Blogs > Cliopatria > A Teacher's Lament (Part 2 of many): Marco Polo

Aug 12, 2004

A Teacher's Lament (Part 2 of many): Marco Polo

As an Asianist, teaching world history can be very frustrating. Most world history textbooks are written by Western historians, mostly the same Europeanists who write the Western Civ texts, but they usually add an Asianist to the group, usually a China or India person. Sometimes they get it right, but a lot of the time you can tell that the Asia chapters were written by someone who picked up one or two basic textbooks. You can sometimes even tell which textbook (I love Mikiso Hane's work, but it has to be read in context!), and they're often out-of-date (Asia textbooks don't get the kind of semi-annual polishing now current in the trade, and there are some really creaky old classics still being used by thousands of people; that's a subject for another post).

So I spend a fair bit of time in class correcting and contextualizing the textbook material. Maybe the experience is the same for Europeanists, or Americanists? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that material is much better served by the distillation process than the Asian material.

The worst, the most consistently annoying thing, though, is Marco Polo. Let me say this clearly and plainly: Marco Polo did not go to China, Marco Polo did not work for the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Yes, it was possible to make the journey, and yes, some non-Chinese did serve the Yuan. But the errors in his Travels cannot be glossed over as"a traveler's tendency to exaggerate (especially in regard to numbers)" and his absence from Yuan records (which were pretty well kept) cannot be slipped by with"may have been employed" and the distinct likelihood that Polo was simply embellishing translations of Chinese gazetteers he picked up in Persia is not clearly expressed by"Scholars have long regarded Marco Polo's book, if used carefully, as an important historical document."

Marco Polo's book is important because it introduced Europeans to a world beyond their ken, and it seems to have been based on authentic sources, but badly translated (particularly in terms of units of measure), possibly through several stages of translation. This is commonly accepted by actual Asianists. But, outside of world history texts written by generalists, I've never seen a history of Asia that took Marco Polo's narrative at face value. It's time to bring these things up to date.

Supplement: Some Details

Ok, perhaps it was unfair, certainly unrealistic, to think that I was going to get away without some more specifics. The one book which keeps coming up when I look for sources is Frances Wood'sDid Marco Polo Go To China? though it has gotten some pretty harsh reviews for relying heavily on 'sins of omission' rather than positive errors, but Wood also makes some powerful positive claims particularly in the area of identifying the Persian and Arab sources from which Polo's narrative was almost certainly constructed.

Some of her noted omissions are worth mentioning, though, particularly foot-binding. Wood's critics have noted that Polo supposedly spent most of his time with Mongols and other non-Chinese, but the Mongols were well aware of the Chinese tradition, increasingly popular at this time, and legislated against it (for Mongol women). Even if Polo had no contact with Chinese women (and some variants of Polo's text do mention their taking"small steps" he should, over 17 years of administrative service, have come across mention of it. Similarly, chopsticks are something that he might well have noticed in the marketplaces and shops, even if he didn't spend time with Chinese in their homes.

Peter Jackson's article"Marco Polo and his 'Travels'" (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 61, No. 1. [1998], pp. 82-101 [JSTOR]) argues that Polo's journey was probably authentic (and his omissions are due to his spending most of his time in the Indian Ocean, plus the vagaries of pre-printing copyists), but that he exaggerated their status (which wasn't uncommon, for Europeans far from home, he argues). This would account for Polo's use of secondary sources to describe much of China, and might help explain the total lack of corroborating documentation for his Asian sojourns.

This would not, however, account for Polo's lack of Mongol or Chinese linguistic skills. Nor would it account for his geographical absurdities. Some of them can be attributed to his lack of understanding of Chinese units: the Chinese li, for example, is translated by Polo to mean a mile, when it actually corresponds to about 1/3 of that distance. (This has always bothered me, since I noticed it in a World Civ reader: how could he have done business in a society in which he didn't actually understand the units of trade and measure?) Not all, though, as he gets travel times wrong as well, for trips that he supposedly took himself.

