Marco Polo's China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan

Marco Polo's China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan

Marco Polo's China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan

Marco Polo's China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan

Synopsis

Marco Polo's famous book about his journey to China, written in 1298, continues to be a subject of considerable controversy. Many question his credibility, concentrating on things that it is argued he should have seen and noted but did not. The most serious of these supposed omissions are generally said to be his failure to describe the Chinese writing system, tea, foot-binding and the Great Wall of China. This book re-examines Marco Polo's writings, arguing that what he does mention is impressive and argues strongly for his veracity. Stephen Haw clarifies Marco Polo's itineraries in China and puts forth several new identifications of places mentioned, in addition to elucidating many of his observations, especially those of plants and animals. The research is augmented by first-hand accounts and the author's wide knowledge of the flora and fauna of China. Presenting a convincing argument the book concludes that Marco Polo's work is an accurate, important and useful source from an extraordinary period of Chinese history.

Excerpt

Marco Polo and his book have for a long time excited controversy. Writing only a few years after Marco’s death, Jacopo d’Acqui related how, when he was on his deathbed, Marco was asked to retract everything in his book that was not factual, but retorted that ‘he had not told one half of what he had really seen’ (Larner 1999: 115; MP/Yule-Cordier: i, 54). Although this must surely have been absolutely true, doubts about his veracity persisted. At some periods, he seems to have been generally believed, while at others he was seriously questioned. His failure to mention the Great Wall of China began to attract adverse comment from about the middle of the seventeenth century and has continued to raise doubts ever since. It has been suggested that Marco never went to China at all or that, if he did, he never went beyond Khanbalikh (modern Beijing). Several heavily annotated editions of Marco Polo’s book (often called The Travels, though originally entitled The Description of the World) have been produced at various periods and there is an extensive literature about him. Yet much remains obscure. Many of the places that he mentions have remained unidentified or very uncertainly identified. Alongside his supposed omissions, it is these difficulties with his place-names that seem to have given rise to the greatest suspicions about his account. It was because so many unresolved questions about Marco and his book still existed that I first began my researches in this area of study.

Many of the criticisms of Marco Polo have been highly ill-informed and commonly totally anachronistic. During the seventeenth century, complaints were voiced against him because he ignored latitude and longitude! At about the same time, he was also condemned for stating that paper money existed in China under the Mongols, although this was, of course, quite correct. In the middle of the eighteenth century, it was first suggested that he might never have visited China at all. This was despite the fact that, at that period, European knowledge of China was scarcely more than minimal, so that this suggestion was fundamentally based on ignorance. Marco also began to be attacked because his book was ‘papist’, although again this should hardly have been surprising as he lived long before Martin Luther (Larner 1999: 173–5). This kind of severely anachronistic approach to Marco and his book was typical not only of his critics, but also of his admirers. Marsden . . .

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