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F. Wood'sDid Marco Polo Go To China?

A Critical Appraisal by I. de Rachewiltz

In her book Did Marco Polo Go To China? (first published by Secker & Warburg, London, in 1995), Dr Frances Wood claims that Marco did not go to China and that he 'probably never travelled much further than the family's trading post on the Black Sea and in Constantinople'.

F.W.'s thesis, leading to the above conclusion, is based on a number of principal arguments and a few secondary ones as props. It should be mentioned that most of these arguments have been 'aired' by various writers since the beginning of the 19th century, but were never taken seriously by Polan scholars.

The principal arguments impugning Marco's credibility are the following:

To strengthen the case against Marco, F.W. adduces the following secondary arguments:

From the above, F.W. infers that while Marco's father and uncle may have undertaken the dangerous journey to the Mongol court (witness the golden tablets they brought back), there is no evidence that Marco did. She suggests a scenario whereby Marco tried to steal their glory by writing himself into the story while in prison in Genoa - something that is possibly related to the family dispute recorded in the will of 1310.

F.W.'s final conclusion, however, is that on the available evidence Marco could have gained the information found in his book partly from his father and uncle who had been to the East, and partly from the knowledge of farther Asia collected by the family's commercial houses in the Crimea and Constantinople, with the additional help of Persian guidebooks, maps, etc. available to him. He himself need not have set foot much beyond those trading posts.

All F.W.'s arguments have been discussed in detail and refuted in Igor de Rachewiltz's review-article 'Marco Polo Went to China' in Zentralasiatische Studien 27 (1997), pp. 34-92. The main thrust of the above review is to focus attention on the internal evidence provided by Marco's work and contemporary documents, as well as on the evidence provided by the Chinese and Persian sources; and to point out the numerous contradictions and superficial (and often incorrect) interpretations in F.W.'s arguments that vitiate her thesis. The following points are especially relevant:1

With regard to F.W.'s secondary arguments, most of them, as shown in my review article, are based on misinterpretations of the original sources. The entire section on spaghetti, ravioli and ice-cream is, of course, irrelevant since Marco never claims that he was responsible for their introduction to the West. In fact, Marco does not mention spaghetti or ravioli in his book, but speaks only of 'lasagne' (as a staple food of the Mongols and the Chinese), a term incorrectly rendered as 'vermicelli' and 'noodles' by a series of English translators who were evidently not very conversant with the different types of pasta. They alone are responsible for the legend of Marco's involvement in the noodle migration - a legend which never spread outside English-speaking countries.5

Two items in this class of arguments that are played down and distorted by F.W. are, on the other hand, of prime concern to us because they conclusively prove that Marco was in China. I refer to the story concerning Princess Kökechin's voyage to Persia and the 'mystery' surrounding the golden tablets of authority.

In the first place it should be mentioned that Khubilai Khan's embassy to his grand-nephew the Il-khan Arghun, Mongol ruler of Persia, in 1290, is not recorded in the official history of the Yüan dynasty. The embassy was to escort Princess Kökechin to Arghun to be his wife. Furthermore, Kökechin is nowhere mentioned in the Chinese sources. This mission, involving an internal family arrangement between the two courts and fraught with dangers owing to the long voyage in perilous waters, was obviously considered of a private and delicate nature and, therefore, not to be officially recorded. However, material arrangements had to be made, and Khubilai Khan in April-May 1290 issued a directive to the effect that the three envoys Ulutai, Abishkha and Khoje were to go to Prince Arghun by way of 'Ma'bar' (i.e. the Coromandel Coast) and that certain arrangements had to be made concerning the rations and provisions for the voyage. From this document we also learn that the mission was preparing to sail from Ch'üan-chou in Fu-chien in September of that year. There is no hint of the purpose of the mission and of course no mention of Kökechin. The directive in Chinese has miraculously survived by being quoted, together with other administrative documents of that period, in the great 15th-century encyclopaedia Yung-lo ta-tien. This very short document buried in one of the surviving volumes of the encyclopaedia was discovered by the Chinese scholar Yang Chih-chiu, who published it in 1941.

In his book Marco gives a detailed account of the embassy, of the adventurous voyage to Persia, and of the delivery of Princess Kökechin to Arghun's son Ghasan (Arghun had died in the meantime). Marco gives the names of the three envoys as Oulatai, Apusca and Coja, and informs us that only Coja survived the two and a half year long voyage. The Polos had joined the embassy in China as a means of returning home; they were (so Marco relates) entrusted by Khubilai with an unspecified mission to the Pope and the kings of Europe, as well as with the care of the royal bride, the latter claim very much open to doubt.

