Mongol Group B3

Was Marco Polo in Northern China?
An Analysis Based on Accounts of Prester John

 
 
The Cover Page of The Description of the World

1.1 Introduction

In Marco Polo’s book, The Description of the World, he has multiple mentions involving stories with Prester John. These stories detail various events and while many are out of order or may recount inaccurate information, a significant portion is still true and can be verified by actual documented historical accounts. Marco Polo writes about very specific details that occurred in China, and these are facts that may only have been known if he was there in person. Through these accounts in the story, there is sufficient evidence to prove that Marco Polo has indeed been to the Northern part of China.

 

 
 
 

 

1.2 Marco Polo’s Travel to China

This is a map detailing Marco Polo’s Travel Route. The Red Circles exhibit Tenduc and Caicu, two places mentions in his story regarding Prester John.

 
 

2.1 Story of Prester John and Genghis Khan

Prester John was first mentioned by in Chapter 2 of The Description of the World, section 64-69. Prester was a powerful king at the time, and Marco Polo thought he was the Wang Khan. The Tatars paid tribute to him in his early years, but later, Prester John saw that the Tatars became stronger and stronger, so in fearing that they would rebel, he drove them away[1].

“Now it happened that in the year 1187 of the incarnation of Christ, the Tartars made a king called Chinggis Khan [Cinghis Can] in their language”. The Tatars elected a man of great wisdom and bravery as the king and that man was Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan conquered the Tatars and gathered them from all over his hometown[2].

Depiction of the Keraite ruler Toghrul (Wang Khan) as “Prester John” in “Le Livre des Merveilles”, 15th century
 

A pivotal part of this story comes when Genghis Khan “sent envoys to Prester John— this was in the year 1200 after the birth of Christ— with the message that he wanted to marry his daughter”[3]. Genghis Khan claimed that he wanted to take John’s daughter as his wife. After hearing this, Prester John not only categorically refused, but also sternly reprimanded Genghis Khan as his servant. Enraged words were emitted from John when he stated that “How is Chinggis Khan not ashamed to ask to marry my daughter? Doesn’t he know that he is my vassal and my slave? Now return to him and tell him that I would sooner burn my daughter than give her to him as wife” [3]. John proclaimed that Genghis Khan should be executed to set an example for the rebels and upon hearing that, Khan was furious [3].

From his rage, Genghis Khan prepared to send troops to attack Prester John and their armies met in the Plain of Tenduc [4]. Before the war, Genghis Khan asked a Christian fortune teller to predict the outcome of the battle and the mysterious prophet foretold that Genghis Khan defeated Prester John. In the end, Genghis Khan won and Prester John was killed in the battle. The result of this victory was that Genghis Khan gradually occupied the entire territory that was once Prester John’s [4].

From this story, further analysis reveals certain clues that can lead us to believe Marco Polo has been to China. From this recollection, it seems that Marco Polo believes Prester John is Wang Khan— the leader of the Keraites tribe [5]. This proves that he went to Tenduc because he can only know about this potential leadership structure if he was there. Marco Polo had a mistake in his description, however. The case about Genghis Khan wanting to marry Wang Khan’s daughter is not true, but in fact, Genghis Khan wanted to help his eldest son Jochi marry Wang Khan’s daughter instead. According to historical records from Yuanshi, Genghis Khan did send someone to propose to Wang Khan’s daughter, but it was not for himself as Marco Polo said, but for his son, Jochi. This event also happened in 1202, not 1200[6]. Another piece of evidence proves this is from the scene in The Secret History of the Mongols where Genghis Khan helped his son propose. “‘On top of affection let there be more affection!’, Činggis Qa’an thought; and requesting the younger sister of Senggüm, Ča’ur Beki, for his son Jočhi he said, ‘I shall give in exchange our daughter Qo†in Beki to Senggüm’s son Tusaqa ” [7]. Although there was a slight misalignment in information of the actual events, it is still quite a feat that Marco Polo knew about the marriage and the desires of Genghis Khan wanted to interjoin with Prester John’s family.

