Mongol Group D4




Marco Polo’s travel in China was inspired by his father and uncle, merchants who previously traveled east for trades and revenue anticipating a political upheaval in Venice, Italy [1]. Marco’s journey to the Mongol Empire embarked at age 15 when the two Polos returned home from Asia. Together they travelled to the court of Kubilai Khan and later explored cities of Southern China. Starting from 1271, the Polos remained in China for 17 years. However, the purpose of this trip and Marco’s occupation still remains unclear. In his travel book, Marco claims to have served as a governor of the great city of Yangzhou [2] for three years. However, this claim has been and remained controversial. French scholar Francis Wood in her book Did Marco Polo Go to China? suggests the word “governor” is an error in translations, because the Italian word for travel (sejourna) is similar to that for political authority (seignora). Others suggest that since Marco Polo didn’t speak Chinese, his contact with the bulk population would be rather restricted (Morgan, Yang). His limited fluency in Chinese is shown through his use of Persian names for Chinese provinces and multiple confusions between region names. Then, the most important hindrance to Marco’s claim is his absence in other historical sources. No trace of him has ever been found in Chinese documents, despite numbers of false alarms (Morgan). However, an opposing argument states that Chinese sources lack portrayal of western travelers in general. After Marco Polo, a number of European travelers worked in China as missionaries, but none of them showed up in Yuan Shi [3], except John of Marignolli, papal envoy in the 1330s and 1340s. His presence was recorded in Yuan Shi, not for his achievement as an embassy, but for an enormous horse he delivered to the emperor as a present. Another excuse for Marco’s absence in Chinese sources might be that his role in Yangzhou wasn’t a huge one. As French sinologist Paul Pelliot suggests, he probably was just an administrator of salt production. Marco’s position in Yangzhou, which indicates a source of financial income and purpose of his three years stay, if proved true, can provide important insight into whether his journey really reached southern China.


The chapter of Mangi starts with Kubilai Khan’s conquest of Southern Song on Huai River [4], Huai’an. Then, the itinerary went southeast, passing Baoying, Gaoyu, Taizhou[5] to reach Yangzhou [6], where he stayed for 3 years. According to Marco’s narrative the cities were close, only taking “a day’s travel” to go from one to another. The locations of these places plotted on the map show that Marco’s estimation was about accurate. In his itinerary, he mentioned a river which flowed through several cities, which was the famous Grand Canal [7] (Yang). According to Chinese sources, the Grand Canal was the largest water transportation route connecting the south and the north. Established in Chun Qiu era by the Wu Kingdom [8] and expanded through Sui Dynasty, the Grand Canal underwent reconstruction in Yuan to connect southern cities with Beijing. Marco Polo suggests, he saw rice being transported through the river to be “delivered to the court of Great Khan,” which was exactly the function of the Grand Canal.


Many details that Marco Polo mentioned in his account about Yangzhou and its nearby cities have been verified. For example, when visiting Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, Marco Polo noted that a large number of Christian churches had been built there. His claim is confirmed by a Chinese text of the 14th century explaining how a Sogdian named Mar-Sargis from Samarkand founded six Nestorian Christian churches there in addition to one in Hangzhou during the second half of the 13th century. Chinese scholar Yang Zhijiu suggests Marco Polo did travel to southern china because he provides details that couldn’t be otherwise mentioned. Before Marco reached Zhenjiang, he saw an idolator (Buddhist) statue across the bank of Guazhou, which was the famous Jinshan Temple [9]. In addition, details about daily life activities that Marco repeatedly mentioned, like trades and crafts, silk production, and notes for currency, can all be found in corresponding Chinese sources. In 2012, the University of Tübingen sinologist and historian Hans Ulrich Vogel released a detailed analysis of Polo’s description of currencies, salt production and revenues, and argued that the evidence supports his presence in China because he included details which he could not have otherwise known. There were indeed missing contents, such as tea, Great Wall, Chinese characters, and foot binding; some scholars also argued based on the ambiguousness of Marco’s descriptions: how come he mentioned currencies but didn’t describe them? However, these absences are insufficient to disprove that Marco Polo went to Southern China, given the book was compiled after about 20 years after the travel (Li 2019). As Yang suggests, “No travel guide that’s available in Marco’s time can provide such precise details.”


