Marco Polo & Chinese Specialties

– Musk & the Unmentioned Tea

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

Whether Marco Polo went to China is a debatable question for years. Shreds of evidence from the perspective of his experience of being an official, his narration of cities, and so on are mentioned by many people. Thus, in this article, I want to focus more on the Chinese specialties that he mentioned and he did not mention within his narration recorded by Rustichello da Pisa’s The Description of the World. Among the specialties, I am going to pick musk, which is an ingredient of Chinese medicine and perfume generated by musk deer, as a commodity he mentioned, and tea, which is the most well-known Chinese beverage, as a product that he did not mention. With sources from different editions of The Description of the World and Chinese sources on history and medicine, these two products are perfect pieces of evidence to show that Marco Polo did go to China.



Musk is a raw material used in making Chinese medicine and perfume. This Eastern specialty was shrouded in mystery because of its special efficacy and high price in Europe and used as expensive diplomatic and religious gifts. Marco Polo and The Description of the World where he tells his story of visiting China includes some accurate narration about musk. These narrations are solid evidence to show that he did go to China and also provides information for a clearer understanding of musk. I am going to investigate the correctness of his narration of musk through the characteristics of musk deer, the generating process of musk, and the qualities of musk in different regions, and explain why his mention of musk is evidence to show his trace in China.

  • Characteristics of Musk Deer

In The Description of the World, Marco Polo describes musk deer as “a little animal as big as a gazelle, … no horns, … has four teeth, two lower and two upper three fingers long, very fine, two pointing up and two pointing down; …” [1]The characteristic of ‘no horn’ was the first correct description about musk deer. Ji Qinghong, in her essay “Marco Polo and Musk – Also on the Truthfulness of Marco Polo’s Travel to China”, writes that musk deer has same horns as Arabian deer in the narration of Ancient Account of India and China written by Abū Zaid Hasan ibn Yazīd (al-Sīrāfī.), which was widely spread and believed.[2] Marco Polo’s description of musk deer do not have horns is accurate and different from the mostly believed record. Thus, we can deduce that he did not follow other guides or records to fake his travel to China.


Another point to mention is the description of the teeth of the musk deer. Marco Polo’s description of four teeth is somehow ‘incorrect’. According to Ji, in Ancient Account of India and China, the description of teeth of musk deer was accurate – they have two ivory-like thin and white canine teeth which are less than one fatr long (less than about 20 cm) which reach out to its face.[3] However, both Polo and Yazīd’s descriptions were different from the actual value which is the teeth are about 4-8 cm and bend downward and could be regarded as incorrect.[4] If Marco Polo did not go to China and used other general sources to construct his travel, he should follow the accurate record in Yazīd’s book and the description of the teeth should not be ‘wrong’.

Thus, although there is an incorrect observation of musk deer, Marco Polo looked closely at this animal and made his accurate narration, instead of using existed precise but inaccurate material to construct his narration of musk deer.

  • Generating Process of Musk

The generating process of musk is also persuasive evidence to show the truthfulness of Marco Polo’s travel. In chapter 72, he describes that “when they are taken, a cyst of blood is found in its belly, between the skin and the flesh; you slice it, together with the skin, and draw it out. This blood is the musk which emits such a great odor.”[5] Musk was mistaken as being made in the navel of the musk deer for about 8 centuries. According to Ji’s research, she believes that because of the shy nature of musk deer, there was no opportunity for prior people to get close to them and to observe how musk is made so that the vague conclusion of musk generated from the navel was wide-spread and believed by many people since the 6th century.[6] However, Marco Polo’s narration about ‘a cyst of blood’ overturns the wrong conclusion and correctly states that the odor was from the gland of musk deer, which is also accepted and confirmed by other authors centuries later.

Therefore, Marco Polo’s description of how musk is made is correct and also refutes the existing theory about the navel of musk deer. This observation perfectly shows that Marco Polo went to China by himself to learn or observe the production of musk.

