Reconsidering Marco Polo

“Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay….” Perry Anderson, LRB

MMA 2012 - China - Tang - late 7c - Camel and RidersI got an email from a student who found my blog post in which I make a highly critical case regarding the historicity of Marco Polo’s adventures. They wanted to confirm (since some data was lost in the latest HNN transition) that it was mine for citation purposes. I’ve been considering revisiting it for a while now,1 and this seems like a good time, because my views on the subject have evolved a bit since: I’m still highly skeptical of Polo, but more importantly, I think the very structure of the argument and nature of the sources makes it highly unlikely that the believers and skeptics will come to a consensus.

When I expressed my doubts, lo those many years ago, I was informed that there was still some life left in Polo’s tale. It turns out that there is so much scholarship on aspects of Polo’s text that there’s even a term for it — “Polan scholarship” and if there’s one thing Polan scholars can’t stand, it’s to have Polo’s work seriously questioned. All the errors are “honest”; all the omissions are “explicable”; all the unconfirmed and untranslated stuff are just waiting to be decoded if only we had better Chinese sources; and incomprehensible bits are the result of Polo listening to the wrong people. That’s the attitude going in, and it’s the same attitude coming out.2 There seem to be lots of Euro-centric scholars with strong attachments to Polo, but a lot of Sino-centric scholars were very dubious.3

Foreigners were involved in Qin construction, and travel in China was common and widespread: the idea that China was closed or that people never migrated are both vestiges of simplistic thinking rather than historical verities. Even the harshest critics of Polo’s historicity admit that he got some thing right, and must have had some valid sources. The question is whether he was an eyewitness and participant in the history and culture he described, and, most importantly, whether he can be considered a credible independent source for the study of Chinese history and culture. I think the answer is still “no.” The story is great, but even if you take it seriously, it’s fantastical.4

Still, having entered this fray, I feel an intellectual obligation to stay informed. So when I ran across a catalog blurb for Stephen Haw’s Marco Polo’s China: a Venetian in the realm of Khubilai Khan (Routledge, 2006), it piqued my interest; thanks to inter-library loan, I finally got hold of it. Only for a week, unfortunately, but it was an interesting ride.

Haw’s work is mostly about details: linguistic, biological and cultural details which jibe with Yuan China and particularly those which seem to be based most firmly on observation instead of second-hand transmission. At times the argument feels stretched, linguistically and zoologically, and the disjunction between the evidence and the conclusions is consistent throughout. Unfortunately, Haw relies heavily on de Rachewiltz’s pro-Polo arguments on authenticity, and then goes well beyond it. Essentially, everything that Polo gets right, especially if he gets it just a little bit wrong, proves his story; Polo is never an unreliable narrator, except where he’s been given bad information.

It has very commonly been said that Marco exaggerates in his descriptions of the Yuan empire and other places. This is only partly true. Frequently, his account is entirely accurate….His description of Hangzhou is very largely confirmed by Chinese sources. Where obvious exaggerations do occur, it is usually very likely that they reflect information that had been given to Marco by others, rather than his own tendency to overstatement.

The hedging and dodging here is then followed up by a remarkable strawman argument, an attack on a reductio version of Polo criticism that I’ve never heard anyone offer. The fact that Polo got a fair bit right proves that he wasn’t lying about anything, because he could have just made the whole story up. But there aren’t any critics who think Polo made it all up; most Polo critics argue that he plagiarized large portions of his descriptions, and inserted himself into the story in the most dramatic and self-gratifying way he thought plausible. This is a long quotation, yes, but I want Haw’s whole argument visible; I don’t want people to think I’m creating a straw man from his claims:

If Marco had wished to exaggerate wildly, whether in relation to his own position in the empire of the Great Khan, or in his description of the East, he could very easily have done so. How many people in Europe at the time could have contradicted him, whatever he had put in his book? Apart from his father and uncle, there were very few indeed who had travelled so extensively, or spent so long, in the eastern half of Asia. His relatives might have been persuaded not to expose any false claims, so as not to shame the family. If Marco had wanted to lie, to invent for himself a false position as an important servant of Khubilai Khan, a life of glory in the Far East, then he could have said virtually anything he wanted. There was no reason at all for him to try to be more than minimally accurate, to include just enough truth in his story to make it more or less credible. The fact that most of his account is, on the contrary, demonstrably truthful and correct is a very strong argument in favour of Marco’s general veracity. He was far more truthful than he needed to be.

