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TIL that whether Marco Polo actually traveled to China is unclear. No Chinese record mentions him. His account of the trip never mentions the Great Wall, Chinese characters, chopsticks, or footbinding.(r/todayilearned)
It is true that no mention of Marco, his father and uncle has yet been discovered in the Chinese sources of the period. However, we do not know what Marco’s name was in Chinese (if he ever had one), nor in Mongolian for that matter, in spite of his claim that at court he was simply called ‘Master Marc Pol’. The Mongols often gave nicknames to people in their employment and these would have been phonetically transliterated into Chinese. We can only guess and so far we have not been successful in tracing him. Personally, I think that Marco is totally ignored by the Chinese sources, as were so many other foreign personages who resided in, or visited China. Neither John or Montecorvino, the first Catholic Archbishop of Peking (and a contemporary of Marco), nor the famous roving friar Odoric of Pordenone, nor John of Marignolli, the head of an important Papal embassy to the last Mongol ruler of China, get any mention in the Chinese sources. I believe that Marco’s name is not included in any Chinese official source because he did not have a truly ‘official’ position. We can gather from his own account that he was sent by Khubilai Khan on ‘special’ missions and that he reported to him personally. Clearly, he did not belong among the rank and file of the Mongol administration, and must have acted as a special court agent, inspector, or ad hoc investigator on assignments requiring tact and diplomacy. Interesting theories have been put forward as to what agencies operating in China and in the wider Mongol empire he may have been inspecting specifically, but this area of Marco’s activities remains largely speculative. In any event, the fact that he is not mentioned in the Chinese sources should not surprise us unduly, for such is the case of other, possibly more exalted, individuals at the time.
Marco’s book is not a report commissioned by the authorities (or meant for them) like the well-known accounts of John of Pian di Carpine and William of Rubruck; nor is it a merchant’s guide to Asia like Pegolotti’s book. Although Marco’s ‘mercantile’ remarks are frequent, the style, structure and organization of his book are completely different from Pegolotti’s work, as the Polan scholar Leonardo Olschki has shown. And, contrary to what F.W. claims, Marco’s itinerary does not lack coherence and adheres until the very last chapters to the order set out in the Prologue, as J. Critchley, another Polan scholar, has amply demonstrated. The occasional ‘undisciplined’ way in which Marco tells his story is precisely due to the fact that the author lacked the constraints of a diarist, a chronicler or a compiler of a travel or commercial guide.
During his seventeen years in Mongol-ruled China, Marco did not ‘mix’ with the Chinese, he never learned their language and was not interested in their ancient culture. He moved among the many foreign communities already established there before the Mongol invasion and greatly enlarged thanks to the Mongol government multiethnic policy. There was then (second half of the 13th c.) a vast number of Persian and Turkic-speaking Central and Western Asians, Arabs, Alans from the Caucasus, as well as traders, clerics and adventurers from various European countries, Italy in particular, owing to the commercial activity of Venice, Genoa and Pisa. The lingua franca of these ‘Westerners’ in China at the time was Persian. This was, indeed, not only the dominant foreign language, but also the ‘official’ foreign language until the Ming period, as shown by Huang Shih-chien of Hang-chou University. Chinese was the language of the subjects, and Mongolian (and, to a lesser extent, Turkic) the language of the rulers – a huge social and cultural gulf separating the native subjects from their foreign masters. At the bottom of the scale were the Chinese scholars, i.e. the keepers and transmitters of China’s tradition and culture. The foreigners of various extractions who had settled in the country formed a sort of intermediate structure or class with close links to the top, however, and purely mercantile and/or administrative relations with the Chinese (as petty-officials, tax collectors, etc.). The three Polos belonged to this multiethnic society and most, if not all, of their business was transacted in Persian (as well as Italian, of course, with their countrymen). The fact that Marco employs the Persian and Turkic forms of geographical and proper names, and of various terms for official titles, objects, etc., is exactly what we would expect of him and should therefore not surprise us. As for the many outlandish forms of names and terms that we encounter in his book, these are often due simply to textual corruptions and scribal errors, as shown by P. Pelliot’s meticulous reconstructions.
