Desultory philological, literary, and historical notes on Xanadu

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Our previous post was on "Hallucinations: In Xanadu did LLMs vainly fancify" (4/3/23).  If you were wondering where such an evocative, exotic name came from, it has a direct lineage back to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) of China where it was called Shàngdū 上都 ("Upper Capital") in Mandarin, ultimately from early Mandarin ʂaŋ` tū.  The first Romanized form comes from Marco Polo's writings in Italian as Shan-Du. In 1617, Purchas his Pilgrimage [] by Samuel Purchas was published in London, containing the phrase “In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace” on page 472. This was the inspiration for Coleridge's poem which uses the spelling Xanadu. (source)

Location and basic history

Shangdu (Chinese: ; lit. 'Upper Capital'; Mandarin pronunciation: [ʂɑ̂ŋ tú]; Mongolian: Šandu), also known as Xanadu (/ˈzænəd/ ZAN-ə-doo), was the summer capital of the Yuan dynasty of China before Kublai decided to move his throne to the former Jin dynasty capital of Zhōngdū (Chinese: ; lit. 'Middle Capital') which was renamed Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing). Shangdu is located in the present-day Zhenglan Banner, Inner Mongolia.


It was 220 miles (350 kilometers) north of Beijing.

For various reasons, the following four early descriptions are all of such exceptional interest that I will quote each of them at length.

By Marco Polo (1278)

The Venetian explorer Marco Polo is widely believed to have visited Shangdu in about 1275. In about 1298–99, he dictated the following account:

And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned, between north-east and north, you come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. Of these there are more than 200 gerfalcons alone, without reckoning the other hawks. The Khan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with a leopard behind him on his horse's croup; and then if he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his leopard at it, and the game when taken is made over to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion.

Moreover at a spot in the Park where there is a charming wood he has another Palace built of cane, of which I must give you a description. It is gilt all over, and most elaborately finished inside. It is stayed on gilt and lacquered columns, on each of which is a dragon all gilt, the tail of which is attached to the column whilst the head supports the architrave, and the claws likewise are stretched out right and left to support the architrave. The roof, like the rest, is formed of canes, covered with a varnish so strong and excellent that no amount of rain will rot them. These canes are a good 3 palms in girth, and from 10 to 15 paces in length. They are cut across at each knot, and then the pieces are split so as to form from each two hollow tiles, and with these the house is roofed; only every such tile of cane has to be nailed down to prevent the wind from lifting it. In short, the whole Palace is built of these canes, which I may mention serve also for a great variety of other useful purposes. The construction of the Palace is so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity; and it can all be taken to pieces and removed whithersoever the Emperor may command. When erected, it is braced against mishaps from the wind by more than 200 cords of silk.

The Khan abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months of the year, to wit, June, July and August; preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very cool place. When the 28th day of [the Moon of] August arrives he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces. But I must tell you what happens when he goes away from this Palace every year on the 28th of the August [Moon]…"


By Toghon Temur (1368)

The lament of Toghon Temur Khan (the "Ukhaant Khan" or "Sage Khan"), concerning the loss of Daidu (Beijing) and Heibun Shanduu (Kaiping Xanadu) in 1368, is recorded in many Mongolian historical chronicles. The Altan Tobchi version is translated as follows:

