Wall? I saw no Wall

T.H. Barrett

  • Did Marco Polo Go to China? by Frances Wood
    Secker, 182 pp, £14.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 436 20166 6

If half a millennium of European expansion was inspired in no small part by a hoax, then surely we ought to know? But testing the veracity of Marco Polo today is not so easily done. The last British researcher into Marco Polo’s travels died in 1957, and the last historian of China who knew any Mongol left for America in the Eighties, at about the same time that the last British scholar who had learned Mongol as well as Chinese – the originally intended co-author of this book – decided that there were no career prospects for anyone with such skills and converted himself (very successfully) into a historian of Chinese art. That left two or three good historians who dealt with Marco Polo’s epoch in Asia, but largely from Middle Eastern sources, plus a handful of historians of China like myself who knew something of the issues, but generally avoided considering them unless compelled to do so. And with good reason: more than twenty-five years may have passed, but I distinctly remember how Frances Wood and I were warned that anyone contemplating working on the Mongol period in Chinese history would be issued with a bottle of aspirin, in view of the immense difficulties involved in studying an empire which employed in its administration not only classical Chinese (which we found hard enough) but also Mongol, Persian and Uighur Turkish.

Thank goodness that Frances Wood, for all her evident misgivings about tackling this subject by herself, has dared to take on this project. My only misgivings concern her unconscious tendency to pander to the Portilloite lobby in her depiction of the European scholars on whose research she draws in her claim that the description of the wider world which inspired Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus was in fact concocted by a canny opportunist who never left Europe. After rummaging through a library basement for one of the volumes necessary to evaluate her arguments, and battling my way through just one of the notes on Marco Polo by the peerless Paul Pelliot – the one scholar this century who did know all the languages required to solve the riddles raised by his travels – I can understand her occasional note of irritation. But Pelliot was not necessarily more at home in a booklined study than dealing with Mongolian women wrestlers, as she supposes. During the siege of the Peking legations in the Boxer Rising, the young Pelliot showed himself an intrepid man of action, and on his return to Paris he was involved in a celebrated public brawl with someone who imprudently criticised his teacher.

Marco Polo’s account of his putative travels is a highly problematic item for any historian, not simply because it only survives in a format giving Polo’s words ‘as told to’ the medieval equivalent of a tabloid journalist, the romancer Rusticello, but because its view of East Asia is unsettlingly different from anything found in the much more copious and informative Chinese sources for the period. His informants, moreover, seem to have spoken to him on matters zoological in Persian, since like the somewhat later missionary traveller Odoric of Pordenone he makes no distinction between lions and tigers, apparently reflecting a peculiarity of medieval Persian vocabulary.

It is still possible to believe that Marco Polo possessed a first-hand familiarity with at least parts of East Asia, however. He exaggerates sometimes, of course, but if for example his figures for pepper imports look large for an area where the cuisine is (and presumably was) fairly mild, the Chinese scholar T’ien Ju-kang notes that pepper was valued for medical as well as culinary purposes, and that later imports climbed even higher, to the point where China appears to have been importing in one year as much as Europe did in half a century. Unfortunately, though, he seems to have forgotten many details, if they were not excluded by his collaborator Rusticello, and the crux of the argument against his actual presence in East Asia rests on a number of particularly surprising omissions: no mention of Chinese writing, no mention of tea, no mention (or not much) of porcelain, no mention of the Great Wall of China, no mention of the bound feet of Chinese women. Yet all these things, except the last, were also ignored by Odoric of Pordenone, and although we know that footbinding was employed before the Polos’ visit, it is not clear how prevalent it was at the time they were in China, let alone how obvious it would have been to outsiders, given the cloistered lives of upper-class women. The Mongol conquest gave rise to protracted warlordism in many parts of China, and Françoise Aubin has noted that some of the warlord bands came to be headed by women, who surely were not tottering about on bound feet. Perhaps the custom did not reassert itself until the later period of Odoric’s visit, as memories faded of unsettled times when lack of mobility would have been a disadvantage.

