Mongol Group A4

Marco Polo And the city of xiangyangfu



One of the most controversial accounts by Marco Polo is the claim that along with his father and his uncle, he participated in the siege warfare of the city Xiangyangfu in southern China. With detailed and vivid descriptions of how they contributed to the siege by introducing siege engineers, Marco portrayed himself as the key factor to win the battle and was therefore highly recognized by Qubilai Khan. When people read such an elaborate account, a common tendency is to assume that it must be an authentic personal experience for Marco Polo to give a detailed description. However, thanks to the historian’s efforts to dig into primary Chinese and Persian sources, it has been proved that Marco was, inarguably, unable to participate in the siege of Xiangyang in person. In this passage, I will discuss the main reasons to negate Marco’s claim of his contribution to the siege of Xiangyang and the consequent suspect that whether or not he had ever been to southern China. Furthermore, I will provide different scholars’ perspectives trying to explain the existence of this false account: who should be blamed for it? Did Marco Polo himself make up the whole story to exaggerate his importance, or Rustichello and later editors somehow modify Marco’s original statement to make the story more attractive? The section on Xiangyangfu is significant for our group question because it serves as a piece of valid evidence to deny the reliability of Marco Polo’s accounts for southern China, and I will illustrate how to come to this conclusion in the following passage.

Map of the city of Xiangyangfu


The Chronological Difficulty:

In the Description of the World, it describes: “I tell you in all truth that this city[Xiangyangfu] held out for 3 years after all Mangi had surrendered. The Great Khan’s army was attacking it the whole time…they would never have taken it” [1]. After establishing the huge obstacles faced by the Mongol army, it continues to portray the three polos as the turning point to win the siege war: they had siege engineers who could make mangonels in their entourage. After Qubilai Khan approved their suggestions, the two German and Nestorian engineers built the siege machines, which led to the unconditional surrender of Xiangyangfu [2].

The most problematic part about this statement is that the siege of Xiangyang took place in 1268-1273, before the time Marco Polo could reach southern China, which was in the year 1275. The year 1273 was taken from Yuanshi, the Chinese official chronicle, whose accuracy was carefully examined by A.C. Moule in his book Quinsai. Xiangyangfu, near the northern boundary of today’s Hubei, served as a vital area in conquering Southern China due to its geographical significance: it stands on the south bank of the River Han. As a result, the campaign in Xiangyang was recorded in Yuanshi and annals of the Sung dynasty with great details. Liu Cheng(刘整) suggested that the subjugation of Xiangyang was key to conquering the rest of China, and the actual siege began in the winter of 1268. From 1268 to 1272, according to Yuanshi, numerous attempts were made to subjugate Xiangyang, but all of them failed. In December of 1272, the general A-li-hai-ya proposed and was approved by Qubilai to instead assault Fancheng, Xiangyang’s sister city, to cut off communication and reinforcement. After they successfully took Fancheng and turned the siege machines toward Xiangyang, Lu Wen-Huan(吕文焕), the governor and commander of Xiangyang during that time, was frightened and therefore convinced to surrender under A-li-hai-ya’s persuasion. The formal surrender of Xiangyangfu was completed on January 29th, 1273 [3]. As looking into primary sources in depth, Moule concluded that though the account of the siege of Xiangyang is somehow disjointed, it is “not likely to be an error of several years in the date,” and therefore the siege was “over about two years before Marco himself entered China, while it had not formally begun when Nicolo and Maffeo left China after their first visit”[4]. In other words, the three polos were impossible to participate in the siege of Xiangyang in person, though Marco Polo claimed that they did.


Prologue, or Epilogue:

Another inaccuracy about Marco’s account is the sequence of events. In the Description of the World, Marco represents the siege of Xiangyang as the epilogue of the conquest of China: “held out 3 years after all Mangi had surrendered” [5]. However, as we can see from above, the siege of Xiangyang was the prologue to the subjugation of southern China. In the Book of Ser Marco Polo, Henry Yule attributes this error to Marco’s fabrication to reconcile the date and his claims of participation, which is “consistent only with the siege’s having really been such an epilogue to the war” [6]. While Moule also holds similar ideas, he adds an alternative explanation: Marco might confuse Xiangyang with Ying chou(郢州), which indeed “held out in complete isolation until 1276” [7].


