Mongol Group c3

Is Marco Polo’s account of Western China reliable?

Description of the World is a book that describes Marco Polo’s travelling experience in Yuan. It was written in 1298 by Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian Romance writer, recording Marco Polo’s account in a prison cell. The earliest existing edition of the book is in French, while there are numerous editions in many European languages. From DW’s account, Marco Polo’s father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo first began their travel in 1250 CE. They reached China and accepted Qubilai’s request to establish a positive relationship with the pope. This story could be exaggerated, and the reliable information we know about them is that they were merchants and they first travelled for business purposes. Marco Polo was born in 1254 CE in Venice. His mother died when he was young. His father took him on the trip to China in 1271. The trip ended in 1295, marking their arrival to Venice. The war in 1298 made Marco Polo a prisoner, so he described his travels for Rustichello to record.

Our research topic is whether the account of Western China in DW is reliable, meaning whether the described phenomenons had actually taken place. Each member did research on a region described in section 3 Cathay and the Western-Southwestern Provinces in DW, including Tibet, Jiandu, Qarajang, Bangala, Mien, and Zardandan. We used primary and secondary sources to challenge DW’s account. In many cases, we expand the information provided in DW. We arrive at the conclusion that the account of Western China is mostly reliable with minor exaggerations and fictions. However, we found his account in Mien and Bangala inadequate. It is possible that he did not travel to Bangala and the city of Mien, and he only acquired information of the area from hearsay. The reliability of the information allows us to make important conclusions on the beliefs, practices, and social structure of the societies at this place and time, helping us arrive at a fuller understanding of the people.



During Marco Polo’s time, Tibet refers to the region of current Tibet Province and Western part of Sichuan Province. In Marco Polo’s description, he mentioned many unique cultures and customs of Tibetan people. By pointing out how musk is extracted and the unique marriage custom of Tibetan people, Marco Polo established his credibility. He also made his description more reliable by mentioning other well-known habits such as raising mastiff dogs and falcons. Though Marco Polo included some faults in introducing the currency system and the clothing of local people, the mistakes seem minor compared to the correct and unique record of the custom and culture. 



After Chengdu and Tibet, Marco Polo described Jiandu in the book, which is the present day Xichang in Liangshan Yizu Prefecture of Sichuan Province but at that time the administrative unit of Yunnan Province. Jiandu was significant as the traffic hub from Chengdu to Dali. Through exploring what Marco Polo mentioned about Qionghai, a custom for local women, the salt as money, and a local plant in the historical records from both chinese sources and foreign sources, we are able to draw a conclusion that his description about Jiandu were mostly reliable. 



One of the Mongols’ enduring legacies in China was the incorporation of Yunnan into China. Qarajang, which is believed to be the Mongol equivalent of what the Chinese called Yun-nan, was described by Marco Polo. In this part, we will focus on three main topics: The name of Qarajang, the Cowrie Shell as Currency and the purpose of Marco Polo’s travel in Qarajang. Each of them will be fully discussed in details and they will either lend Marco Polo credence in his description of Qarajang or make it dubious.



Marco Polo’s description of <Bangala> is generally right. However, his description is what he heard from land travelers in Yun-nan since he didn’t even know the exact location of Bangala. He regarded Bangala as an Indo-China region while it is actually a part of India. Regarding the war between <the Great Khan and the Kingdom of Bangala and Mien>, Marco Polo might confound Bangala with Pegu, since the subject of the marching event in this chapter is subjected to Burma, where Pegu is located. Marco Polo might mix this event up with what he heard about Bangala since it is probable that the king of Burma arrogated the title of “the king of Bangala.”



Mien can be identified as the Pagan Kingdom, in modern day Burma (Myanmar), and this part is basically focusing on Marco Polo’s description of the city of Mien and the battle between Mien and the Great Khan. However, his words for both the city and the battle provided only basic information, and the details, unfortunately, were largely vague and incorrect. There’s no sufficient evidence to whether Marco Polo visited Mien, and it is doubtful whether he visited the city of Mien himself.



Zardandan: DW’s description of Zardandan is mostly reliable. The description of its location is limited but accurate, stating that Zardandan is found west of Qarajang. The Persian name Zardandan is translation of the original name Barbarian Gold Teeth (金齿蛮). There are unusual customs of Zardandan described. One custom is couvade, having a husband lying next to the newborn for 40 days. Another is having magicians dancing, playing instruments, and having animals sacrificed to heal the sick people. Research shows that these customs are likely to be true. The tasks done by women and their role in the customs might suggest their lower social status in this society. It is important to know the reliability of the account in DW, because it allows us to make conclusions on women’s social status and people’s religious beliefs in Zardandan at the time, therefore obtaining a more accurate understanding of its people.


The Mongols Web Project [C3]

Group C3 Members: Nancy, Zheng Han, Sean, Hanson, Zach, and Daniel