The City of Heaven - Marco Polo

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was an Italian merchant-traveller from Venice who is believed to have been the first person to have crossed the entire continent of Asia. He spent 17 years in China and travelled around many cities during his stay, including Hangzhou (Kinsey) which he described in his travelogue The Travels of Marco Polo, as being ‘The City of Heaven’. Besides vividly describing how wealthy the city was and how elegant its citizens were, his emphasis is mainly on the lake in Kinsey —‘West Lake’. Today you can still see a statue of Marco Polo at the West Lake.   

Citizens Practicing Taichi beside Marco Polo Statue of West Lake

The following excerpts are how he describes West Lake, “Inside the city there is a lake of some 30 miles: and all round it are beautiful palaces and mansions, of the richest and most exquisite structure that you can imagine, belonging to the nobles of the city. There are also two islands, on each of which stands a rich, beautiful, and spacious edifice, furnished in such style fit for the palace of an emperor. And when anyone of the citizens desire to hold a marriage feast or to give any other entertainment, it is done at one of these palaces. And everything would be found there ready to order, such as silver plate, trenchers, and dishes (napkins and table cloths), and whatever else was needed. The king made this provision for the gratification of his people, and the place was open to everyone who desired to give an entertainment. (Sometimes there would be at these palaces a hundred different parties; some holding a banquet, others celebrating a wedding; and yet all would find good accommodations in the different apartments and pavilions, and that all was so well ordered that one party was never in the way of another.)”

Map of the then Hangzhou and West Lake in The Travels of Marco Polo

“On the lake there are numbers of boats and barges of all sizes for parties of pleasure. These will hold 10, 15, 20, or more persons, and are from 15 to 20 paces in length, with flat bottoms and ample breadth of beam, so that they always keep afloat. Anyone who desires to go with the women or with a party hires one of these barges which are always to be found completely furnished with tables and chairs and all the other apparatus for a feast. The roof forms a level deck, on which the crew stands and poles the boat along whithersoever may be desired for the lake is not more than two paces in depth. The inside of this roof and the rest of the interior is covered with ornamental painting in gay colors, with windows all round that can be shut or opened, so that the party at table can enjoy all the beauty and variety of the prospects on both sides as they pass along. The lake is never without a number of other such boats, laden with pleasure parties, for it is the great delight of the citizens here, after they have finished the day's business, to pass the afternoon in enjoyment with their ladies, either in these barges or in driving about the city in carriages.”