An article published in the Telegraph yesterday questions whether Marco Polo really went to China. This is one of those questions that can never be definitively answered. I certainly have my opinion on the matter, having read a great deal of the literature, including three versions of Marco Polo’s work.
In the past the major crux of the argument falls on Polo’s failure to mention the Great Wall, foot-binding, tea drinking and chop-sticks.
Let’s take these one by one: the Great Wall in Polo’s time quite possibly might have not been so great. You have to remember the Ming Dynasty, which came into power in 1368–long after Polo passed from the scene–built the wall that we see in movies and photos and legend today. Up until that point the great wall was better described as a series of long walls across the northern and western frontiers. But they were sorely neglected during the Yuan Dynasty. After all, why would Mongols, nomads par excellence, build walls?
As for foot binding. Let me be blunt and very politically incorrect: why would a European man of the 13th century notice a woman’s feet?
Tea drinking and chop-sticks? All I can say is that in my travel writing I have missed some very, very obvious things. Sometimes I missed them because I didn’t find them interesting to me. At others I missed them because I had been ‘in country’ so long that they no longer seemed important, or had become so commonplace to the experience as to be beyond notice. Kind of like having tea in the UK.
All that being said, I think there is some very real substance to the latest critique:
”When he describes Kublai Khan’s fleet he talks about the pitch that was used to make ships’ hulls watertight. He used the word chunam, which in Chinese and Mongol means nothing. In fact it is the Persian word for pitch. It’s also odd that instead of using, as he does in most instances, local names to describe places, he used Persian terms for Mongol and Chinese place names.”
If textual analysis bears out that many of the words Polo used were indeed Persian in origin, when there were very real Chinese or Mongol words for identical things, well, that’s problematic. Although, having a bit of experience with Mongolian (sounds like a cat trying to spit out a furball and eat peanut butter at the same time) and Chinese, which is tonal and quite difficult to transliterate, I sympathise if Polo found it easier to to transliterate an Indo-European tongue into Italian. (But this again raises the question of what role Rusticello played in the process. Remember, Polo didn’t write his memoirs, he dictated them to a French romance writer while in a Genoese prison.)
It’s a big if. I haven’t read the Italian archeologist’s full story of the account so I can’t say. But let’s suppose this is true and Polo ends up being known as a fraud like Mandeville. Who, you ask? Mandeville was for about 300 years, just as popular as Polo in the European imagination and in some cases, moreso. He humanized the other in a way no European had yet to do. Of course, Mandeville, it was later discovered, had cobbled together medieval accounts in a monastery in northern England. He never traveled at all. Regardless, Mandeville’s manuscript was included in Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic and influenced many other early-modern European explorers.
So, does it really matter in the end if Polo never made it past the Black Sea? If he ends up being a semi-fraud? No, I don’t think it matters. Polo expanded the European imagination at a critical point in European history. There is a direct line of influence from Marco Polo to Henry the Navigator, the great Portuguese prince who subsidized the expeditions around Africa and into Asia via the Indian Ocean. That influence is incontrovertible and really cannot ever be taken away from Polo. Polo didn’t begin the great age of European exploration, but he influenced in vast ways that reverberate to this day.