Did Marco Polo Really Go To China?
Marco Polo is renowned all over the world as the most famous European adventurer-traveller to reach China in the 13th century.
But did he really go there?
This may sound a naive question to ask today but not so 800 years ago when Marco Polo published the account of his travels on return to his home in Venice after a journey of 24 years.
People weren't ready to believe a word of what he said in his book The Travels of Marco Polo ("Il milione"). Yes, the book was a good read as fiction but not as a factual travelogue, they said.
Why the doubts?
The doubters had their own reasons:
How to believe in strange things in an unknown country like China when there was no reason to believe that such a country existed even.
Most people then did not believe that anything beyond their immediate vicinity existed, fearing that you were likely to fall off the edge of the earth if you ventured too far.
And granting that a country like China did really exist, wasn’t it a plain lie that people were burning stones instead of wood.
Here it was coal that Marco Polo was talking about. But Europeans used logs for fires and most probably hadn’t heard of coal.
Stranger still was the mention of lots of private and public bath houses which were heated by coal as the Chinese bathed many times a week, sometimes every day. This was something hard to swallow for Europeans who bathed less frequently, seldom bathing at all in the winter.
Cloth That Did Not Burn
If burning stones weren’t enough, Polo talked of a cloth that didn’t burn in the fire.
The Europeans did not know about asbestos at that time so how were they expected to lend credence to Marco Polo’s account that there was a material like asbestos and the way to clean asbestos cloth was to throw it into fire, though Marco Polo had brought with him a specimen of asbestos to present to the Pope.
Paper Instead of Gold
Still another thing that was unthinkable for people at that time – and perhaps for many generations to come – was the use of paper money in China. The Chinese ruler Kublai Khan had established a mint to print paper money which was accepted as legal tender throughout his realm.
Disparagement and Slurs
Because of Marco Polo's narration of things that were beyond their ken, people maligned Marco Polo whole of his life. They called him "a teller of million lies". Perhaps urged by their elders, urchins often teased Marco Polo on the street by asking, "What new lie you have to tell us today?"
It was only after his death that with the spread of knowledge supported by accounts of travelers to the East in later years that people came to accept that Marco Polo was not an egregious liar after all
To China And Back
Marco Polo wasn’t the first in his family to have traveled to China. In fact his father Niccilo Polo and uncle Maffeo had reached China in 1266. They were received in the court of Kublai Khan, the ruler of China (Cathay) who asked them lots of questions about the West and the Pope. As merchants having travelled to many lands, the Polo brothers were fluent in the Turkic dialect and could satisfy the Khan’s curiosity.
A year later Kublai Khan who was a Buddhist sent the brothers on an errand to give a letter to the Pope Clement IV, asking him to send learned men to teach his subjects about Western science and Christianity as well as oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
When his father and uncle returned to Venice in 1269, Marco Polo was 15. He accompanied them on their second journey to China in 1271. Along with oil from Jerusalem and gifts from the new Pope Tedaldo (Gregory X), the Polos were also taking two friars to the Khan.
The friars turned back when they reached a war zone on the way. But Polos went on. It was such an arduous going that Polos had to break journey many times for rest and recuperation for long stretches - once for a whole year when Marco Polo fell ill.
Polos passed through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamirs, and all along the Silk Road to China. It was in 1275 that at last they were in the presence of Kublai Khan who welcomed them again heartily with royal pomp and circumstance.
The Khan's Favorite
Soon the young Marco became a favorite of the Great Kublai Khan who appointed him to a number of government positions including a post on the Privy Council. He was sent on a number of missions within China and to other countries like Burma and India. For three years he also worked as an inspector of taxes. During these tours of duties Marco Polo traveled widely in China, learning about its vastness, wealth, culture and customs.
Polos remained in China for 17 years during which time they had become very rich. Now they wanted to go home with their wealth while the Kublai Khan was still there. They feared that after the death of the Khan, who was now nearing 80, they might not be allowed to leave with their possessions. When they asked the permission to go, the Khan refused. But their chance came when a royal princess needed to be escorted to Persia for marriage. Kublai Khan entrusted the mission to the Polos who escorted the royal party through sea route around India to Persia. There they learned that the Khan had died while they were at sea. Polos were back in Venice in 1295.