The Persian historian Rashìd al-Dìn, writing a few years after these events, gives a brief account of the arrival in Abhar (near Kazvin) of Khoja and 'a party of envoys' who had been sent by Khubilai, with the bride sought by Arghun in the person of Lady Kökechin, in the spring or early summer of 1293. Rashìd al-Dìn's brief notice confirms Marco's account in its essentials, including the name of the surviving envoy Khoja, now leading the party. He makes no mention of the three 'Franks' who, after delivering the bride to Ghasan, had resumed their journey to Venice via Trebizond and Constantinople. The three Polos were obviously an adjunct to Khubilai's embassy to the Il-khan and would have been included among the 'party of envoys' referred to by Rashìd. Marco's account is of vital importance in testing the veracity of his book, for:

Pelliot, one of the leading Polan scholars, wrote that Marco's very detailed account about the sending of the embassy to Arghun 'is to be entirely trusted', and Yang Chih-chiu, certainly the leading Polan scholar in China today, regards the entire Kökechin episode as the definitive proof that Marco was in China.6 Indeed, the likelihood of Marco's reconstructing the whole episode in Genoa (from memory) or in Venice (from notes) on the basis of second-hand information that he had previously obtained from an unknown informant in the Crimea or in Constantinople is so remote as to be safely dismissed.

But there is more. We know that in a conversation with the famous physician and astrologer Petrus de Abano (1250-1316) which took place some time before 1303, Marco made certain astronomical observations, illustrating them with a sketch in his own hand. These observations, together with Marco's drawing, are reproduced in Petrus' work Conciliator (published in 1303), but are not found in Marco's book. Through a close analysis of these observations and of data found in the latter, J. Jensen has conclusively shown in an article published in 1997 that Marco went to Sumatra and that he must have done so by way of the South China Sea. His conclusion in answer to F.W.'s question is 'Yes, Marco Polo did go to China'.7

Last, but not least, the vexed question of the golden tablets of the Great Khan, i.e. of the tablets of authority. These were given as laissez-passer by Khubilai to the Polos to facilitate their journeys. They were usually oblong, made of gold or silver, and about 30x9cm. The gold paizas (as they are usually called from their Chinese name, p'ai-tzu) were in the shape of a tiger or a gerfalcon at the top, or were just plain. They are described in detail by Marco who also notes the ones he, his father and uncle were granted in the course of their travels. In F.W.'s book there is an attempt at confusing the issue and downplaying the role of the paizas by casting doubts on their number and by connecting them with some dubious business dealings involving Marco and his relatives.

There is, however, no doubt about the total number of paizas received at various times by the three Polos: they were seven, as a careful reading of the book will reveal. There was also no 'jiggery-pokery' over these gold tablets and no family dispute, as I have shown in my review article: they are all products of F.W.'s misreading of the original documents and of her fertile imagination. But having led the reader into a maze of doubts and uncertainties about both the tablets' record and the part they played in an imaginary family quarrel, she ably steers him/her away from the one vital bit of information concerning these precious (in more ways than one) laissez-passer. The evidence in question is contained in the will of Marco's uncle Maffeo dated 6 February 1310 in which there is a reference to certain arrangements concerning a jewel and 'the three tablets of gold which were from the magnificent Chan of the Tartars'. As a corollary to this revealing piece of evidence we have the list of Marco's possessions made after his death in 1324. One of the items in this list is 'a large gold tablet of command'. We do not know what happened to the rest of the paizas (they were probably melted), but at least one of them was still in existence in Marco's household in 1324. The provenance of the former is clearly stated in the will, a document whose authenticity is not in question: they came from the 'magnificent Chan of the Tartars', i.e. from Khubilai Khan himself.

Now, assuming that only Marco's father and uncle had gone to the Mongol court as suggested by F.W., they would have received one tablet each for their return journey. Then how do we account for the third one? And why should Maffeo (not Marco!) gratuitously lie about their provenance in his last will and testament.

F.W.'s thesis is so full of holes as to be untenable from whichever angle we look at it. One of its cornerstones is the 'Persian guidebook' hypothesis extrapolated from a casual remark made several decades ago by H. Franke. In a letter to me dated 28 July 1998, Professor Franke writes: 'Yesterday I received your article ... on F. Wood's misleading book on Marco Polo. I am pleased that you pointed out how she misquoted what I had said, very provisionally, in 1965. I think that you have definitely laid to rest her theory.'

There are, of course, still unresolved problems relating to the manuscript tradition of Marco's text, and the precise role of Rustichello and others in editing the same. Scholars in several countries are investigating these problems at present and we must wait for the results of their research. This is highly specialized work, and I do not think that F.W. can take much comfort for her theory (or theories) from the data published so far on the subject by B. Wehr of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, and others.

In conclusion, an examination of F.W.'s book reveals once more the fundamental weakness of the argumentum e silentio. Marco's book, with its immense wealth of information, speaks for itself. Had Marco, as F.W. claims, obtained so much varied and detailed intelligence about most of 13th-century Asia (including, beside China, Iraq, Persia, Central Asia, Mongolia, continental Southeast Asia, Java, Sumatra, Malacca, the Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Southern India and the coasts and islands of the Indian Sea) - not to speak of his insider's description of the Mongol court - without actually going there, this in itself would have been an even greater feat than that of compiling a genuine eyewitness account of the magnitude of The Description of the World. But, as we have seen, this was not the case: Marco was there all right.

Dr Igor de Rachewiltz
Division of Pacific And Asian History
The Australian National University
Canberra, ACT 0200