In 1275, famed explorer Marco Polo set foot in China’s Mongol court, the first leg of an epic journey that ultimately encompassed 24 years and 15,000 miles. Or did he?
Did Marco Polo really go to China?
Back in August 2011, we first discussed the controversy surrounding Marco Polo’s supposed travels to China and back again to Venice. After being imprisoned, Marco Polo told his story to romance author Rustichello da Pisa. da Pisa subsequently published it as The Travels of Marco Polo. It was a gigantic hit for the time and served to enshrine Marco’s place in history. However, scholars continue to debate whether or not this journey ever took place.
You see, the account doesn’t mention significant features of Chinese life, such as the Great Wall of China, chopsticks, and the odd practice of foot binding. And there are other problems too…
“Also, Polo described ships with five masts while shipwrecks found off the coast of Japan had only three masts. He used Persian terms rather than local ones to describe places in China. And despite his claim to have worked in Kublai Khan’s court, his name does not exist in any surviving records from that court.” ~ David Meyer, Was Marco Polo a Fraud?
New Evidence Marco Polo reached China?
Now, Professor Hans Ulrich Vogel from the German University of Tübingen has waded into the debate with a new book called, appropriately enough, Marco Polo was in China. Vogel believes that various descriptions in da Pisa’s account prove Marco Polo reached China.
“The strongest evidence is that he provided complex and detailed information about monetary conditions, salt production, public revenues and administrative geography that have been overlooked so far, but are fully corroborated in Chinese sources.” ~ Professor Hans Ulrich Vogel
Most of these “Chinese sources” weren’t available to Marco Polo at the time. And even if they had been available, Marco Polo couldn’t have been able to read them since he didn’t know the Chinese language.
“He is the only one to describe precisely how paper for money was made from the bark of the mulberry tree. Not only did he detail the shape and size of the paper, he also described the use of seals and the various denominations of paper money.” ~ Professor Hans Ulrich Vogel
Marco Polo certainly got some details right about currency and salt production, among other things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he traveled to China. For example, he could’ve gathered stories about China from other traders in the Black Sea. This would also explain some of the inconsistencies.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Professor Vogel’s research is an interesting addition to the debate. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely we’ll ever know the full truth behind Marco Polo’s journey, especially since no authoritative version of The Travels of Marco Polo exists. It was originally copied by hand and adapted in the process, meaning early versions of it differ in significant ways.
“Regardless, Marco Polo’s story is still important. His book inspired a generation of explorers to action, most notably Christopher Columbus. For that alone, he deserves to be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of exploration.” ~ David Meyer