Finally, in accordance to chronical evidence from The Mongols by David Morgan, it stated that the time when Genghis Khan was enthroned as the Great Khan should be 1206[8]. Marco Polo saying that Genghis Khan was enthroned as the Great Khan in 1187, was also wrong but again showed that he knew of the Great Khan becoming the leader [8]. One point of clarification regarding the divination portion mentioned in the story was that Marco Polo’s true purpose was to point out that at this time, Genghis Khan and the Prester John’s camp both contained Nestorian Christians, which later will be revealed as another proof that he was in China.

From all of this, it can be seen that Marco Polo believed Prester John to be Wang Khan. The story of the Wang Khan that he told was not entirely correct but the one thing this story proved, however, was that Marco Polo did indeed arrive in Tenduc, China and found Nestorian Christians there. This made him believe that the place where Nestorian Christians existed was the country ruled by the Prester John, showing that again he went to China because he knew of this very specific information.

 
 

2.2 Story of Prester John and Prester George

Diving further into Prester John’s story as described by Marco polo, the part of the story which included Prestor George was another important piece of evidence. It can be seen that in the past, Prester John had once set his capital in the Tenduc city in China. After his defeat, his descendants still lived here surrendering to the Mongols [9]. Prester George was “the six lord since Prester John…like the other heirs of Prester George and Prester John, they both married the Mongol royal family as their wives…they called it Ung and Mungul” [9].

This part can prove that at a point in time, Prester George was a real historical figure named Körgis. The fact that Marco Polo knew this and mentioned this man “Prestor George,” was another sign that proved that he was in China. He caught this specific nuance. It can be proved that the reason for the name difference was that George was spelled Giwargis (Gorigis) in Syriac, which is a very common Christian name[10]. Because the Nestorians of Christianity were introduced to the Mongol Empire from Syria, they were converted to Turkic and the Mongolians pronounced this as Körgüz or Görgüz [10]. In history, According to Yuanshi, Körgis has always been said to be “brave and persevering, practice martial arts, especially good use of Confucianism”[11]. He, later, even married two princesses of Chinggiz Khan, one after another, and was named the King of Gaotang for his military exploits [11]. These pieces of evidence help substantiate that the Prester George Marco Polo described in the book The Description of the World refers to Körgis, again proving that because of the linkage of this name and situation, Marco Polo had to have been in China to know this.

As Marco Polo previously mentioned in “The Description of the World”, Prester George was the descendent of Prester John. Marco Polo mentioned that Prester John was the Wang Khan, which means that he was the ruler of Keraites tribe. It can be inferred that Prester George should also be a ruler of Keraites tribe since he was in line for the throne. This claim from Marco Polo was in fact incorrect, since Prester George was a ruler of the Ung tribe. It has been continually described in “Event of the Ungs” that Prester George was the sixth descendant of Alaquš- digit-Quri [12]. From looking at the Ung family generation tree [10], there was a certain family order of rulers present. In order, first off was Alaquš- digit-Quri and in subsequent order: Buyan Siban, Jingui, Boyoqa, Ai-quga, and finally, Körgis [12]. If we count the descendants, then it can be seen that Körgis (Prester John) is the sixth. Once proving that Prester George is the “6th ruler,” or king, it can be connected that he was actually the 6th ruler, Körgis. Both these exhibits show that Marco Polo knew that this man, Prester George was king, thus showing Marco Polo in fact, knew of this existence, again proving he was in China, the only place to get this information.

Another way to testify for Marco Polo being in China was because he knew of the Nestorianism. Previously, he believed that Prester John and Alaquš- digit-Quri were the same person [12]. He thought that because he thought everywhere that had Nestorianism was ruled by Prester John. Then Marco Polo considered Alaquš- digit-Quri as the Prester John. Previously, when Marco Polo came to China and discovered that Tenduc was inhabited by Nestorianism, he identified it as the homeland of Prester John, so he mistakenly regarded the Ung tribe with the Keraites tribe as the same one[13]. Although he was mistaken in the men’s roles, the fact that he knew of this region being Christian or more specifically Nestorianism proves he was in China. Marco Polo’s statement and description of the history was inaccurate, in other words, misleading, but again, it is still worthwhile to note that he had been to Tenduc and saw the Nestorianism there, allowing him to draw his conclusion in his stories. From this second narrative of the Prester John, it again proves that Marco Polo had been to Tenduc, thus going to China.

