Revisiting The Travels of Marco Polo in the 21st century

Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice, a very powerful and independent city-state in the Mediterranean region at the time, to a well-established merchant family. He was educated in classical texts, well versed in classical Latin, Italian, Persian (Shijian in Jackson 95), mathematics and raised in Christian beliefs. During Polo’s childhood, his father Niccolo and uncle Matteo had already established extensive trade contacts around the Black Sea, Persia and the Mongol Empire, visited its capital city Cambulac (known today as Beijing) and met the reigning emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of infamous Genghis Khan. In 1271, on a second journey to Asia, Marco accompanied his father and uncle. 


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

  1. On the person ‘Marco Polo’ and current state of research
  2. Revisiting The Travels of Marco Polo
  3. Conclusion


  1. Introduction

Devisement du Monde [French: Description of the World] or most commonly known in the English-speaking sphere as The Travels of Marco Polo, illustrates the impressions of famous Venetian merchant Marco Polo during his travels to Asia and the court of infamous Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century. The name ‘Marco Polo’ has since been associated with travelling, discovering and unravelling the marvels of the world. One hundred years after his death, as technological advancements allowed for more efficient travel, Polo inspired generations of explorers to find new pathways and lands around the globe. This time period is often referred to as the Age of Discovery and brought about a previously unknown wealth of cultural exchange and economic growth. Oppositely, these were also the beginnings of Western colonialism and mercantilism, which further promoted the exploitation of colonised people and their homelands in the name of ‘progress’. Today, the name Marco Polo still excites the imagination. It is a placeholder for adventure, the marvellous and the unexplored. His name even refers to a style of blind-man’s-buff game. In Germany, Marco Polo is the namesake of one of the most commercially successful and widely known travel guides. Most recently, the critically-acclaimed 2014 Netflix-Original TV-show Marco Polo has gathered millions of viewers in front of their displays, to relive Polo’s journey in the service of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Without a doubt, Marco Polo has become one of the most prominent explorers of our world. But the authenticity and veracity of Polo’s travels, even the existence of his very person, have long been highly debated by historians. New evidence and arguments have been presented within the last two decades, that raise the question of Marco Polo’s relevancy in the 21st century. What do we know today about his life and journey to Asia? In combination with the ever increasing popularity and literary critique of the ‘Travel Writing’ genre, notably consolidated within Carl Thompson’s book of the same name, first published in 2011, this paper will present key aspects of current historical research on Marco Polo and revisit chapters of The Travels of Marco Polo, in order to explore his significance in current 21st century literary and historical critique. Revisiting The Travels of Marco Polo, its historical context and current historical research will reveal knowledge and insight into the far-reaching impact of Polo’s travelogue.

As a literary genre, travel writing encompasses a broad variety of texts, part fictional, part factual, that reflect the authors’ experiences, imagination and ability of observation of various foreign landscapes, cities, cultures and inhabitants. It is within these boundaries, that both contemporary and present readers explored and explore “geographic, ethnographic and sociological knowledge” (Thompson 4) in accordance to their socio-historic and cultural fabric of their respective societies. In addition, the metaphorical debate, the sociological divergence and comparison, and the literary narratives between the ‘known/self’ and the ‘other’ are further major recurring themes in the Travel Writing genre, which in turn led to debate among the respective circles of literary scholars and historians discussing the relatability and authenticity of travel literature. Consequently, studies of literary texts in the Travel Writing genre have included integrated, textual and contextual approaches, and opened up discussions in “cultural, […] and historical debates” (Thompson 2). In the interest of analysing the role of the impact of textual material on these debates, one has to consider the historical and cultural context of its conception as well.

The first half of this paper will cover current consensus on the historical person Marco Polo and his travels to Asia, based on historical research. This half will also highlight and present major arguments within the debate on the authenticity of Polo’s travels. In addition, new perspectives from Chinese literary scholars will lead over to the second half of this paper. With the help of insight gained through Carl Thompson’s book Travel Writing, the second half is dedicated to revisiting selected passages of The Travels of Marco Polo in comparison with other notable travellers to Asia, concluded by an in-depth reflection and an outlook on possible prospects on the topic of Marco Polo.

