(1254-1324) journeyed to China at age seventeen with his father and uncle, who had earlier
been there as merchant/diplomats (1260-1269). The younger Polo became an agent for
travelling extensively throughout the East. Three years after his
jewel-laden return to the Mediterranean in 1288, Polo became one of the seven thousand
Venetian prisoners following that city-state's loss in a sea-battle with Genoa.
Although the captivity is described as being in a "dungeon," it has been suggested that Polo, along with other Venetian prisoners "of rank," was perhaps held under a form of house arrest in a Genoese family home. This form of imprisonment was apparently current at the time and often used prior to prisoner exchanges, so it was in the interests of Genoese families with relatives imprisoned by the Venetians to accept prisoners in the hope of an eventual exchange. And a near contemporary stated that, when imprisoned, Polo sent to his father for his notes and papers to help him compose his book. While in "prison" he dictated his account to a fellow inmate who had aspirations of being a great writer.
The book, variously called The Description of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo, was published after the prisoners' release. It was written in a form of French, a widely used language at this time, possibly because Polo's native Venetian (after years in the East) was so barely intelligible to his scribe that some form of French was the handiest medium of communication between them.
Some 143 different manuscripts and printed versions of the text have been identified, with seven separate or related versions. The differences in their status are based on variations in language or dialect used, as some of the Italian dialects are very close. The manuscripts are traditionally grouped into two major families, originating in either French (1307) or Latin (after 1315). Numerous editions and translations followed, including the first printings in Irish (1460), German (1477), Portuguese (1502), Spanish (1503), English (1579), Dutch (1664), and Chinese (1913). Some later versions (particularly from the 15th and 16th centuries) included additional passages, apparently derived from other travelers' tales. These may have been added to make the story longer and more exciting. Translations then made from these manuscripts, of course, carried the expanded narrative. (It should be noted that since at least the late 13th century the combining of travelers' accounts had occurred on several occasions in this travel guide genre.)
As an analysis shows that the majority of the names used in the various texts, however they are spelled, were based on Persian words, it has been suggested that Polo had access to a currently unknown Persian guide book, from which he borrowed liberally. Mongol and Chinese names appear much less frequently than one would expect. Persian was the lingua franca of the east, as French was in the west. It is also suggested that perhaps Polo traveled extensively with Persian interpreters or traders.
Polo "was the first traveller to trace a route across the whole length of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom which he had seen with his own eyes." 1
While there are inaccuracies recorded and some statements may have only been hearsay, Polo presented Europe with a real image Asia which was sometimes more fantastic than the centuries-old tales of fantasy which had been the "East." It was the chief Renaissance source of information on Asia. His story was not initially accepted everywhere as his contemporaries thought it was mostly the work of imagination, the power of the Asian legend being so strong. But he single-handedly changed the world-view with his remarkably balanced eyewitness report which has been proven very accurate by subsequent researches and discoveries.
As the Polos were traders, luxury goods dominate his account. In addition his descriptions of porcelain, coal, and paper money are contemporary with the earliest of those in Europe. (The legends of Italy getting pasta or China getting noodles from Polo are both wrong -- these durum wheat products apparently both originated in Western Asia and were dispersed afar by Arab influences.)
The Great Wall was not mentioned by Polo. Although it has been shown that the brick-facing of the Wall, which makes the sections to the north and north-east of Beijing so striking today, was done after the Polos traveled east, much of the Wall was, and still is, made of yellow earth. The earthern sections are much narrower than the brick-faced sections, but they are still striking when seen. It would have been very difficult to have traveled into China from the West without noticing it; thus the omission of the Wall in Description of the World is telling. Polo also did not mention tea-drinking, foot-binding, calligraphy, woodblock printing, chopsticks, or cormorant fishing, topics mostly observed by at least one contemporary traveler to China, Friar Odoric of Pordenone (1265-1331, in China 1320-30). It has been suggested, however, that in the interests of keeping his narrative within certain size limits and of interest to the general public, such things as tea-drinking were purposely left out, or simply forgotten to be mentioned in the first place. As no original manuscript is known to exist and there is a variation of texts, it is possible that early copyists might also have done some editing.
