4. Marco Polo (a)
And yet, while Marco Polo might have appeared to be the “barbarian” or “foreigner” in the context of his surroundings, it is apparent through the documentation of his travels that he absorbed the variety of people he met on his journey with an equally critical eye—put simply, to him, they were the “barbarians”.
Polo speaks of the citizens of the “Lesser” Hermenia as “poor creatures, and good at nought, unless it be at boozing,” the Turcomans as “a rude people with an uncouth language of their own,” and the natives of Tauris (worshippers of Mahommet) as “a very evil generation”. His Christian bias is rather obvious, as well, in his criticism of the shortcomings in the practice of the “Christians” with whom he comes into contact.
What I found most interesting, however, on the topic of what it means to be a “foreigner” and what/who we classify as “foreign,” was Marco Polo’s interpretation of “Orientalism” (assuming he did, in fact, reach China, which is apparently a debated issue in and of itself). In contrast to the more negative depictions of foreigners in foreign lands previously mentioned, Marco Polo appeared to withhold the utmost respect for The Great Kaan and his prosperous kingdom. In the words of Marco Polo, he was “The wisest and most accomplished man, the greatest Captain, the best to govern men and rule an Empire.” Polo details the organization of his city “like a chessboard” with its gates, palaces, straight and wide streets and the particular order in which they treat their foreigners—assigning them barons and servants to ensure they are well-cared for, but do not step upon the threshold went entering. Polo is fascinated with the cultural wealth of the kingdom (in addition to the gold and silk). He details passages concerning their festivities—the Kaan’s birthday, New Years, hunting/gaming ceremonies, etc.
While reading Marco Polo’s account of the East, I could not help but consider the modern conception of Orientalism and how our way of thinking differs so drastically (even today) from the East (China in particular). Thus, I decided to include in this blog post, although it supposed to be the more acadamic analysis of the text, a link to this Ted Talk I watched last week by Martin Jacques. It discusses the issue of China’s emerging power and how we (in the West) will be unsuccessful in coping with the economic changes due to our inability to relate to this “foreign” ideology and the history behind it.
What I found most interesting in the text personally, was Polo’s emphasis on cultural traditions and myths. These stories not only give the contemporary reader and interesting look into what these various cultures valued, but also what was seen as astonishing to Europeans of the time.
One other thing I also thought was of note in reading the text, is Marco Polo’s highly religious nature. In relaying stories such as the building of the great church of Saint John the Baptist or the stream of Saint Leonard’s Monastery, which is miraculously filled with fish only during the forty days of lent, Polo demonstrates his regard for the saints and the Catholic faith. His story of how the Church of Saint John was saved from the Saracens by the miracle of the suspended column is even more to this point.
In conclusion, The Travels of Marco Polo is an incredibly rich text and one from which many interesting avenues for further inquiry can be derived.
But Marco stayed on to hold an imperial position instead of merely focusing on his trade and religious objectives; indeed, he became ingrained in the Eastern lifestyle and government, and his trip far outlasted his original motives – he stayed in Asia for longer than he’d spent in his birthplace Venice. For the length of the journey, he effectively adopted Asia as his new home in practice, and left only, it seems, when the Kubilai’s imminent death and replacement weakened his future prospects in the empire. Yet in theory he never broke allegiance to his native land, even fighting a war for Venice shortly after his return. His admiration of and engagement in the Mongol empire and the wealth and provincial honor he acquired there, juxtaposed with his self-imposed distance from Asian customs and religions, demonstrate the impermanence of the traveler. Why does the notion of home prevent a sojourner like Marco from fully adopting a new life and culture in a land no longer so foreign?
True, Marco did go to Asia with the main purpose of conducting business. And with a power structure made volatile with the replacement of the Khan, he could not risk overstaying his welcome after Kubilai’s death. But the extended nature of his trip and his assumption of responsibility in Kubilai’s court would have made plausible the outcome of Marco staying in the empire and assimilating completely to the Mongol way of life. His account makes clear he enjoyed his time in the East; he expressed amazement at the wonders of the empire, and respect for its innovations and the efficiency of its trade and government systems. And it seems he would have been able to spend his riches in Asia just as easily as in Europe. Yet it would be hard to believe that Marco ever considered not returning to Europe. Of course, he would never have fit in seamlessly in the Mongol empire; he spoke a different language, was of a different race and religion, and came from a different educational background than the natives. But since his stay was so long, he must have expected a culture shock of similar magnitude upon returning home.