Current research on the manuscript containing The Travels of Marco Polo suggests, that numerous scripts and translations exist, written in Latin, Italian and Old-French. A consensus on which script is the original, has not yet been found. Therefore, any translations of Polo’s travel accounts are an amalgamation of various scripts, of various languages and of various locations. It is therefore intrinsically difficult to differentiate between what has been added, omitted and/or altered in subsequent revisions and editions. Notable translations from Italian into English of Polo’s travels exist of Henry Yule in 1871 and William Marsden in 1818. This paper will explicitly refer to the translation of William Marsden, specifically The Travels of Marco Polo, The Venetian – The Translation of Marsden Revised with a Selection of His Notes, edited by Thomas Wright, published in London in 1892, by George Bell & Sons (in the following abbreviated as Travels). This edition provides valuable key insights into its historical context, making it a suitable recommendation for this paper’s purposes.

The authenticity of Marco Polo’s travelogue has long been part of a larger and on-going debate among literary scholars and historians, which some scholars traced back to Polo’s contemporaries (Gosman 76). John Critchley in his book Marco Polo’s Book, published in 1992, advocates that the authenticity of Polo’s claims ranks second to the more valuable insight into 13th century minds of Western/Mediterranean Europeans (Jackson 82). In Did Marco Polo go to China? published in 1995, Frances Wood argues that Polo could have never been to China, because the travelogue omits key elements of Chinese culture and traditions, such as the Great Wall, that should have been prevalent at the time and location of Polo’s accounts (140-151). On the other hand, Wood’s arguments have been refuted by other scholars, such as Prof. Morris Rossabi of Columbia University and Prof. Igor de Rachewiltz of the Australian National University, who argue that mere omission of detail does not equate to inaccuracy or fabrication (Rossabi 1). Most recently, Prof. Vogel from the University of Tübingen linked new evidence in salt and revenue records to details given in Polo’s travelogue (Chang 1). The range of conclusions on the authenticity of Marco Polo’s travels are far-reaching and still highly debated. This paper aims to differentiate this historical research and outline the debate over the last two decades.

2. On the person ‘Marco Polo’ and current state of research

The reasons and means to travel are varied and have changed considerably over the years. As humans settled to specific locations and learned to domesticate animals, the need for a constant stream of resources provided by the hinterlands, allowed for the growth of settlements, villages and cities. While geographic features (e.g. indigenous plants, waterways, etc.) and location specific benefits (centres of religion, centres of power, etc.) grew, trade became one of the most important reasons for travel throughout human history. Trade offered a civilization to establish contact with each other, to grow economically and to diversify its cultural means. But prior to the establishment of secure pathways and reliable transportation, travel was highly associated with hardship and danger. This was owed in part to a highly volatile, political situation in Europe, whose various kingdoms and city-states waged war against each other. Furthermore, Christian crusades, the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the invasions of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire in the East caused unstable conditions in Asia, which in turn affected Eurasian relations (Tuchman 10-20). At times, when valuable goods were scarce and heavily sought after, trade was highly lucrative, but also very dangerous, due to bandits and warfare. This niche was recognized by the Polo family of Venice, who embarked on several voyages to Asia.

Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice, a very powerful and independent city-state in the Mediterranean region at the time, to a well-established merchant family. He was educated in classical texts, well versed in classical Latin, Italian, Persian (Shijian in Jackson 95), mathematics and raised in Christian beliefs. During Polo’s childhood, his father Niccolo and uncle Matteo had already established extensive trade contacts around the Black Sea, Persia and the Mongol Empire, visited its capital city Cambulac (known today as Beijing) and met the reigning emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of infamous Genghis Khan. In 1271, on a second journey to Asia, Marco accompanied his father and uncle. During Marco’s 24,000km long journey throughout Asia, he took notes of his travels and observed his surroundings. 26 years later, in 1295, Marco returned to Venice, only to be held captive during the second Venetian-Genoese war (Martin 8-50). It is highly likely, that Marco Polo met romance-writer Rustichello da Pisa while imprisoned, who recorded Polo’s travel accounts in manuscript-form in Old-French (Latham 11).