Polo's detailed descriptions of 13th century Beijing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou -- whether he actually saw these cities or relied on some travel guide unknown to us -- were quite accurate compared with contemporary Chinese accounts. Some exaggerations and confusing of locations are present. His descriptions of Guangzhou (which he called Zayton or Zalton), Yangzhou and Fuzhou are, by comparison, inadequate. Although Polo claimed to have spent three years as Governor of Yangzhou (said by some to be a misreading in one text), this is not corroborated by detailed Chinese sources. Evidence indicates that he may have been, instead, an official in the Salt Administration. There are many mentions of salt and taxation in his book, and this would seem like a more likely position for a foreign trader. From the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.) onward, salt was a state-controlled commodity and through the succeeding centuries was a taxable product. During the Sung dynasty (960-1279) salt, produced as a government monopoly, was the basis upon which the new paper money was issued. No mention has been found in the official records that Polo was a traveling reporter for Kubilai Khan. It is possible that he may not have been as important in the Chinese court as he later described? Were creative liberties taken to spice up his role in this saga for his readers, perhaps?
(Was Polo a papal spy who then travelled with Chinese surveyors to North America?)
The first lengthy account in the West of Mongolia and the Mongols was by the Franciscan friar John of Plano Carpini (by about 1247), who had been officially sent in 1245 by the new Pope Innocent IV to avert the threatened danger of further Mongol onslaught on the West. (Christian Russia had just become a province of the Mongol Empire and the death of the Great Khan Ugedey (r.1229-1241) brought a temporary halt to the western movement as the rivalry of the tremendously deceptive, cunning and greedy Mongol princes distracted their attention back to the center of their Empire. Christendom, meanwhile was split in two by the war between the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and the Papacy, and thus more vulnerable to Mongol attack.)
William of Rubruck, another friar, was also in China starting in 1253, having accompanied King Louis IX of France first to the Holy Land on crusade. William's account is fuller and more personal than John's and, although stressing the religious note, more detailed in parts than Polo's. But the unofficial nature of William's mission made its account less widely circulated (even though Roger Bacon, c.1220-92, partially incorporated it into his Opus Majus after meeting William in Paris following a stint William did as a lecturer in Theology at Acre. Bacon's account is the only contemporary record of William that we possess.) William's account does include a verbal picture of a surprisingly large and varied European community in the Mongol's capital of Karakorum (aka Khanbalik, some 1,450 km northwest of Beijing), which included a Parisian jeweller Guillaume Boucher, an Englishman named Basil, and a German.
Other early travelers' accounts include Albert of Aix, Haiton of Armenia, William of Tripoli (c.1220-1277), Caesarius of Heisterbach, Vincent de Beauvais (1190-1264), and Sir John Mandeville. The latter never had been to China and had borrowed liberally from at least fifteen others' writings. Mandeville's fictional account, Travels, was published some fifty years after Polo and was greeted with similar enthusiasm. It, too, was translated and made available in every common European language by 1400, and in Czech, Danish, Dutch, and Irish by 1500. Some of the early copies of Polo's Description of the World was reproduced as part of collections of works of travel and topography, which also included Mandeville's Travels.
Polo mentioned some of the flora along his route and in the gardens of the principle Chinese cities, but did not make any reference to dwarf tree culture or even potted plants/flowers of any type. These and other omissions can be accounted for by the fact that Polo's associations in China were chiefly with foreigners -- the Mongol overlords, in particular, whose manners he treats with comparative fullness. Indeed, Polo's work is really a discussion of the Mongol glory, the early part of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Most examples of purely Chinese culture and civilization that Polo did specify, e.g., writing and dialects, were given briefly and with some inaccuracy. And while Polo is said to have acquired the use of several languages including four written ones during his travels and stay, Chinese was most likely not one of them. 2
Finally, let us point out that the little-mentioned Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) was the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. He was a Muslim Berber and scholar whose travels lasted for a period of twenty-nine years and covered an astounding estimated 75,000 miles. His destinations included China, some sixty years after Marco Polo and covering much more distance than the Venetian. The closest Ibn Battuta's descriptions -- dictated to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy and interspersed with the latter's own comments some ten years after the visit -- come to being of even remote interest to us are his observations that in the city of Zaytún [Guangzhou], "as in all Chinese towns, a man will have a fruit-graden and a field with his house set in the middle of it, just as in the town of Sijilmása in our own country [in the neighborhood of Tafilelt, in Southern Morocco]" and that the city of Khansá [Hangzhou], "is built after the Chinese fashion already described, each person, that is, having his own house and garden."