Chinese writing is mentioned by William of Rubruck, a slightly earlier and very sharp-eyed traveller who only reached the Great Khan’s Mongolian base but found Chinese in use there. Yet after checking William’s account I am not sure that he was aware of its radical difference from alphabetic systems; he may well have reckoned it a sort of shorthand. An Armenian contemporary of the Polos who did visit China also comments on the writing, but compares its beauty to that of Latin letters. My hunch is that the great interest shown in Chinese writing by later European visitors does not antedate the quest for abstract philosophical languages started by the ars combinatoria of another contemporary, the Majorcan philosopher Ramón Lull. As for tea, I can believe that Marco never touched a drop. Even in eighth-century North China, when it first started to be imported from the south, we find solemn assertions that tea yields a short-term high in return for long-term damage, while one 17th-century European convert to tea drinking, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who was on good terms with many China missionaries, says that his friends had to overcome his utmost suspicion before he consented to try it. Doubtless his attitude would have been shared by earlier adventurers who preferred to stick to the more familiar beverages of their Mongol hosts – at least one of the Great Khans was clearly a hopeless alcoholic, and most can be described as hearty topers.

Similarly, it has long been considered strange that there is no mention of the Great Wall before the present fortifications were built after the Mongols were thrown out, but Arthur Waldron has recently demonstrated that this must be because there was nothing there. Certainly there are records of walls built in ancient times, but nothing to show that there was a Great Wall constantly maintained throughout subsequent centuries. Frances Wood argues against this that primeval Shang fortifications from high antiquity do survive, but this is like arguing that the survival of Stonehenge proves that anything substantial built since then must still exist. The nearest British analogy for China’s walls, however, is not Hadrian’s Wall but the long gone Antonine Wall further north, since for centuries before the Polos North China had been under the control of non-Chinese peoples with no motive for maintaining alien ancient monuments. Waldron notes that some walls built even more recently than those currently visited by tourists have disappeared entirely, and I find his conclusions irrefutable.

Much more telling, though, is Herbert Franke’s observation that Marco seems to know too much about some things, and so may have been copying from a written, perhaps Persian, source. One wonders about Marco’s slave, Peter the Tartar, alias Petrus Suliman. The Mongol conquests resulted in a wholesale reduction to slavery or worse for much of the literate educated elite of Asia, and ghosting for an Italian entrepreneur with good media connections would probably have been a better fate than most suffered. Even so, the book still reads to me much more like the records of a traveller like Odoric than a compilation by someone like Kircher with excellent sources but no experience. And if it had really been based on information relayed to Marco by Peter while both were stuck in a family trading-post near the Black Sea, surely someone would have known this, since the research Frances Wood cites demonstrates that in the wake of the Polos the Mongol empire was soon thick with Italian missionaries and merchants all sending reports back home.

This brings us to one last question. If Marco was so important to the Great Khan, why is he not mentioned in Chinese sources, and if he was not important, what was he up to? The short answer is trading, just like other forgotten Italians, for apart from the mention of one missionary, Chinese materials are completely silent on visiting Italians until after the fall of the Mongols. But we cannot dismiss outright Marco’s claim to familiarity with the Khan. We know the Polos possessed golden paizi – the tablets used in the Mongol empire as a form of laissez-passer – and while they were not the last Venetian merchants said to have been so honoured, most surviving paizi are of silver, even if one gilded example was found by the Japanese at Jehol. The odd story of the Polos’ role in getting a group of Manichees classified as Christians also argues for influence at court, especially since, reading between the lines, it looks as if the Italians were being used as dupes. Manicheanism was enthusiastically persecuted by the Chinese predecessors of the Mongol rulers, and though the Khans were generally tolerant in matters of religion, I doubt that these underground sectarians would have broken cover unless they felt confident of the results of the Polos’ intervention.

Could it be that the Polos were important, even though not given any office important enough to leave a trace in Chinese records? Yes, if we take at face value Marco’s quite plausible account of his work for the Great Khan, going to and fro on a variety of missions and coming back for jolly chats with his employer about his experiences. Chinese institutions solely charged with keeping watch on government have a long history which may be traced from ancient China to modern Taiwan, and were always supplemented (just to be safe) by a variety of other confidential agents. In such a world strangers from afar – lacking a family network, completely dependent on imperial goodwill, and naive enough to notice and comment on things that others might overlook – were at a premium. This is not to accuse Marco of being a Mongol spy; simply to suggest that an impressionable young man without high office who could mix with ordinary citizens and liked to talk about his adventures probably had his uses to the ruler of Xanadu.

It may be bad form to contradict my former classmate on everything she has written, but in getting across to the world at large the message that Marco’s book is not simply a traveller’s tale but a bit of a whodunit as well she has convinced me, at any rate, that the study of Mongol China is worth the aspirin. That may not sound much of a compliment, but believe me, it is.