  • Qualities of Musk related to Regions

Musk in Chinese is called 麝香, is a character that contains a deer 鹿, and a character (shè), meaning shoot or sprout. In Compendium of Materia Medica, Li Shizhen writes ‘musk’s odor sprout for a long distance, so we call it musk (shè).’[7] In chapter 115 of Marco Polo: The description of the world, Moule and Pelliot state “scent (of musk with good quality) is perceived through the whole country”, which verifies the idea that the odor of musk spreads in a large region.[8] As mentioned in the same chapter, there are swift dogs that are trained to catch musk deer in Tibet;[9] meanwhile, chapter 117 shows that in Gaindu (modern Xichang), “according as the people are in a place more wild … because they cannot sell their gold and other things, like musk and other things, … they sell cheaply;” [10] and Yule writes in The Book of Ser Marco Polo the best place that Eriqaya in Alashan produces the best musk. [11] From these sources, we can conclude that there was abundant musk in western China. Geographically, musk deer lives in high altitude area in western China, which proves the correctness of the several pieces of evidence in The Description of the World. The record in Compendium of Materia Medica also said “musk from northwestern China has the strongest scent,” which perfectly resonates with Yule’s record[12].

Marco Polo’s opinion that good quality musk is from western China regions with high altitude is correct scientifically and is consistent with historical resources in the medical field, thus proves his travel to China.




Tea is one of the most well-known Chinese specialties for people from foreign countries, likewise, should be interesting for Marco Polo to talk about since it was a novel product for him. Thus, the unmentioned tea in The Description of the World is strong evidence for scholars to doubt Marco Polo’s travel to China. In the following part, I will analyze the acceptability of not mentioning tea from the perspectives of the general public, people Polo had contact with, and tea tax.

  • In China, Everyone Drinks Tea?

When we consider this question, we should look into who lived in China and what custom did they inherit from their ancestors. The first group of people we look into is the Mongols, including the general Mongol public and their ancestors. In The Secret History of the Mongols where the lives of the Mongol people’s ancestors are recorded, tea is not mentioned. Instead, we can learn from the sentences that describe feasts and meals that kumis (a drink made with fermented mare milk), wine, and soup were their daily beverage. In line 132, a hand-to-hand battle was described – “breaking off tree branches, pulling out the churners of the kumis leather bags and grabbing them, they started to beat each other.”[13] From this sentence, we can conclude that leather bag for kumis was what the Mongols carried every day and the amount of kumis contained in each bag was not small so that they could use the bags as weapons. In line 145 when Chingiz Khan was hurt, he said “the blood has dried up completely; I am thirsty,” and “he searched for kumis.”[14] Thus, the kumis was the daily beverage for the Mongols as well as an energy drink for people who were injured in battles. As for wine, Secret History always records it as ceremonial wine that drinks in feasts.[15] Meanwhile, in The Description of the World when Marco Polo goes to the palace of Khubilai Khan, he sees “in the middle of this hall … is a large pot of pure gold, which holds wine like a great barrel.”[16] Therefore, the wine was a general drink for the Mongols in their feasts. As for the soup, they were commonly drunk in breakfast to provide energy. In Secret History, they are mentioned as “our morning soup”.[17]


Apart from Mongol people, Cathay people and Mangi people composed another part for the population, so the custom of their ancestors was also important. Before being conquered by the Mongols, Jin and Song people had the custom of drinking tea. Jin Shi mentioned that “trade (of tea) happens in the market on the border of Jin and Song.”[18] In the meantime, Khitans in Qara Khitai before Mongols’ conquests had a warehouse for tea and people drank tea when meeting with each other.[19] However, when Jin, Qara Khitai, and Song were conquered by the Mongols, for the reason that most of the officials were Mongols, it is acceptable that the tea-drinking custom of some population was not influential enough to made everyone in the Yuan dynasty drink tea and to make Marco Polo notice about this Chinese specialty.


  • Marco Polo Should Mention Tea

Other than observing the tea-drinking custom in the general public, Marco Polo should have contacted Khubilai Khan, foreign traders, and officials, so we also need to consider whether it was reasonable for him to not mention tea.

As Huang Shijian mentions in his article “About the Spread of Tea in Early Northern Asia and Western Countries”, Khubilai Khan started to buy tea from Sichuan in 1268 and from Southern China in 1275.[20] In 1276, as mentioned in Yuan Shi, “[The great Khan] appoint people as the fourth-grade official to be in charge of tea gardens in Chang and Hu regions, …, pluck tea leaves and pay tribute to the imperial storehouse.”[21] However, no sources were showing that people other than the Khan and senior officials had the custom of drinking tea in this period. Thus, even if Marco Polo was a foreign trader who was possibly an official in Yangzhou, he was not the senior official that can drink the tea stored in the imperial storehouse, so it is acceptable that he did not have the chance to drink tea.