The Travels of Marco Polo
Marco Polo's Narrative
Venice was at war with Genoa when the Polos came back. Marco Polo joined the war on the side of Venice and was captured as a prisoner of war.
During his captivity he dictated his experiences of the great journey to a fellow prisoner. The book The Travels of Marco Polo (Il Milione) described the various places and things that Marco Polo had seen during his travels.
The book became an instant bestseller but also gave rise to a controversy that was to dog Marco Polo all his life. In addition to coal, asbestos and paper money Marco Polo described many things about China which were not believed by people such as its vastness, culture, wealth, the grandeur of the Royal Palaces and the system of speed mail by which messages were delivered over long distances in a matter of hours instead of days and weeks.
His description of places which were not seen by Europeans until many years after Marco Polo's time also inspired wonder mixed with disbelief.
It is interesting to note here that among many "unbelievables" Marco also mentions Couvade syndrome, a condition in which a man experiences some of the same symptoms and behavior of an expectant mother. Though confirmed by medical science in later years, the mention of such a bizarre syndrome was enough to brand Marco Polo as an unmitigated liar in those days.
Why No Wall?
Not only things mentioned by Marco but the ones omitted by him have given rise to dispute. For example, Marco nowhere mentions the Great Wall of China or chopsticks among other things about China, in his book.
It was wondered how could anybody writing about China forget to mention the Great Wall? This meant that Marco didn’t go to China after all. The research however has given a not-guilty verdict to Marco Polo. The China Wall as it is seen today was built two centuries after Marco Polo.
Marco Polo hasn’t also said anything about chopsticks, something novel for the Europeans. Here it is argued in Marco’s defense that after a stay of 17 years chopsticks must have become an ordinary everyday item for Marco Polo, too commonplace to mention. Or it could have been an oversight.
It is also argued that in addition to a number of omissions, there are instances of glaring exaggerations in the book like a huge bird that could lift animals from the ground. Remember that Marco Polo himself didn’t write the book. He dictated it. So it is quite possible that such hype might have been the work of the scribe. Moreover there were no printing presses at the time. All the books in original or translation had necessarily to be copied by hand with a high probability of exaggerated accounts getting into the narrative somewhere along the line. And it is also very much possible that Marco Polo himself may have indulged in flights of fancy once in a while.
Inspiration From Marco Polo
Marco Polo has inspired later adventurer travelers.
Before setting out on their quest to find exotic lands they are said to have studied The Travels of Marco Polo.
Most famous of these, Christopher Columbus not only read the book but made notes on it. An annotated copy of the Marco Polo book was found in Columbus’s belongings.
It is believed that Columbus had been reading a number of books that could help him find Asia and Marco's book was one of them.
Benton de Gois was another explorer to be inspired by Marco Polo. He was looking for a Christian kingdom in the East which he didn’t find but did end up at the Great Wall of China in 1605.
Influence on Cartography
Marco Polo’s maps have influenced and helped the development of cartography. Fra Mauro Map is believed to be based on the map brought by Marco Polo from China.
Marco Polo was the first to describe in his book large sheep with spiraling horns that he saw when he passed through the Pamirs in 1271. Now they are called Marco Polo Sheep in his memory.
It may be said in passing that the existence of these rare animals has been threatened by hunters though efforts to conserve them are on now.
In remembrance of its famous son, Venice has named its airport Venice Marco Polo Airport while the frequent flyer program of the Cathay Pacific Airlines of Hong Kong is named Marco Polo Club.
Named after the explorer, the clipper the Marco Polo built in St John, New Brunswick, was the first ship to sail around the world in within six months in 1852.
The popular media has also used Marco Polo's exploits:
Marco Polo has been fictionalized, appeared in TV miniseries and a video game also.
Famous Last Words
At 70, Marco Polo fell seriously ill at the end of 1323 and didn't respond to treatment.
He died in early January of 1324.
He was buried in San Lorenzo di Venezia church in Venice.
On his deathbed, some of his family members urged him to recant any lies that he might have told in his account.
To this he replied:
"I have only told the half of what I saw!"
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