In examining whether Marco Polo actually went to China, the one event that most scholars bring up, is what prompted Marco Polo and his father and uncle to leave China for Persia, and eventually return to their home country, Italy. This long-debated event is the escort of Princess Kokechin from China to the Ilkhanate. According to scholars like Yang Zhi Jiu, this event was the concrete proof that Marco Polo has been to China, while others like Frances Wood persist to be skeptical. In this essay, I will provide a brief account of Marco Polo’s departure from China, his trip and his arrival, identify and examine the arguments and evidence from both sides of the debate, and finally give my own evaluation.

 
 
 
 
Marco Polo’s Account

In Marco Polo’s own record, he, his father Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo, were so loved by the Great Khan Khubilai that he wouldn’t let the three go home. However, when they came back from their travels to India, they encountered three messengers who were sent from Persia by the Ilkhan Argun. These three messengers were sent to the Great Khan to ask for a lady from the deceased Queen Bulughan’s tribe to marry, because this was the queen’s dying will. Therefore, the Great Khan sent a lady named Kokechin, belonging to the queen’s lineage, who was allegedly “young (17years), very fine and attractive.”[1] Accordingly, the three messengers had found the three Polos exceedingly interesting, for they were both “Latin and wise,” and wanted the three Polos to go with them by sea.[2] Then, they “went to the Great Khan and asked that he grant them the favor of sending them by sea, and of sending the three Latins with them,” to which the Great Khan, knowing that this would be the final farewell with the three, reluctantly agreed.[3] Furthermore, it was said that the Khubilai Khan summoned the three and offered them authority to cross the lands before they embarked on their voyage, as well as a handful of resources, including 14 ships.[4] “They said a good 18 months on the Indian Sea,” as provided by Marco Polo, and arrived in Persia. However, upon their arrival in Persia, they found that Argun was dead already, so the lady was given to his son Gasan instead. This first-hand record was found in sessions 18 and 19 of the prologue to his book The Description of the World, or The Travels of Marco Polo, and has indeed been placed under much scrutiny and skepticism.

 
 
 
A Chinese Source Confirming Marco Polo’s Account

Yang Zhi Jiu (杨志玖) is one of the most prominent scholars who proposed a strong and convincing argument that the escort of Kokechin truly happened. In his 1941 essay, 关于马可波罗离华的一段汉文记载 (A Chinese Source on Marco Polo’s Departure from China), Yang Zhi Jiu pointed towards the names of the three Persian envoys, “Uladai, Apusca, and Coia,” as listed in The Description of the World, and found that a Chinese source corroborated this record.[5] The Chinese source was 永乐大典 (the Yongle Encyclopedia) , which was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1403, and completed five years later.[6] The three names provided in this Chinese source correspond exactly to Marco Polo’s record. Furthermore, due to how historically respected the Yongle Encyclopedia is, this is seen as a very strong evidence. Therefore, Yang Zhi Jiu argued that this correspondence was a preponderant and trustworthy evidence to prove that Marco Polo’s travels were real.

 
 
 
A Persian Source Confirming Marco Polo’s Account

Other than the Chinese source Yongle Encyclopedia, the Persian source Jāmiʿ al-tawārīk (Collection of Histories) also corroborated Marco Polo’s descriptions. In this source, Rashid-al-Din Hamadai recorded the marriage between Ilkhan Argun and princess Kokechin. In the 1970 article, Rashid-al-Din and the Franks, that Dr. John Andrew Boyle wrote and published, he translated Rashid-al-Din’s writings, and concluded that there was indeed proof that princess Kokechin was escorted to Persia and was married to Ilkhan Argun’s son Gasan, because Argun was dead before Kokechin arrived.[7] Furtherore, in Marco Polo Went To China, Igor de Rachewiltz provided a detailed description of the passage, saying that it contained a brief account of the arrival in Abhar of Xvajah and a party of envoys who had been sent to the Great Khan, with lady Kokechin.[8] This evidence tells us how the emissaries arrived in Persia from China with the princess, and how the marriage was actually held, although not between Argun and Kokechin, but between Argun’s son Gasan and Kokechin, further proving the argument that Marco Polo’s descriptions were authentic.

 
 
 
Refutations & Debates

However, an immediate rebut to this source, provided by Francis Woodman Cleaves in his article A Chinese Source Bearing on Marco Polo’s Departure From China and a Persian Source on His Arrival in Persia, stated that the identification of Xvajah in the Persian text with the Coja of Marco Polo could not be firmly established. Francis further remarked that this name appeared neither in the index to Karl Jahn’s edition of the Collection of Histories, nor in that to Ali-Zade’s as a proper name. Moreover, in one occasion, Arends rendered the name as “official,” regarding it as a common noun.[1] Additionally, it is noted at one point in Marco Polo Went To China that this entire episode regarding princess Kokechin and the Persian envoys did not appear at all in the official history of the Yuan dynasty, 元史 (Yuan shi).[10] Not to mention the fact that no Chinese sources ever mentioned any being of Marco Polo in their accounts.

 

Furthermore, given the suspiciously uneven record of this event across different sources, Frances Wood pointed out, in her 1995 book Did Marco Polo Go To China, the fact that stories like this one–Marco Polo’s return to the West by accompanying the Mongol princess Kokechin to Persia to marry the Ilkhan–could very well have been borrowed from another source, for instance, the Yongle Encyclopedia and the Collection of Histories.[11] Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a sufficient enough explanation to the mystery of Marco Polo’s absence in all these other sources.

