Marco Polo [1254 - 1324]
The visit of the Venetian ➚ Marco Polo to China during the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty is widely seen as the first important contact between Europe and China. Although trade between Europe and China dates back into the Han dynasty, as the Romans are known to have imported vast quantities of silk contact was rarely direct. Transport over the Silk Route was in stages through Central Asian intermediaries, Europeans did not travel to China or meet Chinese people. It was the establishment of the Mongol conquest of China that opened up access to not just Europeans but to all nations. The court of Emperor Khublai was cosmopolitan; he trusted Europeans more than the native Chinese.
Marco Polo in Tartar costume. Source: Scann? de Coureurs des mers, Poivre d'Arvor. Photo by Grevembrock, available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
Marco Polo was certainly not the first European to visit. The reason he is so much remembered is that the book describing his visit gained a wide audience, Europeans were fascinated to hear about this mysterious far away kingdom. Previous visitors had included Giovanni di Pian del Carpine ➚ in 1245 and William of Rubruck ➚ in 1253 who described the use of paper money, a novel concept to Europeans.
1477 translation into German of Marco Polo's travels in China. Photo by BSB ➚, available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
Marco Polo's visit was far longer and better planned than previous visitors. Marco's father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo Polo traveled overland to China (1260-69) and were received by the Emperor, as merchants they were principally interested in trade. The Emperor was impressed enough to send them back to Italy with a request for the Pope to send him 100 European scholars. Soon after, in 1275, the brothers returned to China with Niccolo's 17 year old son Marco and all three spent 17 years there.
Marco Polo describes the Emperor's court with an intimate portrait of the every day life. As well as Beijing and Xanadu he traveled to the previous capital of the Southern Song Hangzhou on the Grand Canal. He described Hangzhou as ‘The finest city in the World’. At the time the European name for the country was exotic sounding ‘Cathay’. He noted the animosity to the Mongol conquerors by the Han Chinese and learned the Mongol but not the Chinese language. On return to Italy he was imprisoned by the Genoese ➚ and it was while in prison that he dictated his book, the ‘Description of the World’. It was widely printed in many editions and languages and promoted a lot of interest and speculation throughout Europe about this vast, rich country far away. Many believed at first that the book was pure fiction as his descriptions were so fantastical.
Marco Polo's account in ‘The Travels’ is incomplete and inaccurate in places (compounded by copying and translation mistakes) which has led to one expert, Frances Wood ➚, to even doubt that he ever went to China. As the work was dictated, it could be the actual writer added some exaggeration; modified and omitted material. He does not mention the Great Wall; tea drinking; foot binding; chopsticks or printing for instance. Nor is Marco Polo mentioned in any Chinese histories of the period, another curious fact. Many of his descriptions could have been collected from actual travelers to China, including his father and uncle. However much of this can be explained by the fact that Marco mingled only with Mongols and not the Chinese and did not speak the Chinese language. The Mongols, for example, considered tea drinking as decadent and Marco may not have seen it at first hand. Nevertheless it gives a tantalizing glimpse of lavish luxury. Marco Polo was sometimes called contemptuously ‘il Milione’ (the braggart) because of the exceptional size and number of the wonders he reported. For example:
“To Quanzhou come all the ships of India with such quantities of costly merchandise, priceless precious stones and large, fine pearls. Here too all the merchants from south China, or at least those from the surrounding regions, stand out to sea.... I tell you, that for every ship loaded with pepper that goes into Alexandria or some other place, to be transported to Christendom, more than a hundred come to Zayton (Quanzhou). The massive amount of merchandise assembled in this town is almost unbelievable...”
“There were all kinds of goods in its market and more than 1,000 cartloads of silk were shipped into the city each day. No city in the world could be compared to Dadu in terms of the unusual goods from foreign countries and goods in general that were available”.
When Marco Polo was released from prison in 1299 he went back to Venice to continue the family work as a merchant, he became a wealthy man by these efforts but did not go on any more grand journeys. He died in 1324 aged 70.
Marco Polo's Legacy
Marco Polo was followed by many more European travelers to China, perhaps most importantly the Jesuit mission under Matteo Ricci. With the fall of the Mongol empire the lasting effect of Marco's visits on China was minimal as his contact was with Mongols not native Chinese. However in Europe the tales of his visit did stimulate long-lasting interest for the Far East with the allure of an exotic and wealthy land far away. Over the next five centuries many an adventurer was inspired to go East and seek their fortune.
Lugou Qiao bridge Beijing is better known as the Marco Polo bridge. Decorated with 485 individually carved lions it was first built in 1192. At one time it was the main route into the city of Beijing.
A bridge in Beijing was named in his honor - the ‘Marco Polo bridge’. It is called in Chinese Lugou bridge 卢沟桥 and was built in 1189-92; it is an impressive 874 feet [266 meters] in length. It was described and admired by Marco Polo and so European travelers named the bridge after him. The bridge was the scene 700 years later of the opening skirmish of the Japanese occupation.