Marco Polo (1254–1324) was a famous explorer from Venice, Italy. In 1271, he embarked on a journey to the East with his father and uncle. They arrived in Yuan Shangdu (Upper Capital of the Yuan) in 1275 and traveled on to Dadu (Great Capital of the Yuan, present-day Beijing). During the following seventeen years in China, Marco Polo was trusted by Emperor Shizu, Khubilai Khaan (or Kublai Khan, 1215–1294), and toured various places as an imperial inspector.
After returning to Italy, Marco Polo joined the war of Venice against Genoa in 1298 and was captured. During his imprisonment, Marco Polo narrated his travels to the East, which not only fascinated his listeners but earned him some privileges in the Genoese prison. His fellow inmate, the writer Rustichello, recorded his dictated account, and their joint efforts brought about the completion of The Travels of Marco Polo. The original manuscript was unfortunately lost, and discrepancies are found in existing translations. The art of printing was not yet introduced to Europe by then, but it did not impede the popularity of the book and numerous transcriptions emerged and were enthusiastically sought after.
In his book, Marco Polo recalled his travel in Asia, and particularly in China, and he included accounts of his tours to the Western Regions and the South China Sea. The book covers his arrival in Dadu with his family, the Chinese emperor’s hospitality, his appointment as an official, his tours in China and his various adventures. It ends with his return to Italy.
Marco Polo provided a comprehensive picture of China in the early Yuan period (1271–1368), including its politics, wars, court vignettes, traditional festivals, hunting, and so forth. He recounted Dadu’s economy, culture, architecture, and local customs and practices, along with vivid depictions of thriving metropolises such as Xi’an, Kaifeng, Nanjing, Zhenjiang, Yangzhou, Hangzhou, Fuzhou, and Quanzhou. He wrote that China was a country where regal palaces shone with gilded walls and where even the common people were as wealthy as European monarchs.
Marco Polo also gave accounts of China’s Grand Canal, postal system, and the method by which astronomical instruments were used to observe stars. Paper currency, which had not yet appeared in Europe, impressed Marco Polo so deeply that he mentioned its use whenever he described a Chinese city. He also described the process of making paper currency from mulberry branches at the imperial mint of Dadu. Marco Polo also marveled at a type of “black stone” burnt by the Chinese to warm themselves. These “black stones” were actually coal which at that time was unknown to most Europeans.
The Travels of Marco Polo unveiled the mysterious East to medieval Europeans and deepened their understanding of the region, and China in particular. It was this book that helped European geographers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries make the early maps of the world.
Also inspired by the book, the famous navigator Columbus set off on a voyage to Asia, but accidentally reached the Americas and discovered the New World. Among Columbus’s personal belongings during the voyage was a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo, full of handwritten notes.
Although Marco Polo’s book largely corresponds to Chinese history, a number of people have doubted if he had indeed been to China. Marco Polo claimed that he was once appointed governor of Yangzhou, but no record of such an appointment has been found in the local official chronicles. Some people also question the credibility of the book for its failure to mention certain unique Chinese items such as tea, Chinese characters, printing, or the Great Wall. There is even some conjecture that Marco Polo’s account of China could be based on second-hand knowledge from Persian merchants.