Marco Polo Goes to China

WORLD HISTORY | August 2, 2019

Marco Polo. Source: (travelzhejiang.com)

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear “Marco Polo” is a swimming pool version of the children’s game "tag."  However, those who paid attention in history class will also remember that Marco Polo was the name of the Italian explorer who visited China.

Marco Polo (the explorer, not the game) was born in Venice, Italy, in 1254, the son of a wealthy merchant family. His mother died when he was just a boy and his father and his uncle, jewel merchants Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, spent most of Marco’s childhood in Asia. As a result, Polo was raised by his extended family. Niccolo and Maffeo spent time in China and, by the time they returned to Venice in 1269, had established diplomatic relations with Kublai Khan. At his request, they planned to return to China with one hundred priests and a collection of holy water.

Grand Canal, Venice. Source: (Wikipedia)

Marco Polo was around fifteen or sixteen when his father and uncle returned to Venice. Pope Clement IV had recently passed away and the explorers waited two years for a new pope to be elected. In 1271, they gave up on waiting and began their return trip with Marco in tow. A few days later, Teobaldo of Piacenza was elected as Pope Gregory X. The Polos returned to get official credentials from the newly elected pope and, instead of the 100 priests they had hoped to recruit, two friars were assigned to accompany them. Unfortunately, even those two friars were unable to face the difficult journey and returned home shortly after beginning the expedition.

Archaeological site of Xanadu. Source: (archaeology-travel.com)

The Polos pressed on; however, the journey was not easy. They took a year-long break in Afghanistan while Marco recovered from an illness. In 1275, after four years of traveling, they reached Xanadu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan. What was intended to be a journey of only a few years turned out to be twenty-three years. It is believed that the Polos served in the employ of the Mongol ruler. Marco, in particular, served as a special envoy for Khan, who sent him to the far regions of Asia, places never before visited by Europeans. As time passed, he was promoted, allegedly serving as governor of Yangzhou between 1282 and 1287, as well as being appointed to the Privy Council.

The Mongol Empire. Source: (themaparchive.com)

Sometime around 1292, after seventeen years in China, the Polos eventually decided to return to their home country. Khan was not happy to see them go but relented after they offered to escort a Mongol princess who was being sent to Persia to become the consort of Arghun Khan. Once again, the trip proved arduous and by the time they reached Persia, only eighteen of several hundred travelers had survived. By this time, Arghun had died and the princess was handed over to his son Maḥmūd Ghāzān instead. The Polos continued their journey, finally reaching Venice in 1295.

Marco Polo (ship) The sailing ship 'Marco Polo' in full sail. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Soon after returning to Venice, Marco was taken prisoner by the Genoese. Possibly inspired by a fellow prisoner from Pisa, a well-known writer of romances named Rustichello, Marco began writing Il Milione, which chronicled his years in China. After being released from prison in 1299, Marco returned to Venice, got married and raised three daughters. The remainder of his life seems to have been lived out quietly and he died in Venice on January 8, 1324. While many of his family and friends, as well as subsequent historians, questioned his account of his journeys and whether or not he ever even went to China, his legacy and influence are undisputed, and it was his book which inspired Christopher Columbus to begin his own expedition in 1492.

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