If Marco Polo spent years exploring China for the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, as he claims, why do his reports contain no reference to the Great Wall, to Chinese tea-drinking ceremonies or to the practice of binding girls’ feet to keep them small?
In a new book, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, British librarian Frances Wood points out the holes in Polo’s account of his years in Asia and suggests he never made it to China.
“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.”
Other historians also have questioned whether Polo went to China, but none have succeeded in changing the prevailing view.
Since 1295, when the adventurous merchant returned, ragged and exhausted, to his home city of Venice after 24 years on the road, he has been accepted as the first European to travel right across Asia.
He told his story to a writer with whom he shared a jail cell in Genoa in 1299 after being taken prisoner in a sea battle. It became the travel epic, Divisament dou Monde (Description of the World), [in Italian Il Milione (The Million)], which was received with astonishment and disbelief.
The account was the primary source for the European image of the Asia until the late 19th century. It stimulated Western interest in Asian trade and had a deep impact on other early voyages of discovery.
Columbus is known to have owned a copy, and studied it closely before sailing off in 1492, thinking he was headed for Asia.
Polo says he set off for China in 1271 with his father and uncle, bearing a letter from the papal legate in Acre and a bottle of oil from the lamp that burns in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre.
In 1275, they arrived in Kublai Khan’s summer palace in Shangdu. At the time, the Mongol leader’s empire spread from China to the Mediterranean.
Polo says Kublai Khan took a liking to him because of his lively conversation, and sent him on fact-finding tours of his newly conquered territory.
In her book, published in October, Wood says that although Chinese sources of the period are littered with references to foreigners at the court of Kublai Khan, there is no mention of Marco Polo – or any Italians, for that matter.
And, although his report includes long descriptions of Chinese cities and aspects of life there, he “fails to remark upon the cultivation of the Yangtse delta area” and ignores the Great Wall and the practice of feet-binding.
Wood, who heads the Chinese section of the British Library, concedes that in Mongol times the Great Wall may not have had an uninterrupted run, and therefore may not have seemed so phenomenal. And as a city dweller, she adds, Polo may not have been attuned to agricultural developments.
His defenders argue that women with bound feet would have been closeted at home, invisible to a foreign visitor. But, says Wood, Odoric of Pordenone, a missionary who visited China 20 years later, described them in detail.
Wood admits that, “if Marco Polo was not in China, there is, unfortunately, nothing to prove he was anywhere else.”
Nevertheless, 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 argues that Marco Polo may have copied details from Persian or Arabic guidebooks on China that the Polo family collected on their travels.
That may explain why his vocabulary and some of his descriptions―notably of large fowl in southern China―tally with those of Persian and Arabic writers in some places, she said.
1. USA Today, London, 2 December 1999.