 

 
 
The Golden King, illustration to ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa.

2.3 Story of Prester John and the Golden King

The third account of Prester John’s stories proving Marco Polo’s presence in China can be also found in “The Description of the World.” This is the war between Prester John and the Golden King. It is said in the book that when Marco Polo traveled to Caicu, a place in China, he saw a beautiful castle, which was built by a “Golden King”. “When one leaves Pingyangfu” and has gone west for two days, there you find a beautiful castle called Xiezhou [Caicu], bullied in the old days by a king called the Golden King ”[14]. Marco Polo mentioned the story of the Golden King as him having a war with Prester John[14]. According Marco Polo’s narrative, during the war, Prester John sent several youths to the Golden King and let them pretend to serve for him[14]. After gaining the king’s trust, the youths captured the Golden King. After insulting the Golden King, Prester John ordered him to graze. Two years later, Prester John returned the Golden King to his homeland. After that, the King of Gold surrendered to Prester John[14].

 

This story of the Golden King again is another piece of information that can help prove Marco Polo’s travels through China. Here, it is the mixup of the word “Jin” which means gold, but also is the name of a Chinese city. For one, this “Golden King,” is not mentioned in any history source, so the existence of a king and his gold castle were not real. This king that he mentioned should not mean the golden king, but is instead, the Emperor Chu of Later Jin, Chonggui Shi, which existed during the turbulent Five Dynasties period [15]. The name of the “Golden King” in the book is derived from the “Emperor of Jin”. The protagonist of the story, “King of Jin (Golden)”, does not refer to a particular monarch, but a mixture of many stories of Jin Empire. This is a story of the “king of Jin” that was set in the historical capital of Jin, condensing the events of the Jin monarch in different periods in the history of Jin into a time interval, were Marco Polo narrated them into one “king of Jin”. Here, Prester John is no longer Wang Khan or Alaquš- digit-Quri he mentioned in the earlier chapters, but an uncertain historical figure. He thought Prester John was Yelu Deguang, the king of the Liao Empire (Later Jin, Chonggui Shi). Although unclear, this still proves that he was talking about things related to China or a Chinese city. This still proves he had exposure to this information subject to China, which only can be obtained in China. He combined many of these stories together and put them all into the figure of Prester John. It is obvious, however, that he indeed went to Caicu, and heard many stories of different things regarding the Jin Empire at that place.

Another suggestion is that this “Jin King” could be the king of Haraqitan, Zhilugu. According to Liaoshi, it was once recorded that the king of Haraqitan, Zhilugu, “when hunting in autumn, was arrested by ambushing eight thousand soldiers commanded by the King of Naiman, and his throne was taken away. The king of Naiman took over control of the power” [16]. This shows that this king was actually a real person who existed in China, and to know this, Marco Polo must have been in China. In this story, the Prester John mentioned by Marco Polo should refer to Kuchlug, and the Golden King refers to the king of Khitan and Kuchlug’s father-in-law, Yelü Zhilugu [17]. This story actually refers to Kuchlug usurping the throne of Khitan [17]. These are very specific events and Marco Polo mixed up the names and people, but he was very cognizant of this Chinese presence. This element of his story again shows that he traveled through China and acquired this knowledge.

 
 
Mosaic of Marco Polo displayed in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, in Genoa, Italy

3. Conclusion

In summary, it can be concluded that although there were facts mixed up, and people were remembered incorrectly, Marco Polo undoubtedly knew of specific historical details. These details from his stories pertaining to Prester John can only have been obtained if he was in China. From the incorrect story of Genghis Khan wanting to marry Prester John’s wife, it can be seen that he at least knew someone from Genghis’ family wanted to connect with John’s. This was a specific detail that can only be obtained in China. Going further, to even talk about George or Körgis, meant he knew of this man. It can be later proved through a linguistics analysis that these are the same person and both the same ruler. Again, the fact he knew of this ruler proves his presence in China. Another reason why this was possible was the knowledge of the Nestorianism in the region. Although he was incorrect in thinking who was the actual ruler, he knew of the existence of the religion in that area also proving he was there. Finally, the mixup of the Jins showed his confusing in who was actually ruling, however, provided further substantiation that he knew of the Chinese cultures and ruling parties. He knew something named Jin was existent and although it is uncertain which theory may be correct, it can be seen that they were all China-related. All of these above factors prove that the portions in Marco Polo’s story which deal with Prester John contain enough detail to prove that he was indeed in Northern China.