The details of the origin of Travels are highly debated, although it can be said with high certainty, that Polo’s accounts are a form of collaboration between him and Rustichello. The oldest surviving manuscript was written in Old-French by Rustichello, as it is very likely that Polo was not versed in Old-French at all (Görsch 14-15). Prior to their imprisonment, Rustichello is believed to have already travelled to parts of England and France and wrote numerous chivalric romance prose texts, such as Roman de Roi Artus (Rieger 293-295). The embellished parts of Travels, which put emphasis on marvel-filled adventures, are believed to be due to Rustichello’s romance influences. As it has been made transparent, much of what has been previously said was introduced through terms such as ‘likely’ and ‘consensus’. In this regard, it must be admitted, that historical research, similar to 5 other sciences, is an ongoing process, that derives its legitimacy through thorough debate and presentation of compelling arguments.

Over the course of the last 20 years, a wide range of Polan research and works have been published, that repeatedly assessed the veracity of Marco Polo’s travel accounts and shed new light on Marco Polo. Much of these works derived from either new archaeological evidence or original manuscripts that were rediscovered. In the interest of providing an adequate and informed overview of key research done and elaborate on the very brief outline presented in the introduction, what follows is a chronological presentation on Polan research. The foundation of modern Polan research was laid by German-Italian literary critic Leonardo Olschki. His work L’Asia di Marco Polo, first published in 1957, showed, that Travels does not follow the strict adherence to style and structure of typical merchant ‘guidebooks’ of the late 13th and early 14th century, especially when compared to the works of other travellers at the time, such as Wilhelm von Rubruck and Francesco Pegolotti. Rather, Olschki successfully argued, that Marco Polo’s viewpoint is authentic and reliable, because Polo presented what he saw as he saw it. At the turn of the century, doubts on Travels authenticity surged. John Critchley’s Marco Polo’s Book, first published in 1992, called for a textual approach. But rather than dissecting the finer details of Polo’s remarks, Critchley argued, that “the Polo account is a more valuable source for the minds of late thirteenth- and fourteenthcentury Western Europeans than for contemporary conditions in Asia” (Jackson 82). Critchley also supports Polo’s credibility, through meticulous analysis of Travels structure as laid out in its prologue. The mid to late 1990s were exceptionally rich of Marco Polo publications, as Frances Wood published Did Marco Polo Go To China? in 1995 and caused a resurgence in debate among literary critics and historians. Wood’s book also gained popularity outside of academic circles and reaffirmed notions of Polo’s incredibility in mainstream culture and media that lasted well into the 2000s. Two years later, Igor de Rachewiltz published a critical review on Wood’s publication that addressed her main arguments.

Wood put forth several central arguments that aimed to prove that Polo probably never ventured further than the Black Sea and that he gathered his information from Persian and Turkish sources. In response, de Rachewiltz published an extended review that countered Wood’s claims in Zentralasiatische Studien Vol. 27, published in 1997, of which the abstract is as follows: a) Polo failed to mention aspects of Chinese culture, such as its writing system, printing, tea drinking and the practice of footbinding, or any mentions of the Chinese Great Wall. De Rachewiltz argues, that Polo’s travels did not revolve around anything Chinese, as they were the subjects to the Mongolian rulers. Polo was not interested in Chinese customs, and did not mention them in his book, because they seemed to be too trivial. Instead, Polo did not travel to China, he travelled to the court of Kublai Khan. This is further substantiated through de Rachewiltz’ theory, that Polo’s worldview shows an exceptional Persian filter. Polo did not explore Chinese culture, because he ‘moved among the many foreign communities already established’ (de Rachewiltz 3). These multi-ethnic societies provided Polo with a cultural sphere, that influenced not only his language, but also his attitude towards anything non-Mongolian. Lastly, the Great Wall as known today was built in the later Ming dynasty of the 16th century. Polo could not have mentioned the Great Wall, because it simply did not exist yet – b) Polo’s credibility is damaged, because he is provably wrong about certain dates, names, places and other exaggerated remarks. The explanation countering this argument is manifold. First, it is important to understand, that Polo was definitively not a professional writer. His notes and sketches may have been imprecise, precisely because he lacked the awareness, education and linguistic knowledge of other notable travellers. Second, had Polo really taken his information from outside Persian sources (such as the number of pillars of the ‘Polo bridge’ in Beijing of which Polo gave an incorrect account), Polo would have been more coherent and correct in his travels. It seems more plausible, that these errors can be traced back to Polo’s own faulty memory, mistranslations and misinterpretations through copyists of the original manuscript – c) Marco Polo, neither his father or uncle are mentioned in any Chinese or Mongolian sources of the time, considering that Marco presumably held official positions within the Khan’s court. There are indeed no mentions of Marco Polo or his family in Chinese and Mongolian sources. But neither are other notable and proven travellers, such as Ibn Battuta or Wilhelm von Rubruck, considering the fact that Polo’s given Chinese name is unknown as well (de Rachewiltz 2-4). De Rachewiltz further mentions that Wood deliberately played down two important aspects, proving Polo’s travels to Asia: a) the Polos were in possession of three golden tablets, given to them by the Khan as a seal-of-way and which existence 7 were specifically mentioned in Polo’s list of possession and will, as well as precisely described in Polo’s accounts – b) Polo’s descriptions of three envoys sent to Persian prince Arghun, which are extremely detailed, match and complete partial sources from later Persian and Chinese sources (de Rachewiltz 7). Although Frances Wood’s claims have been refuted within academic circles, the misconceptions and myths surrounding Marco Polo have survived. By the 2000s, it became clear that historical approaches made way for fresh perspectives.

John Larner’s book Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, first published in 1999, spurred an interest in more literary approaches. In his book, he explores Travels in the context and lens of different literary genres. By reexamining Travels manuscript origins, Larner compares and contrasts the written words in its different translations and interpretations to explore Polo’s cultural worlds (Allsen 375-383). Larner’s work directly influenced scholar Gang Zhou at Johns Hopkins University to publish a fresh Chinese perspective in 2009: Small Talk: A New Reading of Marco Polo’s Il milione. In the essay, Zhou examines Polo’s book in the Chinese narrative tradition and argues that it resembles xiaoshuo or ‘small talk’, that is “the gossip of the street” (Zhou 2). This small talk is defined as the information gathered through gossip and peasant talk by lower ranked Chinese officials, who then relayed that information to their superiors. These could also include records on cities, persons and anecdotes. ‘Genres’ that aptly conform to Travels’ chapters. Zhou’s essay provides a compelling argument, that revisiting Polo’s accounts may also be done through a fresh, narrative driven perspective.

Sinologist Hans Ulrich Vogel of Tübingen University published research on medieval Chinese economics, linking Polo’s detailed accounts on currencies, revenue-systems and salt production to findings in Chinese sources, not found anywhere else in Western or Persian sources. Published in 2012, in his book Marco Polo WAS in China, New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues Vogel demonstrably proves that careful comparison of Travels with outside Chinese sources legitimise Polo’s travels to Asia. Vogel’s recent work is especially notable, as he was originally not interested in Marco Polo at all. Instead, given the information that he discovered during his research on Chinese economics, his ground-breaking approach to Polo truly marks a caesura in Polan research. Most recently, the BBC reported on new findings of the University of Vienna, saying that extensive contact between Europeans and Chinese might have already begun as 8 early as the third century BC long before Marco Polo arrived (BBC 1). Although there are no serious critics who support the notion that Marco Polo was the first ever to travel to China, the article shows how prevalent his name and its association to exploration is even today.

3. Revisiting The Travels of Marco Polo

It is important to highlight the multitude in meaning of the term ‘travel’ and consequently ‘travel writing’ throughout the ages. Carl Thompson spoke of travel as “the negotiation between self and other that is brought about by movement in space” (9) in his book Travel Writing, published in 2011, as the irreducible essence that is part of all definitions of travel. In other words, travelling persons are removed outside their socio-cultural boundaries and have to re-evaluate their own identities, the self, the similar or the familiar, in contrast with the other and the unfamiliar. Ergo, travel writing is the “product” and reflection of these “encounters” (Thompson: 10). It is important to consider certain aspects: As mentioned above, the negotiation between the self and the other while traveling, may be reflected in travel writing, that is to say, whether authors chose to inform their readers on foreign cultures, social structures, material structures, geographical features, flora and fauna, et cetera, needs to be considered while reading the texts. Thus, what authors negotiate to be the other, the unfamiliar, may be implicitly stated verbatim. Vice versa, what is to be considered familiar and near the self, may not be mentioned at all. This is key in comprehending narrative strategies employed by authors. Second, understanding these strategies, the purpose(s) of texts may be explored to an extent which allows readers to gain possible insights into the minds of authors. Lastly, there are key questions that need to be kept in mind while revisiting Travels which provide a framework for readers, helping them orientate themselves within the text: Why was a text written? To whom may it be addressed? Why could certain details be of importance? Why are certain things omitted? The following excerpts taken from Travels were not merely chosen by content, but should also display a variety of writing styles employed by Polo.

The end of the first book in Travels delves deeper into the court of the Khan. In its last chapter, Polo recounts Kublai’s summer residence in Shandu, the palace’s beauty and reveals an important aspect of Mongol culture: “It is to be understood that his majesty keeps up a stud of about ten thousand horses and mares, which are white as snow; and of the milk of these mares no person can presume to drink who is not of the family descended from Jengiz-khan, […]. So great, indeed, is the respect shown to these horses that, even they are at pasture in the royal meadows or forests, no one dares to place himself before them, or otherwise to impede their movements. […] having pronounced it to be his duty, annually, on the twenty-eighth day of the moon in August, to scatter in the wind the milk taken from these mares, as a libation to all the spirits and idols whom they adore, […] ensuring their protection of the people, male and female, of the cattle, […], the grain and other fruits of the earth; on this account it is that his majesty […] with his own hands, he is to make the offering of milk.”

(from Book I, Chapter LVII – Of His [Kublai Khan’s] Stud Of White Brood-Bares, With Whose Milk He Performs An Annual Sacrifice p.154-155)

Here, Polo describes an important aspect of Mongol customs. The Khan keeps an enormous amount of white horses, whose milk is used in rituals by the Khan himself. The Mongols’ nomadic roots and ability to wage war mainly relied on mobility, which was provided by horses. The Mongols did not see horses as mere tools to be used to their liking. Instead, horses are closely linked to Mongol survival in the vast steppes and to be cherished. In this passage, the feature of the Khan’s horses that stands out, is the color white as snow, indicating, that these white horses were bred for the Khan’s special purposes, which were under no circumstances to be disturbed. Drinking milk of the Khan’s white horses ought to be a special honour, only reserved to the Khanate’s family and anybody worthy of the Khan’s recognition. This annual ritual seems to be of high importance, only to be performed on an exact date, to appease the higher beings in which the Mongols believed, to protect their people, lands and harvests. Readers so far learned, that the Mongol emperor, yet wealthy and controlling a great empire, still acknowledges his cultural roots (horses) and does not frown from performing rituals. In this regard, Polo used concepts known and ordinary to his European contemporaries, but displayed that as something majestic, in its literal sense, as something worthy of and for a king.

Upon Polo’s arrival in Cathay, today’s northern China, he observed the custom of drinking rice wine:

The greater part of the inhabitants of the province of Cathay drink a sort of wine made from rice mixed with a variety of spices and drugs. This beverage, or wine as it may be termed, is so good and well flavoured that they do not wish for better. It is clear, bright, and pleasant to the taste, and being (made) very hot, has the quality of inebriating sooner than any other.”

(from Book II – Chapter XXIII – Of the Kind of Wine Made in the Province of Cathay – and of the Stones Used There for Burning in the Manner of Charcoal, p. 229)

This passage is particularly interesting, as Polo believes that this rice wine is a speciality of the people of Cathay. Is it this particular variety of rice wine that he thought be noteworthy and mention in its own chapter? It seems, as if Polo describes a drink, so addicting that ‘they do not wish for better’, although very tasty, is a custom to the Chinese, not the ruling Mongols, otherwise he would have not attributed it to the Cathay people. However, the fact that he refers to a wine made from rice, alludes to the possibility, that rice wine might have not been known in Europe or Asia Minor, as there was an abundance of other crops and fruits from which alcoholic beverages could be prepared. Polo continues the chapter with a truly marvellous discovery, stones that give out heat:

Throughout this province there is found a sort of black stone, which they dig out of the mountains, where it runs in veins. When lighted, it burns like charcoal, and retains the fire much better than wood; insomuch that it may be preserved during the night, and in the morning be found still burning. These stones do not flame, excepting a little when first lighted, but during their ignition give out a considerable heat.” (ibid. p.229)

These ‘stones’, found in veins, which burn like charcoal seem to be fossilized coal. Although known at Polo’s time, its use in Europe was not wide-spread, with coal mines only reaching peak production in future centuries. However, Polo’s seemingly innocent description of ‘burning’ stones, indicate that he must have not been familiar with black coal. In the following segment, Polo goes into further detail of the use of these coals. The Cathay people used these to heat their baths, in fact so often, that they were able to “frequent the warm bath at least three times in the week, and during the winter daily” (Travels 230). Due to the coal’s abundant quantity and the people not being reliant on wood for heating, Polo describes a luxury in the Western world, as something very ordinary in Cathay. This is a direct reversal in his narrative strategy of the previously discussed segment, in which Polo described something ordinary to him, to be of importance to others.

Another interesting chapter stems from the third book in Travels, in which Polo visited the islands of Java, in South-East Asia. In this description, Polo talks of a strange animal, that he describes in detail:

In the country are many wild elephants and rhinoceroses, which latter are much inferior in size to the elephant, but their feet are similar. Their hide resembles that of the buffalo. In the middle of the forehead they have a single horn; but with this weapon they do not injure those whom they attack, employing only for this purpose their tongue, which is armed with long, sharp spines, and their knees or feet; their mode of assault being to trample upon the person, and then to lacerate him with the tongue. Their head is like that of a wild boar, and they carry it low towards the 11 ground. They take delight in muddy pools, and are filthy in their habits. They are not of that description of animals which suffer themselves to be taken by maidens, as our people suppose, but are quite of a contrary nature.”

(from Book III – Chapter XII. – Of the Second Kingdom, named Basman, p. 368)

The encounter with this strange beast must have left Polo with a phase of sensemaking. He was not aware of the animal’s existence and its habits, therefore he ‘broke’ down parts of the unicorn and compared these to animals that were familiar to him or his readers. Polo employed a literary strategy called “principle-ofattachment” (Thompson 68), in which he used terms and information that were known to him as a point of reference and related those to the unknown of his new discoveries. In fact, all of the previously quoted passages have shown different levels of attachment. A very intriguing facet of Polo’s description of this particularly strange animal, is Marsden’s translation of rhinoceros, which used to be ‘unicorn’ in earlier translations. The allusion to the legendary animal is still evident in the last sentence: “They are not of that description of animals which suffer themselves to be taken my maidens” (Travels 368). This is a very clear reference to tales of the mystical unicorn, which may only be captured by a virgin. Polo’s description of the sheer brutality in which his rhinoceros is able to ‘assault’ a person is further enhanced through the use of terms such as ‘lacerate’ and ‘filthy in their habits’. In a way, Polo de-mystifies his unicorn, turning the graceful, fabled horse into a beast.

The Mongol empire had a long tradition of incorporating and assimilating foreign cultures into their own. Comparable to Alexander the Great, the Mongol Khans understood, that who could not be conquered, must be appeased. In this regard, Kublai Khan made efforts to reach out to Persian astronomers, Chinese tailors and Christian monks. In the following (abridged) passage, Polo describes an encounter with Kublai and Kublai’s thoughts on Christianity: “’Wherefore,’ he said, ‘should I become a Christian? You yourselfes [sic] must perceive that the Christians of these countries are ignorant, inefficient persons, who do not possess the faculty of performing anything (miraculous); whereas you see that the idolaters can do whatever they will. […] Should I become a convert to the faith of Christ, and profess myself a Christian, the nobles of my court and other persons who do not incline to that religion will ask me what sufficient motives have caused me to receive baptism, and to embrace Christianity. ‘What extraordinary powers,’ they will say, ‘what miracles have been displayed by its ministers?’”

(from Book II – Chapter II. – of the Honour He confers on the Christians, the Jews, the Mahometans, and the Idolaters, at their respective Festivals – and the Reasons He assigns for His not becoming a Christian p. 168)

Strikingly, Kublai went into detail, why subscribing to a certain religion must be justified for himself and the nobles of his court. Even if he was personally convinced of Christian teachings, objectively, he may not, because of the corruption that could be witnessed by Christians that already resided in his empire. However, this passage may also be viewed from Polo’s personal point of view. If the possibility were to be entertained, that this chapter may be read as a cleverly worded critique on Christianity, we may be able to attain a glimpse on Polo’s worldview on religion. One has to remember, that Polo began his journey at the age of seventeen, certainly an age in which various impressions may have a lasting effect on the personal outlook on life. Even if we were to take differing conceptions of maturity into account, Polo still spent a considerable amount of his young life in an unfamiliar environment and may had obtained a certain filter (de Rachewiltz 3). It may be possible, that Polo met other Christian emissaries, who left a poor impression on him, triggering Polo to dedicate an entire chapter in his book on Christian failings outside of Europe. By discussing such a topic, Polo may have expressed feelings of uncertainty and dissociation from his identity in the past. This is in line with Polo’s fascination of Kublai’s persona and could indicate a transformation of Polo’s new self.

4. Conclusion

Modern research has shown that Polo did indeed travel to Asia and the court of Kublai Khan. Extensive analysis of new sources and innovative approaches into Polo’s historical background have revealed that Polo’s travelogue is by and for most authentic. Polo was not a professional writer, nor was he an explorer. What may be deduced, is that Marco Polo was a young man, in search of opportunity, who had spent more than half of his life in unfamiliar environments and social spheres that challenged him to constantly reconsider his worldview. He constantly had to navigate between competing worlds, the foreign Persian/mercantile, the Mongolian, the Chinese and his own, while recreating and making sense of a constant stream of cultural input. In addition, there is still much debate on Travels’ manuscript origins and it must also be repeated that we may never know, which words truly originated from Polo and which words were mistranslated, altered or otherwise changed by editors, copyists and translators. However, it becomes clear that there exists a certain style of reporting on the world as Polo saw it and deploying literary strategies to transform the unfamiliar into the familiar for his 13 readers. As Carl Thompson said: “the traveller’s situation is always liable to produce inadvertent misperceptions and unwarranted extrapolations, as he or she struggles to make sense of places and cultures which inevitably blend familiar and unfamiliar aspects” (Thompson 71).


Primary Source:

Wright, Thomas (Ed.). The Travels of Marco Polo, The Venetian – The Translation of Marsden Revised with a Selection of His Notes, edited by Thomas Wright, London: George Bell & Sons, 1892. Print.

Secondary Sources:

Allsen, Thomas T. The Cultural Worlds of Marco Polo, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 31, No 3, pp. 375-383. Cambridge, 2001. Print.

BBC. Western contact with China began long before Marco Polo, experts say. The BBC, 12. Oct. 2016. Web. 25. Feb. 2018.

Chang, Na. Review: Marco Polo was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. University of London, London, Oct 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2018. De Rachewiltz, Igor. F. Wood’s Did Marco Polo Go To China? A Critical Appraisal. The Australian National University, Canberra, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2018 <;

Gosman, Martin. “Marco Polo’s voyages: the conflict between confirmation and observation.” Travel fact and travel fiction: studies on fiction, literary tradition, scholarly discovery and observation in travel writing. Ed. von Martels, Zweder. Leiden: Brill, 1994. Print.

Görsch, Yves M. Zu Marco Polo: Il Milione – Die Wunder der Welt: Eine Suche nach dem Original. Norderstedt: Grin, 2009. Print. Jackson, Peter. Marco Polo and his ‘Travels’, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 61, No 1, pp. 82-101. London, 1998. Print.

Latham, Ronald. The Travels of Marco Polo, Introduction. London: Folio Society, 1958. Print. Martin, Roberta, A. O’Brien and S. Gronewald. China: A Teaching Workbook. New York: Columbia University 1983. Print.

Rieger, Dietmar. Marco Polo und Rustichello da Pisa – Der Reisende und sein Erzähler. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992. Rossabi, Morris. Did Marco Polo Really Go to China? Essay. Columbia University, New York, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2018. Thompson, Carl. Travel Writing. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Random House, 1987.

Long Ton

03. 2018

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