My Daidu, straight and wonderfully made of various jewels of different kinds
My Yellow Steppe of Xanadu, the summer residence of ancient Khans.
My cool and pleasant Kaiping Xanadu
My dear Daidu that I've lost on the year of the bald red rabbit
Your pleasant mist when on early mornings I ascended to the heights!
Lagan and Ibagu made it known to me, the Sage Khan.
In full knowledge I let go of dear Daidu
Nobles born foolish cared not for their state
I was left alone weeping
I became like a calf left behind on its native pastures
My eight-sided white stupa made of various precious objects.
My City of Daidu made of the nine jewels
Where I sat holding the reputation of the Great Nation
My great square City of Daidu with four gates
Where I sat holding the reputation of the Forty Tumen Mongols
My dear City of Daidu, the iron stair has been broken.
My reputation!
My precious Daidu, from where I surveyed and observed
The Mongols of every place.
My city with no winter residence to spend the winter
My summer residence of Kaiping Xanadu
My pleasant Yellow Steppe
My deadly mistake of not heeding the words of Lagan and Ibagu!
The Cane Palace had been established in sanctity
Kublai the Wise Khan spent his summers there!
I have lost Kaiping Xanadu entirely – to China.
An impure bad name has come upon the Sage Khan.
They besieged and took precious Daidu
I have lost the whole of it – to China.
A conflicting bad name has come upon the Sage Khan.
Jewel Daidu was built with many an adornment
In Kaiping Xanadu, I spent the summers in peaceful relaxation
By a hapless error they have been lost – to China.
A circling bad name has come upon the Sage Khan.
The awe-inspiring reputation carried by the Lord Khan
The dear Daidu built by the extraordinary Wise Khan (Kublai)
The bejeweled Hearth City, the revered sanctuary of the entire nation
Dear Daidu
I have lost it all – to China.
The Sage Khan, the reincarnation of all bodhisattvas,
By the destiny willed by Khan Tengri (King Heaven) has lost dear Daidu,
Lost the Golden Palace of the Wise Khan (Kublai), who is the reincarnation of all the gods,
Who is the golden seed of Genghis Khan the son of Khan Tengri (King Heaven).
I hid the Jade Seal of the Lord Khan in my sleeve and left (the city)
Fighting through a multitude of enemies, I broke through and left.
From the fighters may Buqa-Temur Chinsan for ten thousand generations
Become a Khan in the golden line of the Lord Khan.
Caught unaware I have lost dear Daidu.
When I left home, it was then that the jewel of religion and doctrine was left behind.
In the future may wise and enlightened bodhisattvas take heed and understand.
May it go around and establish itself
On the Golden Lineage of Genghis Khan.

VHM:  Toghon Temür was the last emperor of the Yuan and later was considered to be the last Khagan of the Mongol Empire.


By Samuel Purchas (1625)

In 1614, the English clergyman Samuel Purchas published Purchas his Pilgrimes – or Relations of the world and the Religions observed in all ages and places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. This book contained a brief description of Shangdu, based on the early description of Marco Polo:

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.[10]

In 1625 Purchas published an expanded edition of this book, recounting the voyages of famous travellers, called Purchas his Pilgrimes. The eleventh volume of this book included a more detailed description of Shangdu, attributed to Marco Polo and dated 1320:

This Citie is three dayes journey Northeastward to the Citie Xandu, which the Chan Cublai now reigning built; erecting therein a marvellous and artificiall Palace of Marble and other stones, which abutteth on the wall on one side, and the midst of the Citie on the other. He included sixteene miles within the circuit of the wall on that side where the Palace abutteth on the Citie wall, into which none can enter but by the Palace. In this enclosure or Parke are goodly meadows, springs, rivers, red and fallow Deere, Fawnes carrying thither for the Hawkes (of whom are three mewed above two hundred Gerfalcons which he goeth once a week to see) and he often useth one Leopard or more, sitting on Horses, which he setteth upon the Stagges and Deere, and having taken the beast, giveth it to the Gerfalcons, and in beholding this spectacle he taketh wonderful delight. In the middest in a faire wood he hath a royall House on pillars gilded and varnished, on every inch of which is a Dragon all gilt, which windeth his tayle about the pillar, which his head bearing up the loft, as also with his wings displayed on both sides; the cover also is of Reeds gilt and varnished, so that the rayne can doe it no injury; the reeds being three handfuls thick and ten yards log, split from knot to knot. The house itselfe also may be sundered, and taken downe like a Tent and erected again. For it is sustained, when it is set up, with two hundred silken cordes. Great Chan useth to dwell there three moneths in the yeare, to wit, in June, July and August.


By Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797)

In 1797, according to his own account, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was reading about Shangdu in Purchas his Pilgrimes, fell asleep, and had an opium-inspired dream. The dream caused him to begin the poem known as 'Kubla Khan'. Unfortunately Coleridge's writing was interrupted by an unnamed "person on business from Porlock", causing him to forget much of the dream, but his images of Shangdu became one of the best-known poems in the English language.

Coleridge described how he wrote the poem in the preface to his collection of poems, Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep, published in 1816:

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in 'Purchas's Pilgrimes':

Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.

The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. "A person on business from Porlock" interrupted him and he was never able to recapture more than "some eight or ten scattered lines and images."

Coleridge's poem opens similarly to Purchas's description before proceeding to a vivid description of the palace's varied pleasures:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. (lines 1–11)

(source of all four descriptions)


Although Xanadu undoubtedly was an impressive city with resplendent buildings and substantial walls, for me the most remarkable thing about these descriptions in sum is that they reveal, when the Mongols built it, they by no means abandoned their nomadic, hunting, steppe heritage.  A central feature is the Cane Palace, which Marco Polo describes in great detail, including minute aspects of its architectural construction, and the fact that "it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity; and it can all be taken to pieces and removed whithersoever the Emperor may command."  This can only be a grand yurt / ger.  There are also extensive parks where the Khan can go hunting with his hundreds of falcons and hawks, and even more strikingly, cheetahs that are trained to ride on the croup of a horse (see "Selected readings" below).  Sadly, as Toghun Temur repeatedly laments, the Mongols lost the whole of it – to China.


Selected readings

In the long history of human hunting, which extends over several millions of years, animal partners are a very recent development. Even the dog, humans’ first partner in the chase, was only domesticated sometime between 100,000 and 14,000 B.P. (Vilá et al. 1997, 1687 – 1689). The list of such hunting partners in the Old World is not long but includes, besides the dog, some very impressive animals: the horse, elephant, a variety of raptors, and several species of felines. My concern here is with the latter, most particularly the “hunting leopard” or cheetah.



  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 11:03 am

    "'In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace' on page 472" >> source Wiktionary

    I see at least 4 different claims re: Purchas's original spelling, plurality have Xaindu. Reliable citation anyone?

    Also dang, the wording "In Xaindu (or whatever) did Cublai Can" is not original to Coleridge…

  2. Bill Benzon said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 11:24 am

    @Jonathan Smith: But it does appear that the spelling, "Xanadu," is due to Coleridge. And if you look in Livingston Lowes, "The Road to Xanadu," you'll find many likely sources for Coleridge's imagery. For example, there is this from William Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina:

    Just under my feet was the inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain, which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute, forming a bason, capacious enough for large shallops to ride in, and a creek of four or five feet depth of water, and near twenty yards over, which meanders six miles through green meadows, pouring its limpid waters into the great Lake George. . . . About twenty yards from the upper edge of the bason . . . . is a continual and amazing ebullition, where the waters are thrown up in such abundance and amazing force, as to jet a swell up two or three feet above the common surface: white sand and small particles of shells are thrown up with the waters . . . when they . . . subside with the expanding flood, and gently sing again.

    I list a couple more passages in a blog post, along with the complete lyrics to Rush's song, "Xanadu."

  3. /df said,

    April 5, 2023 @ 1:28 pm

    To lower the tone slightly, there was also a wonderful skit by Peter Cook (and Bernard McKenna), where the builders bidding for the decreed Stately Pleasure Dome job discuss costing the rather tricky requirements, on these lines:

    "And he wants caverns!"
    "Caverns, you say? How big?"
    "He only wants them 'measureless to man'"

    Although that's my recollection of the lines (especially "he only wants"), the published script from "Tragically I was an Only Twin" is quite different. Cook was prone to rework the script in real time.

  4. Bill Benzon said,

    April 5, 2023 @ 8:06 pm

    Hmmm… Kubla Khan had the caverns and Hugh Heffner had the grotto.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    April 5, 2023 @ 10:07 pm

    I've been to Shangdu. There is nothing left to see, except for a small museum that, if my memory serves me well, mostly purveys the modern Zhonghua Minzu perspective.

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