Mongols in World History | Asia for Educators

Did Marco Polo Really Go To China?

An essay by Professor Morris Rossabi, Columbia University, in response to the book Did Marco Polo Go To China?, by Frances Wood

In her book Did Marco Polo Go To China?, Frances Wood performs a useful service in summarizing the case that questions whether Marco Polo actually reached China. However, as Dr. Wood knows, scholars of the Mongol era as well as specialists on Polo's text have, for many years, known and written about these questions.

As Dr. Wood also knows, omission in a travel account cannot disprove the veracity of a journey. Polo's omissions have scant bearing on whether he traveled to the Middle Kingdom (as China has always called itself). If we hold all travel accounts to the same standard of having to describe all of the major characteristics and institutions of the societies the voyagers have visited, we would need to question the veracity of the travels of the seventh century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (who fails to mention important facet of Indian society) or the fourteenth century Arab jurist Ibn Battuta (who fails to mention important features of Persian and Indian civilizations). Concerning Polo's omissions of tea-drinking, chopsticks, and the Chinese characters, Dr. Wood knows that tea was not the beverage of choice, chopsticks not the implement of choice, and Chinese not the language of choice among the Mongols with whom he personally dealt. He had scant contact with the Chinese; he was employed by the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty. His omission of the Great Wall is also understandable. Most of the current Great Wall was constructed in the sixteenth century, two hundred years after Polo's death.

Dr. Wood's lack of expertise on the Yuan dynasty in particular and the Mongol empire in general results in misinterpretations and mistakes. Because she is dependent on secondary works and has scarcely consulted primary Chinese, Persian, etc., sources, she is not as well informed as she ought to be on Yuan and Mongol history. For example, she writes that she "cannot understand why the Great Khan, Khubilai, conqueror of China, would employ and adolescent [actually Marco was not an adolescent, he was at least 21 years old before he met Khubilai] Italian (who he couldn't understand) to inform him about his vast new domains." In fact, throughout his career Khubilai sought competent young men (whose native languages he could not understand) to help him rule or to perform specific missions for him. The Tibetan monk 'Phags-pa (whom Khubilai entrusted to rule Tibet and to develop a new written language) was 19 (and spoke Tibetan) when he met Khubilai and was 25 when Khubilai honored him with the title of "State Preceptor." Chao Pi, one of the Great Khan's most influential advisers, was in his early 20s (and spoke Chinese) when Khubilai recruited him in the early 1240s. Liu Ping-chung, another of his most important advisers, was 26 (and spoke Chinese) when Khubilai recruited him in 1242. The infamous Central Asian minister Ahmad was probably in his 20s (and probably spoke Persian) when Khubilai appointed him to the Central Secretariat. The great Chinese painter Chao Meng-fu was only 32 and relatively unknown when he entered into Khubilai's employ.

Dr. Wood also asserts that Marco's descriptions have a "guide-book nature" and "suggests" that they are "copied, not personal records." In fact, his descriptions of the postal system, Beijing, Hangzhou, Ahmad's career and death, Khubilai's personality, Shangdu, feasts, and banquets reveal tremendous first-hand knowledge of the Mongol court and its policies and tally with Chinese and Persian primary sources.

Finally, Dr. Wood is right that Marco exaggerates his role in events. He claims that he, his father, and his uncle provided the Mongols with the military equipment for their successful siege of Xiangyang — an impossibility since the siege ended two years before Marco reached China. He also asserts that he was governor of the city of Yangzhou, which is not attested by contemporary sources. However, the remarkable detail and accuracy of his account far outweigh exaggerations meant to boost his ego and to portray him as a more important figure in Yuan history than he truly was. The fact that he is not mentioned in Chinese sources is not unusual. Many foreigners who played a role in the Yuan and Mongol eras are not cited in the primary sources.

In short, Dr. Wood has written a readable book (not an inconsiderable accomplishment) with interpretations, arguments, and information well known to scholars. Most of these arguments and interpretations, however, have earlier been refuted by scholars of the Yuan and Mongol periods.

For the best refutation of the view that Marco Polo did not reach China, see Igor de Rachewiltz, "Marco Polo Went to China," [Zentralasiatische Studien 27 (1997), pp. 34-92]. In this article, Rachewiltz concludes an analysis of Frances Wood's book in these words:

I regret to say that F.W's [Frances Wood] book falls short of the standard of scholarship that one would expect in a work of this kind. Her book can only be described as deceptive, both in relation to the author and to the public at large. Questions are posted that, in the majority of cases, have already been answered satisfactorily...her attempt is unprofessional; she is poorly equipped in the basic tools of the trade, i.e., adequate linguistic competence and research methodology...and her major arguments cannot withstand close scrutiny. Her conclusion fails to consider all the evidence supporting Marco Polo's credibility.