Marco Polo, a Venetian trader and explorer, gained fame for his worldwide travels recorded in the book The Travels of Marco Polo. However, recently some scholars have raised doubts that Marco Polo ever traveled to China.
First of all, for one who was supposed to have lived in China for 17 years, Marco Polo never picked up any Chinese or Mongolian place names. In fact, the names of locations used by Marco Polo in his book about China correspond to those used by the Persian historian Rashid al-Din, who was Polo’s contemporary and one of the most important chroniclers of the Mongol period. Such a glaring omission puts a large dent in Marco Polo’s credibility as a traveler to China.
Second, for someone who is supposed to have traveled all the way to the interior of China, there is the curious omission of any reference to the popular pastimes and cultural practices of the Chinese. For instance, Marco Polo did not mention the Chinese love of tea and the ubiquitous teahouses, which no traveler to China would be likely to miss. This is another major cause for suspicion.
Finally, when we look into the original records of the Chinese and Mongols, there is no evidence that Marco Polo served at the court of the Mongol ruler, or was appointed to the post of governor of Yang Zhou. This is an honor, which Marco Polo claimed the great Mongol ruler bestowed on him for three years. So it is unlikely that Marco Polo actually traveled to China and reached the court of the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan.
Did Marco Polo ever travel to China during the Mongol period and stay there for 17 years? Some scholars claim to have found inconsistencies proving Marco Polo did not travel to China, but I do not find their arguments convincing.
First of all, it is true that Marco Polo never used any Chinese or Mongolian place names in his book, and the place names in his travel books are largely of a Persian origin. Yet it is worth remembering that Persian was the major language used in trade between the two continents of Asia and Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. Therefore it would be perfectly normal for Marco Polo to borrow Chinese place names from the Persian source.
Second, the fact that Marco Polo failed to include references to tea and teahouses in China does not necessarily disprove that this Venetian ever went to China. The fact is, the culture of tea drinking at teahouses was popular mainly the southern part of China. In those days, the people in northern China had not yet developed an interest in tea drinking. While in China, Marco Polo stayed for the most part in northern China. Thus, if he failed to mention tea, it would be understandable.
Finally, just because the name Marco Polo was not found in pre-modern Chinese documents does not mean that he did not serve at the court of the Mongol ruler, or that he was appointed to the post of the governor of Yang Zhou. It is possible that Marco Polo was referred to by a different name that is unrecognizable to modern historians. The official records of the ancient Chinese court sometimes did not use people’s real names. Or perhaps the records referring to Marco Polo may simply have been lost.
The reading and listening materials debate whether Marco Polo had visited China. The reading holds that the Venetian had never actually set his feet on China, providing three facts, which are contradicted by the following lecture.
Firstly, the reading points out that Marco Polo never used any Chinese or Mongolian place names in his book but instead only Persian names. And these Persian names are the same as those used by a Persian historian. However, the speaker defends the credibility of Marco Polo by saying that the Persian was the official language of trade between Asia and Europe in the 13th and 14th century. Therefore, it was normal for Marco Polo to borrow names of the Persian origin.
Secondly, the reading argues that Marco Polo failed to record popular Chinese customs in his book, for instance, tea-drinking and tea-houses. However, the speaker points out that Marco Polo stayed mainly in Northern China, where people had not yet acquired the love of tea-drinking. Therefore, it was natural for Marco Polo to not include this cultural practice in his famous book.
Thirdly, the reading tries to debunk the Marco Polo myth by citing the fact that there is no official record proving Marco had served at the Mongolian court. However, the speaker argues that the records concerning Marco did not use his real name and perhaps the records simply got lost.