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Cobalt Blue: Marco Polo in Dadu

Why should a modern audience care about Marco Polo's service to Khubilai Khan? The answer? The end of the Cold War has witnessed the rebirth of the rivalry of older powers, namely China, Russia and Iran. Our contemporary world is the world of Khubilai Khan. In the words of the historian Robert D. Kaplan: 


"If you want to understand China's grand strategy today, you need look no further than Khubilai Khan's empire.. . . The geopolitical aspects of Marco Polo's world approximates our own." (12) 


Robert D. Kaplan

The Return of Marco Polo's World:

War, Strategy and the U. S. Military Response in the Twenty-first Century






At the opening of the story, Khubilai Khan's Yuan Army has invaded and conquered the Southern Song Dynasty, a Han Chinese dynasty south of the Yangzi River. China had always been the main object of Mongol arms. It was the richest and most advanced civilization on earth.


The unification of North and South China began a new era. The Song had a vast network of maritime trade in Southeast Asia and a merchant fleet. Khubilai Khan, a man born to th horse, took to the sea.


This story is taken from the Chinese dynastic history, the Yuan Shi, and from Marco Polo's account, The Travels.


Marco Polo and Emperor Khubilai Khan had a rare relationship: As a youth of eighteen, Marco became Khubilai's aide and confidante. Marco was a citizen of the city-state of Venice, one of the most important seagoing city-states in Europe.


Because Marco understood trade. and had been employed in the family business, he was an ideal representative for Khubilai's government in the South. Khubilai was a convert to Buddhism, and had been influenced by his Confucian advisors to rule in benevolence. He gave orders that killing was to be avoided and that the South was to be welcomed back as a long-lost brother, not as a conquered nation. Marco's role was to make sure that officials postd in the South were not cheating and stealing, and that the Song tombs were not to be looted. 


With the conquest of Song, China proper was unified for the first time since the fall of the Tang Dynasty in the tenth century. This was one of the most momentous events in global history, for the shape of China proper is the same today. Without Khubilai Khan, the country would have remained divided. The history should be taught in classes in global history when most American students encounter Asia for the first time. 


Because of the vast public works projects that Khubilai Khan undertook, he was constantly in need of revenue. This story is an invention, but it is plausible. Marco was an experienced traveler in the Near East and he would have known the marketplaces of the world of the Saracens (Muslims). His family still maintained a branch of their emporiium on the Black Sea. He had access to the goods described in my story. For the scholar, images of the Yuan blue and white are presented in the catalogue to the show at the Metropolitan Museum, The World of Khubilai Khan.


Khubilai Khan gave Marco Polo a government post, the title of Prefect of the Salt Administration. The government maintained a monopoly over basics as a means of population cocntrol. The citizens needed salt, but they had to buy it from the government. This was a way of keeping the population under control.


Marco's specialized knowledge was important to Khubilai Khan. After all, Chinggis Khan employed experts from various nationalities of conquered or vassal peoples. It was one of the hallmarks of the Mongol Empire. The movement of talent and cross-cultural influence was an innovation of The Horde. Khubilai Khan was hungry for knowledge about the West and government practices in the West. He recognized Venice as an important city-state, with its ocean-going trade. Marco's expertise. Marco had experience of the salt market in Venice and was qualified for the job. He received a salary, with a badge of authority, a paizi. This elevated Marco to the status of nobility and changed Marco's life forever. Europe had no knowledge of events in Asia at this moment in history and did not even know of the existence of Khubilai Khan until Marco returned to Venice and wrote the most famous travel book of all time, The Travels. He paints a portrait of a world of wonders, so much that upon the publication of his book, he was called a liar. This is an episode of imagination, an illustration of the greatest cross-cultural relationship in global history.



Cobalt Blue: Marco Polo in Dadu may be assigned as a companion text for classes in global history.

For young adults, ninth grade and up,



Cobalt Blue: Marco Polo in Dadu 


Chapter One A Storm At Sea


On board a sailing ship off the southeastern coast of China, the Prince of I, who was not yet ten, was invested as the Emperor Tuanzung of the Southern Song Dynasty. His father the Emperor had died in his bed while the great general of the Yuan, the barbarian dynasty of the North, the man known as Bayan, camped outside the capital of Song.


