In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree: where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to men, down to a sunless sea.
Coleridge described his version of Xanadu as “a vision in a dream” or “a fragment” and given the amount of hallucinogens the great poet enjoyed during his composition of the poem, connections to the real place were tangential at best.
But at least some will be surprised to find that Xanadu is a real place. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in northern China, and was indeed built on the orders of the great Khan, grandson to Genghis himself.
The association of Xanadu with the Mongol Empire has been a prominent reason for drawing attention to the place. In addition, Xanadu has also gained prominence in popular culture through poems (mainly Coleridge, if we’re being honest), and accounts of popular explorers who visited the city.
What was this place? Why was it built? And does it match up to Coleridge’s city where “twice five miles of fertile ground with walls and towers was girdled round”?
The Real Xanadu
The real Xanadu served as the summer capital of the Mongol Empire from 1274 to 1364. The city is located in the present-day Shangdu town, in the Zhenglan province. This capital was situated almost 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Beijing, in Inner Mongolia.
The city came to prominence during the rule of Kublai Khan, who ruled from 1260 to 1294. Xanadu is in fact a westernization of the name, which should more properly be “Shangdu” as the modern town is named.
Xanadu was founded as the first capital city of Kublai Khan, the grandson of the Mongol Empire founder Genghis Khan. Kublai Khan laid the roots of the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over most of the regions in modern-day China, Korea and many other surrounding areas.
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Kublai Khan was the first non-Han emperor to have conquered all of China following his victory over the Song dynasty. What his illustrious grandfather started, he was able to complete.
One of the most interesting aspects of the real Xanadu was the difference from traditional Mongol architecture. The city has palaces, waterways and gardens, laid out in a pleasing fashion but markedly different from other population centers: this was to be a place of surpassing beauty.
The popularity of Xanadu has been attributed in large part to the accounts of Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer. In recent years Polo’s accounts have been thrown into serious doubt, and much of his narrative may have been fictional, but it seems that (at least in the basics) he was right about this.
But absent Marco Polo’s description (and leaving Coleridge’s drug-fuelled flight of fancy aside) much of what Xanadu actually was has been lost. The place is in ruins, and what remains can only hint at the luxury of the living Xanadu. We can see that it was developed by following the principles of Feng Shui, and historians have described it as a cauldron of cultural fusion of Mongolian and Han Chinese cultures.
The observations of archaeologists about Xanadu have revealed many interesting details about its history. Many believe that it was an important destination on the silk road, considering the mention of Xanadu in “The Travels of Marco Polo.”
In addition, the city must have also received many other foreign envoys. The architecture of the city seems designed to cater for a large, semi-permanent population, which would likely have been made up of both the Khan’s retinue and visiting dignitaries.
The city is massive, with architecture is arranged in a grid, spanning over 1195 acres (485 hectares). It also includes three different divisions, such as the Outer City, the Imperial City, and the Palace City.
The Palace City in Xanadu had defensive walls which housed the royal palaces and pavilions. It hosted the Da’an Pavilion, which was used for audiences with the royal court, and the Muqing Palace, the first royal residence.
Surrounding the Palace City, the Imperial City harbored different civic institutions, temples and monasteries. The largest of these temples in the town include the Tibetan Qianyuan temple and Zen Buddhist Huayun temple: it seems that the Khan was comfortable with a plurality of religion, even in this central pleasure city.
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Finally, the Outer City surrounded all. The Outer City also had two divisions, with the lower part known as Xinei and the northern part referred to as Beiyuan.
The Xinei was known as the cane palace or the tent palace, and Beiyuan was the large garden complex for growing rare and exotic plants. The city’s architecture laid out in this fashion betrays no small amount of planning, and it must have shone as the capital city of the Mongol empire.
What Became of Xanadu?
The conquest of Xanadu by the Ming dynasty in 1368 spelled the doom of the city. It was used as a military post by the Ming dynasty before being abandoned completely in 1430.
Many of the stone remnants of the city stayed till the 19th century, by which time most of the material of the city had been removed completely by local inhabitants and recycled for their buildings: ever the fate of great ruins.
However, what remains reveals that the city had been designed by Kublai Khan with precise attention to making it a modern marvel of architecture. Apart from the general three-tiered model, Xanadu also showcased the deviation from the traditional approaches of living in tents and developed a fine palace.
The city had been designed by the Chinese advisor for Kublai Khan, Liu Bingzhong. It had towers and earth-circuit walls that complemented the classic Chinese square plan. The entire city housed almost 200,000 people, spanning over 25,000 hectares, with an abundant supply of water from natural springs in the region.
The compliance with Feng Shui also shows how careful the architecture of the city was. Xanadu was also a host to many important events, such as hunting parties and feasts.
It had hosted a meeting of Mongol tribal chiefs in 1260 to proclaim Kublai Khan as the Great Khan or “Universal Ruler”. In 1275, Xanadu also served as the meeting place of Mongol tribal chiefs for a decision on the campaign of Kublai Khan against the Song Dynasty.
Xanadu also had a significant influence on religious development by serving as a place of debate for Buddhist and Taoist religions. It was responsible to an extent for spreading Tibetan Buddhism in northeast Asia. The magnificent city of Xanadu lies in ruins which reflect more of its reality than the mysterious imaginations you can paint about it.
Top Image: Little survives of Xanadu today, save the descriptions of travellers such as Marco Polo. Source: Travel Drawn / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri