Marco Polo in Fujian

Marco Polo in the Fujian region of South China: an environmental interpretation

Walter E. Parham, Ph.D.


China established an amazing rate of economic growth over the last ten years or so, however the growth came with a host of environmental costs. These include: widespread soil erosion and land degradation, extensive damage to wildlife and wildlife habitats, major damage to the country’s native vegetation, and damage to the fresh-water environment just to mention a few. But, are these environmental problems really new ones or just old ones more visible and extensive today than in the past? To gain an historical perspective, let’s look at a description of the landscape of the Fujian region as recorded in Marco Polo’s writings of some 700 years ago in The Travels of Marco Polo 1271 to 1295 (Komroff, 1934).

Even though Marco Polo’s account of his trip in South China is short (10 of 477 pages), some of his observations still provide useful information to help assess China’s environmental history. Marco Polo travelled extensively in China for 24 years, but did not put his observations into manuscript form until a few years after he returned to Venice. He wrote his story with the aid of a scribe he met while both were imprisoned for two years. Marco Polo dictated as well as wrote part of his account relying on his memory and on some data in his field notes he recorded while in China.

Let’s see where we might use Marco Polo’s writings to infer something new about the state of the environment in South China around the year 1300. Marco Polo began his trip to South China at Hangchau (Kinsai) (30 degrees N. Lat.) and ended it in Fujian (25 degrees N Lat.) a little north of the South China Sea, in all covering some 350 miles. Excerpts from his writings are in bold in the following text.

Marco Polo notes that “the necessities of life are abundant” in the towns and villages he passes through and that “there is much field sport, particularly of birds.” Further, he says that “In these parts are tigers of great size and strength” and that “The magnitude of tigers renders travelling through the country dangerous, unless a number of persons go in company.” This region was part of the natural range of the South China tiger (Panthera tigris), but today the tiger is extinct in the wild (Tilson, 2004) with perhaps only 50 existing in zoos. Some tiger experts estimate that a single tiger may need at least 7 to 8 km2 of good quality habitat to survive (Karanth, 1995). Marco Polo’s description in the late 1200s indicates that the tiger habitat was of good quality and that game was available in the northern Fujian region. One could assume therefore that human activities had little adverse effects here at that time.

Marco Polo continued southward reporting that “Ginger and also galangal are produced in large quantities, as well as other drugs. For money equal in value to a Venetian silver groat you may have eighty pounds weight of fresh ginger, so common is its growth.” Later, he adds that “The people employ themselves extensively in commerce, and export quantities of ginger and galangal.” These statements tell us that Marco Polo now had moved from the native forest into land cleared for agriculture. The large quantities of the two common food flavorings being grown in the area, ginger and galangal, suggest that a significant human population occupied this cleared agricultural land.

He writes further that “There is also a vegetable which has all the properties of the true saffron, as well as the smell as the colour, and yet it is not really saffron. It is held in great estimation, and being an ingredient in all their dishes, it bears, on that account, a high price.” This plant is Carthamus tinctorius, or what is commonly known as “false saffron,” a plant that arrived in China around 200 to 300 A.D (Gibson, UCLA). It has an invasive nature (Xie et al., 2000) meaning that it is “tolerant of a wide range of soil and weather conditions, generalist in distribution, produces copious amounts of seeds that disperse easily, grows aggressive root systems, short generation time, high dispersal rates, long flowering and fruiting periods, broad native range, abundant in native range” (

The presence of abundant Carthamus tinctorius, a plant used in all their foods, provides us with further insight into the condition of the land. Once the local population cleared the native forest for agricultural purposes, probably using slash-and-burn practices, the land would be farmed for a few years until the soil nutrients were largely depleted and then the land would be abandoned. Abandoned land of this sort is likely to be taken over by invasive plants. Carthamus tinctorius probably spread in this way not only because it was invasive but also because it provided a new, product for use in local foods and it could be sold in the market place as well.

Camphor trees and camphor shrubs (Cinnamomum camphora), though native to China, also have invasive plant characteristics (IFAS Marco Polo in his journey noted that “The road lies over hills, across plains, and through woods, in which are found many of those shrubs from whence the camphor is procured.” The many camphor shrubs he mentions also may indicate the presence of abandoned, degraded agricultural lands.

Later, Marco Polo passed through towns where the inhabitants “have silk in abundance, and export it in considerable quantities”. Silk production requires ample quantities of mulberry leaves to feed the silk worms, thus large monocultures of mulberry trees probably replaced much of the natural vegetation in this area.

He entered a city “remarkable for a great manufacture of sugar…” After boiling and cooling the sugar, the sugar “remained in the state of a dark-brown paste.” Marco Polo tells us that the local people learned from foreigners the art of refining the sugar to its desired, final, white state “by means of the ashes of certain woods.” Burning wood to produce ash for use in the sugar industry to obtain white sugar also put additional pressure on the native forest and wildlife habitats.

Marco Polo then describes the city and port of Zai-tun with its “extensive and handsome buildings. In front of these, great numbers of ships are seen lying, having merchandise on board, and especially sugar, of which large quantities are manufactured here also.” The city “abounds with every sort of provision, and has delightful gardens, producing exquisite fruit.” Clearly, agriculture was well developed here. It seems likely that to accommodate large fields of sugarcane, gardens, and orchards a significant disturbance to the land’s natural vegetative cover and wildlife habitats had already taken place.