The boy's grandmother, the Dowager Empress. who wielded power as the regent for his half-brother, the new Emperor, had gone to the North to give the Memorial of Surrender and the Seal of State of Southern Song, to the barbarian Emperor of North China, Khubilai Khan. Tuanzong was smuggled out of the fallen capital and spirited away by officials loyal to Song, because he was the hope for the restoration of the dynasty. The barbarian general had not bothered to chase him down.


The ship put into the southern port of Chuanzhou where the Magistrate was an Inner Asian Muslim who had a Chinese name, Pu Shoukeng, as was the custom with the Muslims of Song. The Magistrate's elder brother, Pu Shoucheng, was the Superintendent of Maritime Trade for the port of the city.


It was most unfortunate for the boy emperor that the elder brother was no longer loyal to the Song. He had gone over to the side of the Mongols, to the side of the barbarians, the mounted archers from the north who were the invaders of the South. Their dynasty was called the Yuan and their Emperor was Khubilai Khan.


When the Emperor Tuanzung and his courtiers reached the city gates, the Magistrate closed the gates and would not let them enter. He refused to give refuge to the boy emperor, but instead retired to a Buddhist monastery.


The news of the fall of the Song capital had reached the ears of this magistrate. He sent a messenger out to the imperial party. "It is my belief that the time of the Song has passed and the time of the Yuan has arrived. This is the will of Heaven. It would be better for all if the Emperor surrendered.


The boy emperor's boat fled south, stopping at ports along the coast. Everywhere they met with the same reception. The imperial party was turned away at town after town.


As they were fleeing, a violent storm arose at sea. The ship nearly went down with all hands. Emperor Tuanzung was sickly and died of illnesses caused by exposure to the elements. The courtiers enthroned his half-brother, the Prince of Kwang, as Emperor Tiping. The senior courtier became the regent and ruled in the new emperor's name.


They fled to the south, to Vietnam, but there too, the season and the weather were against them. Their ship ran against a rocky shoal in a high wind and sank. As the vessel went down, the senior courtier took the Emperor in his arms, jumped overboard and drowned.


Marco Polo did not hear of these events until he heard the story from Emperor Khubilai Khan. This was at the reception in Dadu.



Chapter Two The Seal of State Surrendered


The blue tiles of the imperial city of Dadu sparkled in the sun; the blue eaves of the roof curled upward toward the blue sky. The courtyard, made of marble carved in the shape of dragons, was filled with well-wishers, members of the populace. Flags and bunting hung from the balcony where Khubilai Khan stood listening to the cheering.


Khubilai Khan, Emperor of Yuan, was about to preside over the unification of China for the first time in 400 years. He waited to greet the deposed Song Emperor. His was a foreign dynasty, a conquest dynasty, but he had become infatuated with China and wished to rule as a sage-emperor, a true Son of Heaven. With the end of Southern Song, Khubilai Khan could ascend the Dragon Throne and preside over a unified China for the first time since the fall of the Tang Dynasty, the Golden Age. The Emperor was moved by the momentous occasion. It was the culmination of his career.


Beside him stood his close advisor Marco Polo, the European who was his eyes and ears in the south, in a government post, for Khubilai Khan had decreed that the South was not a conquered country, but a reunion with a long-lost brother.


A nomad orchestra entered the square, playing drums, pipes and trumpet. Behind them come Tibetan monks in yellow robes and Chinese Buddhist monks in black and white robes. They come up the marble ramp bearing incense and blessing the ruler of Yuan and his family and senior government--Chabi; Khubilai's son and Heir Apparent, Jinggim; Secretary Liu the Confucian who ran the Secretariat; the Phakpa Lama, his spiritual tutor; his Confucian advisors; and Marco Polo, the European, his personal envoy, wearing the uniform of his new role as Prefect of the Salt Monopoly in the city of Yangzhou in the south. 


Secretary Liu, his greatest Chinese advisor, stood beside him. Khubilai Khan presided over a vast empire, ruled many peoples, and had an imperial role to play for all of them. He wished to be seen as a sage-emperor from the Chinese classics. Liu told him that if he ruled in benevolence, all nations would submit to him and come to his city to be civilized. Khubilai Khan had given orders that the people of the South were not to be taxed to the extreme, they were not to be killed, and the Song tombs were not to be looted. It had only taken two generations, from the time of Chinggis Khan, for this conquest to be different.


