The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xv.

Of the Great Festival which the Kaan Holds on New Year’s Day.

The beginning of their New Year is the month of February, and on that occasion the Great Kaan and all his subjects made such a Feast as I now shall describe.

It is the custom that on this occasion the Kaan and all his subjects should be clothed entirely in white; so, that day, everybody is in white, men and women, great and small. And this is done in order that they may thrive all through the year, for they deem that white clothing is lucky.1 On that day also all the people of all the provinces and governments and kingdoms and countries that own allegiance to the Kaan bring him great presents of gold and silver, and pearls and gems, and rich textures of divers kinds. And this they do that the Emperor throughout the year may have abundance of treasure and enjoyment without care. And the people also make presents to each other of white things, and embrace and kiss and make merry, and wish each other happiness and good luck for the coming year. On that day, I can assure you, among the customary presents there shall be offered to the Kaan from various quarters more than 100,000 white horses, beautiful animals, and richly caparisoned. [And you must know ’tis their custom in offering presents to the Great Kaan (at least when the province making the present is able to do so), to present nine times nine articles. For instance, if a province sends horses, it sends nine times nine or 81 horses; of gold, nine times nine pieces of gold, and so with stuffs or whatever else the present may consist of.]2

On that day also, the whole of the Kaan’s elephants, amounting fully to 5000 in number, are exhibited, all covered with rich and gay housings of inlaid cloth representing beasts and birds, whilst each of them carries on his back two splendid coffers; all of these being filled with the Emperor’s plate and other costly furniture required for the Court on the occasion of the White Feast.3 And these are followed by a vast number of camels which are likewise covered with rich housings and laden with things needful for the Feast. All these are paraded before the Emperor, and it makes the finest sight in the world.

Moreover, on the morning of the Feast, before the tables are set, all the Kings, and all the Dukes, Marquesses, Counts, Barons, Knights, and Astrologers, and Philosophers, and Leeches, and Falconers, and other officials of sundry kinds from all the places round about, present themselves in the Great Hall before the Emperor; whilst those who can find no room to enter stand outside in such a position that the Emperor can see them all well. And the whole company is marshalled in this wise. First are the Kaan’s sons, and his nephews, and the other Princes of the Blood Imperial; next to them all Kings; then Dukes, and then all others in succession according to the degree of each. And when they are all seated, each in his proper place, then a great prelate rises and says with a loud voice: “Bow and adore!” And as soon as he has said this, the company bow down until their foreheads touch the earth in adoration towards the Emperor as if he were a god. And this adoration they repeat four times, and then go to a highly decorated altar, on which is a vermilion tablet with the name of the Grand Kaan inscribed thereon, and a beautiful censer of gold. So they incense the tablet and the altar with great reverence, and then return each man to his seat.4

When all have performed this, then the presents are offered, of which I have spoken as being so rich and costly. And after all have been offered and been seen by the Emperor, the tables are set, and all take their places at them with perfect order as I have already told you. And after dinner the jugglers come in and amuse the Court as you have heard before; and when that is over, every man goes to his quarters.

NOTE 1. — The first month of the year is still called by the Mongols Chaghan or Chaghan Sara, “the White” or the “White Month”; and the wearing of white clothing on this festive occasion must have been purely a Mongol custom. For when Shah Rukh’s ambassadors were present at the New Year’s Feast at the Court of the succeeding Chinese Dynasty (2nd February, 1421) they were warned that no one must wear white, as that among the Chinese was the colour of mourning. (Koeppen, I. 574, II. 309; Cathay, p. ccvii.)

NOTE 2. — On the mystic importance attached to the number 9 on all such occasions among the Mongols, see Hammer’s Golden Horde, p. 208; Hayton, ch. iii. in Ramusio II.; Not. et Ext. XIV. Pt. I. 32; and Strahlenberg (II. 210 of Amsterd. ed. 1757). Vámbéry, speaking of the Kálín or marriage price among the Uzbegs, says: “The question is always how many times nine sheep, cows, camels, or horses, or how many times nine ducats (as is the custom in a town), the father is to receive for giving up his daughter.” (Sketches of Cent. Asia, p. 103.) Sheikh Ibrahim of Darband, making offerings to Timur, presented nines of everything else, but of slaves eight only. “Where is the ninth?” enquired the court official. “Who but I myself?” said the Sheikh, and so won the heart of Timur. (A. Arabsiadis . . . Timuri Hist. p. 357.)

