The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxiv.

[Concerning the Religion of the Cathayans;1 Their Views as to the Soul; and Their Customs.]

As we have said before, these people are Idolaters, and as regards their gods, each has a tablet fixed high up on the wall of his chamber, on which is inscribed a name which represents the Most High and Heavenly God; and before this they pay daily worship, offering incense from a thurible, raising their hands aloft, and gnashing their teeth2 three times, praying Him to grant them health of mind and body; but of Him they ask nought else. And below on the ground there is a figure which they call Natigai, which is the god of things terrestrial. To him they give a wife and children, and they worship him in the same manner, with incense, and gnashing of teeth,2 and lifting up of hands; and of him they ask seasonable weather, and the fruits of the earth, children, and so forth.3

Their view of the immortality of the soul is after this fashion. They believe that as soon as a man dies, his soul enters into another body, going from a good to a better, or from a bad to a worse, according as he hath conducted himself well or ill. That is to say, a poor man, if he have passed through life good and sober, shall be born again of a gentlewoman, and shall be a gentleman; and on a second occasion shall be born of a princess and shall be a prince, and so on, always rising, till he be absorbed into the Deity. But if he have borne himself ill, he who was the son of a gentleman shall be reborn as the son of a boor, and from a boor shall become a dog, always going down lower and lower.

The people have an ornate style of speech; they salute each other with a cheerful countenance, and with great politeness; they behave like gentlemen, and eat with great propriety.4 They show great respect to their parents; and should there be any son who offends his parents, or fails to minister to their necessities, there is a public office which has no other charge but that of punishing unnatural children, who are proved to have acted with ingratitude towards their parents.[NOTE 5]

Criminals of sundry kinds who have been imprisoned, are released at a time fixed by the Great Kaan (which occurs every three years), but on leaving prison they are branded on one cheek that they may be recognized.

The Great Kaan hath prohibited all gambling and sharping, things more prevalent there than in any other part of the world. In doing this, he said: “I have conquered you by force of arms, and all that you have is mine; if, therefore, you gamble away your property, it is in fact my property that you are gambling away.” Not that he took anything from them however.

I must not omit to tell you of the orderly way in which the Kaan’s Barons and others conduct themselves in coming to his presence. In the first place, within a half mile of the place where he is, out of reverence for his exalted majesty, everybody preserves a mien of the greatest meekness and quiet, so that no noise of shrill voices or loud talk shall be heard. And every one of the chiefs and nobles carries always with him a handsome little vessel to spit in whilst he remain in the Hall of Audience — for no one dares spit on the floor of the hall — and when he hath spitten he covers it up and puts it aside.6 So also they all have certain handsome buskins of white leather, which they carry with them, and, when summoned by the sovereign, on arriving at the entrance to the hall, they put on these white buskins, and give their others in charge to the servants, in order that they may not foul the fine carpets of silk and gold and divers colours.]

NOTE 1. — Ramusio’s heading has Tartars, but it is manifestly of the Cathayans or Chinese that the author speaks throughout this chapter.

NOTE 2. —“Sbattendo i denti.” This is almost certainly, as Marsden has noticed, due to some error of transcription. Probably Battono i fronti, or something similar, was the true reading. [See following note, p. 461. — H. C.]

NOTE 3. — The latter part of this passage has, I doubt not, been more or less interpolated, seeing that it introduces again as a Chinese divinity the rude object of primitive Tartar worship, of which we have already heard in Bk. I. ch. liii. And regarding the former part of the passage, one cannot but have some doubt whether what was taken for the symbol of the Most High was not the ancestral tablet, which is usually placed in one of the inner rooms of the house, and before which worship is performed at fixed times, and according to certain established forms. Something, too, may have been known of the Emperor’s worship of Heaven at the great circular temple at Peking, called T’ien-t’ân, or Altar of Heaven (see p. 459), where incensed offerings are made before a tablet, on which is inscribed the name Yuh–Hwang Shang-ti, which some interpret as “The Supreme Ruler of the Imperial Heavens,” and regard as the nearest approach to pure Theism of which there is any indication in Chinese worship (See Doolittle, pp. 170, 625; and Lockhart in J. R. G. S., xxxvi. 142). This worship is mentioned by the Mahomedan narrator of Shah Rukh’s embassy (1421): “Every year there are some days on which the Emperor eats no animal food. . . . He spends his time in an apartment which contains no idol, and says that he is worshipping the God of Heaven.”1 (Ind. Antiquary, II. 81.)

Illustration: Great Temple of Heaven, Peking.

