Yes, Marco Polo did go to
and no, he didn't see the Great Wall
Did Marco Polo Go To China?
That shouldn't be a dramatic headline,
but because of Frances Wood's book it is. A few months ago on the group
blog Cliopatra, the historian
Jonathan Dresner not only asserted in so many words that Marco Polo
did not go to China, but implied that people who think that he did are
terribly misinformed. As far as I can tell, Dresner bases his criticism
entirely on Wood's book. (A
second source he links adds nothing to the argument.)
Igor de Rachewiltz,
who recently published the definitive translation of the Secret History
of the Mongols, has dealt with Wood's argument
here (a summary version of a more detailed critique listed below).
Most of the negative criticisms are met by pointing out that Marco Polo
was semi-literate, and that his book was written "with the help of" a
professional author; that Polo was dictating the story years after the
fact, probably with no written notes to go by; that both he and his
co-author had good reasons to exaggerate Polo's importance, especially
since no one would be able to check; and finally, that Polo did not go to
"China", but to the Chinese parts of the Mongol Empire (as well as other
parts), and that these provinces were ruled mostly by non-Chinese with
Persian the official government language.
The Mongols also practiced a form of
dual administration, with the military, police, and imperial functions
managed by one part of government, and the domestic functions
(tax-collection) handled by Chinese. The Mongols also did not talk about
"Chinese"; by the time of the Mongol conquest, North and
South China had been politically
separated for well over 300 years, and the Mongols clearly distinguished
between the two lands and their peoples.
One of the Wood's arguments is that
Polo doesn't mention the Great Wall of China. However, the wall we know
was built by the succeeding Ming Dynasty, after the Mongol Yuan dynasty
had collapsed, and Waldron has argued that the "Great Wall" as such did
not exist before the Ming. . There were, in fact, military walls in
existence at the time of the Mongol conquest, but they were differently
located than the Ming wall and much less impressive. Furthermore, since
these walls were built to protect China from the Mongols, the Mongols tore
many of them down.
De Rachewiltz's most convincing
argument for the authenticity of Polo's book is based on new information
Polo provides on Princess Kökechin's 1290 trip from China to Persia --
information which could not have been found in any known Persian or
Chinese source, but which can be verified by comparison with what we do
To me, what Wood says about the Great
Wall is nearly enough to destroy her credibility all by itself, and the
de Rachewiltz link or his printed journal article will be more than enough
to finish the job. But printed books are almost immortal, and we can
expect freethinkers to be casting doubts on Polo's trip for at least the
De Rachewiltz does
research in the major European languages plus Russian, Chinese,
Japanese, Mongol, and a few others. Pelliot (in the Bibliography) adds
Persian to these, plus a few more.
that only specialists in European history take Polo’s story seriously,
but that is not true. It seems possible to me that Dresner has been
influenced by a nationalistic Chinese historan who has reasons to
resent Polo; the supporting link he gives us is a Persian link of that
Igor, "Marco Polo Went to China", Zentralasiatische Studien 27,
(1997), pp. 34-92.
Pelliot, Paul, Notes on Marco Polo,
Paris, 1959, 1963, 1973. (A very thorough examination of the
various versions of Marco Polo's text, with a detailed comparison with
what we know from Persian, Chinese, and other sources).
Waldron, Arthur, The
Great Wall of China,
Cambridge, 1990. (A history of the northern walls and the Great
Wall; Waldron doubts that the Great Wall existed as such before the
Wang Kuo-wei: "Chin Chieh Hao K'ao"
in the "Yenching Hsueh Pao" (Beijing / Peip'ing), I, 1927, pp
1-14. (About a different wall, not the Great Wall, far out in
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.
Original materials copyright John J