Was Polo Here?

Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng

Polo’s description of the bridge is typical of most of his descriptions of China — as much wrong as right. He gives the number of arches as 24, not 11, and makes other mistakes in describing a bridge generally agreed to have survived largely unchanged since its construction.

Following the publication of Frances Wood’s entertaining book Did Marco Polo go to China?, popular imagination has finally caught up with what some academics have being saying for years: probably Polo got no further than the family trading house in the Middle East.

Wills and other legal documents convince us that he existed, and the mention in one of them of a Mongol laissez-passer seems to suggest that there was indeed some contact between the family and the Mongol rulers of China. According to The Travels, in around 1260 two Venetian merchants, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, set off for the Crimea looking for new markets. They then adventurously proceeded to the Volga, where the lord of the Western Tartars (a sub-division of the Mongol empire) had his capital. A civil war that broke out between this khan and one of his neighbours prevented the Polos from returning to the Crimea, so they sought refuge at the court of a third Khan in Bokhara.

They were given the opportunity to join a mission to the Great Khan, Khubilai, and ventured to his pre-Běijīng capital of Karakorum in Mongolia. He sent them to the Pope asking for 100 teachers who could speak convincingly about Christianity, and provided a safe conduct in the form of a gold tablet.

The Polos arrived home in 1269 to find Christendom Pope-less due to the death of Clement IV the previous year. In 1271, with still no new Pope elected, the Polos returned to Acre and enlisted the support of the papal legate there, who gave them letters explaining why they had been unable to fulfil their mission.

They had not long set off when they were recalled. The new Pope turned out to be none other than the same legate, now Gregory X, who gave them full diplomatic credentials but at such short notice could find only two missionaries to accompany them rather than 100, and even these dropped out. Undeterred, the Polos set off again, and it was only on this second occasion and at the age of 17 that Marco joined his father and uncle on a trip that was to last 20 years.

The Polos left China in 1292 by a sea route through the Malay Straits, arriving back in Venice in 1295. Fighting on behalf of Venice against Genoa in the sea battle of Cursola in 1298, Marco was taken prisoner and probably not released until the following year. While in captivity he had little to do but talk about his travels. One of his companions in what was probably fairly comfortable house arrest was a well-known romance writer called Rustichello, who set down and embellished what Polo had to say. But Rustichello was unable to embroider when Polo’s account went beyond his experience, and accounts of Chinese towns often amount to little more than a merchant’s shopping list. Very little of the book comes vividly to life, and where Rustichello’s florid style takes over from the laconic Polo, he lifts passages from his earlier work and drops them wholesale into The Travels, although these insertions become fewer as the story proceeds to less well-known territory.

The success of The Travels probably lay in its coverage of a part of the world about which there was a great eagerness to know more. Although there were many other published accounts of travel to the Far East, the Polos went further and took some routes of which no other European was to leave records for nearly 600 years.

There are more than 80 Polo manuscripts extant, in a variety of languages, and scholars still argue about the original language used by Rustichello, although most now think that it was an Italianised form of French. Former Times China correspondent G. E. Morrison at his death left a copy of what his paper referred to as ‘the first edition of 1496 in Italian’, as well as first editions of versions in English, French, and German. Few of the manuscripts are entirely alike, various hands having perhaps added some passages or deleted others.

The evidence against Polo is substantial, although the jury is still out. While in China he is supposed to have undertaken various offices for the Khan, yet he fails to appear in any Qīng records, although other foreign travellers do. These travellers also appear in each other’s notes, while the Polos do not.

The narrative begins with a clear description of a route and a sequence of places visited, but by the time China is reached this has largely descended into confusion, and many an incautious commentator claims Polo’s presence in a town where a more careful reading of the text would suggest that a hearsay description is being offered (in the manner of many a modern guide book).

There is far too little material in the book to cover the whole period of time supposedly spent away, and much of the historical material is contradicted by other sources. Major omissions include the Great Wall, tea (unknown in Europe at the time), the bound feet of all but the poorest of Chinese women, and the Chinese script, so different from the alphabetical systems familar to Europeans.

It is perfectly possible that Polo went only as far as the Middle East, where his family had business, or only as far as the courts of the nearest Mongol khans, and the rest is all hearsay. That a fictional work of this kind could be convincing is demonstrated by Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, slightly later than Polo and immensely popular in its day, which was later discovered to be entirely concocted from imagination and snippets of others’ work. A contemporary of the Polos, a banker called Pegelotti, compiled a guide to trading in the Far East entirely and openly derived from the accounts of others, published in 1342.

It will take a long time for the idea of Polo to fade or change, as so much hyperbole has been expended on him over the centuries, and he still serves as a symbol of adventurous travel and East–West contacts. In 1999 the dry-as-dust business information service Bloomberg named Marco Polo as one of the most influential businessmen of the millennium.

Chinese guide books claim Polo caused Chinese noodles and jiǎozi to appear in Italy as spaghetti and ravioli. Some Italians claim the transmission was in the opposite direction, and the truth is probably that pasta was Middle Eastern in origin and travelled to both west and east.

Next in Museums and Other Sights: Wǎnpíng Chéng
Previously: Marco Polo Bridge
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.