The Ruins found in Beijing are not Marco Polo’s Xanadu

(Copyright: SCMP. Wang Guangyao speaking to the Press)
(Copyright: SCMP. Wang Guangyao speaking to the Press)

An article on the SCMP (Clues lead to the ‘Greatest Palace That Ever Was’ 10/06.2016) ) claims that the ruins of the fabled moveable palace of Kublai Khan has been discovered within the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Laura Zhou, confusing two different descriptions made by Polo, writes: For centuries the imperial palace of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty was shrouded in mystery. After the dynasty collapsed, there were no clues as to where it was and it lived on only in legend through writings such as those of 13th century Venetian merchant Marco Polo.
If Polo is to be believed, the walls of “the greatest palace that ever was” were covered with gold and silver and the main hall was so large that it could easily seat 6,000 people for dinner.
Chinese archaeologists solve mystery of Beijing’s Forbidden Palace (“The palace was made of cane supported by 200 silk cords, which could be taken to pieces and transported easily when the emperor moved,” he wrote in his travel journal. It was a vision of grandeur but the palace disappeared, seemingly without trace. The Yuan dynasty lasted for a less than a century, spanning the years from 1279 to 1368, and it is widely believed that the capital of the empire was Beijing. But in the centuries since, one question has dogged historians and archaeologists in China: just where was the dynasty’s palace?
Institute deputy director Wang Guangyao said the foundation unearthed in the central-west part of the palace was in the same style as one uncovered in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, in the ruins of Zhongdu, one of the four capitals of the Yuan dynasty.
Some of the rubble in the newly discovered Yuan foundation dated back even further to dynasties such as the Liao (907–1125) and the Jin (1115–1234), Wang said.
Wang said a foundation of such size was rare in Yuan buildings and could have been used to support a palatial hall. More exploration of the dig at the Forbidden City
At the very least, the find proved that the Yuan palace was built on the same site as the Ming palace, though it was still too early to say these two completely overlapped.
Wang Guangyao, deputy director of the Palace Museum’s Institute of Archaeology “At least we now know that the palace was not built somewhere else but here,” Wang said.
Wang said it wasn’t easy to excavate in one of the country’s most important cultural sites and more work was still to be done.
That the place where we now see the Forbidden City has Yuan Dynasty foundations is out of discussion but that the ruins are those indicated by Marco Polo as Kublai Khan’s summer palace is wrong. The weather in Beijing during the summer months was wet and too warm for an Emperor, why should he had built his summer palace there?

In fact, the quotes taken from Marco Polo’s book in the quoted article are not precise. Let’s have a look at them.

Marco Polo (1254-1324) went to China in 1271 and returned to his native Venice in 1295. There are still a few historians who claim that he never went to China. Frances Wood is the main ‘negationist’ having published in 1995 a book titled Did Marco Polo Go to China? a 1995 arguing that the Venetian explorer never visited China but he went no further than Tana in Crimea, basing his description of China on accounts collected from other travellers.

Frances Wood’s thesis has many faults and possessing even a superficial knowledge of China and Mongolia at that time one can realize that he was there and he had seen things with his own eyes.

Here I quote a small detail (one of the many) who escaped Wood’s selective attention: Marco Polo is correctly giving the date of birth of Kublai Khan, the 27th of September. This is a detail which could hardly appear in the notes of one who is just repeating stories…
As it is well known there are several editions of Polo’s book. Several in manuscripts form and then in print. But on this point we are going to quote the Franco-Italian version (the oldest) and the manuscript known as Z which are in accord on this particular point.

On the City of Giandu (Xanadu)

Giandu is the city built by the Great Khan, Kublai. He had built a palace of marble and other rare stones; the rooms and the chambers are all golden and everything is very beautiful. And around this palace there is a wall of XV miles and inside are streams and fountains and several meadows. And inside keep the Great Khan many beasts, deer, chamois and roe deer, that he feed. Then awks and gyrfalcons in hundreds. Every week he wants to go to inspect it. And every time he goes within these corralled meadows he takes a tamed leopard on the back of his horse and when he wants to get one of those animals he set free the leopard and the leopard catch her and then he feed the meat to his gyrfalcons who he keeps in cages. He does this for sport.
You should know that the Great Khan had made in the middle of the meadow a Palace with canes, which is all gilded inside with figures of beasts and birds. The roof is made with reeds and so well made that water cannot get inside. Those reeds (bamboo) are 2 palms wide and they are 10 to 15 steps long, cutted at the knot in half and they look like tiles, so that the house could be covered with them. He can order the palace to be disassembled and hang it with 200 ropes of silk
Know that he spends the months of June, July, August and this because is warm. During the rest of the year this palace lays disassembled. He departs on 28 of August and I will tell you why.

Then Marco Polo speaks of the white mares belonging to Kublai and the fact that only people with imperial blood can drink their milk, only exception is made for the people of the Oriat (those who knows the story of the Mongols in their Golden Book know why).
Then he adds that over this palace there is never bad weather because of the Khan’s sorcerers and astronomers.
In the following pages Marco Polo speaks, starting at chapter 83, of the Palace of the Great Khan. Saying: “You should know that the Great Khan stays in the main city – which is called Canbalu (Kambalik or Beijing today) for three months: December, January and February and in this city is his great palace and I’ll tell you how it is made…

Marco Polo then goes on with his description of the Palace. From these few lines it is clear that he is talking of two different palaces, one which could be disassembled and good for the summer months, which was probably located in Jehol and which has left not much traces being the main structure made of bamboo, then the Palace in Beijing where Prof. Wang Guangyao is excavating. Then the fabled Xanadu, made famous by Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan” is certainly not there, where they are excavating.

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