Voyages of Discovery


The Book of Marvels: Marco Polo’s Chinese Whispers

MOST OF WHAT we know – or think we know – about Marco Polo comes to us as a hand-me-down from the old charlatan himself and his travelogue/memoirs published as Il Milione (The Million), a title that early sceptics chose to render as ‘The Million Lies’. Claiming to have just returned from a protracted stay in China, Polo resurfaced in Venice, right in the middle of that city’s war with Genoa, and was probably captured by the Genoese in 1296 off the Anatolian coast. He claimed to have dictated his book, now more usually referred to as The Travels of Marco Polo, to fellow inmate Rustichello da Pisa, captured by the Genoese back in 1284 and a well-known writer of romantic adventure. If that is so, then it is surprising in the extreme that only eighteen sentences in the entire manuscript are in the first person but, all such debate aside, the book, which is still in print, made Polo a great deal of money.

Provoking controversy from the outset, Polo’s book still polarizes academic debate with the likes of Frances Wood, head of the Chinese Department at the British Library until 2013, prominent in the ‘he-never-went-to-China’ camp. Her book detailing such argument, Did Marco Polo Go to China? (1995), still draws counter-arguments from other sinologists of equal standing such as Professors Morris Rossabi and Hans Vogel of the universities of Columbia in the United States and Tübingen in Germany respectively. And it must be said that Rossabi and Vogel are far from alone in their support for the claims of Polo who, as one might expect, waved aside all negative comment in his time and, as he lay dying, averred: ‘I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.’ This is doubtless one of those historical conundrums to which there will never be a definitive answer.

Allegedly born into a family of prosperous Venetian traveller-traders, at the ripe old age of seventeen and in the company of his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo, Marco set off to China in 1271 where he claims they became the first Europeans to be granted admission to the court of the Khan, who in this case was Kublai Khan. The Mongol warlord had that very same year extended his grip on what is now northern China, completing his conquest of the rest of China in 1279 to establish the Yuan Dynasty. Marco tells us he became such a trusted confidant of Kublai Khan that, bearing a replica of the Khan’s personal seal, he travelled far and wide to conduct various diplomatic missions. Still in his twenties, he claims to have acted as intermediary between the Khan and Pope Gregory X, after the former developed an interest in Christianity, and to have held the governorship of the city of Yangzhou for three years.

If indeed the Polos made it that far, they would not have been the first Europeans or even the first Italians to have stood before a Khan. In 1246, eight years before Marco was even born, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, from Umbria in central Italy, was already standing before Güyük Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, with a message of goodwill from Pope Innocent IV. Refusing Carpine’s entreaties for him to embrace Christianity, Güyük instead told him that he expected the Pope and all Western leaders to swear allegiance to him. He then sent Carpine packing with a letter, triplicate in Mongol, Arabic and Latin, to tell Innocent IV as much in no uncertain terms. In 1254, the very year of Marco’s birth, the Flemish explorer / missionary William of Rubruck met with both Batu Khan and Möngke Khan before returning to publish his forty-chapter book, The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, which, a bestseller in its time, is still recognized as a masterpiece of medieval geographical literature. Indeed, it was likely that it was the financial success of this book that encouraged Polo himself to venture into publishing.

Polo also grossly overstates the wealth and prominence of his family in Venice. While Marco did later acquire some considerable wealth for himself, it is clear that his family were small-time trader-dealers. As to his claims of having played the go-between for the Khan and the Pope, neither the records in China nor those of the Vatican indicate any such contact; likewise, the chronicles of Yangzhou fail to mention his governorship.


In keeping with all the smoke and mirrors surrounding the life of Marco Polo, it is hardly surprising that no one is quite sure where his family originated. It has been suggested by some sources that they moved to Venice from what is today Croatia.

Some historians maintain the family were originally merchants of Korčula, an island that today forms part of Croatia but which in the thirteenth century was part of the former Venetian Republic. The family, originally named Pilić, moved to Venice and Latinized their name to Polo as both ‘pilić’ and ‘polo’ have etymological links to words denoting a chicken in Croatian and Italian respectively.

In the town of Korčula itself, there is a house purporting to be the original family home; it is currently under the protection of the local administration, which has plans to turn it into a museum.

