As the lost of the original version of Marco Polo’s words, known as The Travel of Marco Polo in 1298, The Description of the World, as the existing texts left, written in Franco-Italian, was published in the year 1310. Along with this version’s publication, many scholars and historians begin questioning the truth of whether Marco Polo has physically been to China or not.

 

One of the biggest arguments is why Marco Polo did not describe the Great Wall of China in his The Description of the World. Some scholars believed that the missing description of the Great Wall is a piece of evidence to reveal Marco Polo’s “lie”. For instance, the British scholar Frances Wood had mentioned this point in her book Did Marco Polo Go to China?[1] Some people think the Great Wall is the most obvious symbol of China. One would never miss its existence if he had actually seen it, while other scholars like Igor de Rachewiltz, Shijian Huang (黄时鉴), and Yingyan Gong (龚缨晏) against such statement in their historical studies: fail to mention the Great Wall of China is not a piece of evidence to prove Marco Polo has not been to China.

 
 
 
The History of the Great Wall of China

(before and during Marco Polo’s time)

The Great Wall of China was first used in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC).[2] The emperors in each dynasty of China begin to reinforce the Great Wall to protect themselves from the northern nomads’ invasion. During the Spring and Autumn (771-476 BC) to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), many countries fighting over each other, the Great Wall was also built in the north for protection.[3] After the Qin (221-206 BC) came to power and reunified China, Qin Shi Huang asks his people to expand an official Great Wall “From Lintao to Liaodong, for over ten thousand miles”.[4]

 

After the downfall of the Qin dynasty, the Han (202 BC – 220 AD) government regard the wall significantly and consider it as the last defense from the Huns in the north. The Qin and Han Great Wall can be separated into three parts: eastern, middle, and western part. It was a complex masterpiece of architecture due to its consideration of the route to fully block the northern nomads.[5] However, this masterpiece began to lost its significance after the Han dynasty.

 

At the end of the Han dynasty, a series of tribes begin to control northern China. For instance, the Northern Wei Dynasty and Northern Qi had all repaired their great wall. However, because of their short-lived periods and their small territories, the walls they built were all seemed to be inside the Han Great Wall. In the meantime, caused by the chaotic fighting within the border of China, many northern tribes had easily conquered within the Han Great Wall, therefore the Qin and Han Great Wall began to lose its significance as a defense.[6] The Qin and Han Great Wall became even more useless in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) since the Tang’s strong sovereignty had helped its border to reach over the Great Wall. They had only rebuild several small parts of the Wall in the north, nevertheless, it was not in great use.[7]

 

Into the Song Dynasty, Han Chinese had been chased down to the south. The original Qin and Han Great Wall was under the control of Liao and Jin. Jin has tried its way to repair some part of the Great Wall known as the Jin Great Wall to prevent the Mongol invasion.[8] However, the Wall never became a problem for the Mongols to stop their invasion and expansion. In 1234, Jin was defeated by the Mongols, from then on the existence of the Great Wall seemed invisible during the reign of the Mongols. There was no need for the Mongols to protect themselves inside of the China territory. No record has been written that the Mongols has repaired the great wall, although there might be some use of the Great Wall for soldiers to protect merchant and travelers from all over the world.[9]

 
 
The Route of Marco Polo

After the short history of the Great Wall, knowing there are so many versions of the Wall. Is it possible for a person traveling from the west not to pass the Great Wall of China? Which part did Marco Polo possibly pass? What is the route of Marco Polo became important for comparison with the different periods of the Great Wall?

 

In 1271, the 17-year-old Marco Polo first set out with his father and uncle.[10] The three Polos came from Venice, after arriving at Kashgar, they first touched the land of China.[11][12] They followed the South Silk Road road and passed through Sha Zhou.[13] Then the Polos followed the Hexi corridor to the east and passed the Teduc. Then they finally reached Shangdu in Yuan Dynasty around 1275.[14] They then reached Dadu.[15] According to this description of the Polos’ route, there are two possible places for the Polos to encounter the Great Wall: one is the area of Dunhuang. Another possibility will be on the way from Shangdu to Dadu.[16]

The map of Marco Polo’s route Marco Polo’s travels to Asia (1271–95), immortalized in his Travels of Marco Polo. Marco, his father, and his uncle set out from Venice in 1271 and reached China in 1275. The Polos spent a total of 17 years in China. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Access on Dec 2020.
 
