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Around the year 1300, a book took Europe by storm. It was Marco Polo's account of his travels to a fabulous country called Cathay, and all of the wonders he had seen there. He described black stones that burned like wood (coal), saffron-robed Buddhist monks, and money made out of paper.
Of course, Cathay was actually China, which at that time was under Mongol rule. Marco Polo served in the court of Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty, and grandson of Genghis Khan.
Khitai and the Mongols
The name "Cathay" is a European variation of "Khitai," which Central Asian tribes used to describe parts of northern China once dominated by the Khitan people. The Mongols had since crushed the Khitan clans and absorbed their people, erasing them as a separate ethnic identity, but their name lived on as a geographical designation.
Since Marco Polo and his party approached China via Central Asia, along the Silk Road, they naturally heard the name Khitai used for the empire they sought. The southern part of China, which had not yet capitulated to Mongol rule, was known at that time as Manzi, which is Mongol for "the recalcitrant ones."
Parallels Between Polo and Ricci's Observations
It would take Europe almost 300 years to put two and two together, and realize that Cathay and China were one and the same. Between about 1583 and 1598, the Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, developed the theory that China was actually Cathay. He was well acquainted with Marco Polo's account and noticed striking similarities between Polo's observations of Cathay and his own of China.
For one thing, Marco Polo had noted that Cathay was directly south of "Tartary," or Mongolia, and Ricci knew that Mongolia lay on the northern border of China. Marco Polo also described the empire as being divided by the Yangtze River, with six provinces to the north of the river and nine to the south. Ricci knew that this description matched China. Ricci observed many of the same phenomena that Polo had noted, as well, such as people burning coal for fuel and using paper as money.
The final straw, for Ricci, was when he met Muslim traders from the west in Beijing in 1598. They assured him that he was indeed living in the fabled country of Cathay.
Holding on to the Idea of Cathay
Although the Jesuits publicized this discovery widely in Europe, some skeptical mapmakers believed that Cathay still existed somewhere, perhaps northeast of China, and drew it onto their maps in what is now southeastern Siberia. As late as 1667, John Milton refused to give up on Cathay, naming it as a separate place from China in Paradise Lost.