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Did Marco Polo really go to China?

I have heard this question a lot, and someone asked me just yesterday. Here's my answer:

Yes, it seems highly likely he did. From the day he got back home, people thought Marco Polo was exaggerating or lying about the fabulous wealth and wonder of the empire he claimed to have visited. In those days, Venice was the most powerful, prosperous city in Europe, and Venetians did not want to believe there was a land that was far more advanced. In fact, they called Marco “Il Milione” because he claimed to have seen “millions and millions” of jewels, people, soldiers, everything.

About 50 years after his book came out, an extremely popular travel book appeared, by “John Mandeville,” about a journey to the Orient. It was lively and fun to read, and told of terrific monsters, dog-headed cannibals, people with ears hanging to their knees, and men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders. It later proved to be mostly invented or borrowed from other writers, so that made people wonder about the truth of Marco Polo’s book, too.

For hundreds of years, Europeans could not travel safely to the Far East, so they had no way of checking. However, when Europeans began to explore Asia, they found that most of Marco Polo’s descriptions of remote places were remarkably accurate. Many Europeans did travel to China during the relatively peaceful years of the Mongol Empire, both traders and priests, so it is not hard to believe that one of them wrote a book about his travels when he got home.

For a scholar's explanation of these doubts, see F. Wood's Did Marco Polo Go To China? A Critical Appraisal by I. de Rachewiltz. I find his arguments compelling.

- November 13, 2010 -