Source of information

Although we now confirm that Marco couldn’t have copied off some travel books, we are never sure whether these things are what Marco saw or heard. As the writer of the book Rustichello da Pisa says in the prologue that the accuracy of this book is based on the truth of its content, regardless of whether it was seen or heard [12]. Thus we can’t know, solely based on the book, whether Marco was the eye-witness or he heard the stories from other sources of authority.Yang quoted from American scholar Haggard’s article in 1979 [10] that Marco Polo only reached Beijing, where he heard stories about other cities. Judging from Marco’s limited Chinese, he might only have heard those stories from people who spoke his own language. This is possible, given the establishment of the Silk Road, westerners were allowed to travel for trade and missionaries starting 206 BC-220 AD. Along the route, despite constant outbreaks of wars, the Mongol empire still managed to maintain trades and communications between regions (Morgan). Therefore, it is possible that Marco heard stories about other cities where he didn’t travel to. However, the general accuracy of these accounts shows that he must have consulted a credible source, namely, someone who had traveled to these places.


Another exaggeration?

Was Marco’s position in Yangzhou made-up or true? In Marco’s travel book, there are multiple examples exaggeration on his identity and his status among the Mongols. He claimed to be a high official in the Mongol court and was deeply favored by the great ruler Kubilai Khan, but we found no trace of him in official documents, where a person of such status as he claimed should present (Yang p.133). The credibility of his account can be further questioned through his involvement in the incident of escorting Princess Kokachin [11]. According to Marco, after the principal wife of Arghun had died, he sent three envoys to Kubilai requesting a spouse to take her place. At that time the Polos were charged with a mission to the Pope and the kings in Europe, so they travelled with the envoys to escort Princess Kocachin to Ilkhanate by sea and then return to Venice. This incident seems somewhat plausible in that the Mongols were disinclined to employ Chinese as high officials but instead tended to favor westerners (Morgan). However, when this incident also presents in other historical sources the names of the Polos were never mentioned. Mongol Muslim advisor Rashid al-Din also wrote about this incident, but he only mentioned one of the envoys and nothing about the Polos [13]. In his work “Yuan Shi San Lun”, Professor Yang suggests the names of the three envoys can be found in Yongle Encyclopedia, thus concluding the truth of Marco narrative. However, the truth of the incident does not indicate that Marco Polo traveled with them. Given that the story was well-recorded in various sources, it was probably rather wide-spread at its time, and Marco, passing Ilkhanate or Beijing, might have heard it from someone.


Marco’s claimed service as the governor of Yangzhou should be treated with caution, since it could be another exaggeration. However, we should not thus conclude that Marco was a self-conceited swindler. The reason is he was not the person who wrote the travel book. The book Travels of Marco Polo was written by romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, who worked from accounts which he had heard from Marco Polo when they were imprisoned together in Genoa[14]. When writing about Marco’s position in Yangzhou, the text uses a third person point of view: “Messer Marco Polo himself, whom this book is about, ruled this city for three years,” which might indicate that it wasn’t Marco’s original claim. It is possible that Rustichello thought it necessary to present Marco as a high official instead of a common man so as to add credibility to the book. Afterall, an Italian merchant’s travel wouldn’t attract as much attention as that of someone who served 17 years beside the great khan of the Mongol Empire. In addition, we should take into account the circumstances under which the book was compiled. Given the book was written in prison, and about 20 years after the trip, talking and writing about these stories might be a pastime—why not brag a little since you are not sure you’ll be live or dead tomorrow?


