Did Marco Polo Go to China?

By Joanna Jiang, Cindy Li, Kessin Lin, Lillie Lin, Edyth Liu


Through Rustichello da Pisa’s book The Description of the World, Marco Polo described a magical and appealing Eastern world for Westerners. His stories promoted the opening of new sea-routes, including the voyage of Christopher Columbus, and stimulated inter-continental communication. However, scholars also doubt the truthfulness of Marco Polo’s visit to China. In this website, we are going to show why Marco Polo went to China through the aspects of the Great Wall, the Chinese specialties, his visit to Yangzhou and Fuzhou, and his return with Princess Kokechin.

One of the biggest arguments among scholars is why did Marco Polo fail to mention the Great Wall of China in his book The Description of the World. Some scholars, for instance, Frances Wood had mentioned in her book Did Marco Polo Go to China?, she believed that the missing description of the Great Wall is a piece of evidence to reveal Marco Polo’s “lie”: since the Great Wall is the most obvious symbol of China, One would never miss its existence if he had actually seen it. While this website will be analyzed from many perspectives such as the history of the Great Wall, the Great Wall Marco Polo has possibly seen, and the condition of the Great Wall in Yuan, to prove that it is understandable for Marco Polo not to mention the Great Wall in his book. Thus, it cannot be a piece of evidence to prove Marco Polo has not been to China.

As a trader, Marco Polo was an acute observer of Chinese specialties, his observations are recorded by Rustichello da Pisa in The Description of the World. If the details of certain products are accurate, they can be solid pieces of evidence to show that Marco Polo went to China. Meanwhile, if some popular products are not mentioned, it is also plausible that he did not go to China. From the analysis of musk and the unmentioned tea, we think that it is persuasive that Marco Polo had stayed in China. His outstanding and unprecedented narration of the characteristics of musk deer and the production and quality of musk prove that he did not fake his visit to China by utilizing the descriptions in existing sources. The debatable aspect of using the unmentioned tea as evidence of Marco Polo’s ‘armchair visit’ of China is unconvincing, for the reason that the general does not have the custom of drinking tea when he visited China and he probably mostly stayed with foreigners and Mongols. It is also reasonable that he did not notice the tea tax because of its low revenue.

There existed a controversial research topic on the authenticity of Marco Polo’s travel and the role he served in Yangzhou. German scholar Frank Herbert expressed doubts over Marco Polo’s failure to mention tea or calligraphy in the description of his time serving in the Yangzhou court. Later, scholar Cai Meibiao argued that Marco Polo spent years in China as a merchant, which also explained his engagement in Yangzhou’s business management. Based on my research, it is in a large possibility that Marco Polo visited Yangzhou and the time that Marco Polo spent was approximately the year 1282-1285. It would be more appropriate to assume that he had participated in commercial management in Yangzhou as a special merchant. The position Marco Polo obtained was in large possibility a Wotuo Sê-mu merchant who engaged in the various trade in China and various countries around the South China Sea, which may account for reasons in participation of worldwide travels and the accumulation of wealth, but not an official who has governed Yangzhou. Overall, it can still be concluded that Marco Polo has been to China but there might exist some exaggeration in the book.

Marco Polo described Fujian as “The kingdom of Fugiu”, which was one of the 8 kingdoms before the Yuan Dynasty took over. within location 155-157 of his book The Description of the World, he described how he visited the four main cities in Fujian Province which were Quenlinfu, Fujian [Unquen], Fuzhou, and Zaytun[Quanzhou]. He marks out several points that interested him. Firstly, he points out that cities in Fujian like Quenlinfu and Unquen produced a big amount of sugar which Marco Polo directly referred them as “cities of sugar”. He also gave out plenty of accomplishments for Fuzhou and Zaytun as there were lots of trading activities there. The tax revenues he noticed in Zaytun attracted him to compare with the monetary relation between the Chinese currency and European currency. He also pointed out things that appeared culturally interested to him such as the kingdom of Fujiu was full of idolators, which alludes to the believers in Buddhism and other religions or animals and plants that he never saw before. Yet Marco Polo did not describe everything right which aroused scholars questioning the reliability of his descriptions as well as his actual arrival in Fujian. Through my research of sugar, Tax revenue and the china traded in Fujian, I found that Marco Polo unlikely made up his visits since his words matched the historical records in the historical research papers.

The account of princess Kokechin that Marco Polo gave in his famous book The Description of the World was more or less seen as a preponderant evidence that his travels were authentic. Yang Zhi Jiu, the first scholar to ever pinpoint this notion, found a Chinese source–the Yongle Encyclopedia–that confirmed the names of the three envoys that Marco Polo also mentioned in his record. Since then, a Persian source confirming that the marriage did take place between princess Kokechin and Argun’s son Gazan was discovered, further corroborating Marco Polo’s claim about how this marriage went. However, the extent to which we can make the assertion that the event of princess Kokechin is a definite proof of Marco Polo’s authenticity is questionable. This is because, nonetheless, no other sources have ever mentioned Marco Polo or princess Kokechin, including the official historical records of the Mongol Empire. Moreover, on one occasion, it is debated whether the name of the surviving envoy recorded in the Persian source actually matched the name provided in Marco Polo’s account. Given these doubts, it is reasonable to say that this issue remains unsolved, and should be examined by historians more carefully. However, it is fair to say that the evidence provided for the authenticity of this event is convincing and significant, while the opponent’s arguments of absence cannot really serve to refute their claims. Therefore, I would conclude that the event involving princess Kokechin confirms Marco Polo’s account and that it supports the idea that Marco Polo went to China.