Yule, Col. Sir Henry (trans. & ed.)
The Book of Ser Marco Polo The Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons; 1871, 1875, 1903. Revised 3rd edition by Henri
Vol. I &
II.), Introduction, pp. 48, 86, 89, 106-107, Appendix H, pg. 553. Probably the
most annotated version of Polo's travels ever published, providing abundant historical,
geographical, linguistic, and anthropological details on practically every land and
people Polo was aware of. Opens up whole new realms, although the notes seem too
detailed in parts. First studied by RJB in late 1989.;
Wood, Francis Did Marco Polo go to China? (Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 1996. First
American edition), pp. 42-47, 51-53, 137.
Palmer, Arlene M.
A Winterthur Guide to Chinese Export Porcelain
(New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.; 1976), Figure 4, pg. 32;
See also the detailed study of the times in Olschki, Leonardo
Marco Polo's Precursors
; (New York: Octagon Books; 1972. Reprint of 1943 work by The Johns Hopkins Press)
which describes European frames-of-reference toward mythical vs. actual Asia. Enlightening.
Yule, Introduction, pp. 110-111 and II, pg. 210. Vol. I,
Chapter LIX has a subnote  (a comment on the chapter's footnote #5) which includes:
"Mr. Ney Elias is very interesting in its suggestion of analogy: 'In my report to the
Geographical Society I have noticed the peculiar Western appearance of Kwei-hwa-ch'eng,
and the little gardens of creepers and flowers in pots which are displayed round the
porches in the court-yards of the better class of houses, and which I have seen in no
other part of China. My attention was especially drawn to these by your quotation
from Rashiduddin.'" In Polo proper there is no mention of potted plants.;
Bridgwater, William (editor-in-chief)
The Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia
(New York: The Viking Press, Inc.; Columbia University Press; 1953, 1960, 1968), pg. 867;
Wood, pp. 18-19, 66-67, 70-75, 78, 81, 89-91, 94-95, 101, 102, 104, 105, 109, 124-125, 133, 141, 154.
Dawson, Christopher (ed.) The Mongol Mission, Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan
Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New York:
Sheed and Ward, 1955), pp. xiv-xv, xxxiii, 88. The History of the Mongols by John of Plano
Carpini (1247, pp. 3-72) and the Journey of William of Rubruk (1255, pp. 89-220),
the bulk of this work, were translated by "a Nun of Stanbrook Abbey" (no other attribution
given!). The Narrative of Benedict the Pole (a companion of John of Plano Carpini,
pp. 79-84) and Letters of John of Monte Corevino (1305, pp. 224-231), Brother Peregrine
(1318, pp. 232-234) and Andrew of Perugia (1326, pp. 235-237) were translated by
the editor. Per pg. 2, John of Plano Carpini's book was by far the most
widely known of the early accounts of Mongols, due to the fact that it was incorporated
by Vincent of Beauvais in his Speculum Historiale, one of the most popular encyclopedic
works of the Middle Ages. Chap VI is how the Tartars make war (pp. 32-38), Chap VII is how they
make peace (pp. 38-43), and Chap VIII is how to make war against them (pp. 43-50).
in his "Account...", pp. 224-225 states that "the Polo family had imparted to the learned
of Europe many facts regarding the arts in China; and it is probable, that the art of
printing, the composition of gunpowder, the polarity of the needle, the management of
the silk-worm, and the dwarfing of, at least, Mulberry trees, were among the many
novelties with which their journey to China had silently enriched the stores of European
knowledge." No mention, however, has been found in RJB's researches to
support the last item of conjecture: neither the dwarfing of mulberry (which was used and
mentioned for silkworms and paper money) nor of any other plant in either the main text or prodigious notes.