So besides practical considerations, as well as a conditioned sense of nationalism and man’s persistent tendency to separate himself from the “other,” I think the true reason Marco was destined to be a traveler and not an expatriate was his desire to pass on information. He wanted to expose his countrymen to the wonders and peculiarities of a land that he explored before all others; documenting his travels in order to bring back his findings was a way to validate the trip in the eyes’ of the peers he left behind and an attempt to share his stories with people who could recognize their absurdity. The spirit of modern travel follows in a similar (if diluted) vein: even if an average tourist today finds the living conditions of their vacation destination to be comparable or superior to home life, they inevitably return home - not only to fulfill responsibilities, but to approach familiar life at home with a new sense of cultural sensibility. They end the trip with unique knowledge and experiences that can provide them with conversation material, souvenirs, and a new perspective – the same benefits Marco Polo received from his own journey.
Kubilai Khan’s uncle, Nayan, was of the first to revolt against the Great Khan. “Nayan and Kaidu, made their preparations and mustered a great array of horse and foor to attack the Great Khan.” (Polo 114) After hostility and battle, the Great Khan was victorious and ultimately put Nayan to death. Polo notes for the reader: “You must know that Nayan was a baptized Christian and in this battle he had the cross of Christ on his standard.” (Polo 117) He continues delving into the religious controversy and Christian mockery that took place after the death of Nayan. “Saracens, idolaters, Jews, and many others who do not believe in God – made a mock of the cross which Nayan had borne on his banner.” (Polo 118)
The Great Khan took a stand against these mockers, revering Christianity as “good.” Kubilai Khan states, “If the cross of your God has not helped Nayan… it was for a very good reason. Because it is good, it ought not to lend its aid except in a good and righteous cause. Nayan was a traitor who broke faith with his liege lord. Hence the fate that has befallen him was a vindication of the right. And the cross of your God did will in not helping against the right.” (Polo 118) The Great Khan goes to great lengths to defend Christianity. When discussing all religions, Kubilai Khan claims that he honors all of them, but “he regard as truest and best the faith of the Christians, because he declares that it commands nothing that is not full of all goodness and holiness.” (Polo 119)
After reading this passage about Kubilai Khan’s reverence of Christianity, one is left wondering how Marco Polo might have twisted to story to appeal to his Christian companions back home in Europe. It becomes rather obvious that Marco Polo added his own biases to his travels to potentially make the East more appealing for Christians of the Western World, while also making it seems more fantastic.
No one knows for sure if Marco Polo actually went to China and the court of the Great Mongols, but throughout the book he often begins tales with, “I tell you. . .” to begin with an affirmation, to put a sense of credibility to what is being said. Zhou points out that he does this for events both that he has seen and that he has heard. Although he points out when it is not his own memory (obvious when explaining histories) he continues to tell the tale in the same “objective, trustworthy and authoritative voice.” (Zhou). Polo does not interject his own opinions or doubts in stories, but instead presents them all as fact. This assertiveness in both primary and secondary-source material makes it hard then to discern between fact and fiction, and fuels the argument that Polo possibly did not even go to China, yet remained in Crimea.
However, Zhou points out that this presentation and structure to storytelling is very similar to the form of “small talk”- Chinese histories in which “strive for a language of transparency in an attempt to create a sense of authenticity and factuality”. Zhou argues that it is probable that Polo adopted this style of storytelling and writing while on his travels throughout the region, and specifically his time spent with the Mongols. Marco was highly educated in his childhood in Italy, but when he returned from his journeys at age 41, he had lived almost three-fifths of his life abroad.
