Mongol Group B3


Does Marco Polo's account of Tibet Provide Enough Evidence That He Went to China?

My portion of the research project inspects the stories regarding Tibet within Chapter 3 of The Description of the World. Tibet lies in the South Western region of China, therefore my topic will serve to address that portion of the research question regarding whether Marco Polo has ever traveled to China based on his descriptions of South Western China. The sections of Tibet largely involved his descriptions of the culture and customs of the locals as well as the unique and valuable items that are found in the region. There isn’t an abundance of scholarly sources regarding Marco Polo’s travels in Tibet as it was not a central region, both geographically and politically, under the Mongol rule. However, there are many scholars making arguments regarding the credibility of his writing relating to his other experiences in the book. These arguments which can be applied to my investigation of Polo’s recollections of Tibet to see whether they are true of Tibet as well . Although the significance of whether he traveled to Tibet specifically might not outweigh other regions in China, confirming the credibility of his accounts of Tibet will provide more assurance that his other stories are credible as well or less assurance if they proven to be falsified. In other words, the results of my study are important because will play role in determining the overall legitimacy of his work.

Answering the question of whether Marco Polo actually traveled to Tibet begins at verifying if the claims he makes about the local culture, customs, and flora and fauna are accurate. He correctly identifies the Tibetans as idolators which holds true considering the presence of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet but also throughout the country. Polo also mentions the use of salt as a form of currency which is backed up by the research of Hans Ulrich Vogel which states that there was the existence of “various salt monies current in parts of Yunnan and Tebet”. 1 He also accurately records the presence of Tibetan Coral and “very large mastiff dogs, big as asses, that are very good at catching wild animals”. 2 Tibetan Coral is been a highly sought-after material for many centuries. The large mastiffs that Polo mentions are now known as Tibetan Mastiffs, a breed of dog native to Tibet than can grow upwards of 100 pounds.3 However, he fails to mention any specific details regarding the coral which is known to have a distinctive red coloration. His generalized description of Tibet can be juxtaposed against his description of the “beautiful and rich silk cloth in crimson and other colors” in Armenia where he does manage to recall the colors in a similar treasure such as silk. 4 Marco Polo also describes a unique custom where “they do not hold it a base thing if a foreigner, or other man , dishonors him with his wife, daughter, sister, or other woman in his house”. 5 Such customs of polyandry existed in China at the time, however, Polo only mentions this in occurring the neighboring region of Jiandu and not in Tibet. Through extensive research, I found that records of polyandrous relationships are much better recorded in Tibet than in Jiandu which leaves room to wonder how he missed this detail and creates much confusion about whether the inaccuracies in his recollections are result of a loss of detail in his memory or whether he did not visit Tibet in the first place.6 The confusion regarding the inaccuracies with the custom of polyandry can be extended to the rest of his claims about Tibet where he, as mentioned previously, succeeds in noting the presence of certain Tibetan goods but fails to include any defining features. 7 Another detail that he fails to mention is the year in which he travels to Tibet. There are alternate sources that suggests that he could’ve been there in either 1271, 1274, or 1275,8 there are no mentions of specific names that would verify it was Marco Polo and his family members that the sources were referring to. 9

While his claims vary in their accuracy, a closer look into the style and purpose of the writing provides a much clearer answer of whether he actually traveled to Tibet. The Tibet portion of the text uses a rather impersonal tone to describe his “journeys”. In his piece “Marco Polo and ‘His Travels’”, Peter Jackson asserts that “the book is . . . emphatically not a narrative of the Polos’ travels, of the sort that we find, for instance, in the reports of Carpini and Rubruck”.10 He often starts his claims with “when one travels” while leaving the origin of the source unspecified. The writings of Gang also support Jackson’s analysis of the impersonal tone. He states, ““although labelled as a travel narrative, Marco Polo’s work pays little attention to actual travels and voyages” and “revealed nothing about physical and emotional stresses that he must have undergone as the ‘first’ adventurer to traverse such a vast geographical space”.11 The lack of a reaction to the stress that experienced could suggest that he didn’t experience stress at all. Furthermore, Gang also reveals that the description of Marco Polo’s post in the Mongol Court as similar to that of a baiguan, or official in charge of gossip which could explain the vast knowledge of areas that he had never been to himself.12 This evidence is highly suggestive of the fact that Marco Polo may never have traveled to Tibet himself, but rather heard about the region from his various sources in the court of Khubilai Khan.