 
The Great Wall Polo Possibly Encountered

In the area of Dunhuang during Marco’s time, he was possibly seeing the Qin and Han Great Wall. On the way from Shangdu to Dadu, there were four possible routes for them to pick.[17] Although we don’t know much on which way the Polos rode on. However, one thing can be sure of is that from Shangdu to Dadu, they would pass the Great Wall since many poets and writers had mentioned the Great Wall in those areas.[18] However, if the Polos had passed the Great Wall in China, why didn’t Marco mention it in his book? An explanation for that would be that the Great Wall was different from what we know of in today’s world.

 

After the research on the history of the Great Wall, the Qin and Han period Great Wall, where Marco possibly encountered in Dunhuang, had far being ignored after the Han dynasty. It was rarely being used in the Yuan dynasty under Mongol control.[19] When Marco Polo passed through the area, he might just be seeing the ruins of the Great Wall back in the Han dynasty. For instance, one of the most important Passes in the Han Great Wall was Yu Men Guan but it can already not been identified in the Tang Dynasty.[20] Therefore it was understandable for a foreigner to pass by it and without noticing its “amazing” history. In addition, many poets did mention the Great Wall in the same period when Marco Polo was in China. However, for Polo as a foreigner, it must be hard to notice those Chinese poems on the Great Wall, especially when he does not read or speak in such language. Thus, not mentioning the Great Wall in The Description of the World was understandable.

 
Aerial photo shows the ruins of the Great Wall built in the Qin (221 BC to 206 BC) and Han (206 BC to 220 AD) dynasties, in Urad Front Banner in Bayannur, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Oct. 16, 2020. (Xinhua/Peng Yuan), Access on Dec. 2020.
Han Great Wall Ruins, Dunhuang UNESCO Global Geopark, http://www.dhdzgy.com/plus/view-946-1.html, Access on Dec. 2020.
 
 
The Great Wal in Yuan

(Different from What We Know)

The Great Wall we know of in today’s world and that knowledge came to the 18th and the 19th Century Europeans are usually the Ming Great Wall,[21] which is after the period of Marco Polo.[22] During the Yuan dynasty in the 13th Century, the Great Wall was rarely occupied because its great power of sovereignty and its enormous territory. When the central government does not regard the Great Wall as an important protection for the border like any other dynasties, who could possibly draw Marco Polo’s attention to it? Imagine the difference between what we see today and what the Great Wall looked like in the 13th Century, we might get a sense of why Marco did not mention it in his book. He was probably just seeing some ramps of earth while passing by. It is not hard to believe the reason why the Great Wall did not draw Marco Polo’s attention.

 

Furthermore, although many poems back in the Yuan dynasty had mentioned the Great Wall in their literature, they were more focused on the comparison of the past majestic Great Wall to the Yuan ruins. Many poets in Yuan used the Great Wall as an example of sadness and depression, and it was treated as a sign to remember the past and the ruins of the previous dynasties, which formed a contrast on the success of the Yuan dynasty.[23] From those poems, we can see how the Great Wall had fallen during its period in Yuan.

Ming Great Wall, Great Wall at Mutianyu.jpg, 11 February 2006, J. Samuel Burner, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ming_Great_Wall#/media/File:Great_Wall_at_Mutianyu.jpg, Accessed on Dec. 2020.
 
 

According to many historical researches on the Great Wall and Marco Polo’s travel routes, Marco Polo had possibly passed through the Great Wall of China. However, because of the expanded territory of Yuan, the Great Wall lost its meaning during that time. With no need to repair the Wall, it becomes more and more “normal”. Considering the differences between the Great Wall before and after the Ming dynasty, the Great Wall that Marco was seeing was way different from what we are seeing today. Although many literatures had mentioned the Wall, they were usually used as an allusion for depression. Even the Chinese poets were using it in such a way, how can we expect a foreigner with his lack ability of Chinese language to notice the “greatness” of the Great Wall? Therefore, it is possible for Marco Polo to pass it without mentioning it. This should not be a piece of evidence for saying Marco Polo has not been to China.

 
 
Footnotes

[1] Frances Wood argued that Marco Polo failed to mention the Great Wall of China in The Description of the World, she thought that this is an evidence to prove Marco Polo had not been to China. This argument was stated in her book Did Marco Polo go to China? Chapter 11.

[2] The history of building the Great Wall can be traced back to the Western Zhou Dynasty, and it is the origin of the famous allusion to the “show fire and play princes”(烽火戏诸侯

[3] Counties during the Warring States Period, such as Qin, Zhao, Yan had all build the early parts of the Wall in the north mainly for protecting themselves from the Huns attacks, also known as the Northern Great Wall.