Another important thing to remember is that a cellmate of Polo wrote Il Milione and thus the structure may resemble a more discourse-like form. The similarity to the “small talk” of the Chinese is understandable in that the stories were told by Polo supposedly to just pass the time. Whether if they were exaggerated to make passing the time more exciting, or even completely fabricated- we don’t know. Regardless, it is interesting to see this genre and to examine the tone and voice in which it is written.
But on another note, Polo’s tales are less about his encounters from his point of view but an attempt at experience by his audience, one centered on apprehending difference. In his detailed, objective retelling of customs and practices, very much like Herodotus’ own style, one can tell that it is the cultural differences between the Western audiences and Eastern characters that take center stage.
In this editorial by Doreen Massey, which looks at questions of globalization today, there are stark parallels in how we tend to view the world in a time of globalization and “shrinking” due to communications technologies, and the presentation of Marco Polo’s stories. She frames perspective in a way that can be drawn back to Polo’s retelling, that “too often the question of difference, of cultural diversity and of the coexistence of otherness, is approached in terms of the world coming to us.” In essence, we do not realize the existence of difference until it has somehow entered our own lives – like in the case of Marco Polo committing his travels to writing for others to read – when in fact, it has existed simultaneously with us in another place.
And so Polo’s stories are more than him regaling his audience. There is an active participation with the audience themselves, in trying to comprehend cultural difference. Imagination plays a significant role, in that prior to hearing such stories, it was the only means of knowing difference. As Massey points out, “Susan Sontag offered the tangential but tantalising reflection at the end of her resonant essay, 'Trip to Hanoi,' the world seemed larger to her than when she had arrived.”
Unlike Herodotus, Marco Polo commands confidence to the audience. Merchants and other readers would trust his judgment. I think that there are several factors that contributed to this. First, Marco Polo didn’t write the book himself. The opening lines tell us someone else in jail wrote it down as he dictated. Second, Marco Polo doesn’t play a significant role in the first part of the text. Even when he travels back with his father and uncle, he is only occasionally mentioned. Lastly, throughout the text the third person narrative voice is maintained. We never read “I” or “my opinion” as in Herodotus’ text. As a result, Marco Polo’s adventures read like an Encyclopedia, listing various peoples that he encounters and providing us with highlights like geography, religion, political situation, trading goods etc. At the same time, the reader doesn’t receive this information till well into the book. I would suggest that many readers would have forgotten by this point that they’re reading an author who wrote this while in jail.
I was particularly grabbed reading about Marco Polo’s interpretation and interaction with the Buddhist monks living in the Tibetan mountains, under the worship of Kahn. He was able to reveal information about the Buddhist monastic way of life that had never been known before. Some things that shocked me were the dense population of monks within individual monasteries (up to two-thousand!) and that some dressed in a uniform of yellow and red to symbolize the “two great sects into which the lamas are divided” (a footnote on pg 149). I had always imagined that monks were required to wear (stereotypically) dressed in black robes. Another stereotype Polo quashed was his data that not all monks were required to remain celibate, although he does mention that all monks had shaved heads and beards, a detail that aligns with popular belief. Although Polo does not go into expansive detail about his time with the monks, there seems to be evidence that many scholars have tried to recount his time there more thoroughly. Specifically, through an excerpt in Laurence Bergreen book Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, I learned that Polo was displeased with the sparsity of lifestyle the monks practiced and generally opposed to their culture because of its association with idolatry (pg. 78). Knowing a little about the basic values of Buddhism, I thought this repulsion was kind of ironic. Check out this cool National Geographic article with specific reference to Polo’s time with the Chinese monks!
Marco Polo's travelogue discusses not only what he sees, but how he gets from point a to point b, and who he interacts with while on his journey. Herodotus's tale was hard for me to read because it lacked this personal connectivity that Polo presents well in his tale.
His relationship with Khan is particularly interesting and telling. He seems to idolize the man- at first he seems overwhelmed and impressed with his riches, his abundance of women, his palace, etc. He speaks of Khan's empire as one that "surpasses every sovereign that has ever been or now is in the world, ” he speaks of his palace as "being so well constructed that no man in the world, granted that he had the power to effect it, cold imagine any improvement in design or execution" and of khan himself as "black eyed and handsome." His adoration seems to lie with the ideas of wealth and power. But as he continues to explore and spend time under Khan, it seems that his adoration is a bit more firmly rooted.
