“Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay….” Perry Anderson, LRB
I 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.
- You can tell by the dates on the articles linked here, this has been in draft for quite a while [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- E.g. Obituary of John Larner, historian of Marco Polo. And “New archeological data highlights Polo errors.” [↩]
- WaPo review of new Polo bio [↩]