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Marco Polo in China — or not*

  • D. O. Morgan

Marco Polo's book — The Travels, The Description of the World, II Milione, or whatever we prefer to call it — is unquestionably the best known of all contemporary sources on that unprecedented historical phenomenon, the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. That is not to say that it is by any means the best source. As history, it cannot compare, for example, with Rashīd al-Dīn's Jāmi' al-tawārīkh, and as a European travel account (if that is what it is), it is not remotely in the same class as Friar William of Rubruck's Itinerarium. Nevertheless, while Friar William may have been completely forgotten and Chinggis Khan remembered only as someone a political reactionary can, by dint of great effort, get himself (or herself, one should hasten to add) to the right of, there are many who know at least something about Marco Polo: perhaps principally the fact that he went to China — as almost everyone has hitherto supposed that he did.

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1 For a well-documented and persuasive, if perhaps to some extent overstated, argument to the effect that Marco Polo tells us a good deal more about Europe than about Asia in the late thirteenth century, see J. Critchley, Marco Polo's Book (Aldershot, 1992).

2 At least as far back as Sir Yule's, HenryThe Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian, 3rd ed. (London, 1903), Introduction, pp. 110112 [the first edition was published in 1871].

3 Waldron, A. N., The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Cambridge, 1990); The problem of the Great Wall of China”, HJAS, XLII (1983), pp. 643663.

4 See e.g. Professor Barrett's, T. H. review of Wood: London Review of Books, vol. XVII, no. 23, 30 11 1995, p. 28.

5 Wood, , p. 101.

6 Wood, , p. 97.

7 Sunday Times, 22 October 1995, News Review, p. 5.

8 Levy, Howard S., The Lotus Lovers: The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China (Buffalo, 1992: first published, perhaps less saleably, as Chinese Footbinding, New York, 1966), p. 46.

9 The Times, 20 Oct. 1995, p. 21.

10 Olschki, L., Marco Polo's Asia (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1960), p. 130 and n. 11.

11 Sykes, C., Evelyn Waugh: a Biography (Harmondsworth, 1977), p. 244. I and my own travelling companion, Richard Lawrence, became involved in some strikingly similar roadside conversations in much the same places forty years later. I am not, therefore, entirely convinced that Sykes's recollection was accurate.

12 Cleaves, F. W., “A Chinese source bearing on Marco Polo's departure from China and a Persian source on his arrival in Persia”, HJAS, XXXVI (1976), pp. 181203. For the text of Rashīd al-Dīn's account see Jāmī al-tawārīkh, iii, ed. Alizade, A. A. (Baku, 1957), p. 280.

13 Wood, , p. 137.

14 See Wood, , pp. 61, 100, and compare p. 107.

15 Wood, , p. 2.

16 Franke, H., “Sino-Western contacts under the Mongol Empire”, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, VI (1966), p. 54. The article is reprinted in Variorum, Franke's volume, China under Mongol Rule (Aldershot, 1994).

17 See DrJackson's, P. review of Professor Beckingham's English translation of the fourth volume of The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, below, pp. 262–5.

* A review article of Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo go to China? pp. x, 182. London, Seeker and Warburg, 1995. £14.99.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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