Did Marco Polo Actually Visit China?Roundup: Talking About History
Yong Tiam Kui, in the New Straits Times (Malaysia) (March 3, 2004):
IN his famous travelogue Description of the World, Italian traveller and explorer Marco Polo claimed that he reached China with his father and uncle in 1275, met Kublai Khan and impressed him so much that the Mongol emperor made him a special emissary. He said he was sent on missions throughout China and governed the city of Yangzhou for three years before returning to Venice in 1295.
Scholars now suspect that Marco Polo never actually went to China. They believe that he could have gained his knowledge of the Middle Kingdom from Arab or Persian guidebooks.
This is because while he described some features of Chinese society such as porcelain, and the use of coal and paper money, he neglected to mention many others.
For instance, he did not mention tea, chopsticks, foot-binding, the Chinese writing system, woodblock printing and the Great Wall.
Furthermore, no reference to Polo has ever been found in the Yuan Shih (the official history of the Mongol Yuan dynasty).
It would have been extremely unusual for Chinese historians, who meticulously recorded everything for posterity, to have neglected to mention so important a personage as Polo if he had really served as an envoy of the emperor and been governor of an important city like Yangzhou.
What's more, he also failed to learn Chinese or pick up even a few Chinese or Mongol place-names despite having supposedly lived in China for 17 years.
In 1998, National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita set out to prove once and for all that Polo was a fraud. Using Polo's book as a travel guide, he spent the better part of two years retracing the footsteps of the Venetian explorer.
After retracing the entire route, Yamashita is utterly convinced that Polo's account was based on first-hand experience.
"I wanted to see for myself how accurate he was. What really struck me was how accurate and detailed he was and how much one man contributed to geographic knowledge. There is no doubt in my mind that he did go to China," says Yamashita in an interview conducted recently in Taipeh, Taiwan.
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