The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxv.

Concerning the Twelve Barons who are Set Over All the Affairs of the Great Kaan.

You must know that the Great Kaan hath chosen twelve great Barons to whom he hath committed all the necessary affairs of thirty-four great provinces; and now I will tell you particulars about them and their establishments.

You must know that these twelve Barons reside all together in a very rich and handsome palace, which is inside the city of Cambaluc, and consists of a variety of edifices, with many suites of apartments. To every province is assigned a judge and several clerks, and all reside in this palace, where each has his separate quarters. These judges and clerks administer all the affairs of the provinces to which they are attached, under the direction of the twelve Barons. Howbeit, when an affair is of very great importance, the twelve Barons lay in before the Emperor, and he decides as he thinks best. But the power of those twelve Barons is so great that they choose the governors for all those thirty-four great provinces that I have mentioned, and only after they have chosen do they inform the Emperor of their choice. This he confirms, and grants to the person nominated a tablet of gold such as is appropriate to the rank of his government.

Those twelve Barons also have such authority that they can dispose of the movements of the forces, and send them whither, and in such strength, as they please. This is done indeed with the Emperor’s cognizance, but still the orders are issued on their authority. They are styled SHIENG, which is as much as to say “The Supreme Court,” and the palace where they abide is also called Shieng. This body forms the highest authority at the Court of the Great Kaan; and indeed they can favour and advance whom they will. I will not now name the thirty-four provinces to you, because they will be spoken of in detail in the course of this Book.1

NOTE 1. — Pauthier’s extracts from the Chinese Annals of the Dynasty, in illustration of this subject, are interesting. These, as he represents them, show the Council of Ministers usually to have consisted of twelve high officials, viz.: two Ch’ing-siang [Chinese] or (chief) ministers of state, one styled, “of the Right,” and the other “of the Left”; four called P’ing-chang ching-ssé, which seems to mean something like ministers in charge of special departments; four assistant ministers; two Counsellors.

Rashiduddin, however, limits the Council to the first two classes: “Strictly speaking, the Council of State is composed of four Ch’ing-sang (Ch’ing-siang) or great officers (Wazírs he afterwards terms them), and four Fanchán (P’ing-chang) or associated members, taken from the nations of the Tajiks, Cathayans, Ighurs, and Arkaun” (i.e. Nestorian Christians). (Compare p. 418, supra.)

[A Samarkand man, Seyyd Tadj Eddin Hassan ben el Khallal, quoted in the Masálak al Absár, says: “Near the Khan are two amírs who are his ministers; they are called Djing San [Arabic] (Ch’ing-siang). After them come the two Bidjan [Arabic] (P’ing Chang), then the two Zoudjin [Arabic] (Tso Chen), then the two Yudjin [Arabic] (Yu Chen), and at last the Landjun [Arabic] (Lang Chang), head of the scribes, and secretary of the sovereign. The Khan holds a sitting every day in the middle of a large building called Chen [Arabic] (Sheng), which is very like our Palace of Justice.” (C. Schefer, Cent. Ec. Langues Or., pp. 18–19.)— H. C.]

In a later age we find the twelve Barons reappearing in the pages of Mendoza: “The King hath in this city of Tabin (Peking), where he is resident, a royal council of twelve counsellors and a president, chosen men throughout all the kingdom, and such as have had experience in government many years.” And also in the early centuries of the Christian era we hear that the Khan of the Turks had his twelve grandees, divided into those of the Right and those of the Left, probably a copy from a Chinese order then also existing.

But to return to Rashiduddin: “As the Kaan generally resides at the capital, he has erected a place for the sittings of the Great Council, called Sing. . . . The dignitaries mentioned above are expected to attend daily at the Sing, and to make themselves acquainted with all that passes there.”

The Sing of Rashid is evidently the Shieng or Sheng (Scieng) of Polo. M. Pauthier is on this point somewhat contemptuous towards Neumann, who, he says, confounds Marco Polo’s twelve Barons or Ministers of State with the chiefs of the twelve great provincial governments called Sing, who had their residence at the chief cities of those governments; whilst in fact Polo’s Scieng (he asserts) has nothing to do with the Sing, but represents the Chinese word Siang “a minister,” and “the office of a minister.” [There was no doubt a confusion between Siang [Chinese] and Sheng [Chinese]. — H. C.]

It is very probable that two different words, Siang and Sing, got confounded by the non-Chinese attachés of the Imperial Court; but it seems to me quite certain that they applied the same word, Sing or Sheng, to both institutions, viz. to the High Council of State, and to the provincial governments. It also looks as if Marco Polo himself had made that very confusion with which Pauthier charges Neumann. For whilst here he represents the twelve Barons as forming a Council of State at the capital, we find further on, when speaking of the city of Yangchau, he says: “Et si siet en ceste cité uns des xii Barons du Grant Kaan; car elle est esleue pour un des xii sieges,” where the last word is probably a mistranscription of Sciengs, or Sings, and in any case the reference is to a distribution of the empire into twelve governments.

To be convinced that Sing was used by foreigners in the double sense that I have said, we have only to proceed with Rashiduddin’s account of the administration. After what we have already quoted, he goes on: “The Sing of Khanbaligh is the most eminent, and the building is very large. . . . Sings do not exist in all the cities, but only in the capitals of great provinces. . . . In the whole empire of the Kaan there are twelve of these Sings; but that of Khanbaligh is the only one which has Ching-sangs amongst its members.” Wassáf again, after describing the greatness of Khanzai (Kinsay of Polo) says: “These circumstances characterize the capital itself, but four hundred cities of note, and embracing ample territories, are dependent on its jurisdiction, insomuch that the most inconsiderable of those cities surpasses Baghdad and Shiraz. In the number of these cities are Lankinfu and Zaitun, and Chinkalán; for they call Khanzai a Shing, i.e. a great city in which the high and mighty Council of Administration holds its meetings.” Friar Odoric again says: “This empire hath been divided by the Lord thereof into twelve parts, each one thereof is termed a Singo.”

Polo, it seems evident to me, knew nothing of Chinese. His Shieng is no direct attempt to represent any Chinese word, but simply the term that he had been used to employ in talking Persian or Turki, in the way that Rashiduddin and Wassáf employ it.

I find no light as to the thirty-four provinces into which Polo represents the empire as divided, unless it be an enumeration of the provinces and districts which he describes in the second and third parts of Bk. II., of which it is not difficult to reckon thirty-three or thirty-four, but not worth while to repeat the calculation.

[China was then divided into twelve Sheng or provinces: Cheng–Tung, Liao–Yang, Chung–Shu, Shen–Si, Ling–Pe (Karakorum), Kan–Suh, Sze-ch’wan, Ho–Nan Kiang–Pe, Kiang–Ché, Kiang–Si, Hu–Kwang and Yun–Nan. Rashiduddin (J. As., XI. 1883, p. 447) says that of the twelve Sing, Khanbaligh was the only one with Chin-siang. We read in Morrison’s Dict. (Pt. II. vol. i. p. 70): “Chin-seang, a Minister of State, was so called under the Ming Dynasty.” According to Mr. E. H. Parker (China Review, xxiv. p. 101), Ching Siang were abolished in 1395. I imagine that the thirty-four provinces refer to the Fu cities, which numbered however thirty-nine, according to Oxenham’s Historical Atlas. — H. C.]

(Cathay, 263 seqq. and 137; Mendoza, I. 96; Erdmann, 142; Hammer’s Wassáf, p. 42, but corrected.)

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