 

 
 

4. Footnotes

[1] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. pp.52.
[2] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. pp.53.
H. Yule, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, Vol.1, London: John Muray, 1875, pp.226 -244.
[3] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. pp.52-53
[4] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. pp.52-54
[5] Wikipedia. Toghrul.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toghrul.
[6]
Song, Lian, and Jing’an Yao. 元史 (Yuanshi) Vol.1. Zhonghua Shuju, 1976, pp. 9.
[7]
Rachewiltz, Igor de. The Secret History Of The Mongols. BRILL, 2013, pp. 79
[8]
Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 2008. pp.72
[9] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. pp.
111
[10]
Zhou, Qingshu. 汪古部事辑(Events of the Ungs), Inner Mongolia. Mongolian university, pp. 160
[11]
Song, Lian, and Jing’an Yao. 元史 (Yuanshi) Vol. 118. Zhonghua Shuju, 1976, pp. 2925- 2926.
[12]
Zhou, Qingshu. 汪古部事辑(Events of the Ungs), Inner Mongolia. Mongolian university, pp. 155-160
[13]
Zhou, Qingshu. 汪古部事辑(Events of the Ungs), Inner Mongolia. Mongolian university, pp. 161
[14]
Zhou, Qingshu. 汪古部事辑(Events of the Ungs), Inner Mongolia. Mongolian university, pp. 159
[15] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. pp.
95
[16]
Tuo, Tuo. 辽史 (Liaoshi) Vol.30. Zhonghua Shuju, 1974, pp. 358.
[17]
Atwood, C. P. (2015). Marco Polo’s Sino-Mongolian Toponyms, with Special Attention to the Transcription of the Character zhou ‘州’. pp.15

 
 

5. Reference

Atwood, C. P. Marco Polo’s Sino-Mongolian Toponyms, with Special Attention to the Transcription of the Character zhou 州.’. In Conference ‘Marco Polo and the Silk Road,’Yangzhou Museum, Yangzhou University, and International Academy of Chinese Studies of Peking University, Yangzhou, Jiangsu, China, 2015. (pp. 17-19)
http://www.academia.edu/download/40776165/Atwood.Marco_Polos_Sino-Mongolian_Toponyms.docx

H. Yule, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, Vol.1, London: John Muray, 1875, pp.226 -244.
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044010427391&view=1up&seq=343

Dawson, Christopher et al. 出使蒙古记. China Society Science Publishing House, 1983, pp. 263-265、270.

Grousset, René Grousset. The Empire Of The Steppes. Rutgers University Press, 2010, p. 237.
https://www.scribd.com/document/367032978/The-Empire-of-the-Steppes-History-of-Central-Asia-Rene-Grousset

Morgan, David. The Mongols. Blackwell, 2008.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. The Secret History Of The Mongols. BRILL, 2013, pp. 81, S168.

Song, Lian, and Jing’an Yao. 元史 (Yuanshi) Vol.1. Zhonghua Shuju, 1976, p. 9.

Song, Lian, and Jing’an Yao. 元史 (Yuanshi) Vol. 118. Zhonghua Shuju, 1976, pp. 2925- 2926.

Tuo, Tuo. 辽史 (Liaoshi) Vol.30. Zhonghua Shuju, 1974, p. 358.

Yang, Zhijiu. 马可波罗与中外关系 (Macro Polo And Sino-Foreign Relationship. Nankai University Press, 1999, pp. 172-188.

P. Peliot, Notes on Marco Polo, Paris: Imprimerie Nationale Librairie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1959, p.737.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,
https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4426656.

Zhou, Qingshu. 汪古部事辑(Events of the Ungs), Inner Mongolia. Mongolian university, pp. 160

css.php