NOTE 3. — The elephant stud of the Son of Heaven had dwindled till in 1862 Dr. Rennie found but one animal; now none remain. [Dr. S. W. Williams writes (Middle Kingdom, I. pp. 323–324): “Elephants are kept at Peking for show, and are used to draw the state chariot when the Emperor goes to worship at the Altars of Heaven and Earth, but the sixty animals seen in the days of Kienlung, by Bell, have since dwindled to one or two. Van Braam met six going into Peking, sent thither from Yun–Nan.” These were no doubt carrying tribute from Burmah. — H. C.] It is worth noticing that the housings of cut cloth or appliqué work (“draps entaillez”) are still in fashion in India for the caparison of elephants.

NOTE 4. — In 1263 Kúblái adopted the Chinese fashion of worshipping the tablets of his own ancestors, and probably at the same time the adoration of his own tablet by his subjects was introduced. Van Braam ingenuously relates how he and the rest of the Dutch Legation of 1794 performed the adoration of the Emperor’s Tablet on first entering China, much in the way described in the text.

There is a remarkable amplification in the last paragraph of the chapter as given by Ramusio: “When all are in their proper places, a certain great personage, or high prelate as it were, gets up and says with a loud voice: ‘Bow yourselves and adore!’ On this immediately all bend and bow the forehead to the ground. Then the prelate says again: ‘God save and keep our Lord the Emperor, with length of years and with mirth and happiness.’ And all answer: ‘So may it be!’ And then again the prelate says: ‘May God increase and augment his Empire and its prosperity more and more, and keep all his subjects in peace and goodwill, and may all things go well throughout his Dominion!’ And all again respond: ‘So may it be!’ And this adoration is repeated four times.”

One of Pauthier’s most interesting notes is a long extract from the official Directory of Ceremonial under the Mongol Dynasty, which admirably illustrates the chapters we have last read. I borrow a passage regarding this adoration: “The Musician’s Song having ceased, the Ministers shall recite with a loud voice the following Prayer: ‘Great Heaven, that extendest over all! Earth which art under the guidance of Heaven! We invoke You and beseech You to heap blessings upon the Emperor and the Empress! Grant that they may live ten thousand, a hundred thousand years!’

“Then the first Chamberlain shall respond: ‘May it be as the prayer hath said!’ The Ministers shall then prostrate themselves, and when they rise return to their places, and take a cup or two of wine.”

The K’o-tow (Khéu-théu) which appears repeatedly in this ceremonial and which in our text is indicated by the four prostrations, was, Pauthier alleges, not properly a Chinese form, but only introduced by the Mongols. Baber indeed speaks of it as the Kornish, a Moghul ceremony, in which originally “the person who performed it kneeled nine times and touched the earth with his brow each time.” He describes it as performed very elaborately (nine times twice) by his younger uncle in visiting the elder. But in its essentials the ceremony must have been of old date at the Chinese Court; for the Annals of the Thang Dynasty, in a passage cited by M. Pauthier himself,1 mention that ambassadors from the famous Hárún ar Rashíd in 798 had to perform the “ceremony of kneeling and striking the forehead against the ground.” And M. Pauthier can scarcely be right in saying that the practice was disused by the Ming Dynasty and only reintroduced by the Manchus; for in the story of Shah Rukh’s embassy the performance of the K’o-tow occurs repeatedly.

[“It is interesting to note,” writes Mr. Rockhill (Rubruck, p. 22), “that in A.D. 981 the Chinese Envoy, Wang Yen-tê, sent to the Uigur Prince of Kao-chang, refused to make genuflexions (pai) to him, as being contrary to the established usages as regards envoys. The prince and his family, however, on receiving the envoy, all faced eastward (towards Peking) and made an obeisance (pai) on receiving the imperial presents (shou-tzu).” (Ma Twan-lin, Bk 336, 13.)— H. C.]

(Gaubil, 142; Van Braam, I. 20–21; Baber, 106; N. et E. XIV. Pt. I. 405, 407, 418.)

The enumeration of four prostrations in the text is, I fancy, quite correct. There are several indications that this number was used instead of the three times three of later days. Thus Carpini, when introduced to the Great Kaan, “bent the left knee four times.” And in the Chinese bridal ceremony of “Worshipping the Tablets,” the genuflexion is made four times. At the court of Shah Abbas an obeisance evidently identical was repeated four times. (Carp. 759; Doolittle, p. 60; P. Della Valle, I. 646.)

1 Gaubil, cited in Pauthier’s Hist. des Relations Politiques de la Chine, etc., p. 226.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59