Yangzhou, one of the most renowned cities in China for its National Historic and Cultural heritage, boasts many honors and titles such as the title of National Civilized City and National Forest City. In the Description of the World, Marco Polo portrayed Yangzhou as a “noble and large ”[1] city in which encouraged a healthy trade market. Through decades, scholars have been debated unceasingly on whether Marco Polo has been to Yangzhou, also his political position in Yangzhou back then. In the following content, I will examine Marco Polo’s two roles in Yangzhou, merchant and ruler respectively. I will include arguments presented by scholars stating Marco Polo’s wotuo [Ortogh] merchant role and inauthentic official position, leading to a relatively comprehensive discussion on Marco Polo’s experience in Yangzhou.

Role as a Merchant

There had been abundant evidence proving that Marco Polo did travel to Yangzhou as a Wotuo merchant[2]. In the first place, in article Marco Polo went to China, Rachewiltz indicated that Marco Polo might be a rich merchant engaging in musk trading “The Polos became rich in China, which would have been impossible if Marco were a minor yuan official during his seventeen years in that country. From indirect evidence, it appears that he may have been engaged in the lucrative musk trade.” [3]Such description could testify that Marco Polo participated greatly in trade and made a good fortune through popular Chinese merchandise. Moreover, being a Wotuo merchant, he had approach to a special kind of admission[4] that greatly facilitated his trade in Cathay[5]: “the 13th Article of Punishments in the Yuan legal code, Yuan dianzhang, when Wotuo merchants travelled from one place to another they could obtain official certificates from local governments, which could be exchanged in different places.” Through acquiring this efficient gongshi, Marco Polo’s role as a merchant could be further enhanced and developed. Thus, it reflected the previous viewpoint of Marco Polo truly enriched himself as a merchant—otherwise the gongshi would become useless.

Rather than describing famous mountains and rivers, cultural relics and historical sites like travelers or recording administrative affairs and official disputes like officials, Marco Polo demonstrated his interests in the Travels[6] in documenting local property, trade, transportation, currency, tax and other things related to commerce, embodying that he obtained plenty of business knowledge through practical experience in tradings in China. The pearls, gems, spices, salt, which are mostly mentioned in the book, were all traded by se-mu merchants in the Yuan Dynasty. Marco Polo was born in a merchants’ family in Venice, if his father and uncle were doing business in China, it is natural that he followed them and engaged in trade. The above sources reached out to a unanimous conclusion that Marco Polo was indeed a successful and intelligent trader (wotuo merchant) during the 1280s[7] in Yangzhou.



Years Marco Polo spent in Yangzhou


The scholar Hai, Peng in his book History of Marco Polo went to China[8], discussing the date of Marco Polo’s sojourn in Yangzhou. From the description of Yangzhou has “twenty-seven cities attached to it” and Yangzhou is “selected as one of the twelve provincial cities”, it may be Yangzhou in 1282-1283; from the paper currency of Yangzhou, it is Jianghuai province in 1280 after the issuance of the yuan paper currency; from Marco Polo’s statement about the transportation of grain from Guazhou to Khanbaliq[9] by rivers and lakes, it should be the water transportation before the organization of shipping in 1285. Therefore, the years Marco Polo spent in Yangzhou was in large possibility 1282 to 1285.

Role as a Ruler

Besides the role as a merchant, Marco Polo also mentioned himself in the Description of the World as a ruler of Yangzhou for three years. In chapter four after Marco Polo has left Taizhou, he marched southeast toward a beautiful city called Yangzhou, “Marco Polo himself ruled this city for three years[10]”. However, the footnote of the previous sentence stated clearly that no evidence has been found to corroborate this claim, indicating that the idea of Marco Polo has governed Yangzhou for three years might be unreliable to some extent. Moreover, in the book of Ser Marco Polo[11], the author also challenged Marco Polo being a governor by arguing that Marco Polo was too young to be assigned such an important job since Yangzhou was a critical city in Yuan dynasty: “and he seems (for his argument is obscure) to make from this the unreasonable deduction that at this period Kublai placed Marco Polo–who could not be more than twenty-three years of age, and had been but two years in Cathay–in charge either of the general government, or of an important district government in the most important province of the empire.” This claim of the author could be realistic since Marco Polo was born in 1254, that he was only at his twenties back in his time at Yangzhou. In addition, he was a foreigner from Venice, and it was reasonable Khubilai would not appoint him an essential role of ruling a economic center of Yuan.


At the same time, in Yuan dynasty, the governor of a province like Yangzhou was named Pingzhang zhengshi [平章政事], which could not be expressed accurately in European language and thus could only translated to gouverneur in French or governor general in English. When these two languages were translated into Chinese again, it became governor [总督]. From the translation point of view, it was supposed to be correct. But in Yuan dynasty, road[][12] under province coincidentally has official position of governor, resulting in Marco Polo went from the governor of the province understood by the Westerners to the governor of Yangzhou understood by the Chinese. Therefore, the argument of Marco Polo held the post of governor of Yangzhou was lost or mistake in translation that rendered the inauthentic fact of ruling Yangzhou for three years.


Personal Insights and Conclusion

Based on the research done above, it is authentic that Marco Polo visited Yangzhou and the time that Marco Polo spent was around year 1282-1285 . It would be appropriate to conclude that he had participated in commercial management in Yangzhou as a merchant as potent evidence from historical documents did corroborate this argument. The position Marco Polo obtained was in large possibility a wotuo (sê-mu) merchant who engaged in the various trade in flourishing Yangzhou. However in the Description of the World, Marco Polo’s depiction of being governor who ruled Yangzhou were inauthentic. Therefore, although Marco Polo did visit and lingered in Yangzhou for approximately three years, there might existed some exaggeration in his journal regarding his political position in Yangzhou.



[1] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 127). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle version.

[2] Special kind of se-mu merchant

[3] de Rachewiltz, Igor. “Marco Polo Went To China.” pp.79.

[4] Official certificates from local government to facilitate business and provide protection

[5] An archaic or literary name for China

[6] A 13th-century travelogue written down by Rustichello da Pisa

[7] Approximately 1282-1285

[8] 马可波罗来华史实,彭海Peng, H. (2010)

[9] 元大都,capital of Yuan

[10] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 127). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle version.

[11] The book of Ser Marco Polo, Vol 2, p143.

[12] Administrative divisions of places one level lower than province in Yuan dynasty



Polo, Marco.da Pisa, Rustichello. Translated by Kinoshita, Sharon. The Description of the World. Hackett Publishing Company, 2016.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. “Marco Polo Went to China.” Zentralasiatische Studien 27(1997): p76-80.

Peng, H. (2010). 马可波罗来华史实. China: 中国社会科学出版社.

《元史history of Yuanhttps://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=603186&remap=gb

Polo, Marco.da Pisa, Rustichello, Edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. The Travels of Marco Polo, Volume Two. 2014

Meibiao, Cai, 《中国社会科学》第二期, 《试论马可波罗在中国》https://xuewen.cnki.net/CJFD-ZSHK199202019.html. 1992