He speaks about how Khans empire is vast and includes people who speak many languages and practice many religions all of which he is tolerable of. He continues to be impressed by his charitable ventures saying, "For this amazing and stupendous munificence which the Great Khan exercises towards the poor, all the people hold him in such esteem that they revere him as a god." He sites examples of Khan forgoing taxes and giving food and clothing to the poor. He speaks of the way in which Khan reaches out to the populace, not only tolerating their immense cultural and religious diversity, but taking into account their ideas.
Khan's tolerance and charity (on page 158) and Marco Polos impression with it really changed my impression of both men. Khan, at least in how Polo describes him appears somewhat democratic to me. I knew very little about Khan and Marco Polo before reading this, but I certainly didn't think that Khan leaned left and Marco Polo valued him for it. I knew of each's obsession with wealth and treasure and judged them as so.
I visited Khan's summer palace a few years ago, and was astounded by the excessiveness of it all. Marco Polo describes the site as "a huge palace of marble and other ornamental stones" and continues saying "there we fully sixteen miles of parkland as well watered with springs and streams and diversified lawns." It is gorgeous and palatial and incredibly excessively. The estate seems to stretch on for days and the buildings are immense and surrounded by a beautiful lake where a boat made entirely of marble rests.
Before reading this tale I knew nothing Khans politics, policies, ideologies. I knew little about Marco Polo. The chapter in which Polo revers Khan allowed me to see the democratic and charitable side of a man that I had prejudged having very little knowledge. It also, for me, made his tale more readable.
Photo Taken at Khan's Summer Palace
Take for example, the introduction of Christianity to the Great Khan. According to Polo’s story, simply after brief communication between the Great Khan and the two Polo brothers, the Great Khan, seeing the sense and impressive nature of the Christian religion, decided to ‘make a request to his Holiness that he would send to him a hundred men of learning, thoroughly acquainted with the principles of Christian religion, as well as the seven arts, and qualified to prove to the learned of his dominions by just and fair argument, that the faith professed by Christians is superior to, and, and founded upon more evident truth than any other; that the gods of the Tartars and the idols worshipped in their houses were only evil spirits and that they and the people of the East in general were under an error in reverencing them as divinities” (7, Marco Polo). It would seem farfetched to suggest that the Great Khan, upon basic conversation, can derive that Christianity is the most accurate religion and the religion that should be practiced. It would be more believable that the Great Khan felt curious and wanted to expose himself to the wonders and differences in the world.
Another example of somewhat dubious accounts of Christian exaltation is Polo’s story of the mountain that “rose out of its place and moved” due to the prayers of the Christian populous. Though I was not personally observing this supernatural act, I can quite comfortably say that mountains jumping are quite irregular and most probably did not happen; however, in the case of Marco Polo’s travels, this godly act resulted in the eventual conversion of Saracens; “even the Calif caused himself to be baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy ghost, Amen, and became a Christian, but in secret”.
No glorification of a religion is complete, however, without the bashing of another. Perhaps the most visible example of bashing would be the religion of the Mahometans. “The Mahometan inhabitants are treacherous and unprincipled. According to their doctrine, whatever is stolen or plundered from others of a different faith, is properly taken, and the theft is no crime”. Polo eventually carries on to ridicule Islamic faith while continually looking favorably upon Christianity for what seems to be, the remainder of the text.
Frances Wood’s biggest argument against the authenticity of Polo’s travels is noting several obvious omissions in the novel. Wood notes that there is a conspicuous absence of Chinese writing. Wood describes that Chinese writing appeared all over the country and that “it is hard to conceive that that in the country where paper money was invented and the written word revered…a person, even a foreigner, could claim to have served in the government bureaucracy and either fail to notice the Mongol and the Chinese writing systems or consider them of little interest” (p. 70). Furthermore, Polo fails to mention the Great Wall of China as well as tea or chopsticks. These omissions aid in Wood’s argument against Polo’s legitimacy.