Again, if Marco had invented the whole story of his journey to the East and his sojourn in the empire of Khubilai Khan, it is extremely unlikely that he could have avoided making numerous obvious mistakes. In particular, if he had obtained his information at second hand, without ever visiting China, then it would surely have been almost impossible for him to have avoided glaring anachronisms. It would have taken time to amass such a volume of information, much of which might well have been out of date by the time it reached Marco. If his information had come from more than one source, then it would probably have related to somewhat different periods of time which, without any personal knowledge of the true situation, he could not have reconciled successfully. It is very striking, however, that Marco’s accounts of his journeys and of the Yuan empire are exactly right for the period. It has already been pointed out several times in this book that Marco shows accurate knowledge of events and situations that came to pass at exactly the time that he was in the Far East, sometimes only a few years before his return to Venice. It is extremely unlikely that he could have obtained such correct and up-to-date information except by personal observation. Some one and a half centuries after Marco’s time, Nicolo de’ Conti travelled at least as far to the east as Myanmar. Yet the information that he was able to collect about China was minimal and highly inaccurate. Although the Mongols had been driven from China more than half a century earlier, he stated that the ruler of Cathay was ‘the Great Khan’. He seems to have had some vague information about the change of capital city to Nanjing during the early Ming dynasty, but still called the chief city ‘Cambalec’ (Poggio and Ludovico 1963: 17-18). If this is typical of what could be discovered about China from as near as South-east Asia, then it would surely have been impossible for Marco to have obtained so much correct information except through actually being there. (175-176, emphasis added)

In fact, most of the problems which Haw claims Polo avoids are precisely the problems that critics like myself see in Polo: overblown self-important claims, exaggerations, errors which suggest 2nd and 3rd hand information, and accurate information which is mostly undatable and often very similar to the kind of reference works and histories produced in China. That some people made errors that Polo avoided doesn’t change the fact that Polo made errors which he should have avoided. And the fact that Polo knew things that might have been hard to know unless you travelled doesn’t change the fact that lots of people travelled and communicated along the routes that Polo had access to; In fact, it’s probably more plausible that information travelled those routes and came to Polo than it is that Polo himself travelled the routes he claimed.

There’s an immense amount of special pleading. Take, for example, Haw’s discussion of transcription and translation issues, which is used entirely to explain away the problems in Polo’s accounts:

In judging the accuracy of Marco’s account, it must always be borne in mind that none of the surviving manuscripts of his book seem in any sense to be ‘original’. All have passed through the hands of copyists and, very often, also of translators (Larner 1999: 109). All are quite clearly, to at least some extent, corrupt. Errors in the text may have originated in a variety of ways. Marco himself may have made mistakes. Rustichello may have compounded these, adding further errors of his own. It is possible that he may sometimes have misunderstood what Marco told him. If Marco found it difficult to read the Franco-Italian text written down by Rustichello, he may not have been able to recognize all such early flaws. When the text came to be copied and translated by others, however, the possibility of the introduction of many further inaccuracies and errors grew tremendously. It was quite normal for scribes of the period to ‘improve’ upon the texts that they copied by making deletions and additions. John of Piano Carpini included a plea near the end of his History of the Mongols, begging ‘all those who read the foregoing account not to cut out or add anything’ (Dawson (ed.) 1955: 71). Translators were even more liable than copyists to make major changes. The Latin version of Marco’s book prepared by Francesco Pipino is an instructive example. He did not hesitate to delete passages that he disliked and to make additions whenever he felt like doing so. Usually, this involved inserting abuse of Muslims or adherents of other non-Christian religions, which is generally conspicuously absent from versions closer to Marco’s original intentions (Larner 1999: 76, 104, 113-14). It can be assumed that, where there are errors and inaccuracies in the book, the great majority originated with copyists and translators, not with Marco. (Haw, 176-177)

I particularly like how he starts the chain of reasoning with “Marco himself may have made mistakes.” then winds up assuming that only a tiny portion of the failings of the book are Marco’s himself. It is true that Polo’s book suffers from a shocking degree of textual variation, but the bulk of Haw’s argument, and de Rachewiltz’s before him, rests on the presumption that the text is still somehow useable, that the confirmable elements create a presumption of reliability for the unconfirmable remainder of the text; my argument, and that of Frances Wood and others, rests on the presumption that the known falsifiable elements of all versions of the text, and the omission of a lot of material that could plausibly be there in a first-hand account of someone who saw as much as Polo claimed, creates a presumption of unreliability for the unconfirmed parts of the book.