Mongol siege warfare

Who the actual siege engineers were:

It is quite interesting that the Chinese, Persian, and Venetian sources all include the employment of foreign engineers from the West during the siege of Xiangyang, while each had different names of individuals [8]. Now Marco’s account of German and Nestorian engineers has been invalidated, and I will briefly discuss what Persian and Chinese sources wrote. Rashid al-din mentioned because there was no big Fankish mangonel in Cathay, Qubilai ordered mangonel-maker Talib from Ba’albek and Damascus, with his three sons Abu Bakr, Ibrahim, and Muhammad, to be sent to southern China [9]. In Yuanshi, the two siege engineers were Muslims from Persia, requested by Qubilai to be sent from the domain of Abaga, an Il-Khan who was the nephew of Qubilai and remained in close touch with him [10]. These two Muslim engineers were A-lao-wa-ting from Mu-fa-li and I-ssu-ma-yin from Hsu-lieh, both skilled in making catapults and came to the capital in 1271, and accompanied Mongol’s troops to assault Xiangyang in 1273 [11]. Although names given by Persian and Chinese sources were different, Yuanshi recorded I-ssu-ma-yin’s son Pu-pai, I-pu-la-chin, and their later colleague Ma-ha-ma-sha, which could be associated with Rashid al-din’s names of Talib’s three sons [12]. As for Pelliot, despite hesitating to identify Rashid’s Muhammad, agreed with Moule that both texts relate to the same events; and compared to Marco Polo, the Persian source offered a more correct description [13].


Did Marco Polo go to Southern China:

The proven inauthenticity of Marco Polo’s claim has evoked extensive discussions among historians. Frances Wood spends a chapter in her book Did Marco Polo Go to China discussing that Marco was “certainly not a siege engineer,” and suspects that he was also “seeking wealth and renown through “having been there”,” just like his near-contemporary fellow traveler Sir John Mandeville who claimed, though proven impossible, to serve as a soldier to fight against Sung [14]. Similarly, John W. Haeger suggests that Marco Polo did go to China but not beyond Peking, not to mention Mangi, Southern China. In his work “Marco Polo in China? Problems with Internal Evidence,” Haeger proposes that although the silence of tea, writing system and the Great Wall cannot be taken for negative proof, the internal evidence that connects Marco Polo directly with the history of Yuan are unsupportable: three polo’s role in the siege of Xiangyang has already been dismissed, so has Marco’s claim to rule Yangzhou for three years, which only left unbelievably laconic descriptions in the Description of the World. Moreover, Marco’s accounts of southern China are entirely formulaic, though largely accurate. In almost every section on Mangi, it depicts people as idolators, subject to Khan’s rule, who use paper money and live by trade and by crafts. This hollow grandiosity, as Haeger points out, contrasts sharply with Marco’s vivid and compelling accounts for Qubulai himself and his palace in Shangdu and Peking, which contains elaborate and detailed portraits of the new year feast, Khan’s hunt, etc [15]. Therefore, due to the lack of vitality of descriptive imagery and the failure to establish a connection between observer and observation, Haeger postulates that Marco did spend several years at Qubilai’s court and collect information about other parts of China during his stay, which can explain the seeming conflict between his substantive accuracy and absence of visual imagery, as well as his confusing itinerary, some unidentifiable names, and occasional errors such as the siege of Xiangyang [16]. At this point, however, it would be necessary for me to provide a counterargument: the event of sending Princess Kokechin to Persia, which was recorded in the prologue of the Description of the World, was confirmed in the Yung-lo ta-tien(永乐大典) and Rashid al-Din’s work, serving as a piece of solid evidence proving that Marco Polo had been to China [17].