Marco’s indifference to things Chinese in general, and to the finer products of their ancient culture in particular, goes a long way to explain some of the ‘notable omissions’ that we find so puzzling: a) Marco makes only a cursory remark on the Chinese language and dialects, and on a single system of writing (‘one manner of letters’). He mentions the (printed) Chinese paper money but, like Ibn Battùta and Odoric of Pordenone, does not comment on the script; b) he does not mention Chinese books – which were really a closed book to him! – and book-printing. However, the printing process involved in the production of the banknotes which he describes is essentially the same as that used for printing books, the only difference being that what Marco calls ‘a seal’ is, in reality, a ‘printing block’. Clearly, the complex Chinese system of writing, and the fine points of printing, only interested travellers who were more educated and literary-minded than was either Marco or Odoric. And, again, we must not forget that we are in the 13th century, when the vast majority of Marco’s contemporaries were illiterate; c) tea drinking was a custom spread mainly among the Chinese, too trivial an item to have made an impression on Marco. Neither Odoric nor Ibn Battùta mention it in their travelogues – and none of them speaks of chopsticks either, obviously for the same reason; d) pace F.W. (who contradicts herself here) porcelain and porcelain-making are described by Marco; e) the curious and notorious custom of footbinding is ignored by Marco, as it is also by Ibn Battùta. Since Marco had no close contact with Chinese society and only a very superficial interest in its customs, it would have been difficult for him to investigate this practice, confined as it was to a stratum of society alien to him and one largely removed from the public eye; f) cormorant fishing, which is noted by Odoric but not by Ibn Battùta, is likewise omitted from Marco’s narrative, no doubt through oversight.
Whereas Marco’s incorrect description of the famous bridge in Peking can be simply explained through either a faulty recollection on his part of the exact number of arches, or an early scribal error, the same could not be said of his total silence on the Great Wall. But the fact is that the Wall, as we know it, did not exist in Marco’s time. As shown by A.N. Waldron, the magnificent Wall we see today is the fortification built or re-built by the Ming government in the 16th and 17th centuries. Before the Ming there were only a series of ramparts, erected in different periods and made of pounded earth reinforced with wooden stakes or bundled twigs. At no stage was there a continuous ‘line’, only discontinuous walls, differently placed and shifting position from dynasty to dynasty. What remained unchanged throughout the centuries was the literary fiction of the ‘Long Wall’ built by the Ch’in emperor Shih-huang in the 3rd century B.C., i.e. the ‘myth’ of the Great Wall which is still alive and well today in China and in Europe. There is no mention of the Great Wall as a material reality in the Chinese sources of the 13th century. Indeed, in the great Ming cartographic work Kuang-yü t’u, which had six editions between ca. 1555 and 1579, the Great Wall appears for the first time only in the 1579 edition.2 This means that until 1579 the Chinese geographers themselves had ignored the existence of the Wall. No wonder Marco failed to notice it! 6. To explain away Marco’s absurd claim that he, his father and uncle had been present at the siege of Hsiang-yang, we have only two options: a) plain boasting on his part, in the near-certain knowledge that he could get away with it; and b) Rustichello or a later editor invented the story to give credit to the Polos, the text being amended accordingly. I am in favour of (b) because this claim is not found in an important and related group of MSS., as already noted by A.C. Moule.
Marco’s claim that he held the governorship of Yang-chou for three years is an exaggeration to say the least. There is no reason to disbelieve his statement that he resided in that city, and for a lengthy period. After all, Yang-chou was a thriving commercial centre and wealthy Italian merchants were established there in the 13th-14th century (the Yilioni family from Genoa).3 But Marco was certainly never the governor of that city, although he may have held a temporary position of authority there as inspector or court appointed commissioner – a position that he, or Rustichello, later magnified. – digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/41883…
edit: Thanks for the gold! My interest in Marco Polo started with “The Journeyer”, I highly recommend it (for anyone not easily offended).