The Empress Chabi in her tall hat whispered that he radiated benevolence, the wisdom of a sage. She spoke so that only he could hear her. "This is the defining moment of your life," Chabi said. The Empress had often said that China was his grand passion, his obsession, and she, merely the mother of his children. She said it in good humor, for theirs had been a brilliant match, arranged by his mother, Queen Sorghagtani, the most remarkable woman of the age. Chabi was his closest advisor. Chabi knew the real man, not the man who played the imperial parts upon an imperial stage.



Khubilai Khan, the richest and most powerful ruler in the world faced south, the place from which the creative energy arises. The Southern Gate had been opened to welcome General Bayan, the Supreme Commander of the army, the victor of Southern Song. Men, women and children, dressed in their best, stood beside the wide boulevard waving small flags, cheering "Wan Swei!" "May you reign ten thousand years!


A mile from the Inner Gates the procession of the imperial army of the Yuan Dynasty came to a halt. The standard-bearers approached the palace, one carrying the white standard with nine horse tails, Chinggis Khan's when he took the Jin capital of Zhongdu, in 1215. The work of unifying China had taken 25 years. Three generations. 


Dadu covered eighteen square miles and was built in the shape of a mandala, with the imperial residence in the center. This was the center of the universe and the Emperor was the link between heaven and earth. Khubilai Khan felt the energy of that connection coursing through him.


Dadu was close to the ruins of Zhongdu, the Jin capital that Chinggis Khan had put to the torch. How different the conquest of North China had been in the time of Khubilai's grandfather. The plain of North China had been looted for six months, the capital had been blockaded and the population starved into surrender, then the city had been put to the torch, and the contents of the treasury shipped north to Chinggis Khan's camp in Mongolia, 500 cartloads.


Dadu had walls 40 feet high to keep it safe from attack. It had four gates, one facing each direction. The new city housed the government and had a vast hunting ground, a botanical garden and a zoo.


Khubilai's first capital, Xanadu, had become his summer palace. The Emperor and his family migrated from Da-du and moved to Xanadu for the season of hunting, living in ger tents, round felt tents, erected on the palace grounds, on soil imported from the steppes. All summer long, he hunted. Hunting and migration, the way of nomad culture, was the private life. He made the libations of fermented mare's milk to The Ancestors. Why were his relatives rebelling?

What about the unity of the empire?


Imperial Guardsmen rode up and down the boulevard to maintain order. Yuan soldiers were stationed every three feet to keep the people back and let the Bayan's army pass. Up the wide boulevards the procession came, flags flying, drums beating, gongs and trumpets sounding. A fanfare announced the arrival of the Army at the gates of the Imperial Palace.  


The Emperor prided himself on his cosmopolitan court. Representatives of all the nationalities stood beside him on the balcony. Khubilai had been accused by his conservative relatives of becoming too Chinese. So he maintained his connection with the native pastures of his grandfather, the founder of his line, Chinggis Khan. In his heart, he was true to his ancestral past.


An honor guard of Keshig, elite troops, in red and black uniforms, mounted on high-stepping black Arabians, rode out to be the honor guard for General Bayan. The general had the personality of a Prime Minister and was the Emperor's oldest friend. When Bayan left to ride across the Yangzi, Khubilai Khan had admonished him not to kill, to make a practice of saving the populace after a battle.


The victorious Commander followed the honor guard then came the generals of the three wings of the Army.


General Bayan, splendidly attired, rode a white horse give to him by Khubilai Khan.  Only the Emperor was allowed to ride white horses and this one had been sent to the general as a present. Bayan nodded and waved to the people, bowing as he trotted toward Khubilai. He held in one hand the Memorial of Surrender signed by the Empress Dowager on a plain outside the city of Hangzhou, the fallen Song capital.


Several divisions of Bayan's Army remained outside the gates, to protect the dynasty in case of insurrection.


Behind Bayan came the sedan chair of the Song Emperor and the Dowager Empress. The eldest son was ten. He was made emperor the night his father died, while his brother and half-brother escaped to preserve the dynasty. They were already dead, drowned at sea, but the Empress Dowager was unaware of the death of her grandsons. She had been escorted north by Bayan, and the news was kept from her. Even in old age, she plotted to return the dynasty, but her plans would come to nothing.