The charge of irreligion against the Chinese is an old one, and is made by Hayton in nearly the same terms as it often is by modern missionaries: “And though these people have the acutest intelligence in all matters wherein material things are concerned, yet you shall never find among them any knowledge or perception of spiritual things.” Yet it is a mistake to suppose that this insensibility has been so universal as it is often represented. To say nothing of the considerable numbers who have adhered faithfully to the Roman Catholic Church, the large number of Mahomedans in China, of whom many must have been proselytes, indicates an interest in religion; and that Buddhism itself was in China once a spiritual power of no small energy will, I think, be plain to any one who reads the very interesting extracts in Schott’s essay on Buddhism in Upper Asia and China. (Berlin Acad. of Sciences, 1846.) These seem to be so little known that I will translate two or three of them. “In the years Yuan-yeu of the Sung (A.D. 1086–1093), a pious matron with her two servants lived entirely to the Land of Enlightenment. One of the maids said one day to her companion: ‘To-night I shall pass over to the Realm of Amita.’ The same night a balsamic odour filled the house, and the maid died without any preceding illness. On the following day the surviving maid said to the lady: ‘Yesterday my deceased companion appeared to me in a dream, and said to me: “Thanks to the persevering exhortations of our mistress, I am become a partaker of Paradise, and my blessedness is past all expression in words.”’ The matron replied: ‘If she will appear to me also then I will believe what you say.’ Next night the deceased really appeared to her, and saluted her with respect. The lady asked: ‘May I, for once, visit the Land of Enlightenment?’ ‘Yea,’ answered the Blessed Soul, ‘thou hast but to follow thy handmaiden.’ The lady followed her (in her dream), and soon perceived a lake of immeasurable expanse, overspread with innumerable red and white lotus flowers, of various sizes, some blooming, some fading. She asked what those flowers might signify? The maiden replied: ‘These are all human beings on the earth whose thoughts are turned to the Land of Enlightenment. The very first longing after the Paradise of Amita produces a flower in the Celestial Lake, and this becomes daily larger and more glorious, as the self-improvement of the person whom it represents advances; in the contrary case, it loses in glory and fades away.’2 The matron desired to know the name of an enlightened one who reposed on one of the flowers, clad in a waving and wondrously glistening raiment. Her whilom maiden answered: ‘That is Yangkie.’ Then asked she the name of another, and was answered: ‘That is Mahu.’ The lady then said: ‘At what place shall I hereafter come into existence?’ Then the Blessed Soul led her a space further, and showed her a hill that gleamed with gold and azure. ‘Here,’ said she, ‘is your future abode. You will belong to the first order of the blessed.’ When the matron awoke she sent to enquire for Yangkie and Mahu. The first was already departed; the other still alive and well. And thus the lady learned that the soul of one who advances in holiness and never turns back, may be already a dweller in the Land of Enlightenment, even though the body still sojourn in this transitory world” (pp. 55–56).

What a singular counterpart the striking conclusion here forms to Dante’s tremendous assault on a still living villain — or enemy!

    —“che per sua opra

    In anima in Cocito già si bagna,

Ed in corpo par vivo ancor di sopra.”

Infern. xxxiii. 155.

Again: “I knew a man who during his life had killed many living beings, and was at last struck with an apoplexy. The sorrows in store for his sin-laden soul pained me to the heart; I visited him, and exhorted him to call on the Amita; but he obstinately refused, and spoke only of indifferent matters. His illness clouded his understanding; in consequence of his misdeeds he had become hardened. What was before such a man when once his eyes were closed? Wherefore let men be converted while there is yet time! In this life the night followeth the day, and the winter followeth the summer; that, all men are aware of. But that life is followed by death, no man will consider. Oh, what blindness and obduracy is this!” (p. 93).

Again: “Hoang-ta-tie, of T’ancheu (Changshu-fu in Honan), who lived under the Sung, followed the craft of a blacksmith. Whenever he was at his work he used to call without intermission on the name of Amita Buddha. One day he handed to his neighbours the following verses of his own composing to be spread about:—

‘Ding dong! The hammer-strokes fall long and fast,

Until the Iron turns to steel at last!

Now shall the long long Day of Rest begin,

The Land of Bliss Eternal calls me in.’

Thereupon he died. But his verses spread all over Honan, and many learned to call upon Buddha” (103).

Once more: “In my own town there lived a physician by name Chang-yan-ming. He was a man who never took payment for his treatment from any one in poor or indifferent circumstances; nay, he would often make presents to such persons of money or corn to lighten their lot. If a rich man would have his advice and paid him a fee, he never looked to see whether it were much or little. If a patient lay so dangerously ill that Yanming despaired of his recovery, he would still give him good medicine to comfort his heart, but never took payment for it. I knew this man for many a year, and I never heard the word Money pass his lips! One day a fire broke out in the town, and laid the whole of the houses in ashes; only that of the physician was spared. His sons and grandsons reached high dignities” (p. 110).

Of such as this physician the apostle said: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.”

[“By the ‘Most High and Heavenly God,’ worshipped by the Chinese, as Marco Polo reports, evidently the Chinese T’ien, ‘Heaven’ is meant, Lao t’ien ye in the common language. Regarding ‘the God of things terrestrial,’ whose figure the Chinese, according to M. Polo, ‘placed below on the ground,’ there can also be no doubt that he understands the T’u-ti, the local ‘Lar’ of the Chinese, to which they present sacrifices on the floor, near the wall under the table.