Did Marco Polo Go to China?, also raises questions about Marco Polo’s route to Asia. Wood documents that it is virtually impossible to retrace Polo’s journey to Asia because this journey moves almost randomly across China and Asia without any rational connections. Woods concludes that this disconnect results in a book that is more “general geography than a travel record” (p. 29).
Supported by the evidence of Polo’s omissions and lack of retraceable route to Asia, Frances Wood concludes that Marco Polo never traveled beyond the Black Sea. Wood believes that the book is based rather on family stories and secondary sourced materials rather than Polo’s actual travels. If Wood is right, Polo’s myth would parallel Christopher Columbus’, who was strongly influenced by Polo’s travels. Both men’s legacies have been mythologized into tremendous tales of discovery, when in fact they both lack accuracy.
There exists a great chunk of time between the publication of Herodotus' An Account of Egypt and The Travels of Marco Polo, but despite this, the latter seems a direct evolution of the former and marks a clear advance in the formation of a travel canon or genre. Just as in Herodotus' writings, Polo's accounts similarly digress from the description of foreign lands he has encountered to anecdotes of varying relevance. Just as Herodotus saw everything through the lens of Greek life, so do either Polo, da Pisa or both pander their account to a Christian audience. In the retelling of why the people of Kala Atashparasan worship fire, or the power struggle between Chinghiz Khan, the royal authority of the Magi and the triumph of the Khan are subsumed into the triumph of Christianity. (58, 96) Despite this prejudice, Polo is less prone to flights of fancy than Herodotus (and, on a related note, less reliant on hearsay) and his religious prejudice, while evident, seems distinct from his moral judgement of the various peoples he encounters. Obviously, other sources of prejudice may come into play; it is noteworthy how positive Polo's attitude is towards the Tartars and the amount of time he devotes to describing the opulence and power of Kublai Khan, in contrast to "brutal and bloodthirsty" idolators of other lands.
All bias aside, in comparison with Herodotus, it is clear that Polo has developed, whether by design or unconsciously, a systematic way in which to document his observations. Thus far in Travels, all text devoted to observation--that is, rather than the various anecdotes that pepper the account-- describes everything unique to a specific city or region within certain categories that are dealt with in separate sections. These categories can loosely be defined as cultural and religious practices, technology and specialty products, geographical oddities and flora and fauna unique to the region being described. Though he takes care to label all non-Christians as idolators and passes harsh judgement on the character of some, those practices and customs that would be deemed heretical by the church are often regarded by Polo with a mixture of fascination and amusement. In describing marital practices in Tibet, he claims that men refuse to marry a woman unless she has numerous tokens proving her having slept with many men, but rather than decry this, or many other instances of polygamy, cannibalism or other sin described throughout the account, he merely cracks a joke: "Obviously, the country is a fine one to visit for a lad from sixteen to twenty-four" (173).
While such instances of humor are rare, the prevailing tone throughout Travels is one of worldliness-- despite claims that Marco Polo never visited the Middle East or China by some modern scholars, it cannot be denied that the voice of the work itself is far more relaxed and self-assured than that of Herodotus, who at times seems capable of getting lost within his own narrative, much less the unmapped ancient world. Part of this is obviously because Polo was working with a far greater base of knowledge. Yet, in the details that Polo chooses to describe-- the mining of asbestos, the phenomenon of the mirage in the desert, or the vast system of messengers established to maintain communication throughout the empire of Kublai Khan-- all of this points to a traveler who has truly witnessed strange and wonderful things.
With this experience in mind, what I can’t understand is how the Polo brothers had the patience to wait years at certain points along their journeys. Then again, to have the flexibility to settle in a new place when it was unexpected would be a luxury. It demonstrates the men’s wealth and stature that they were able to make themselves comfortable in a foreign place. This idea of time obviously has a lot to do with the circumstances of the time in which the Polo brothers lived. Everything took longer. So they didn’t necessarily know or consider a faster way of doing things.
