Yes, Marco Polo did go to
China,

and no, he didn't see the Great Wall

 Frances Wood,
Did Marco Polo Go To China?
(Westview, 1997
)

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[1], 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 know.

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 next century. 


NOTE

[1] 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. Dresner suggests 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 type.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

de Rachewiltz, 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 Ming dynasty.)

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 Inner Mongolia).

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Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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