The boy was enjoying the parade as any small child would. The Empress Dowager looked at the people thronging the streets, but she did not smile. The soldiers who rode at either side of her sedan chair bore arms.


The procession came to a halt and the child- emperor who was used to court ceremonial, got out of the sedan chair. All eyes were upon him. The Dowager Empress got out of the sedan chair. She was dressed in a red silk robe embroidered with gold and pearls, red being the color of the summer season. She took the boy's hand and walked beside her grandson. She held her head high. She knew that she was doomed to heartbreak.


Bayan had been wise enough to ignore the escape since the only Emperor who had been crowned was in his custody and the only regent was the Dowager Empress. The rest, from the point of view of legality, were pretenders. Duplicity was in the old woman's bones. She deceived her enemies, even as they came for her. She signed the documents, formally surrendering power. 


When she and the boy came up the stairs to the balcony, Khubilai assisted her, taking her frail hands, so delicate and yet so strong, He greeted her with a title of respect, the new title that he had given her, Duchess of Ying. She was no longer the most powerful woman in China. Chabi observed the old woman and commented to her son, the Heir Apparent. What power her beauty must have had when she was young.


Khubilai said, "You need not fear for yourself and your grandson. You need not fear for the South. I will not treat Song as a conquered enemy, but as a long-lost brother. I will not allow the desecration of the Song tombs. I give you my word."


The boy who was no longer emperor reached the top of the stairs, greeted the presence of the Yuan Emperor in formal Chinese, and bowed. His grandmother had coached his speech. "Greetings, Emperor of Yuan. I come to formally surrender myself and to give you the seal of the Song Dynasty.";''


The boy faltered even though his grandmother had helped him to rehearse the words. The Dowager Empress prompted him. "I surrender to you all the titles vested in me as Emperor of Southern Song."


Khubilai spoke so that the members of the court could bear witness to his declaration. Khubilai Khan, Emperor of Yuan, formally invest you with the title of Duke of Ying and grant you a fiefdom. I guarantee you the safety and protection of the Yuan, which is now the dynasty of a united China. There is no more North and South. This is a great occasion for China."


The Dowager Empress was skilled at matters of ceremony. "Greetings, Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. As Regent of the former Emperor of Southern Song, I deliver into your hands the great Seal of State of Song." She handed over the jade imperial seal. It was made of mutton fat jade, priceless, and heavy.


The old woman bowed to Khubilai. "I greet you as the Son of Heaven, the occupant of the Dragon Throne. You have acquired the Mandate of Heaven."

Secretary Liu, the head of his Confucian advisors, took possession of the seal. He closed his hands around the handle and closed his eyes for a second. For him this was the dream of his lifetime. Four hundred years ago, Tang had fallen. He was the restoration. His eyes brightened with tears.


The boy looked up at Khubilai Khan and the Dowager looked surprised when he spoke. "As I am no longer the Emperor of Song, I make a request. I should like to go to live in the country, not to live in the capital. I don't like living in cities."


Secretary Liu spoke into Khubilai Khan's ear. "The boy could become a rallying point for a loyalist insurrection." Then Liu bent down and spoke to the boy in court Chinese. "We have planned for you to live in Tibet in a monastery in the care of Buddhist monks."


The Phakpa Lama, Khubilai's instructor in Buddhist meditation, approached. He had been a child prodigy, learned in the vast Buddhist scripture, and a master linguist. He spoke to the boy. "My family has a magnificent estate in Tibet, high in the mountains at the Roof of the World. You will like our mountains and the beautiful lakes and wildlife."


The boy smiled and nodded his head.


Hearing her fate, to live in exile in far-off Tibet, the Dowager Empress wavered, her stance unsteady. She said she told Liu that she was tired from the journey and wanted to lie down. "Will they understand a boy emperor in Tibet?" she asked the Lama. "Would the monks treat him with the respect he was due?" 


She was old, and after a lifetime of rule, she was powerless. There was nothing she could do to protect herself and she felt vulnerable. She knew what her life would become.


Khubilai Khan was in his mid-sixties, the most powerful and richest man in the world. He said, "Madame, I will see to it that your days are comfortable. You need have no fear for the people of the South. They will be treated as part of a family, not as a conquered nation. My general Bayan. . . where is he?"


