Marco Polo is considered by most to be the most important link between Europe and China in the 13th century. His accounts of the Eastern world had an immense impact on Western thinking and life in Europe.
Marco Polo was born in 1254 to a noble family in Venice, which was at that time an independent city-state in northern Italy. Marco had a typical education of a young man of his time1. At age 15, he had already studied many of the classical authors and understood the Bible and theology of the Church. He also had a good knowledge of French and Italian language. From his later history we find out about his interest in natural resources, the ways of the people, and many strange and interesting plants and animals. Because he came from a family of traders,everything he learned he related to the possibility of commerce2.
By the time Marco was 15, his father and uncle, who were both merchants, had already traveled all the way to Eastern Asia. The two men had made contact with many peoples, including the Persians, and the Tartars and Mongols. They knew of all the popular trading routes through Asia and they even had established a trading post of their own3. Throughout the land they were known as men who were ‘signally noble, wise and provident4.’ Since this first voyage was a success, they planned to embark on a second expedition, on which they decidedto along young Marco.
On the elders’ initial journey, Kublai Khan, the great ruler of China, gave the men special letters that were delivered to the Roman Pontiff. On this journey the Pope gave the adventurers letters in response to the Great Khan’s messages5. With these letters the men set out on their voyage to China. Their course took them through Armenia where Marco noted the wonderful hand woven rugs and textiles. They traveled through the oil fields in the Caspian Sea area. They then went south to Iraq, to the city of Tabriz which was a great trading center. Next, they went through Persia and then north to Upper Persia6.
All along the journey, Marco recorded what he saw and described the peoples that the Venetians encountered. Later, after the voyage, his travels would be made into a book7 which would not have been possible if it weren’t for Marco’s notes.
Back to the voyage, the travelers then journeyed into the land of the Tartars and into the Chinese Empire. As he continued into China, Marco noticed increasing signs of wealth and that the people were highly civilized. The Chinese had a much higher sense of social unity and concern for all members of a community than those of neighboring societies8.
They then arrived at the Court of the Great Kublai Khan in what is now the City of Peking. Marco marvels at the beauty of the buildings, and gardens in the city. From the very populous city ran roads out to the country. Every part of the country was carefully noted in the official records, and the distance from Peking to every village in the empire was included in these records. The Great Khan had a messenger service that used these roads to bring news to him from all parts of the country. Along these roads were post houses where a change in horses or riders was possible for the delivery of very urgent messages. There was also a small postal service that consisted of horsemen and runners9.
Another important innovation to Chinese life was Khan’s use of paper money on a large scale. These paper bills were made from very thick, strong bark. They were printed and then brought to the palace for a special stamp of authenticity. These bills could be brought to the palace and exchanged for gold at any time10.
Kublai Khan also had a well developed administrative system. Throughout the country he had Tartar military groups on the lookout for possible dissension among the people. The governors of the large cities were appointed by Khan himself, and many were close personal friends who he knew could be trusted11. Marco was close enough to the Great Khan that he even served as governor of the city of Yang Chow for a short time, but was later moved to a position where he would travel to the extents of the empire and report his findings12. By reporting his experiences he gave Khan information that the emperor would have never otherwise been able to acquire. This background allowed Khan to develop better political control of the far regions of his empire.
First, Marco made a trip to the West, where he encountered the Tibetans. He then traveled to the south, into the area that is now known as Laos, and Vietnam. Then, he made his way northeast, and back into China. As he passed through the heartland of China, the south, he found that this was a very prosperous area. Here there were great manufacturing cities, centers for shipping and trade, and a rich abundance of game for food. In the far south, was an area of heavy rice and wheat production13.
When he arrived at the palace of the Great Khan, an opportunity to return home presented itself to the three Venetians. Khan was eager to send a young Chinese princess to a prince in Persia. Since there were wars in the neighboring lands, he decided to send the princess to Persia by sea under the protection of the Polos14. After safely delivering the princess, the Polos continued their journey home. After 24 years away, they finally returned to Venice. They brought with them a great fortune in jewels and valuables15, as well as many interesting experiences.
A few years after returning, Marco commanded a Venetian war gallery in a naval battle with Genoa. Marco was taken prisoner by the Genoese16.
While in prison, Marco told the story of his experiences to a fellow prisoner. This soon became a manuscript that spread throughout Europe and today is regarded as one of the greatest travel narratives in all of literature17. However when Marco’s accounts of the East were first made known, many people regarded him as one of the greatest liars in Europe18. Much of what Marco reported seemed so bizarre to Europeans that they could not believe him. People could not believe, for instance, that paper money could substitute for metal coins as money. Another reason people doubted Marco Polo was the fact that he seemed to exaggerate about the Eastern world. Since Marco was not an expert writer, he may have had difficulty putting into words what he encountered. For example, nearly every major city Marco visited is described as the most magnificent, or the greatest city he’d ever seen. Since he said this about every city, many readers assumed he was just telling tall tales, when actually Marco simply couldn’t find the proper words to describe the great cities. Therefore, until a communications resumed with China, Marco Polo would be considered Europe’s greatest liar19.
Probably the most important contribution to Europe at Marco’s time was the fact that he, and his father and uncle, served as a link between Europe and China. Because of this, ideas and goods were brought back to the West that would enhance Western life.
In addition Marco’s maps had a significant influence on early map makers. Christopher Columbus possessed a version of Marco Polo’s travels which inspired him to seek a sea route to the East20.
There is no denying that because of Marco’s narrative of his travels through the Asia, Western ways and thinking were greatly impacted.
Burland, Cottie A. The Travels of Marco Polo. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970.
Hart, Henry H. Venetian Adventurer. New York: Stanford University Press, 1947.
Humble, Richard. Marco Polo. Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, 1975.
Thorndike, Ashley H. Travels of Marco Polo. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927.
The New Book of Knowledge, 1985 ed., v. 15, ‘Marco Polo.’ Groiler Incorporated, 1983.
Wallen, David. ‘Stumbling in Marco Polo’s footsteps,’ World Press Review, January 1995.
Wallbank, T. Walter, and Arnold Schrier. History and Life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1984.