Toward the end of his southward journey, Marco Polo describes the city of Tingui saying, “Of this place there is nothing further to be observed, than that of cups and bowls and dishes of porcelain ware are there manufactured. The process was to be explained as follows. They collect a certain kind of earth, as it were, from a mine, and laying it in a great heap, suffer it to be exposed to the wind, and rain, and the sun, for thirty to forty years, during which time it is never disturbed. By this it become refined and fit for being wrought into the vessels above mentioned.” Trees cut to provide fuel for firing the required kilns and probably for charcoal production also placed increased pressure on the nearby forest resource. The large quantities of mined clay that Marco Polo tells us was required to produce the various ceramic and porcelain products suggests that this industry had existed here for a long time and that the amount of wood consumed as fuel would have been quite large. In addition, porcelain products require higher firing temperatures than those needed for common pottery and thus require larger amounts of wood fuel. It is possible, of course, that the Chinese may have used some coal in the firing process of porcelain.

Kaolin, the type of clay required to produce porcelain products, can be obtained from deeply weathered granitic rocks common in the hot, wet tropics and subtropics. Weathered rocks of this sort exist widely across South China. The clays from these weathered rocks contain few plant nutrients. Mining destroys the vegetation cover and it is likely that vegetation was unable to reestablish itself quickly. Generally such sites are more likely to develop a persistent vegetation cover of scrub or grass at best.

To summarize, Marco Polo’s description starts in dangerous tiger country which implies that the extensive, well-preserved, broad-leaved, tropical/sub-tropical forest with abundant game still existed there. Marco Polo then describes a landscape where the forest had been cleared for agricultural purposes. An increase of human population here and their agricultural practices clearly reduced the habitat for the tigers and the game tigers needed for their food, and probably reduced the habitat for smaller animals as well. The agricultural crops of ginger and galangal were abundant locally and were even large enough to support export activities. Marco Polo describes two invasive plants as being common on the land, false saffron and camphor shrubs. These plants suggest that some of the farm land already had lost its fertility and had been abandoned by the farmers thus allowing these invasive plants to become established.

Moving further south, Marco Polo describes an area where silk was so abundant that it supported export activities. Large amounts of mulberry leaves were required as food for the silk worms to produce large amounts of silk. Providing adequate silk-worm food suggests that the areas native vegetation had been replaced with an extensive monoculture of mulberry trees.

Further along, Marco Polo enters a city which was a large center for sugar production and processing. He observed trading ships anchored here carrying large cargos of sugar. The land surrounding the city probably was predominately a monoculture of sugarcane needed to support the sugar industry. To convert brown sugar to white sugar, the manufacturers added wood ash to the mix. It seems likely that large parts of the surrounding native forest would have been cut and burned to produce wood ash to support the sugar industry and the amount of native vegetation and wildlife would have been decreased notably.

Continuing southward, Marco Polo describes a city with a large ceramic and porcelain industry. The kilns necessary to fire such ware would have required a large and continuing supply of fuel. Wood probably was the common fuel for production of most of the ceramic products and, consequently, the surrounding native forests probably served as this fuel source. He says that the freshly mined kaolin clay used in the manufacture of ceramics was stored locally for 30 to 40 years suggesting that ceramic production had existed here for a long time and most likely was planned to continue for a long time. Forest cutting here for fuel probably significantly reduced the extent of native forest and wildlife habitats.

In addition, mining and stock piling the large quantities of raw materials needed to support a large ceramic industry would have produced obvious landscape changes. Native vegetation would have been removed in the mining process leaving behind abandoned, degraded, infertile land. The mine sites and the large stock piles of raw materials were subject to about 60 to 70 inches of rainfall annually. The rainfall led to erosion of the disaggregated raw materials thus causing siltation of local waterways and probable damage to fresh-water fish habitats.

Since the time of Marco Polo, the human population in South China has grown considerably and such common land-use changes and their environmental consequences described above have become more pervasive. China’s unbridled economic development of recent years has generated some of the same environmental problems associated with land development that Marco Polo observed in Fujian around 1300. Across South China, much of the native forest has been cleared or replaced with exotic tree species, wildlife is under severe pressure, much of the farm land is over used resulting in damaging amounts of soil erosion, an increase in sediment-clogged streams and rivers, and land abandonment. Today, science and technology offers ways to help address such environmental problems but science and technology alone probably will be ineffective without a blend of wise social and economic policies. Without such, we might gather from Marco Polo’s writings and today’s environmental headlines that “what goes around comes around.”

References cited

Komroff, M,, 1934, The travels of Marco Polo 1271-1295, The Heritage Press, Las Vegas, Nevada, 477 p.

Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, Univ. of Florida; IFAS;

Gibson, UCLA, Expressing achenes;

Invasive alien flora of India;

Karanth, K.U., 1995, Estimating tiger Panthera tigris populations from camera-trap data using capture-recapture models, Biol. Conservation, v. 71, no. 3, p. 333-338.

Tilson, R. et al., 2004, Dramatic decline of wild South China tigers Panthera tigris amoyensis: field survey of priority tiger reserves, Oryx, v. 38, p. 40-47.

XIE Yan, LI Zhenyu, Gregg, W.P., LI Dianmo, 2000, Invasive species in China — an overview, Biodiversity and Conservation , v. 10, no. 8, p. 1317-1341;


Marco Polo in the Fujian region of South China: an environmental interpretationThis paper is published in the Journal  of  the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, 2011, v. 51, p. 304-308.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: