The fabulous fabulist
Did Marco Polo really make it to China?
BY LEWIS LORD
The moviegoers of 1938 who absorbed The Adventures of Marco
Polo could see that the storied
Italian was a bold and suave globetrotter. Otherwise, Gary Cooper, in the
title role, would never have discovered
China, fireworks, and an emperor's daughter,
whom he taught how to kiss in the best
European manner. The question
today involves another character trait: Could
Marco Polo tell the truth?
Ask his 13th-century contemporaries,
and the answer would be a resounding no.
They expected visitors to the unknown
East to bring back tales of people born
with one leg or one eye, or with the head
beneath the shoulders. Polo's 1298 book,
The Travels of Marco Polo, offered no such
oddities. Instead, it told Europeans something
they refused to believe. The civilization of
the West, Polo implied, was second-rate. China, by contrast, was a place
with its act decidedly together, a country
with hundreds of thriving towns and cities
far richer in goods, services, and technology than any place in Europe.
Priestly request. But rather than reject
Polo's account, Westerners embraced itas a romantic
fantasy. It became Europe's
most widely read book, thanks to such
details as Polo's description of China's
Kublai Khan as the world's strongest
leader, a chivalrous "Lord of Lords" who
employed 10,000 falconers and 20,000
dog handlers and hosted banquets with
40,000 guests. In 1324, as Polo lay on his
deathbed, a priest beseeched him to retract his "fables." His
reply: "I have not told
half of what I saw."
Polo started seeing
the world at 17, when
he left Venice with his
father and his uncle for
China to visit Kublai
Khan, whom the two
older men had met on a
Chinese trading mission.
The three Polos were
gone 24 years, 17 of
which, they said, were
spent in China, where the
khan sent Marco on official tours of his empire. The
book Polo produced, with the help
of a fiction writer named Rustichello, gave Europe its first
description of China.
Now, seven centuries later,
Polo's credibility again is under
attack. According to critics, he
never even set foot in China. Had
he been there, they argue, he
would have reported important aspects of 13th-century
Chinese life that went
unmentioned. Among his omissions: tea drinking, calligraphy, the
binding of women's feet to keep
them small, and, most glaring,
the Great Wall of China.
The controversy bubbled up in a 1995
bookDid Marco Polo Go to China?by
Frances Wood, head of the British Library's Chinese department. Wood notes
Polo's omissions and argues that he probably
never got beyond Persia. His China
stay, she suggests, was fabricated with the
help of Arabs and Persians who had visited China. She also points out
is not mentioned in any Chinese records.
But if past is prologue, Polo's reputation
will emerge in fine shape. A century after
he was ridiculed as "the man of a million
lies," a Renaissance geographer hailed him
as "the most diligent investigator
of eastern shores." Another reader, Christopher Columbus, sailed
west in hopes of finding a better
route to the riches Polo described in the East.
Today, reference books state
flatly that Polo went to China,
even though flaws in his story
have been known for centuries.
In 1747, the British book Astley's
Voyages asked: "Had our Venetian been really on the Spot ...
how is it possible he could have
made not the least Mention of
the Great Wall: the most remarkable Thing in all China or
perhaps in the whole World?"
The answer, Polo's supporters
say, is simple: In his day, the
Great Wall wasn't all that great.
First built 300 years before the birth of
Christ, much of it had crumbled by the
13th century. "Almost everything the
tourist is normally shown today was built
in the 16th century," notes historian John
Larner, author of the new book Marco
Polo and the Discovery of the World.
Tea time? Larner also downplays other
omissions. Tea drinking was popular in
southern China in Polo's time, he says, but
had yet to catch on in the north and central
regions, where Polo resided. Foot binding,
Larner reports, was limited "to upperclass
ladies ... confined to their houses." Only
rarely would anyone see them except kin.
To Polo's backers, what's most telling is
what he did say. His main pointthat a
rich urban civilization existed in the East
was precisely on target. In the 19th century,
British explorers followed his Silk Road
route and were amazed at how many details he got
right. Their trip, one wrote,
threw "a promise of light even on what
seemed the wildest of Marco's stories."
One bizarre report from the Silk Road
told of a giant sand dune that made rumbling sounds.
Today, in a Chinese desert,
guides point to what Polo apparently
sawthe Mingsha Duneand explain that when
the wind blows, the dune whistles because
solid granite is just below the shifting
sand. At another Silk Road site, locals still
cross a river on rafts of inflated pigskins,
just as described by Polo 700 years ago.
While Polo said nothing about
calligraphy, he did tell the West
about paper money, which China
had used for centuries. From
Polo, the West learned of China's
"large black stones which ... burn
away like charcoal." Centuries
later, Europeans would come to
know the substance as coal.
Polo also told quite a few
whoppersso many that English
schoolboys used to greet exaggerations with the words: "It's a
Marco Polo." Although he never
visited Japan, he reported its
royal palace roofed in gold. He
claimed to have been Kublai
Khan's military adviser in a Chinese siege that occurred, it turns
out, before his reported time in
China. In fact, Polo may have
done much less for the khan than he
claimed. Perhaps that's why Chinese records ignore him.
But even Polo's No.1 critic, Wood,
deems him a useful "recorder of information,"
similar to the Greek historian
Herodotus, "who did not travel to all the
places he described and who mixed fact
with fantastic tales." Historians consider
Herodotus "the father of history."
Polo, scholars agree, opened vistas to
the medieval mind and stirred the interest
in exploration that prompted the age
of the European ocean voyages. Whether
he told only half of what he saw, or saw
merely half of what he told, the fact remains: He made history happen.