“M. Polo reports, that the Chinese worship their God offering incense, raising their hands aloft, and gnashing their teeth. Of course he means that they placed the hands together, or held kindled joss-stick bundles in their hands, according to the Chinese custom. The statement of M. Polo sbattendo i denti is very remarkable. It seems to me, that very few of the Chinese are aware of the fact, that this custom still exists among the Taouists. In the rituals of the Taouists the K’ow-ch’i (Ko’w = ‘to knock against,‘ch’i = ‘teeth’) is prescribed as a comminatory and propitiatory act. It is effected by the four upper and lower foreteeth. The Taouists are obliged before the service begins to perform a certain number of ‘K’ow-ch’i, turning their heads alternately to the left and to the right, in order to drive away mundane thoughts and aggressions of bad spirits. The K’ow-ch’i repeated three times is called ming fa ku in Chinese, i.e. ‘to beat the spiritual drum.’ The ritual says, that it is heard by the Most High Ruler, who is moved by it to grace.

“M. Polo observed this custom among the lay heathen. Indeed, it appears from a small treatise, written in China more than a hundred years before M. Polo, that at the time the Chinese author wrote, all devout men, entering a temple, used to perform the K’ow-ch’i, and considered it an expression of veneration and devotion to the idols. Thus this custom had been preserved to the time of M. Polo, who did not fail to mention this strange peculiarity in the exterior observances of the Chinese. As regards the present time it seems to me, that this custom is not known among the people, and even with respect to the Taouists it is only performed on certain occasions, and not in all Taouist temples.” (Palladius, pp. 53–54.)— H. C.]

NOTE 4. —“True politeness cannot of course be taught by rules merely, but a great degree of urbanity and kindness is everywhere shown, whether owing to the naturally placable disposition of the people, or to the effects of their early instruction in the forms of politeness.” (Mid. Kingdom, II. 68.) As regards the “ornate style of speech,” a well-bred Chinaman never says I or You, but for the former “the little person,” “the disciple,” “the inferior,” and so on; and for the latter, “the learned man,” “the master,” or even “the emperor.” These phrases, however, are not confined to China, most of them having exact parallels in Hindustani courtesy. On this subject and the courteous disposition of the Chinese, see Fontaney, in Lett. Edif. VII. 287 seqq.; also XI. 287 seqq.; Semedo, 36; Lecomte, II. 48 seqq. There are, however, strong differences of opinion expressed on this subject; there is, apparently, much more genuine courtesy in the north than in the south.

NOTE 5. —“Filial piety is the fundamental principle of the Chinese polity.” (Amiot, V. 129.) “In cases of extreme unfilial conduct, parents sometimes accuse their children before the magistrate, and demand his official aid in controlling or punishing them; but such instances are comparatively rare. . . . If the parent require his son to be publicly whipped by the command of the magistrate, the latter is obliged to order the infliction of the whipping. . . . If after punishment the son remain undutiful and disobedient, and his parents demand it at the hands of the magistrate, the latter must, with the consent of the maternal uncles of the son, cause him to be taken out to the high wall in front of the yamun, and have him there publicly whipped to death.” (Doolittle, 102–103.)

NOTE 6. —[Mr. Rockhill writes to me that pocket-spitoons are still used in China. — H. C.]

1 “In the worship carried on here the Emperor acts as a high priest. HE only worships; and no subject, however high in rank, can join in the adoration.” (Lockhart.) The actual temple dates from 1420–1430; but the Institution is very ancient, and I think there is evidence that such a structure existed under the Mongols, probably only restored by the Ming. [It was built during the 18th year of the reign of the third Ming Emperor Yung Loh (1403–1425); it was entirely restored during the 18th year of K’ien Lung; it was struck by lightning and burnt down in 1889; it is being re-built. — H. C.]

2 In 1871 I saw in Bond Street an exhibition of (so-called) “spirit” drawings, i.e. drawings alleged to be executed by a “medium” under extraneous and invisible guidance. A number of these extraordinary productions (for extraordinary they were undoubtedly) professed to represent the “Spiritual Flowers” of such and such persons; and the explanation of this as presented in the catalogue was in substance exactly that given in the text. It is highly improbable that the artist had any cognizance of Schott’s Essay, and the coincidence was assuredly very striking.

Marco Polo’s Itineraries No. IV (Book I, Chapter 36 to end & chief part of Book II.)

Illustration: PLAN OF SHANGTU From an Eye Sketch by Dr. S W Bushell 1872

Illustration: Archway erected under the Mongol Dynasty at Kiu Yung Kwan, N.W. of Peking.3

3 On the walls of this archway is engraved the inscription in six characters, of which a representation accompanies ch. xv. of Prologue, note 1.

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