There's an interesting contradiction, by the way, regarding ibn Battuta, the other noted world traveler. Gernet's textbook says that"Unlike Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta was an excellent observer...." (375) while Jackson contrasts Polo's realism"with the highly improbable description given of China in the 1340s by the Moroccan pilgrim Ibn Battuta (demonstrably an authentic traveller as far as India)." (89) Ross Dunn, the reigning expert, comes down somewhere in the middle.

The section which is almost always present in the readers is the description of Hangzhou. It reads much like a Chinese gazeteer or a government report, and is probably a pretty decent description of the city, though exaggerated in numbers and measures. It's the introduction to the material that irks me.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 8/12/2004

I hope my supplemental comments will answer most of your questions. I couldn't find a single article; my own views are an accumulation over time. I think there are also some comments in Hansen's "Open Empire" but my copy is at work and I'm at home.

To be completely candid, I realize that I'm taking a disputive position, rather than a safe 'agnostic' one, and that the final word on this has yet to be spoken.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/12/2004


There's a real divide between historians of Europe, for whom Marco Polo was very, very important, world historians, who love the travel stories because it helps illustrate the very real processes of trade and contact, and Asian historians who find the whole thing a distraction, because we have much better domestic sources....

Timothy James Burke - 8/12/2004

The case of Marco Polo is another instance where I think we've been badly served by the way we understand the provenance *and* importance of textual and archival evidence. In a way, the social fact of Marco Polo's travels pales besides two things: first, the fact that if he didn't go, he was nevertheless able to effectively reproduce *other* travel accounts, e.g., to understand what would pass as a credible account of travel--which points to a whole interesting relational understanding of overland trade between China and the Mediterranean world in that era. Second, from the perspective of European history, it's also crucial that he was *thought* to have gone.

Now I agree that saying this is what matters means that the heroic story of Marco Polo isn't the story we should tell--much as the comparable story of ibn Battuta is much more complicated than we pretend.

Russell Arben Fox - 8/12/2004

I'm agnostic on the matter of Marco Polo, so I'll take Jonathan's word for it. However, there is a Father Christmas, just to be clear on that point.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/12/2004

Great post, Jonathan. Is there a near definitive article outlining the reasons that we can know that Marco Polo did not make it to China? The argument from silence in the Chinese records is important, of course, but as you know arguments from silence cannot be definitive. The evidence of "plagiarism" and repeating errors is also important, but again cannot be taken as definitive. Is it only as we put highly suggestive twos and twos together that we reach a near definitive four?

David Lion Salmanson - 8/12/2004

I'll leave it to Jonathan to provide the details on this, though I do remember reading a couple of articles that suggested that Polo got key facts wrong which he plagarized from another source which was also wrong (or soemthing like that). Interestingly, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart uses both Polo's and Ibn Battuta's descriptions of Hangzhou juxtaposed even though the text makes it clear neither visited the city. Battuta probably made it to China, though and in general traveled much more extensively than Polo did (from Grenada to Indonesia and as far South as Mali!)

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/12/2004

I'm disappointed myself. Maybe that disappointment is leading to unwarranted skepticism, but I do find myself wondering just how good the evidence is that he was never there.

In American history, John Smith's accounts of the early North American colonies have gone from uncritically accepted; to rejected as unrelable on account of mistakes, clear personal self-aggrandizement, and inconsistencies between accounts; and part-way back to pretty good if used with care. (See Karen Ordahl Kupperman's entry on him in American National Biography.)

Of course, there was never doubt that Smith was there because independent evidence exists.. And from what you say, Jon, part of the evidence that Marco Polo was not there is the lack of reference to him in Chinese records. However, how would a western name be converted into Chinese script? Would it be recognizeable?

Claire H.L. George - 8/12/2004

I feel like you've just told me that Father Xmas doesn't exist. What's the proof that he definitely didn't go? I'd be interested to know so I can put it on my site. ;)