Haw’s conclusion rehashes the argument reasonably well:

various inaccuracies and mistakes … few serious geographical errors. … Parts of Marco’s book are confused and confusing, parts are inaccurate, parts are exaggerated. No definite reference can be found to any of the Polos in Chinese or Mongol sources. Marco seems not to have noticed some things that we might perhaps expect him to have seen.

Ok, that’s not fair. I left out critical components of his conclusions to demonstrate something: Polan critics and supporters actually agree on a great deal. What’s different is the presumption of innocence that Polan scholars seem willing to allow, a presumption that I think is at odds with the appropriate skepticism of historians, particularly for more extraordinary claims that should be verifiable. Haw’s conclusion is actually:

Overall, despite various inaccuracies and mistakes, Marco Polo’s account is remarkable for being absolutely consistent with his claims. There seem to be no detectable anachronisms in his book and very few serious geographical errors. His account of his return journey with his father and uncle, accompanying a Mongol Princess from China to Persia, has quite recently been proved to show knowledge of events that he could scarcely have known about except through personal involvement. Many scholars believe that this is more or less conclusive proof of his story. On balance, it is very much more likely that Marco Polo did indeed go to China than that he did not. It is also likely that he spoke at least a little Chinese (which has almost invariably been thought not to have been the case by previous editors and annotators), though he may well not have been able to read or write Chinese characters. Parts of Marco’s book are confused and confusing, parts are inaccurate, parts are exaggerated. No definite reference can be found to any of the Polos in Chinese or Mongol sources. Marco seems not to have noticed some things that we might perhaps expect him to have seen. It would, however, be a serious mistake to judge the book from an exclusively modern point of view and unreasonable to demand of a merchant’s son of modest education an erudite and exacting approach to what he saw.

MMA 2012 - China - Yuan - c 1319 - Buddha of Medicine Mural - enhanced panoramaThe irony of Haw’s book is that his attempt to prove Polo’s veracity ended up failing for me precisely because Haw was trying to be a responsible historian. I tell my students that there is no such thing as a “smoking gun” document, that one document by itself is meaningless. What historians really work with is rich context: looking at the totality of evidence available, and reasonable inferences and generalizations, to judge reliability and importance of individual documents.5 Haw did a lot of work trying to make sense of Polo’s claims, sometimes successfully. But given the manifest flaws of his source, which Haw himself admits, he accomplishes very little. Polan loyalists are already convinced that Polo’s claims are valid and useful, except where directly contradicted by evidence. But they are not going to convince Polan skeptics of the truth of Polo’s claims except by verification. And the amount of work necessary to make a good case of Polo is the best evidence that Marco Polo’s Travels is a bad historical source that should not be relied upon for anything which cannot be independently verified.

  1. You can tell by the dates on the articles linked here, this has been in draft for quite a while  

  2. there’s a lot of emotion in Polan defenses, though if I’d made a life’s work on a complex source and found a lot of scholars who hadn’t attacking it as fraudulent, I might be emotional about it as well  

  3. E.g. Obituary of John Larner, historian of Marco Polo. And “New archeological data highlights Polo errors.”  

  4. WaPo review of new Polo bio 

  5. which then becomes part of the body of work by which we judge future documents, etc.  


  1. Ah, Jonathan and all you smart guys really don’t have a clue about good ole Marco. All this hogwash about him doing all this China stuff .. pure hogwash. He’s the one famous for inventing the pool game (after he invented Polo). Marco .. Polo. Marco .. Polo. Marco .. Polo. Marco .. Polo. Marco .. Polo. Sometimes you can’t see the Jumping Cholla through the Cactus. Or is that trees through the forest. Whatever. I am a Polan skeptic.

  2. Hi, Don! There’s a really fun, spurious argument to be made that the fact that a game of blind wandering is named after Marco Polo indicates something about his reputation and accomplishments….

  3. “Marco Polo’s Travels is a bad historical source that should not be relied upon for anything which cannot be independently verified.”

    Nice to see someone sum up centuries of debate so effectively. I think Bibliography of Asian Studies (which I’m sure you remember even if current students have never heard of it) used to have a whole section on Marco Polo studies. As far as I can tell, all the serious recent stuff on him is about the impact of the text on Europe, which is a fine topic, rather than what you can get about Asia from it.