Who should be blamed:

Now I am going to offer several scholar’s explanations concerning why this false account would appear in the Description of the World. After examining the systematic records in Persian and Chinese primary sources, Moule states that the story “can hardly be due to failure of memory” and suggests Rustichello or some later editor may substitute the unknown foreigner’s names with familiar names of his heroes [18]; Yang Chih-chiu concludes that Marco Polo heard the story when visiting Xiangyang while Rustichello mistakenly recorded it as Marco’s own contribution, and Yang takes this event as proof that the three Polos had really been to southern China [19]. Peter Jackson argues that the Xiangyang event is a part of the usual tendency to magnify Polo’s role in the east: for instance, the claims that Qubilai Khan held great affection toward them, that Princess Kokechin regarded each of the Polos as her father, and that Marco Polo himself was appointed to be the official of Yangzhou for three years [20]. Besides, it is imperative to note that the implausible claim of Xiangyang does not appear in the abbreviated texts of the MSS. Z and L, or in the full text of V, and Z, L, V form an important and related group of texts [21]. The version I am dealing with is the possibly earliest surviving version F. that written in Old French, but as Jackson states, version F. itself seems to be the result of an abridgment and thus is not the closest in content to the original. Therefore, since different MSS may “reflect embellishments and accretions due to particular copyists” [22], we should be cautious when attempting to interpret the false claim of Xiangyang as an outright repudiation of Marco Polo’s reliability.



The highly controversial claim of Marco, Nicolo, and Maffeo’s participation in the siege warfare of Xiangyang has now been invalidated, with supportive evidence mainly concerning chronological and order difficulties and the unmatched names of individual siege engineers between the Description of the World and Chinese chronicle Yuanshi. Nevertheless, the interpretation of such inauthenticity is a continuing debate, considering numerous versions of the Description of the World and the consequent possibility of later interpolation, as well as the complex nature of medieval studies related to omission and inaccuracy. In brief, Marco Polo’s account of the city of Xiangyang, especially of their great contribution to the siege warfare, is not reliable; but this unreliability needs to be treated with caution when equating it with a total rejection of Marco Polo’s presence in China or with the denial of his authenticity in a broader sense.



[1] The Description of the World, 127

[2] The Description of the World, 127-128

[3] Moule(1957), pp. 70-78

[4] Moule(1957), p. 74
The Description of the World, 127

[6] Yule, et al.(1975), vol. 2.p. 167

[7] Moule(1957), p. 77

[8] Yule, et al.(1975), vol. 2, p. 168

[9] Yule, et al.(1975), vol. 2, p. 168

[10] Pelliot(1945), vol.1, p.4

[11] Moule(1957), p.76

[12] Moule(1957), p.77

[13] Pelliot(1945), vol 1, p.4

[14] Wood(1996), pp.107-109

[15] Haeger(1978), pp. 22-29

[16] Haeger(1978), p. 28

[17] Rachewiltz(1997), pp. 47-54

[18] Moule(1957), p.77

[19] Yang(1985), p. 131

[20] Jackson(1998), p. 99

[21] Moule(1957), p.77

[22] Jackson(1998), p.84-85


List of references:

Haeger, John W. “Marco Polo in China? Problems with Internal Evidence.” Bulletin of Sung and Yüan Studies, no. 14, 1978, pp. 22–30. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.

Jackson, Peter. “Marco Polo and His ‘Travels’.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 61, no. 1, 1998, pp. 82–101. JSTOR, 20 Dec. 2020.

Moule, A. C. (Arthur Christopher), 1873-1957, and Marco Polo. Quinsai: with Other Notes on Marco Polo. Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1957.

Pelliot, Paul, 1878-1945. Notes on Marco Polo: Ouvrage Posthume. Paris: Impr. nationale, 19591973, vol. 1.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.

Yang, Chi-Chiu(杨志玖). “马可波罗与中国 — 对《马可波罗到过中国没有?》一文的看法.” 元史三论,人民出版社,1985,pp.127-132.

Yule, Henry, et al. The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East; Translated and Edited, with Notes, References, Appendices and Full Index. Amsterdam: Philo Press 1975, vol. 2.