Hotel Tartary: Marco Polo, Yams, and the Biopolitics of Population
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Hotel Tartary:
Marco Polo, Yams, and the Biopolitics of Population

Et encore voç dirai une autre bielle mainere que il ha: car sachiés que tuit celz que tienent erbergies, e que erbergient les viandans, tuit, celz que en lor erbergies erbergent escrivent por lo non, et quel jor de quel mois hi erbergie, si que por tout l’an poit savoir le grant kan qui vait e qui vient por toute sa tere; et ce est bien couse que afiert a sajes homes.

—Marco Polo, Le Divisament dou monde 1

盛冬裘無完,豐歲食不足。為民籍佔驛,馬骨猶我骨。束芻與斗菽,皆自血汗出。

—許有壬, 《至正集》2

It is a truism that travelers by necessity inhabit the space of the hotel, the hostel, the inn. Marco Polo, in the Divisament dou monde, notes the lavish hotel that play host to foreign ambassadors and merchants in the fabled city of Cambalac during the reign of Kubilai Khan. Radiating from the imperial center is a network of post-stations that serve the messengers in the Great Khan’s efficient postal system. At every post (yizhang 驛站), called yam (from the Mongolian jamci, Chinese zhanch 站赤),3 is a “palatial hostelry” worthy of royalties. According to Polo, “These hostelries have splendid beds with rich coverlets of silk and all that befits an emissary of high rank. If a king came here, he would be well lodged.”4 While, strictly speaking, post-stations were not necessarily hostels or inns, the two became intertwined in the yams of medieval Mongol empire.

The hospitality found in the yams facilitated not only trade but also political control. In the sections below, I begin by tracing the origins and history of the post-station in China, before comparing specific Mongol lodging and trade institutions for foreign travelers with their counterparts in the Mediterranean. One crucial similarity [End Page 43] between the Near East and the Far East is a persistent blurring of the architectural and the human, of hostels and bodies. For the Mongols, compulsory census and maintenance of yams were instrumental to their rule over subjugated populations—a policy that effectively converted the subjects’ living bodies into political resources. I then argue that Derrida’s notion of hostipitality offers an apt description of the yam as both hostel and prison; Marco Polo is simultaneously a privileged merchant of and a hostage to the Great Khan. As such, Polo’s exuberant praise masks the corruption and abuses that plagued the yam network, as well as the system’s brutal effects on local populace. What the yams offered was a biopolitical hospitality in the service of imperial security.

The origins of the Mongol yam system, as David Morgan points out, remain obscure. However, Morgan traces its development and suggests that the ultimate origins were most likely Chinese.5 In antiquity, the Chinese had their own postal relay systems that rivaled those of the Persians and the Romans. In Zhou Li 周禮, a compilation of texts collected during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-200 CE), it is noted that “In principle, along all the roads of the Empire and the (feudal) States there is a rest-house every ten li 里 where food and drink may be had. Every thirty li there is an overnight rest-house with lodgings and a (government) grain-store. Every fifty li there is a market and a station with an abundant stock of supplies.”6 During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the postal system in China became truly comprehensive and organized. The Tang system would become the basis and model for future dynasties’ networks. Traditionally, the postal traffic was supported by wealthy and influential families, while poorer families provided the personnel, worked the fields that belonged to the station, and watched the postal animals. Later, during the Sung Dynasty (960–1279), the imperial government militarized the postal service in the year 961, and soldiers served as runners. The network was used primarily for the transport of official documents and mercantile goods. When the Jurchens, the ancestors of the Manchus, established the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) in Northern China and pushed the Sung Dynasty to southern China (the South Sung Dynasty), they too maintained the roads and relay stations.7

The Mongols who conquered Northern China, established the Yuan Dynasty, and...