History of International Relations Textbook

The Mongol khanates

Did Marco Polo go to China?


In 1271, the merchants Niccolò and Maffeo Polo left their native city of Venice and set sail for the east. Niccolò and Maffeo had already done business in Constantinople and in the Crimea, and they had already visited the lands of the Mongols, both in Persia and in China. In fact, when they returned to Europe in 1269 they carried a message from Kublai Khan to the pope in Rome, together with a request that they bring back some oil from the lamp that was burning in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Having delivered the letter, and fetched the oil, they were now on their way back to the lands of the East. They had a paiza with them, a small tablet in gold, which gave them free passage, lodgings and horses throughout Mongol lands. With them as they left Venice was also Niccolò’s son, Marco, who was 17 years old at the time. After a journey which took them to Armenia and along the caravan trails of Central Asia, they eventually reached Kublai Khan’s capital at Shangdu in 1275.

Marco Polo was to find particular favor with the Great Khan who made him a courtier and an official. Marco learned to speak Mongolian together with several other languages and he traveled around the vast empire visiting lands which no European previously had seen. His account of the splendors of the khan’s palace is particularly famous, together with his description of Kinsay, the city of Hangzhou in the south, with its 12,000 bridges, wide roads and magnificent architecture. Although Marco Polo was trusted by the khan, he was not free to return to Europe, and it was only when an imperial princess was to be escorted to the Ilkhanate in Persia that he saw an opportunity to escape. The Polos returned to Europe in 1295, twenty-four years after they originally had set sail. The Polos came back to Venice as wealthy men and the stories Marco told of his adventures amazed everyone who heard them. He was known as Il milione, referring to the millions of marvelous tales he would tell his astonished European audience.

Although the story of Marco Polo’s adventures in the East is well-known, the documentary evidence in its support is surprisingly shaky. Polo himself never wrote anything down but the account of his travels was instead compiled by Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian author previously known for his romances about chivalric knights. The two men met when they were taken prisoners during the war which Venice fought with Genoa in the last years of the thirteenth-century. Although Rustichello’s text exists in some 150 different hand-copied versions, there is no known original manuscript and we are not even sure in which language the text originally was written. The problem is that the existing versions different considerably from each other, with later editions providing far more elaborate descriptions than earlier ones. A manuscript from Toledo from the middle of the fifteenth-century is, for example, half again as long as earlier versions. This has led some scholars to suggest that instead of being the account of one man’s travels, the story should be seen as a compilation of many different sources.

Some have even argued that Marco Polo never actually visited China. It is striking, for example, how he never mentions Chinese customs such as foot-binding or tea-drinking, and it is strange that his place-names consistently are given in Persian rather than in Mongol or Chinese. It is also peculiar that no items from Mongolia or China were found in his possession at the time of his death. This is not, however, a reason to dismiss the text as such. Despite omissions and mistakes, the book contains many details which we know from other sources to be correct. The book is valuable not least since its relative lack of moralistic judgments contrasts favorably with accounts of China left by the missionaries dispatched by the Church. Marco Polo’s book – or the book associated with a person by that name – had a tremendous impact on European readers, stirring up elaborate fantasies of the exotic East. The most famous reader was perhaps Christopher Columbus who had his own copy of the book – on which he had scribbled extensive handwritten notes in the margins (see the picture above).