The Merchants of Venice
The Voyage Home
Man of a Million Lies?
A Note on Religion
A Note on the Texts
Map of Marco's Journey
The Man of a Million Lies?
Apart from a book written by a writer of fiction dictated by a fellow prisoner-of-war, we have no evidence that Marco Polo ever undertook the epic journey that he relates. As a trading family, the Polo's testimony can be assumed to be true to a certain degree based upon the movements and reasons for travel of contemporary travellers. Historical records on such things as battles which Marco mentions, and trading routes, can also help to back up his story.
There is a general myth that has grown up around Marco Polo, mainly well-intentioned attempts to inspire children to study, that Marco introduced such things as spaghetti, noodles and ice cream to China and the West. There is no truth to any of these claims and indeed Marco never cites them in his book.
When Marco returned from his long travels and recounted his tale to his fellow countrymen, he was not believed by many, even long after his death. His stories about paper money and black stone that burned (coal) seemed too much to be taken credibly. Ironically, Marco Polo is now doubted by many historians precisely because of what he fails to mention.
Despite great attention to the architecture and structure of the buildings he sees, Marco never mentions the Great Wall of China, ironically built many years before to keep out the very Mongol people who now ruled over northern China. Neither does he mention the ancient Chinese practise of foot-binding, which, bearing in mind his usual fascination in foreign culture, seems an unusual oversight. The exotic, artistic style of Chinese writing similarly escapes note.
Of course, it should be remembered that the book was written some time after the events that it recounts, and any number of arguments can counter such accusations of fraud.
Two more areas of doubt surround Marco Polo's alleged affairs in the politics of Kublai Khan's court. One is his alleged involvement in the Battle of Xiangyang. In the chapter concerning the battle, Rustichello relates Marco's tale of how the Polo's developed seige engines "by which the city will be forced to surrender forthwith". In fact the seige had begun some three years before the Polo's arrival in China and a year before Marco's arrival in Xiangyang.
Marco Polo claims to have been a close and trusted aide to Kublai Khan and that he was made governor of Yangzhou for three years. Chinese records, usually meticulous about such details, never mention him. It has been argued that the word sejourna or "stayed" in Yangzhou, may have been mis-translated as governa or "governed". This seems a plausible explanation given the number of translations over the years and demonstrates how there are as many arguments in favour of Marco's exploits as there are those against.
Marco Polo's book nevertheless remains a unique and remarkably insightful book for its age. Whichever side of the argument you may subscribe to, the books importance should never be underestimated in the influence it eventually had for future travellers. Christopher Columbus left us a copy of a well-thumbed edition that he carried and read as inspiration on his own epic voyages.
Historian Frances Wood provides a full and lively debate on the subject of Marco's veracity in her volume, Did Marco Polo Go to China? For the interested lay person, nothing can beat reading the various translations that exist in print today. Of these, there are the Yule-Cordier edition, written by Sir Henry Yule in 1903 which provides extensive foot notes and background detail. Another important edition is the one by Benedetto which uses another earlier source as the basis for its translation. Probably the most accessible version currently in print is that by Ronald Latham. Whichever version you choose to read, the real journey for Marco Polo has only just begun.