Ian Morson

Deadly injustice


The extraordinary life of Niccolo Zuliani (1232?-1320?) is only just coming to the notice of scholars as various documents begin to emerge from China. That he preceded Marco Polo to the heart of Kubilai Khan’s Mongol Empire is now undisputed. The details of his life there are a matter for scholarly argument and debate. Much of what we know to date is based on the account known as The Life and Travels of Messer Niccolo Zuliani written by the Chinese scholar Xian Lin in the early 1300s. He claims to have copied down his account ‘from the lips of Messer Zuliani in the last years of his long and varied life.’ However, it now appears that by 1310 Zuliani was no longer in China, but back in Venice, where he lived for at least another ten years. But if Lin’s words about Zuliani’s ‘last years’ are not taken literally, and perhaps as meaning his last years in Cathay, then there is no conflict in these facts.

How Zuliani arrived in Kubilai’s summer capital, Shang-tu — more dramatically called Xanadu by some — has already been told in the first volume of his travels (City of the Dead, Severn House, 2008). This second volume centres on an investigation undertaken by Zuliani deeper inside Cathay, and is intriguing for scholars for a particular reason. He watches, for the first time, a Chinese play in the genre kung-an, or crime case, and he meets a playwright called Guan Han-Ching. A person called Kuan or Guan Hanqing is now deemed to be one of the most accomplished of the playwrights from Yuan times in China. His best known play is The Injustice to Dou-E or Snow in Midsummer, concerning the unjust execution of a young woman. She is exonerated, and calls down curses on the people who executed her, including a fall of snow in midsummer. If the playwright that Zuliani met was indeed the same person — and the case Zuliani is investigating has some vague resemblance to the story of Guan’s play — then this is a very intriguing insight into a period when the Mongols were patrons of the theatre. Was the playwright we know the one in the chronicles? If so, then Guan emerges as a person concerned with justice and the conflict between Chin and Mongol ways. This is especially intriguing as Zuliani’s chronicler, Xian Lin, claims of his text that ‘every word is accurate.’ After studying it for a year, I have no reason to believe otherwise.

Dr Brian Luckham

Manchester Trafford University, 2011


The old man spooned the last of the nutritious soup into his toothless mouth, and lay back feeling satisfied. Things were working out beautifully. The girl seemed more amenable now he had beaten her. She obviously could not have learned from her previous husband about the Three Duties of a woman. They were obedience to your father before marriage, obedience to your husband after marriage, and obedience to your son after your husband’s death. Always obedience, and always to the male line. He guessed that perhaps her first husband had not lasted long enough to instil the concept of her duties into her properly with a stick as he should have done. It was said that he was a sickly boy, who had grown up into a sickly man not suited to marriage. His mother had arranged for the girl to marry him, probably against her will. At twenty, soon after she got married, she had been made a widow. This naturally made her a tarnished woman, as she had belonged to another. Though he surmised that, being weak and ill, the husband may not have even carried out his obligations as a husband. She could still be a virgin, but he didn’t know. He supposed she might make a fuss if he tried to test her with an egg as many did in rural areas. He thought he would insist on it all the same. But be that as it may, the old man knew he could not be choosy when it came to finding a wife for his stupid son. It had taken him a while, with several rejections and much compromising, before the girl had come to his attention. Yes, this one would do. Especially as she came with a mother-in-law, who would suit his needs. A double wedding could be arranged. And if it didn’t work out for him concerning the old lady, he could have the young girl for himself.

His stomach rumbled, and he felt some discomfort bubble up. When he tried to ease around on his bed in order to find a more comfortable spot, he found he couldn’t. He realized that his legs seemed to be numb, and he had some difficulty turning over. He cursed his old age, and coughed harshly. His chest felt tighter than usual, and he found it difficult to draw in a deep breath. Once again his bowels bubbled, and he clenched his buttocks against an uneasy feeling of looseness. He felt a wave of nausea suddenly rising, and didn’t know if he would vomit or shit first. He began to panic and tried to rise from his bed but his limbs were useless, not responding to his increasingly sluggish brain. He felt very ill, and tried to call out for help. But the only sound he could make was a sort of rattle in his throat. His vision began to dim, and his head spun. Finally his guts gave up the struggle and gurgled horrendously. His last act before dying was to besmirch himself from both ends at once.


Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.

I needed to get away fast. I was being pursued by a mad dog in the shape of a Keshikten Guard. And as you know, the Keshikten are not to be messed with. I mean, anyone whose job it is to be bodyguard to the Great Khan of All the Mongols in the Year of Our Lord 1268 is a fearsome opponent. There are twelve thousand of them reputedly, under the control of four captains, each with three thousand men. Their duty roster lasts for three days and three nights and it keeps them in the Khan’s palace alert, sleepless and on duty all that time. So when they are finally off duty, they are inclined to indulge their personal fancies to an extreme degree. Mongotai’s predilections were drinking and gambling. I came across him in one of the low taverns that thronged the streets of Old Khan- balik.

The avenues were narrow, and filled with the babble of a mixture of races from all over the world. They were all out to find some brief pleasure in their hard lives. Work hard, play hard was an appropriate creed for those who struggled to survive at the margins of the Great Khan’s empire. Not that anyone in Khan-balik was at the geographical edge of the Mongol Empire, you understand. Far from it. A site to the north of the teeming old city that some Chinee called Yenking and others Tatu had been partially cleared by the Khan. His new winter capital and palace was being built there. So the rest of Old Yenking to the south of the new ramparts now found itself on the doorstep of the hub of the Mongol Empire. But many of those who lived and worked there fed off the scraps of the Khan’s opulence. That’s what I mean by living in the margins. And I should know. I am one of the scavengers.

My name is Niccolo Zuliani — plain Nick to my friends — once of Venice and more lately Shang-tu, the summer home of Kubilai Khan, the Great Khan of All the Mongols. Shang-tu is better known in the West as the fabled city of wealth and opulence, the mystical Xanadu. What drew me there was what would draw any Venetian worth his salt. Wealth, trade, and a chance to con some fool out of his hard-earned cash. But as soon as I had arrived in Xanadu, I had been sidetracked into solving a gruesome murder that had taken place there. A death that tarnished its reputation somewhat, and had brought me to within a whisker of being killed myself. But I survived, and earned the gratitude of Kubilai Khan himself. Now the same enticing possibilities that had taken me to Xanadu caused me to follow the Great Khan to his new winter palace at Tatu, or Khan-balik, or old Yenking. Its name depended on whether you were a Mongol, a Turk or a lowly Chinee. I used them all depending on whose company I was in. Most recently, it had been Tatu, as I foxed Mongotai with the old pot game swindle.

The backstreet tavern where I was drinking didn’t have a name. It didn’t need one, because the brew it served up was so rough that even if a name existed, you wouldn’t recall it after a few bowls of the harsh rice wine. I had been drinking for some time, hunched in the corner of the low-ceilinged hut well away from the other sullen habitues of the place. The other drinkers didn’t like me because I was a barbarian, and therefore, in their eyes,

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