Marco Polo, Kublai Khan and Jews of Ancient China

Marco Polo [Zane Archives]
Marco Polo [Zane Archives]

Marco Polo was in China from 1274 to 1291

Between 1274–1291, Marco Polo (1254–1324) lived in China and served an active role in the Yuan Imperial Court.

Shared experience in China with a fellow prison inmate

In 1295, Marco Polo returned to Venice; between 1298–1299, he was imprisoned with Rustichello da Pisa (鲁斯蒂谦) in Genoa (热那亚). Pisa recorded the stories that Marco Polo told him about his experiences in the Court of Kublai Khan and published it as The Travels of Marco Polo (马可波罗游记).

Saracens and Jews were reprimanded

Kublai Khan defeated Tartar Prince Nayan (乃颜) in battle.

The Saracens and Jews ridiculed Nayan, a Christian, claiming that the Holy Crosses he drew on his flags did not help him. “When the Jews and Saracens perceived that the banner of the cross was overthrown, they taunted the Christian inhabitants with it, saying ‘Behold the state to which your banners and those who follow them are reduced.'”

The Christians brought this matter up with Kublai Khan, who immediately reprimanded the Saracens and Jews around him.

Kublai Khan observed Jewish festivals

Kublai Khan always observed and honoured the major Christian festivals, including Easter (复活节) and the Nativity (耶诞节) — the basis of Christmas — in Khanbaliq (汗八里, Beijing). Moreover, “Kublai Khan observed the same at the festivals of the Saracens (撒拉逊人), Jews (犹太人) and idolaters (偶像崇拜者).”

When asked about the reason for doing so, he responded as follows, “there are four great Prophets who are reverenced and worshipped by different classes of mankind; the Christians regard Jesus Christ (耶稣) as their divine (神); the Saracens (撒拉逊人), Mahomet (谟罕默特); the Jews (犹太人), Moses (摩西); and the idolaters (偶像崇拜者), Sagamoni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) who was the first god of the idols; and I do honour and reverence to all four.”

Jews still used Jewish surnames, did not look Chinese

When Marco Polo was in China, the Jews in Kaifeng had not yet fully assimilated. They continued to use their Jewish surnames and looked physically distinct from their Han Chinese neighbours.

Many Jews in Beijing

Marco Polo noted that there were many Jews in Beijing. They likely formed their own social circles and established their own distinct way of life. They worshipped their own God and celebrated their own festivals while commanding the respect of Kublai Khan and the ruling dignitaries.

Jews ordered to follow Tartar marriage practice

The group was significant enough for Kublai Khan to issue an edict, ordering the Saracens and Jews to enter marriage in adherence to the laws of the Tartars.

Jews ordered to follow Tartar way of slaughtering animals

Moreover, the group was prohibited to slaughter animals by cutting their throats; instead, they were supposed to cut them in the belly, as was common practice amongst the Tartars.

Met Jews in the Imperial Court of Kublai Khan

In 1286, Marco Polo confirmed that he met Jews in the Imperial Court of Kublai Khan, in Khanbaliq.

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About the Author
I was born in Hong Kong, completed my secondary education in the United Kingdom and now pursing higher education in the United States. I am fascinated by Jewish history, particularly in China; this points towards Jewish communities in Shanghai, Harbin, Hong Kong, and above all Kaifeng. This is a fairly niche area of interest and I would like to share what I learn on my academic journeys with everyone. For more, please check out our website
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