 

In addition, it is well confirmed that Khubilai Khan’s embassy to his grand-nephew the Ilkhan Argun, Mongol ruler of Persia, in the early 1290s, was not recorded in any of the histories of the Yuan dynasty. And moreover, the existence of a princess Kokechin is nowhere to be found in the Chinese sources. However, to refute this argument of absent proof, Igor de Rachewiltz argued that due to how private and delicate this issue related to internal marital affairs was, it is reasonable that the voyage was not recorded in official documents.[12] Yet, this argument is somewhat weak, because countless evidence of other internal family affairs being recorded in official histories of China undermines the possibility of purposeful emittance.

 

Last but not least, the exact date of this event’s occurrence was a persistently debated issue. Originally, it was assumed that the departure of Marco Polo from China took place in 1292. This is because, as Yule did, the year of Marco Polo’s departure was calculated from the year 1275, the year that Marco Polo allegedly arrived in China. This was added 17 years, because Marco Polo stated that he stayed in China for 17 years. However, Paul Pelliot provided in his Notes on Marco Polo that the exact time was actually more probably early 1291.[13] In A Chinese Source Bearing on Marco Polo’s Departure From China and a Persian Source on His Arrival in Persia, Francis Woodman Cleaves elaborated on this notion, and said that Pelliot had apparently used a method of “inverse reasoning.”[14] This had led Pelliot to conclude that “the travellers crossed the western Indian Ocean in the winter of 1292-1293,” and since “it took them three months to sail from Zaitun to Sumatra, where they waited five months before crossing the Indian Ocean, they must have left China not in 1292 but early in 1291.”[15]

 
 

Reflecting back upon Marco Polo’s original writing, we can see fairly evidently that his account of princess Kokechin is generally trustworthy and authentic, as it has been corroborated by respective Chinese and Persian sources separately. However, whether Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle actually participated in the event as major figures remains a mystery. Afterall, no official Mongol sources ever mentioned Marco Polo, nor did any Chinese sources ever mention princess Kokechin. Finally, given the vagueness of the exact time in which the event took place, it is hard to really pinpoint any crucial evidence of their voyage, and on which route they actually went, further blurring our grasp of truth.

 
 
 
Personal Remarks

Following all of the above, I personally would say that Marco Polo did go to China, and I do believe in the authenticity of his participation in the escort of princess Kokechin to Persia as an embassy, for significant sources–the Yongle Encyclopedia and the Collection of Histories–do provide genuine accounts that corroborate with Marco Polo’s story. Additionally, the counterarguments, although convincing, did not actually raise any evidence against the authenticity of the event as a whole, serving no use to undermine the arguments already built by scholars who argue that this was true. And finally, the importance of this figure of Marco Polo in Mongol history, in my opinion, is not a debated issue, and we can all agree that Marco Polo had significant influence on the histories after him. From this perspective, I believe that Marco Polo did go to China, and that he did escort princess Kokechin from China to Persia, away from the “needy” and “overprotective” Great Khan Khubilai, away from the beloved land of China, and towards home.

 
 
 
Footnotes

[1] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World pp11.

[2] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World pp11.

[3] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World pp11.

[4] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World pp12.

[5] Yang, Zhi Jiu. “关于马可波罗离华的一段汉文记载.” 文史杂志, vol. 1, no. 12, 1941.

[6] Found in Vol. 19418 of the Yongle Encyclopedia, this source stated: “兀魯得、阿必失和火者,取道馬八兒,往阿魯渾大王位下。” Emperor, Yongle. 永乐大典.Boyle, John Andrew. “Rashid-al-Din and the Franks.” 1970

[7] Boyle, John Andrew. “Rashid-al-Din and the Franks.” 1970

[8] de Rachewiltz, Igor. “Marco Polo Went To China.” Zentralasiatische Studien, vol. 27, 1997, pp.48.

[9] Cleaves, Francis Woodman. “A Chinese Source Bearing on Marco Polo’s Departure From China and a Persian Source on His Arrival in Persia.” pp198.

[10] de Rachewiltz, Igor. “Marco Polo Went To China.” pp.48.

[11] Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go To China. 1995

[12] de Rachewiltz, Igor. “Marco Polo Went To China.” pp.50.

[13] Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo. 1959.

[14] Cleaves, Francis Woodman. “A Chinese Source Bearing on Marco Polo’s Departure From China and a Persian Source on His Arrival in Persia.” pp197.

[15] Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo. 1959

 
 
 
Reference

Al-Din, Rashid. Jāmiʿ al-tawārīk (Collection of Histories). Mongol Ilkhanate, 14th century.

Boyle, John Andrew. “Rashid-al-Din and the Franks.” 1970.

Cleaves, Francis Woodman. “A Chinese Source Bearing on Marco Polo’s Departure From China and a Persian Source on His Arrival in Persia.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 36, 1975, pp. 181-203.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. “Marco Polo Went To China.” Zentralasiatische Studien, vol. 27, 1997, pp. 34-92.

Emperor, Yongle. 永乐大典. Ming Dynasty, 1408.

Pelliot, Paul. Notes on Marco Polo. 1959. Digital Silk Road Project.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. Hackett Publishing Company, 2016.

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go To China. 1995.

Yang, Zhi Jiu. “关于马可波罗离华的一段汉文记载.” 文史杂志, vol. 1, no. 12, 1941.

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