Even his accounts of his alleged journeys around China raise serious questions, as the times taken to complete such trips fail to correspond with known distances between any two points cited and the duration of others’ well-documented journeys. Also, despite his claims of having remained in China for over seventeen years, he failed to demonstrate the remotest familiarity with any language spoken in the Khan’s realm of the day, making it unlikely that he would have been able to conduct the many diplomatic discussions of which he claimed to have been part. Furthermore, in his book he makes exclusive use of Persian names for Chinese locations instead of using those favoured by the locals.

There also seem to be some gaps in his knowledge when it comes to the locations of key places in China. Despite his claims of living in Fujian, the centre of both the manufacture of porcelain and the production of books by means of the early Chinese block-printing technique, his descriptions are chaotic and misinformed. He maintains that the production of such fine china is located in the non-existent city of Tingui, while the use of block-printing – way before its time in Europe – gets nary a mention. Nor indeed does the Chinese top-to-bottom-and-right-to-left writing style, which developed from the earliest of Chinese records being inscribed on bamboo poles. It has also been noted that nowhere in the book does Polo mention the stir-fry cooking styles favoured by the masses for whom coal was too expensive and firewood in short supply, this requiring them to dice their food before cooking it in what is now called a wok held over a small fire for a short duration. Nor does he remark on the striking similarity between Italian pasta and ravioli and the Chinese staple of noodles and small dumplings filled with spiced and ground meat.

By then, the drinking of tea had been ritualized by the Chinese, yet that beverage too is ignored. This is especially odd as the Chinese of the time tended not to entertain at home, officials preferring to honour guests with a visit to their favourite teahouse. As Marco himself was allegedly an official of the Khan, he would have been the recipient of countless such invitations from other officials – who would have expected reciprocation – and the elaborate ceremony surrounding the preparing, serving and drinking of tea would have been impossible for someone in his supposed position to miss. Despite the Great Wall of China running to the north of Yangzhou, the city he claims to have governed, this massive monument too evades his pen, which is doubly surprising since one of his journeys across China allegedly took him along the Silk Road, which would have required him to pass through one of the Great Wall’s more impressive gates. He also fails to mention foot-binding, chopsticks, ice cream and the stunning spectacle of locals using trained cormorants to dive and catch fish for them in the river right outside the palace of the Khan. While this parasitic symbiosis between man and bird still amazes visitors to this day, Polo’s pen remained unmoved.

Polo also makes elaborate mention of the Great Bridge of Beijing, allegedly having stood before it to count each of its twenty-four arches. Yet the bridge never had more than half that number of arches. There are similar problems with his account of his visit to the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. The city was famed for being the most beautiful in China, with its unique styles of architecture drawing gasps from all who saw it. Polo, on the other hand, casually dismisses the place with a one-line reference to its being a renowned centre for the distribution of ginger and rhubarb, a trade to which the majestic city never stooped.

One of the more troubling in Polo’s catalogue of historical errors is his claim to have brought Italian knowhow to the aid of the Khan by showing him how to build huge catapults to bring his siege of Xiangyang to a successful conclusion. Although such machines were indeed used to break that siege, Chinese records show them to have been built by Persian engineers and the conflict at Xiangyang to have been over for a full year before Polo claims to have first entered the country. Also on the military front, Polo claims to have personally witnessed the departure of both fleets sent against Japan by the Khan in 1274 and again in 1281. Describing the ships of the fleets as being five-masted (they only had three), he laments the destruction of the first by a typhoon not far off the Japanese coast. In fact, this was the fate of the fleet of 1281 with the grateful Japanese hailing the typhoon as Kamikaze, or Divine Wind.

So, with his name appearing nowhere in any Chinese records of the period, the likelihood of Marco Polo having ever set foot in the country stands remote at best; many historians contend that he got no further than the Black Sea where, involved in the lucrative trade from countries further east, he simply picked the brains of those with whom he dealt.

Typical of the old rogue, even the date of his death remains elusive, as Venetian law of the time decreed the day to end with the setting of the sun, so whether he died on 8 or 9 January 1324 is unclear. Suffering ill-health in the closing months of 1323, Polo put all his affairs in order, his will leaving handsome bequests to family members and various religious institutes; he further declared that all debts to him and his estate should be regarded as void. It is of interest that, with the Vatican then entitled to a percentage of everyone’s estate upon their passing, beady-eyed and avaricious clerics drew up a very detailed inventory of all his possessions. Yet in that meticulous listing there is not one item that would have connected the owner to China. Is it conceivable that he could have spent seventeen years in a country as fascinatingly different to medieval Europe as China without bringing home a single item of Chinese origin?

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