Xanadu Of course, Shanghaiing sailors isn’t the only word in our language that can trace its origins back to the Chinese map. The thin cotton fabric known as nankeen takes its name from the city of Nanjing, for instance. Lhasa apso dogs namecheck the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where the breed was originally developed. Macau, a former Portuguese colony known for its gambling, is also the name of a card game similar to baccarat, but played only one card at a time. Kaolin, or ‘China clay’, one of the raw ingredients of porcelain, is named after the Chinese village of Gaoling where it was once produced. And indeed China was once so well known for the production of porcelain that the entire country’s name became a synonym for any porcelain-ware or pottery in the sixteenth century.
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From Shanghai we head more than eight hundred miles north to a city whose contribution to our language – with a little help from Samuel Taylor Coleridge – is a word for a place of stunning beauty, luxury or serenity.
The city in question is Shangdu, the ancient Mongol city founded by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, in the thirteenth century. In 1272, Khan made the city of Dadu (modern-day Beijing) the capital of his Yuan dynasty, while the city of Shangdu in Inner Mongolia, two hundred miles north of Beijing, became his summer capital.
Shangdu was a grand walled city, roughly square in shape, in the centre of which stood Kublai Khan’s summer palace. Marco Polo is known to have visited the city in 1275, where he found ‘a very fine marble palace’ at the centre of a vast walled compound, ‘the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment’. In its palace grounds were vast expanses of ‘fountains and rivers and brooks and beautiful meadows’, where a menagerie of ‘all kinds of wild animals excluding such as are of ferocious nature’ roam free. Khan, he explained, spent the three summer months of June, July and August in this city, before returning to the southern capital when the fierce heat of the summer began to cool.
Marco Polo’s description, along with several other notable accounts like it written over the centuries that followed, helped to establish an almost mythical image of the city of Shangdu in European minds. In 1797, one of these accounts – by the English clergyman Samuel Purchas – fell into the hands of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
According to his own account, Coleridge was reading Purchas’s description of the city of Shangdu when he happened to fall asleep, with the last words he remembered reading being: Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.
Coleridge was unwell at the time, and medicating his illness with opium. As he slept, the opium fuelled an extraordinarily vivid dream, in which he imagined seeing Shangdu – known at the time as Xanadu – in all its glory. When he awoke, Coleridge grabbed his pen, paper and ink, and composed the following lines:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.
Coleridge’s poem, ‘Kubla Khan’ (1797), proved immensely popular on its publication in 1816, and the name Xanadu soon caught the public imagination. Before long, based on Coleridge’s description, its name was being used figuratively in English, as a byword for any place of epic grandeur, extravagance or serenity.
As for the actual city of Shangdu that inspired it, it fell to the Ming Army in the fourteenth century, and as the last of the Khan dynasty fled the city, it was razed to the ground by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of China’s Ming dynasty. Today, only ruins remain of a city once grand enough to earn a place in our language that has endured for almost eight hundred years.
Apso means ‘bearded’, or ‘woolly’, in Tibetan.