But the reason why Rustichello chose the city Yangzhou to talk about Marco’s position still remains unclear. In the book, the section about Yangzhou was relatively short compared to other sections in the chapter. The writer emphasized the fact that Marco Polo ruled Yangzhou for three years but did not provide substantial details about this city. This is counterintuitive: if Marco ruled Yangzhou for three years he should have known the most about this city, even more than other cities where he just took a tour. The lack of description might suggest that Marco merely traveled to Yangzhou but did not stay nor rule. Then why was his role mentioned in this particular city? One potential explanation could be Marco or Rustichello knew that it was relatively easy for foreigners to assume positions in Yangzhou. For instance, John of Monte Corvino, an Italian Franciscan missionary in 1248-1328, was found visiting China for Catholic missions as indicated by letters and a Latin tomb found in Yangzhou.


In conclusion, Marco Polo did travel to southern china. Though part of the story can be hearsay, he provides details on Yangzhou and its nearby areas that couldn’t be otherwise mentioned. His absences in official documents can be explained by the general underrepresentation of foreign workers and travelers in Chinese sources. His position in Yangzhou should be treated with caution due to the lack of description he gave about the city and a number of other exaggerations found in the text. Lastly, the writing style of Marco Polo’s account should be considered with the circumstances in which it was written. Further research on foreign workers in Yangzhou can be done based on non-textual evidence, such as shifts in architecture, foreign spices used in Chinese cuisine, and design of clothes.


[1]Britannica 2002, p. 571

[2]Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 123).

[3] Yuan shi (元史) is the Chinese official document for Yuan dynasty composed during Ming.

[4] 淮河, located about midway between the Yellow River and Yangtze

[5] 台州, city in Zhejiang province

[6] 扬州, city in Jiangsu Province

[7] 京杭大运河, the longest canal or artificial river in the world. Starting in Beijing, it passes through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang to the city of Hangzhou, linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC, but the various sections were first connected during the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD). Dynasties in 1271–1633 significantly restored and rebuilt the canal and altered its route to supply their capital.

[8] 吴国,春秋时期诸侯国,前12世纪—前473年

[9] 金山寺

[10] Citation needed. Yang in his work only mentioned this author’s last name, nationality, and year of publishing. However, we are unable to confirm who this author is.

[11] The story of a foreign princess who arrives in the Ilkhanate and marries the son of the ruler for whom she was originally intended echoes that of the Byzantine princess Maria Palaiologina. The illegitimate daughter of Michael VIII (who had reconquered Constantinople from the Latins in 1261; see n7), she was dispatched to marry Hülegü in 1265 but ended up marrying his son and successor, Abaqa.

[12] Kinoshita p. XVI

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 14). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[13] David Morgan. The Mongols (The Peoples of Europe) (Kindle Location 1971).

[14] The coauthors’ imprisonment reflects the intense intercity rivalries between the trading powers of the late thirteenth-century Mediterranean. Marco is thought to have been taken captive in the sea battle at Curzola between Venice and Genoa in 1298. Genoa made peace with both Venice and Pisa the following year.


[1]Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 14). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2]David Morgan. The Mongols (The Peoples of Europe) (Kindle Location 1387). Kindle Edition.

[3]Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China?Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1996. Internet resource.

[4]杨志玖:《马可波罗与中国》,《环球》1982 年第 10 期

[5]Pelliot, Paul, Notes on Marco Polo, vol. 2, p. 834.


[7] H. Franke, `Sino-western contacts under the Mongol Empire’, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 6 (1966), p. 53.

[8]“Marco Polo”, The New Encyclopædia Britannica Macropedia, 9(15 ed.), Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc, 2002, ISBN 978-0-85229-787-2

[9]Barrett, T. H. “Hans Ulrich Vogel: Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. (Monies, Markets and Finance in East Asia, 1600–1900.) Xxxii, 643 Pp. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013. ISBN 978 90 04 23193 1.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 77.2 (2014): 401-02. Print.