Traveling from Cathay to Tinju, there is not a single page in The Travels of Marco Polo where he does not mention the Great Khan. Whether this is a positive or a negative, the power of the Great Khan is routinely emphasized and the leader is repeatedly discussed in terms of his ability as a ruler. . A great deal of the reason for this is that when one looks at a different culture and its history, there is a tacit avoidance of providing judgment on the way the militarism of a culture may conduct itself. Through his travels in China, Marco Polo depicts the Great Khan as a powerful, benevolent, and ambitious leader of East Asia.
It is easy to see that the Great Khan had great power throughout most of China. In chapter 4 of The Travels, Polo describes various visits to different locations in northern and southwestern China. He states clearly that “Tibet belongs to the Great Khan, as do all the other kingdoms and provinces and regions described in this book, except only the provinces mentioned at the beginning of our book which belong to the son of Arghun” (174).
In chapter 5, all places that Polo visits use the Great Khan’s paper currency and the people remain subjects of the Great Khan. In his description of the journey from Ho-Kein-fu through Kein-ning-fu, the idea that stands out is that “people are idolaters, subjects to the Great Khan and using paper money” because such a brief and generalized statement provides significant insight into the overriding themes of the Great Khan’s motivations. (211).
However, in different areas under Khan’s rule, a unique monetary system was used. For example, Kaindu had very unique hard currency: “They have gold in bars and weight it out by saggi; and it is valued according to its weight. But they have no coined money bearing a stamp” (176).
Ironically, in some instances, salt was used as short change currency. Traders in Tibet made an immense profit, because they could use the salt in food as well as for buying the necessities of life. In the cities they used fragments of salt blocks in cooking and spent the unbroken blocks.
However, regardless of the fact that Kaindu did not use the Great Khan’s money, the Great Khan’s influence remained strongly evident within these providences. Kaindu was subject to the Great Khan and it was in an area known to have an abundance of pearls. Regardless the Great Khan would not let anyone harvest pearls because he believed harvesting too many pearls would eliminate their scarcity and lead to a significant devaluation.
Thus, “The Great Khan, when he has a mind, has pearls taken from it for his own use only; but no one else may take them on pain of death” (175) There was also a mountain there with a plentiful supply of turquoise which produced very fine gems but the Great Khan would not allow them to be taken except at his bidding. This would seem to indicate that the Great Khan’s brash exterior hid a very insecure interior. That is, he seemed to desire wealth and treasure as a way of propping up his own image. Allowing greater access to wealth and precious metals was, perhaps, something the Great Khan feared because it would chip away at his ‘loftiness’. (175).
Marco Polo also conveys the notion that the Great Khan maintained a sense of benevolence that tempered his displays of power. In particular, Polo’s story about Litan emphasizes this benevolence. Tandinfu was a very large city and once a great kingdom, but the Great Khan had conquered it through force of arms. In 1272, the Great Khan had appointed one of his barons, Litan Sangon, to hold this city and province. However, Litan planned a monstrous act of disloyalty when he and his followers rebelled against the Great Khan in a stunning display of disobedience. When the Great Khan discovered this, he sent his militia to confront them.
When Litan was defeated, the Great Khan pardoned those who served under Litan forgave them for their trespasses and indiscretions. Those who were pardoned never afterward displaced any disloyalty towards their great leader. This story reflects the Great Khan’s benevolence because, unlike other leaders who would respond ruthlessly to opposition, The Great Khan instead made them into the most loyal subjects by bestowing a pardon to them.
It is clear the Kubilai Khan was exceptionally ambitious and this is what made him so powerful and played a great part in allowing him to conquer most of Asia. Polo’s description of the conquest of Manzi evokes the ambitiousness of the Great Khan. After conquering many cities and countries, Kubilai was still not satisfied and continued the expansion of his territory.
He attempted to conquer the great province of Manzi, a wealthy territory. The king of Manzi had discovered through astrology that he could not lose his kingdom except at the hands of a man with a hundred eyes. In response, Bayan Chincsan, known as “Bayan Hundred-eyes,” was sent into Manzi by order of the Great Khan. Bayan succeeded and Kubilai finally conquered Manzi. This clearly demonstrates the Great Khan’s desire to expand his power base from all fronts. Perhaps, in a way, it depicts over ambition as opposed to logistical, military expansion. Ultimately, this type of imperialism would later lead to Khan’s eventually overextension and downfall.
From Marco Polo’s descriptions of the influence of the Great Khan throughout most of China, it appears that he was a powerful sovereign whose impression on history still resonates to this very day. However, Marco Polo’s presentation of the Great Khan drafts an image of the Great Khan as the only leader who could rule and dominate the world Although Marco Polo’s explanation that many cities he visited were ruled by the Great Khan is true, to the reader it seems like he venerated Kubilai Khan above all others. Perhaps Marco Polo was in such awe of Khan, he sought to see him as a great leader as opposed to a destructive, predatory imperialist and from this, an idealized version of history was cr