  4. Thanks, Alan.

    I remember BAS, and the supplement…. I feel old.

    I know I’ve just scratched the surface on Polan studies, yeah, but I think we’ve reached a limit on how far they can go with reliability arguments until and unless we find some “smoking gun” Chinese sources.

  5. That’s very cool: I’ll look forward to it. Of course, it’ll still be a generation before the textbooks stop quoting that damned Hangzhou chapter. Any chance of an abridged, annotated teaching edition? Because that would be very, very welcome.

  6. Check out George Coedes’s “Textes d’auteurs grecs et latins relatifs à l’Extrême-Orient depuis le IVe siècle av: J.-C. jusqu’au XIVe siècle”, which cites and translates into French everything written in Greek or Latin about China and the Far East during that period. Beyond the fact that China is at the far east of Eurasia and that silk comes from there, there’s almost nothing. There’s an enormous amount of misinformation (Chinese have red hair and green eyes) and some utopian stuff about a land without crime and adultery.

    There was one single factual report in this mass, gathered from an ambassador from the Turkish Empire to the Byzantines ca. 600. It’s pretty sketchy, but can be shown to describe the foundation of the Sui dynasty.

    During this same period Arab and Persian sailors brought back extensive information about China, but it was apparently not translated into Latin or Greek. After the rise of the Parthians and, even more so, the rise of Islam, travel to China became essentially impossible for Europeans.

    The Mongols changed this, and after about 1250 a number of Westerners visitedsome part of China or neighboring areas in Mongolia and Central Asia. A number of awritten reports survive, almost all of them by priests except Polo’s. (There is also a report by a Turkish Christian who travelled from Mongol C. Asia near China to Europe, and a report in French by an Armenian prince).

    Of the information brought by Polo, there’s an enormous amount that’s verifiable, and it fills a vacuum. There’s also a lot that isn’t, and if you cherry pick it it seems intimidating, but the skeptical arguments don’t add up.

    The dating of Marco Polo is uncontroversial, and over a hundred manuscript copies circulated before it was first printed.

    A case can be made that Polo made a lot of mistakes, but most historical sources do that. A case can be made that he lied some, but that only touches a few particular lies. By a very long stretch, a case can be made that everything he said was second hand, but I don’t see the point. His new information was voluminous and mostly mostly good , and if he had the information he got it from someone who did go to China, so the only thing that seems to be at doubt is whether he personally was the one who went to China, and that hardly seems worth bothering with. All you get is one or several John Does and Richard Roes not named Marco Polo who did go, plus Marco sitting in the Crimea writing everything down and pretending it was first hand knowledge. (Though he did not claim that everything was first hand knowledge).

    I find the skepticism baffling. You’ve set up this story line of brave skeptics against stick in the mud scholars who have an axe to grind, but you argue from ethnocentric ignorance.

    I find the belief that inaccuracies imply fraud particularly problematic. If someone found a supposed new manuscript that squared in every way with contemporary scholarly opinion, that would lead on to suspect a forgery based on contemporary secondary materials. What you want new materials for is to change the contemporary consensus, and most new sources are very obliging that way.

  7. “If there’s one thing Polan scholars can’t stand, it’s to have Polo’s work seriously questioned”….. by people who rely entirely on secondary sources, and not many of them. I know that it offends you that there is an enormous literature on Polo, but you should read some of it.

    And I don’t really see any particular motive for the skepticism. Polo wasn’t the only one to travel that route. He wasn’t even the only one to write a report. There’s really nothing unusual to set off the alarm bells. For the first time, and not for long, transcontinental travel had become possible. The distances were never the problem, it’s only 5000 miles from Paris to Beijing, and Polo started from much closer than that.

  8. I still don’t get it AT ALL.

    “Marco Polo’s Travels is a bad historical source that should not be relied upon for anything which cannot be independently verified.”

    What other kind of source is there? For example, I’ve read the two earliest biographies of Charlemagne, one by a contemporary. Both have evident errors. People still use them, with care.

    People who write about that era combine multiple sources in Persian, Chinese, Mongol, Latin, Greek, Italian, Arabic, Armenian, Syriac, and Tibetan in order to put the picture together. No source is completely reliable. People who have done that (e.g. Paul Pelliot and Igor de Rachewiltz, both of who read five or more of those languages) do not doubt Marco Polo the way you do. But I guess that they’re a special interest group or something.

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