The whole concept of travel for these two brothers takes on a very different meaning then the term generally does today. The men were not traveling for their own experience; they didn’t have any personal interest in gaining knowledge about foreign lands. Until the Great Khan gives the men orders, they have little purpose in their travels. They are traveling to benefit the needs of someone else, which isn’t a popular concept in today’s day. To be destinationless until the Great Khan asks for something, stranded in a foreign place might not be all that bad, but I can’t imagine being stuck in a place I don’t know with little purpose.
The men don’t seem to feel stranded though. As long as they completed their assignments, they felt very fulfilled and proud of what they accomplished. It didn’t matter how long it took them to do, they focused on the outcome of the matter. Today’s world struggles with the idea of patience that these men were able to comprehend and demonstrate. We live in a face-paced world that expects things to get done yesterday.
Many a modern person reading about Marco Polo will probably both pick up on and be put off by this attitude of religious superiority. We recognize the importance of an intelligent and tolerant dialogue between cultures that respects the culture and customs of a group. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell whether this criticism of Islam is rooted in intolerance or genuine problems that exist within the practice of the religion. After hearing from a panel of speakers arguing both viewpoints, 55% of NYU students in attendance at the “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” forum answered no to the titular question. Just yesterday David Cameron gave a speech criticizing the multiculturalist practices of British government, claiming that a double standard has been established between what people are permitted to do in their sanctioned cultural groups versus what is allowed by law for an individual in a social democracy.
To me, this seems to be one of modernity’s big ethical dilemmas: where do we draw the line between tolerance and human rights? It seems clear to us that the writer of The Travels possessed a cultural bias that would impede him from a great deal of understanding and empathy. At the same time, however, how can we not be troubled by the abuses committed on the basis of gender and sexual orientation under interpretations of Islamic law? The important thing to remember of course is that religious practice is subject to interpretation; the Judeo-Christian God supports war at certain points in scripture, yet there are far fewer in our society shouting down Judaism and Christianity than Islam. But before we can address the practice of Islam as it relates to human rights we first need to probe into the roots of our own bias; maybe The Travels of Marco Polo can serve as a basic study.
Leonardo Da Vinci—the great Renaissance man—was passionately curious, artistically masterful, and technologically ingenious. As an artist, he used the power of observation and empirical evidence to precisely capture nature in its scientific forms. Similarly, Marco Polo used the power of observation in order to precisely capture an objective truth: “we will set down things seen as seen, things heard as heard, so that our book may be an accurate record, free from any sort of fabrication” (33). Whether or not Marco Polo exaggerated his claims, his proclamations make clear that he intended, above all, to provide accurate descriptions and representations. This quest for accuracy and precision mirrors the intentions behind Da Vinci’s artwork—during the Renaissance, a good artist was defined a master of representation capable of imitating the exact forms produced in nature.
Furthermore, as historical figures, Leonardo and Marco Polo both owe their fame to the documents they left behind. In some 13000 pages of notes, Leonardo documented his thoughts, ideas, observations and inventions. Our awareness of Da Vinci’s scientific studies and artistic innovations would not exist today had Leonardo not used lifelong notebooks to document his ideas. Today, Da Vinci’s notebooks are amongst his most famous works; they have undeniably influenced his fame as a historical figure.
In the case of Marco Polo’s fame, documentation has played an equally significant role. As demonstrated by the following quote, it was not important whether or not Marco Polo was the first to travel extensively. What was important, however, was that he was the first to record his travels: “The claim put forward in the prologue, that its author had travelled more extensively than any man since the Creation, is a plain statement of fact, so far at least as it relates to anyone who has left a record of his travels” (7).
In my opinion, the recipe for Polo’s success= recorded travels+Gutenberg’s printing press. If Polo had not recorded his travels, would we even recognize his name today? Both Marco Polo’s Travels and the Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci confirm the significance of documentary media. Documentations across all mediums preserve the lives, thoughts, and ideas of individuals, effectively capturing historical and cultural moments. They are of great educational value, allowing a glimpse into a foreign mind, culture, and perspective.