July 19, 2000
These two words are so synonymous with exploration and adventure that today, over five hundred years after Marco Polo wrote about his famous trip to China, his name has become the title of a child's game of lost and found.
In the year 1271, when he was just 17 years old, the real Marco Polo traveled to China with his father and uncle, both of whom were merchants and traders. Marco did not return to Europe for another 25 years, and the book he wrote about his adventures became one of the most famous novels of all time, because it was the first time any European had ever described a trip across the entire continent of Asia. (But, as far as we know, he didn't publish on the Internet - in real time - like the Trekkers!) So what exactly did he DO in China - and why are some people saying that his book is a pack of lies?
Marco grew up in Venice, Italy, when it was a thriving European city and the center for commerce in the Mediterranean. His father and uncle were highly regarded traders and travelers who already had made the rare and dangerous trip to China and had met with China's emperor. Marco was only six years old when they left on this trip, and he didn't see his father again for 10 years. When his father returned to Venice, Marco was 15 years old, and his mother had recently passed away. Two years later, at the age of 17, Marco joined his father and uncle for another trip across Asia, and this time they would be gone for 25 years.
The Polos carried with them letters and valuable gifts for the Emperor of China from the Pope, including holy water from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. They left Italy and traveled over land through the Middle East, along the Caspian Sea and to the Persian Gulf. There, they were planning on traveling to China by sea, but, according to Marco's book, the ships were "wretched affairs....only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut." Instead, they decided to travel over land, through Afghanistan, over the Pamir mountains (which later became the Himalayas), along the Silk Road, through the dreaded Gobi desert, and into China, where Marco and his family were welcomed into the legendary splendor of the Court of Kublai Khan.
Kublai Khan was the grandson of the legendary warrior Ghengis Khan. Grandpa Ghengis united nomadic Mongolian tribes and led one of the most explosive series of conquests in world history - and he wasn't a very nice guy, either. He is quoted as saying that, "The greatest pleasure is to vanquish one's enemies ... to rob them of their wealth, and to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."
His grandson, Kublai, kept up the family tradition and defeated the Song Dynasty in China - putting the entire country under foreign rule. Always modest, he named his dynasty "Yuan," which means "origin of the universe" (although many call it the Mongol Dynasty). However, Kublai preferred to tax people rather than kill them, and his dynasty lasted from 1279 to 1368, covering a territory that stretched throughout most of Asia, South Russia and eastern Europe.
Judging by Marco's descriptions, he was amazed with China's enormous power, great wealth, and complex social structure. During the Yuan (The Mongol Empire) dynasty, China was an enormous empire whose internal economy dwarfed that of Europe. Agriculture, communication, trade, and the arts were highly developed and efficient. China's citizens could purchase paperback books with paper money, use fine porcelain bowls, wear silk garments, and live in a prosperity that no European town could match.
Under Kublai's rule, overland and maritime trade flourished. The Mongols welcomed foreigners, including Russians, Arabs, Jews, and Europeans such as Marco and his family. Kublai protected and encouraged traveling merchants and strategically used them as "intelligence gatherers." Kublai was the first to initiate countrywide use of paper currency so merchants had to convert foreign metals into paper money when they crossed into China. The idea of paper being worth as much as gold and silver was a total surprise, even to the mercantile Polos. "With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything. And I can tell you that the papers that reckon as ten bezants do not weight one."
During his reign, Kublai Khan established himself as an intellectual, as well as a warrior and administrator. The cultural achievements of his rule included the development of dramatic plays, Chinese opera, the popular novel, and the famous blue and white Chinese porcelain. Kublai promoted agriculture by organizing farmers into "collectives" composed of 50 families. These groups were responsible for the care and maintenance of their area, as well as the monitoring of their own members, rewarding those who worked well and punishing those who were lazy. This is a system that might ring a bell when we talk about Communist China later. Marco Polo marveled at life in the Chinese capital, where Kublai Khan fed 30,000 poor people daily from his extensive storage of grain. He marveled at Kublai's summer palace in particular, describing it as "the greatest palace that ever was." The walls were covered with gold and silver, and the Main Hall was so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people. The palace was made of cane supported by 200 silk cords, which could be taken to pieces and transported easily when the Emperor moved. There, too, the Khan kept 10,000 pure white horses, whose milk was reserved for his family and for a tribe that had won a victory. These descriptions of Shang-tu later inspired Coleridge's famous poem about Kublai Khan's "stately pleasure-dome" in Xanadu.
The Polos stayed in Khan's court for 17 years, acquiring great wealth in jewels and gold. They were anxious to be on the move, since they feared that when Kublai died (he was then in his late seventies), they might not be able to take their considerable fortune out of the country. In 1292, the Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed to let them return to Italy after they escorted a Mongol princess to Persia for marriage. Three years later, in the winter of 1295, when Marco was 42 years old, he finally saw his native Venice again.
Back in Italy, the city-states of Venice and Genoa were at war, and Marco Polo became a ship commander. He was captured during the fighting and spent a year in a Genoese prison. One of his fellow prisoners was a writer of romances and prompted Marco to dictate the story of his travels. These stories were eventually published in French as The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo. Marco's account of the wealth, might, and exotic customs of China and the Mongol empire made his book one of the most popular books in medieval Europe. At the time, however, few people really believed Marco's stories. His book became known as Il Milione, "The Million Lies," and Marco earned the nickname of "Marco Milione".
Today, while Marco's stories are accepted as historical fact and taught in schools, some people still think of him as "Marco of the Million Lies." First of all, some of the things he described - like the monstrous birds that drop elephants from the air and then devour their broken carcasses - just don't seem possible. Also, while Marco's descriptions of China were incredibly detailed, he never mentioned certain important things, such as The Great Wall, the binding of women's feet, calligraphy, or tea. Even though he spent 25 years in Asia, he never learned the Chinese language and sometimes used Persian words to describe Chinese things. Finally, while Chinese sources of the period refer to many foreigners visiting the Emperor, the Polos, or any Italians for that matter, are never mentioned.
Frances Wood, who heads the Chinese section of the British Library, recently published a book called Did Marco Polo Go to China? Her answer is that Marco Polo never made it. "It is a terrific story; the only trouble is that there is no evidence to support it," she says. "Like so many other great historical legends, the story is a myth." She concludes that, "Marco Polo himself probably never traveled much further than the family's trading posts on the Black Sea and in Constantinople," pointing out that travelers who have tried to trace his footsteps have become lost at this point. Wood suggests that many of the stories may have been picked up from Persian merchants in caravan stops.
Whether or not Marco Polo actually traveled across Asia and lived in the court of Kublai Khan for 17 years, the fact remains that at the time of his death at age 70, he still owned cloths, valuable pieces, coverings, and brocades of silk and gold exactly like those mentioned several times in his book. Other precious objects in his possession included an Imperial "golden tablet of command" signed by Kublai Khan and used to ensure safe passage across Asia. On his deathbed, Marco is said to have left this famous epitaph: "I have only told the half of what I saw!"
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