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Marco Polo and the Marvels of Cathay
China is famous, above all, for its antiquity and for its native development, unbroken ever since the Stone Ages. It is the only one of the earliest civilizations that has endured all through the ages. Its writing and records date back to 3000 B.C. Its first sacred book belongs to the time of its first emperor, some four or five thousand years ago. He, the "Son of Heaven," is said to have made China one land, the "Celestial Empire." But for many centuries of its history -- both before and after the Christian era -- China was divided among feudal lords.
In the sixth century B.C. Confucius was living, and to this day the name of this great religious teacher is venerated among his countrymen. He taught the Chinese their duty to parents, teachers, and neighbours. His motto was, "Have not! Be!!"
The next great landmark was the building of the Great Wall on the northern frontier, to keep out the Huns or Tartars, who, however, managed to break through from time to time. It was 1,800 miles in length, and parts of it are still to be seen. It was made in the third century B.C., when the Chinese Empire compared with the Roman Empire in greatness. Vast caravan routes led from China through Asia, along which traders carried the Chinese silk worn by luxurious Roman matrons.
Very early in their history, the Chinese had discovered how to weave silk, and how to make the finest porcelain, and to paint wonderful pictures; and they practised printing, and used gunpowder and the mariner's compass long before these came to Europe during the Renaissance.
In the Middle Ages China suffered invasions from the Tartar Jengis Khan; who, with his robbers, burst over the Great Wall and took Peking. His grandson, the famous Kublai Khan, became the ruler of China (1280), and indeed of the greatest empire of the thirteenth century, extending from the Danube to the Pacific. It was he who compelled Chinese to braid their hair in a tail as a sign that they were the slaves of the Tartars, and this is the origin of the Chinese "pigtail"!
For seventeen years the famous Venetian traveller Marco Polo lived at the Court in Peking. On his return he told of the gold and jewels in that city of wonder, of its great royal palaces and beautiful pictures and statues. He wrote of the "excellent inns for travellers, the manufactures of silk and gold, the succession of great cities," at a time when the towns of Europe were mere villages compared with the great cities of Cathay. "He gives an unsurpassed picture of that huge, rich, peaceful empire, full of wealth and commerce and learned men and beautiful things, and of its ruler, Kublai Khan, one of the noblest monarchs who ever sat upon a throne."
So marvellous were his descriptions of Cathay, Burmah, Japan, etc., that men thought they were fabulous. However, his travels aroused great interest, and later, when the Turks had made the trade-routes to the East so dangerous, and geographers were searching for a new way to the wealth of Cathay, Columbus himself read and annotated the Travels of Marco Polo.
In the sixteenth century the Chinese were again brought into touch with the rest of the world. The Portuguese began to trade with them, and the Jesuits went to China to preach the Gospel and took with them much of Western science. But the coming of priests and traders from Europe did not, at that time, really affect Chinese life or ideas. Indeed, in view of the antiquity of her people and culture, it is no wonder that the Chinese long considered China as the world, and the Chinese as the people.