscovia.” (Middle Km. I. 318; Herod. IV. 168, Rawl.; Notes on Russia, Hak. Soc. II. 253.)

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