CAMBALUC, the name by which, under sundry modifications, the royal city of the great khan in China became known to Europe during the middle ages, that city being in fact the same that we now know as Peking. The word itself represents the Mongol Khan-Balik, “the city of the khan,” or emperor, the title by which Peking continues, more or less, to be known to the Mongols and other northern Asiatics.
A city occupying approximately the same site had been the capital of one of the principalities into which China was divided some centuries before the Christian era; and during the reigns of the two Tatar dynasties that immediately preceded the Mongols in northern China, viz. that of the Khitans, and of the Kin or “Golden” khans, it had been one of their royal residences. Under the names of Yenking, which it received from the Khitan, and of Chung-tu, which it had from the Kin, it holds a conspicuous place in the wars of Jenghiz Khan against the latter dynasty. He captured it in 1215, but it was not till 1284 that it was adopted as the imperial residence in lieu of Karakorum in the Mongol steppes by his grandson Kublai. The latter selected a position a few hundred yards to the north-east of the old city of Chung-tu or Yenking, where he founded the new city of Ta-tu (“great capital”), called by the Mongols Taidu or Daitu, but also Khan-Balik; and from this time dates the use of the latter name as applied to this site.
The new city formed a rectangle, enclosed by a colossal mud rampart, the longer sides of which ran north and south. These were each about 51 English m. in length, the shorter sides 33 m., so that the circuit was upwards of 18 m. The palace of the khan, with its gardens and lake, itself formed an inner enclosure fronting the south. There were eleven city gates, viz. three on the south side, always the formal front with the Tatars, and two on each of the other sides; and the streets ran wide and straight from gate to gate (except, of course, where interrupted by the palace walls), forming an oblong chess-board plan.
Ta-tu continued to be the residence of the emperors till the fall of the Mongol power (1368). The native dynasty (Ming) which supplanted them established their residence at Nan-king (“South Court”), but this proved so inconvenient that Yunglo, the third sovereign of the dynasty, reoccupied Ta-tu, giving it then, for the first time, the name of Pe-king (“North Court”). This was the name in common use when the Jesuits entered China towards the end of the 16th century, and began to send home accurate information about China. But it is not so now; the names in ordinary use being King-cheng or King-tu, both signifying “capital.” The restoration of Cambaluc was commenced in 1409. The size of the city was diminished by the retrenchment of nearly one-third at the northern end, which brought the enceinte more nearly to a square form. And this constitutes the modern (so-called) “Tatar city” of Peking, the south front of which is identical with the south front of the city of Kublai. The walls were completed in 1437. Population gathered about the southern front, probably using the material of the old city of Yenking, and the excrescence so formed was, in 1544, enclosed by a wall and called the “outer city.” It is the same that is usually called by Europeans “the Chinese city.” The ruins of the retrenched northern portion of Kublai’s great rampart are still prominent along their whole extent, so that there is no room for question as to the position or true dimensions of the Cambaluc of the middle ages; and it is most probable, indeed it is almost a necessity, that the present palace stands on the lines of Kublai’s palace.
The city, under the name of Cambaluc, was constituted into an archiepiscopal see by Pope Clement V. in 1307, in favour of the missionary Franciscan John of Montecorvino (d. 1330); but though some successors were nominated it seems probable that no second metropolitan ever actually occupied the seat.
Maps of the 16th and 17th centuries often show Cambaluc in an imaginary region to the north of China, a part of the misconception that has prevailed regarding Cathay. The name is often in popular literature written Cambalu, and is by Longfellow accented in verse Cámbălú. But this spelling originates in an accidental error in Ramusio’s Italian version, which was the chief channel through which Marco Polo’s book was popularly known. The original (French) MSS. all agree with the etymology in calling it Cambaluc, which should be accented Cămbáluc.