In conclusion, his descriptions of Tibet varied in credibility, but when analyzed in conjunction with the tone and style of the writing, I conclude that he was not there in person. Facts and knowledge regarding a region can be shared from traveler to traveler just as Marco Polo is sharing it with his audience throughout The Description of the World. The key findings of my research were that he failed to mention specific details regarding the coral and the mastiff, such as color, and that he inaccurately writes of Tibetan marriage customs taking place in Jiandu. I also found that his impersonal tone could be the result of him not experiencing the stresses of traveling in a foreign land. While Polo might not display the same reaction, or rather lack of reaction, to visiting other locations, his style of writing in this paragraph suggests that he might not have actually travelled to Tibet himself but heard about it from someone else.



1 Chang Na (2014). Chang’s review is based off of page 282 of Hans Ulrich Vogel’s “Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues”. In his writing he confirms the the fact that salt currencies were using research based on official and private Chinese sources as well as other travel diaries of the time.

2 Polo (2016),102.

3 This general information was verified with a google search. The source for the information on the Tibetan Mastiff was acquired from the American Kennel Club.

4 Polo (2016), 13

5 Polo (2016), 103

6 Goldstein (1971), Willet (1997). Secondary Sources: “Stratification, Polyandry, and Family Structure in Central Tibet”, “Tibetan Fraternal Polyandry: A Review of its Advantages and Breakdown“. Both sources document the existence of polyandrous relationships in Tibet while I struggled to find evidence of Polyandry in Jiandu as Polo mention in The Description of the World. Polyandry existed in Tibet at the time due to certain economic benefits that the families would receive when they were involved in such relationships. It is a source of suspicion as to why Polo would confuse the the traditions of two different regions, especially when he does explain another custom regarding marriage in Tibet.

7 Rachewiltz, (1997), 35. Igor de Rachewiltz does mention that Polo’s exclusion of certain details from his work isn’t indicative of whether or not he traveled to China but the inconsistencies in his writing does generate a level of doubt as it is shown that he does pay attention to the details on other similar oriental treasures such as silk.

8 Given that it is widely accepted that Marco Polo was in China from 1271 to 1295, these are all plausible dates of arrival for Marco Polo as the map presented above suggests that he passes through Tibet quite early on is his travels, if he passed through at all. The direct line of travel does not cross through Tibet, but the image merely gives a generalized sense of direction for his travels. The map also suggests that he possibly did not travel as far West as Tibet.

9 Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, a Tibetan monk records in his diaries of foreigners arriving from Khubilai Khan’s court. It could’ve been one of the Polos but no name was given. Japanese scholar Matsuo Otagi believes that the Polos were in Tibet between 1274-1275.

10 Jackson(1998), 88

11 Zhou (2009), 8.

12 Zhou (2009), 3. Small talk “consists of gossip and street talk, created or compiled by baiguan who engaged in idle talk in the streets and those who heard rumors on the way”. This is reflective of the way that Polo writes in The Description of the World. The text resembles more of a tale rather than a travel journal and further suggests that he never traveled to Tibet and was just recited tales he heard through “small talk”.



Works Cited

Chang, Na,Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues”, (12.13.2020).

Jackson, Peter, “Marco Polo and His ‘Travels’”, (12.13.2020).

Polo, Marco,The Description of the World“, (10.12.2020).

Zhou, Gang, “Small Talk: A New Reading of Marco Polo’s Il Milione”, (10.12.2020).


Reference List

Primary Source:

Polo, Marco,The Description of the World“, (10.12.2020).

Secondary Sources:

Chang, Na,Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues”. (14.12.2020)

Goldstein, Melvyn C,Stratification, Polyandry, and Family Structure in Central Tibet.” (14.12.2020).

Jackson, Peter, “Marco Polo and His ‘Travels’.” (14.12.2020).

“Marco Polo”, Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Nov. 2020, (12.12.2020).

Rachewiltz, Igor de, Marco Polo Went to China, d53f7484622a/Readings%20for%20the%20Class/Marco%20Polo%20Went%20to%20China.pdf (12.12.2020)

Vogel, Hans Ulrich, Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. (14.12.2020).

Willett, Jeff, “Tibetan Fraternal Polyandry: A Review of Its Advantages and Breakdown.” DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln, (12.12.2020).

Wood, Frances. “Did Marco Polo go to China?” 2018.

Zhang, Cong Ellen, “Anecdotal Writing on Illicit Sex in Song China (960–1279).”

Zhou, Gang, “Small Talk: A New Reading of Marco Polo’s Il (14.12.2020)