Also, as demonstrates by Huang Shijian, it is possible that Marco Polo probably stayed with the western traders or Mongol people, who did not drink tea, during his visit and did not contact any Han people, so he remained the Italian custom of not drinking tea and did not mention the Chinese custom of drinking tea.[22]


  • Tea Tax

Another questionable point was on the tea tax. As concluded in Gao Shulin’s article “Study on the Tax of Salt, Tea, Wine, and Vinegar in Yuan Dynasty”, the tea tax was a tax levied on traders and farmers.[23] Though the tax rate and sunk cost of planting or trading tea were high, the total tax revenue on tea was small compared to other taxes. Other components of taxation were salt, wine, and vinegar. In these taxes, salt tax contributed about 90% of the tax revenue, wine tax contributed about 6%, and the tea tax contributed about 3%.[24] Meanwhile, in the Description of the World, Marco Polo also mentioned taxation on salt and wine in Quinsai – “now I will tell you first about salt, because it produces the most income”, “they [governments] also have great income from the wine they make from rice …”[25] Since the total revenue of tea tax was small, it is acceptable that Marco Polo ignored it and only mentioned salt tax and wine tax. It is also possible that even he said that he was an official, he was unfamiliar with tea tax because he was not in charge of conducting taxation. Therefore, it is acceptable for Marco Polo to miss the point of the tea tax.



In conclusion, from the analysis of musk and tea, it is persuasive that Marco Polo 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 not every citizen or everyone around him had the custom of drinking tea and he may not notice the tea tax. Though there are flaws and lacks in his narration of Chinese specialties, we cannot ignore how the narration proves his travel to China and how The Description of the World influenced people’s impression of the Eastern world.



[1] Kinoshita, The Description of the World, Chapter 72, pg. 61

[2] 姬庆红, 马可波罗与麝香-兼论马可波罗来华的真实性, pg. 61

[3] 姬庆红, 马可波罗与麝香-兼论马可波罗来华的真实性, pg. 63

[4] 姬庆红, 马可波罗与麝香-兼论马可波罗来华的真实性, pg. 64

[5] Kinoshita, The Description of the World, Chapter 72, pg. 61

[6] 姬庆红, 马可波罗与麝香-兼论马可波罗来华的真实性, pg. 64

[7] 李时珍, 本草纲目, 兽之二, “时珍曰︰麝居山,獐居泽,以此为别。麝出西北者香结实;出东南者谓之土麝,亦可用,而力次之。南中灵猫囊,其气如麝,人以杂之。见本条。”

[8] Moule & Pelliot, Marco Polo: The description of the world, Chapter 115

[9] Moule & Pelliot, Marco Polo: The description of the world, Chapter 115

[10] Moule & Pelliot, Marco Polo: The description of the world, Chapter 117

[11] Yule, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, Chapter 72-3

[12]本草纲目 兽之二 “时珍曰︰麝之香气远射,故谓之麝。或云麝父之香来射,故名,亦通。”

[13] The Secret History of the Mongols, Line 132

[14] The Secret History of the Mongols, Line 145

[15] The Secret History of the Mongols, Line 187 “allowed to carry quivers and drink the ceremonial wine!” Line 189 “ordered that the ceremonial wine be drunk and the horse fiddle be played.”

[16] Kinoshita, The Description of the World, Chapter 86, pg. 77

[17] The Secret History of the Mongols, Line 229

[18] 金史, 志第三十, “自宋人岁供之外,皆贸易于宋界之榷场。”

[19] 黄时鉴, 关于茶在北亚和西域的早期传播-兼说马可波罗未有记茶, pg. 143

[20] 黄时鉴, 关于茶在北亚和西域的早期传播-兼说马可波罗未有记茶, pg. 143

[21] 元史, 百官志三, “常湖等处茶园都提举司,秩正四品,掌常、湖二路茶园户二万三千有奇,采摘茶芽,以贡内府。至元十三年置司,统提领所凡十有三处。十六年,升都提举司。又别置平江等处榷茶提举司,掌岁贡御茶。”

[22] 黄时鉴, 关于茶在北亚和西域的早期传播-兼说马可波罗未有记茶, pg. 144

[23] 高树林, 元朝盐茶酒醋课研究, pg. 12

[24] 高树林, 元朝盐茶酒醋课研究, pg. 12

[24] Kinoshita, The Description of the World, Chapter 153, pg. 137