[4] “起临洮 , 至辽东 , 延袤万余里” 《史记· 蒙恬列传》

[5] 黄时鉴 《马可波罗与万里长城》 pp170-171 based on《中国大百科全书》 (考古学 )

[6] “Great Wall of China”

[7] It has mentioned in 《通典》 卷一七八 《州郡· 古冀州上》-妫川郡: “北至张说新筑长城九十里 , ……西北到新 长城为界 , 三百八十里。”

[8]金史·张万公传》has mentioned the build up of Jin Great Wall, also known as the 金界壕, “初,明昌間,有司建議,自西南、西北路,沿臨潢達泰州,開築壕塹以備大兵,役者三萬人,連年未就”

[9] “Great Wall of China” history.com

[10] The Description of the World Introduction

[11] Nowadays in Xinjiang, China.

[12] According to The Description of the World, Chapter I, pp15 location 1154 on kindle.

[13] Nowadays in Dunhuang, Gansu

[14] Polo, Marco. da Pisa, Rustichello. The Description of the World Introduction

[15] 黄时鉴 《马可波罗与万里长城》 pp 172

[16] The way of where Polos went from Shangdu to Dadu is not clear. Some people think they went on water ways while others thought their went on land pass by Teduc. It was mentioned in the “Notes on Marco Polo” by Pelliot, Paul pp850.

[17] It has been mentioned in 陈高华、 史卫民: 《元上都》

[18] 黄时鉴 《马可波罗与万里长城》 pp 172

[19] 黄时鉴 《马可波罗与万里长城》 pp 173

[20]吴礽骧 《玉门关与玉门关侯》 , 《文物》 1981年第 10期

[21] Waldron “The Problem of the Great Wall of China”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 43: 1983 pp.643-663.

[22] Rachewiltz, “Marco Polo Went to China” pp63

[23] For examples, 《古长城吟》: “长城万里长, 半是秦人骨”; 《化城行》: “霜净沙干雁鹜鸣,路傍但见 棘与荆 , 有惨淡万古情 , 人间城郭几废兴”; 《榆林》 “却寻长城窟,饮马水不腥”……

 
 
Reference

司马迁《史记· 蒙恬列传》, 西汉, https://ctext.org/shiji/meng-tian-lie-zhuan/zh, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

《通典》 , 唐德宗贞元十七年, 801, 卷一七八 《州郡· 古冀州上》https://zh.m.wikisource.org/wiki/%E9%80%9A%E5%85%B8/%E5%8D%B7178, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

“Great Wall of China”, HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, Last update November 5, 2019, Original publish August 24, 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-china/great-wall-of-china, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

黄时鉴,龚缨晏, 杭州大学历史系杭州大学历史系. “马可·波罗与万里长城”——兼评《马可·波罗到过中国吗?》[J].中国社会科学,1998(04):3-5. 中国知网, PDF, https://kns.cnki.net/kcms/detail/detail.aspx?dbcode=CJFD&dbname=CJFD9899&filename=ZSHK804.013&v=Z5sPUKsFA%25mmd2FsjXB7Zn7yz9MOQC871LKP9bloG1H46H0Xx8nBVpKjTVsSSKx4lPKuo, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

《金史·张万公传》, 元 1344, https://fanyi.cool/1413.html, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

Polo, Marco. da Pisa, Rustichello. Translated by Kinoshita, Sharon. The Description of the World. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle version. Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

Pelliot, Paul. “Notes on Marco Polo” Vol.II, Ouvrage Posthum, Publié Sous Les Auspices de l’Académie Des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres et Avec Le Concours Du Centre National de La Recherche Scientifique.” NII “Digital Silk Road” / Toyo Bunko. http://dsr.nii.ac.jp/toyobunko/III-2-F-c-104/V-2/page-hr/0254.html.en, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. “Marco Polo Went to China.” Zentralasiatische Studien 27(1997): 34-92, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

Waldron, Arthur N, “The Problem of the Great Wall of China”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 43: 1983 pp.643-663. 654-655 https://www.jstor.org/stable/2719110?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007138354?, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

吴礽骧 《玉门关与玉门关侯》 , 《文物》 1981年第 10期, 知网阅读, PDF, https://mall.cnki.net/magazine/Article/WENW198110001.htm, Accessed on Dec. 14th 2020.

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