AFE Special Topic Guide: MARCO POLO IN CHINA

Back to China: 1000 to 1450

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: A Journey through the Met to the Land of the Great Khan [The Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Follows the 24,000-mile journey of Marco Polo (1254-1324) from Italy through the Middle East and Central Asia to China and the court of Khubilai Khan.

Marco Polo and His Travels [The Silk Road Foundation]
A short account describing Marco Polo's journey and the merits of his account, with several illustrations and a map.

Primary Source w/DBQs Excerpts from The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East [PDF] [Asia for Educators]
With a short introductory paragraph about Marco Polo, plus four short excerpts from his book of observations about Yuan-dynasty China: "Chapter X. Concerning the Palace of the Great Kaan"; "Chapter XXX. Concerning the Black Stones that are Dug in Cathay, and Are Burnt for Fuel"; "Chapter LXXV. Of the Noble City of Suju"; "Chapter LXXVI. Description of the Great City of Kinsay, Which Is the Capitol of the Whole Country of Manzi." A question in this unit refers to this primary source document: Excerpts from The Attractions of the Capital (Hangzhou) [PDF]

Primary Source More excerpts from The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East [Asia for Educators]
The following readings do not include document-based questions, but have been organized into categories, with suggestions
for how they might be incorporated into lessons. A few of these documents are from the unit The Mongols in World History, which includes excerpts from The Book of Ser Marco Polo not listed here, as well as an in-depth look at Mongol rule in China.

On Cambaluc (Beijing)
These chapters include Marco Polo's detailed descriptions of the size, organization, and splendor of Beijing during Yuan-dynasty times. Students could refer to contemporary travel guides on China to see how descriptions of the Imperial Palace (Palace Museum) and Coal Hill today compare to Marco Polo's descriptions from the 13th century.

On Life at Khubilai Khan's Court, Rice-Wine, and "Black Stones" for Heating Water
These chapters include Marco Polo's detailed descriptions of the splendors of Khubilai Khan's court, as well as Polo's discovery of rice wine and coal.

On How Khubilai Khan Governs
These chapters include Marco Polo's detailed descriptions of Khubilai Khan's government, including the postal system and the collection of taxes.

On Suzhou and Hangzhou
These chapters include Marco Polo's detailed descriptions of Suzhou (Suju) and Hangzhou (Kinsay), the city that most impressed Polo. At the time, Hangzhou's population was far greater than that of any contemporaneous European city. Have students note the guild system; the popular practice of consulting astrologers; paved streets; the census system; and "the peaceful character" of the inhabitants, attributed by Marco Polo to education and the example of their kings, which is strikingly consistent with the Confucian prescription for ordering society.

Questions for Discussion

      • According to the readings, what most impressed Marco Polo about the Chinese cities he visited?
      • What clues are there in Marco Polo's writings that the Mongols were military rulers who kept tight military control over the populace?
      • Describe the lifestyle of Khubilai Khan. Do you think this lifestyle was available to all in the empire?
      • What would you predict would eventually happen to a ruler like Khubilai Khan?
      • Who ran Khubilai Khan's empire? How were these rulers chosen?
      • What were the "black stones" Marco Polo saw in China?
      • How did Chinese officials keep a census of the population in Kinsay (Hangzhou)?
      • What does Marco Polo say about the people of Kinsay (Hangzhou)? About their kings? What would Confucius have said about the example of these rulers?
      • How do Marco Polo's impressions of Kinsay (Hangzhou) compare to the Song-dynasty capital depicted in the Beijing Qingming scroll? In what ways did Mongol rule change the character of daily life in a large Chinese city? In what ways did things remain the same?