Monday, July 26, 2010

Kubilai Khan (You bet he khan!)

I'm about a third of the way through the Penguin Classics edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo began his journey to the court of the Great Khan, Kubilai, in 1271 and returned to Venice after twenty years. Later, in 1298, Polo was a prisoner of war in Genoa. He was evidently incarcerated in the thirteenth century equivalent of a minimum-security prison, because he found sufficient leisure to collaborate with a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa in writing down his memories of the Near East, Persia, India, and Cathay.

Polo's account of his actual day-by-day travels sometimes tends toward the formulaic. He took a practical businessman's notice of the distances between regions, the classes of inhabitants -- mainly distinguished by religion -- and the products marketed within the regions. A sample:

"Let us turn next to the province of Yarkand, five days' journey in extent. The inhabitants follow the law of Mahomet, and there are also some Nestorian Christians. They are subject to the Great Khan's nephew, of whom I have already spoken. It is amply stocked with the means of life, especially cotton. But, since there is nothing here worth mentioning in our book, we shall pass on to Khotan, which lies to the east-north-east.

Khotan is a province eight day's journey in extent, which is subject to the Great Khan. The inhabitants all worship Mahomet. It has cities and towns in plenty, of which the most splendid, and the capital of the kingdom, bears the same name as the province, Khotan. It is amply stocked with the means of life. Cotton grows here in plenty. It has vineyards, estates, and orchards in plenty. The people live by trade and industry; they are not at all warlike."

Rustichello, realizing that this material needed punching up, periodically injected fanciful digressions taken from legends or popular Venetian romances. These enhancements probably bolstered the book's marketing appeal back then but generally annoy the modern reader who is in search of historical accuracy and insight. However, at times during their collaboration Rustichello seems to have prodded Marco Polo to mine his memories for more detailed description or a deeper analysis of a foreign culture. Some wonderful narration resulted. A sample:

"He [Kubilai Khan] has many concubines, about whom I will tell you. There is a province inhabited by Tartars who are called Kungurat, which is also the name of their city. They are a very good-looking race with fair complexions. Every two years or so, according to his pleasure, the Great Khan sends emissaries to this province to select for him out of the most beautiful maidens, according to the standard of beauty which he lays down for them, some four or five hundred, more or less as he may decide. This is how the selection is made. When the emissaries arrive, they summon to their presence all the maidens of the province. And there valuers are deputed for the task. After inspecting and surveying every girl feature by feature, her hair, her face, her eyebrows, her mouth, her lips, and every other feature, to see whether they are well-formed and in harmony with her person, the valuers award to some a score of sixteen marks, to others seventeen, eighteen, or twenty, or more or less according to the degree of their beauty. And, if the Great Khan has ordered them to bring him all who score twenty marks, or perhaps twenty-one, according to the number ordered, these are duly brought. When they have come to his presence, he has them assessed a second time by other valuers, and then the thirty or forty with the highest score are selected for his chamber. These are allotted, one by one, to the barons' wives, who are instructed to observe them carefully at night in their chambers, to make sure that they are virgins and not blemished or defective in any member, that they sleep sweetly without snoring, and that their breath is sweet and they give out no unpleasant odour. Then those who are approved are divided into groups of six, who serve the Khan for three days and three nights at a time in his chamber and his bed, ministering to all his needs. And he uses then according to his pleasure. After three days and nights, in come the next six damsels. And so they continue in rotation throughout the year."

Notice that the Great Khan's rating scale for feminine beauty topped out at the "perfect 24". Modern man settles for the "perfect 10". This coarsening of standards during the past seven hundred years reflects poorly on Western civilization.

The Great Khan knew what he wanted and he knew exactly how to get it. The sophistication of his three-stage concubine evaluation process is comparable to that of the finest quality control processes used nowadays in building satellites. If the Great Khan insisted on a "20", nobody was going to fob off an "18" on him.

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