Bayan took his place at Khubilai Khan's side. He stepped forward to witness the Emperor's proclamation. 


"General Bayan, Commander of the Yuan Imperial Yuan Armies, has decreed that his army shall not pillage the tombs of the Song Emperors, nor shall the towns and cities be plundered. I have commanded that the Imperial Art Collection be forwarded to my capital to take its rightful place in the North from where it was removed when the Song Government fled South to escape the advance of the invading army of the Jin Dynasty. I will build the proper edifice to house the treasures which have been handed down from the past to the present.


"I promise good treatment to all holders of office under the Song and to all people formerly ruled by the Song. Everyone who has submitted to the Great Mongol Empire will be pardoned. I hereby declare a general amnesty.


"In accordance with the practice of my empire, all members of all religions, Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jews, will be treated with respect. I promise to restore the lands that have been ravaged by this war and to give relief to the people who have suffered, food and shelter. I will not burden them excessively in the reconstruction of their lands. These lands are prosperous and have a large population. We will administer them for the benefit of all. Now will you join me within."


Grandmother and grandson were shown to a suite in the Imperial Quarters not far from Khubilai's apartments where everything was provided for them in a manner befitting their station. They were kept under heavy guard in the event that palace loyalists might attempt to free them or assassinate them. Many might have wished to harm them--Mongol, Chinese, possibly Muslim.


When they had had time to refresh themselves, Khubilai invited them to attend a small unofficial reception. The highest officials of the court, Chinese, Mongol, and Muslim greeted the new Duke of Ying and his grandmother, the Duchess. His Confucian advisors spoke Chinese to her, but the old woman seemed distant. She was dismayed at the variety of cultures represented in the court. The Song had been exclusively a Han Chinese government. She was overheard remarking to her grandson that she perceived a barbarian spirit which penetrated the very air of North China.


Over on a side altar was a magnificent Kwan Yin with a beatific smile, made of solid gold. Abbot Hai of the Chan Buddhist temple in the capital spoke to the Dowager and inquired as to her spiritual needs. As with many of the elite, she did a Buddhist practice centered on Kwan Yin, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion. The Abbot assured her that he would have a Kwan Yin from the palace collection sent for her.

She could not take her eyes off a large thangka painting that hung down from the rafters on a wall of the Grand Banquet Hall. It was of the fierce protector deity, Mahakala, with a black face and bulging eyes, and a necklace and belt of skulls, dancing on a corpse.


Abbot Hai came over and stood beside her. "He is the patron deity of the emperor. He vanquishes the enemies of the faither." He paused and explained, "The Emperor has embraced the Tibetan form of Buddhism. Phakpa has announced him as a Cakravartin, a Buddhist sage-king, expanding the realm of Buddhism. This is how he issues his decrees in Tibet and Central Asia."


"And has he proved to be so?" asked the Dowager.


"He has practiced compassion throughout the empire, madame," said the Abbot. The Abbot broke the news of the sinking of the ship with her grandsons aboard. Khubilai Khan had asked him to inform her, so that she would not harbor false hopes in thge restoration of Southern Song. He was a spiritual man and he was capable of offering her comfort. The Abbot assured her that he would conduct memorial ceremonies. The Dowager had tears in her eyes, but she kept her dignity and did not break down.



The next day, Khubilai summoned Bayan to the Temple of Ancestors for a ceremony. Dignified of bearing, Bayan had the personality of a prime minister. He was a superior tactician in war, and educated the officers who served under him when they made the mistakes of youth. It had been a magnificent campaign, and he had mastered the art of naval warfare for the taking of Xiang Yan, the gateway to the South. It was a first in Mongol warfare and heralded in a new age.


An empire born to the horse had a navy, and more than that, a dynasty borne in the vast steppelands of Mongolia, would take to the sea for trade. The dynasty had the breath of the new, the spirit of innovation, the promise of fulfilling the Mandate of Heaven and ruling in benevolence. That was before the villainous ministers disobeyed his wishes, and ultimately brought Khubilai Khan sorrow, when they looted the Song tombs.


Khubilai commended Bayan before the officials of the Central Secretariat and presented him with a title and a fiefdom, and 20 sets of ceremonial silk garments.






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