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Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds

Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds

by Jonathan D. Spence
China has transfixed the West since the earliest contacts between these civilizations. With his characteristic elegance and insight, Jonathan Spence explores how the West has understood China over seven centuries. Ranging from Marco Polo's own depiction of China and the mighty Khan, Kublai, in the 1270s to the China sightings of three twentieth-century writers of


China has transfixed the West since the earliest contacts between these civilizations. With his characteristic elegance and insight, Jonathan Spence explores how the West has understood China over seven centuries. Ranging from Marco Polo's own depiction of China and the mighty Khan, Kublai, in the 1270s to the China sightings of three twentieth-century writers of acknowledged genius--Kafka, Borges, and Calvino--Spence conveys Western thought on China through a remarkable array of expression. Peopling Spence's account are Iberian adventurers, Enlightenment thinkers, spinners of the dreamy cult of Chinoiserie, and American observers such as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Ezra Pound, and Eugene O'Neill. Taken together, these China sightings tell us as much about the self-image of the West as about China.

Editorial Reviews

Percy Cradock
If I have any criticism of this fascinating book, it is that there could have been more examples of evolving Western views and interpretations.
Literary Review Magazine
Stephen Greenblatt
. . .[W]onderful. . . .there is every reason why the enigma of China should continue to haunt us.
The New York Times Book Review
D.J.[Spence says:] 'The secret lies in the ear, the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting.' Seeing may be believing, but believing can be seeing.
London Review of Books
London Review of Books
D.J.[Spence says:] 'The secret lies in the ear, the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting.' Seeing may be believing, but believing can be seeing.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Chinese historian par excellence Spence (The Search for Modern China) has taken on the formidable task of exploring how Westerners have thought about China. He starts not with Marco Polo, but with the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck, who came into contact with the Chinese inhabitants of the Mongol capital of Karakorum in 1253, some 20 years before the better-known Venetian's travels purportedly started, and ends with the recollections of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Included in the discussion are not only firsthand accounts by Jesuit missionaries, early diplomatic emissaries and, later, observers of the Communist revolution, but also works of fiction by those who had been to China (Pearl Buck, Victor Selagen) and those who had not (Daniel Defoe, Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges). The overriding theme is that most Western thought on China has been colored by the religious, political, economic or personal agendas of those doing the observing, or as Italian novelist Italo Calvino says in Invisible Cities, his novel about Polo and Kublai Khan, 'the listener retains only the words he is expecting.... It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear.' As in any such broad survey, the discussions of individual figures and the passages from original texts included are far too brief; however, in this case, they merely stimulate the reader's appetite to explore them further. Spence's book will appeal not only to those interested in history and literature, but to anyone looking for a perspective on contemporary discourse about China.
Library Journal
Top China expert Spence, Sterling Professor of History at Yale, focuses on what the West has thought of China since Marco Polo.
Stephen Greenblatt
. . .[W]onderful. . . .there is every reason why the enigma of China should continue to haunt us. -- The New York Times Book Review
Wall Street Journal
Washington Post Book World
Fascinating. . .an entertaining journey through longing, desire, misunderstanding, fear and revulsion.
Ian Buruma
While covering much ground lightly, [Spence] has teased out common strands in European and American ideas about China, and many of them cannot be explained by imperialism....Spence finds it hard to explain why Europeans continue to be fascinated by images of China. One mgith as well by puzzled by man's attraction to woman. It is the mystery, that is all. -- The New Republic
The New York Times
A masterful history of Western understandings of China by the pre-eminent Western literary historian of China.
D.J. Enright
[Spence says:] 'The secret lies in the ear, the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting.' Seeing may be believing, but believing can be seeing.
London Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
A brilliant account of seven centuries of the Western fascination with China, told by one of America's greatest, and most prolific, historians of China. Spence (The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci; The Search for Modern China) is a confident and experienced enough historian to admit what he doesn't know; here he doesn't know why China has had and retains such a hold on the Western imagination. Nonetheless, the fascination is there: from Marco Polo's 13th-century account of the court of Kublai Khan to Nixon's and Kissinger's musings on the mystery and greatness of Mao, from the 19th-century French passion for all things Chinese to the fiction of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino. Spence is also a subtle enough historian to not attempt to bring some overall grand meaning to his narrative. Rather, he presents what he terms 'sightings,' to imply the fleeting, often woefully inaccurate depictions of China that have been delivered in the West. Such sightings have allowed us to get our bearings, or seemingly so. Whether China has been praised as enlightened and progressive or reviled as cruel and despotic (and both have dominated Western thinking on China, often simultaneously), the purpose has been, inevitably perhaps, to examine ourselves, the West. And so, to mix an aural metaphor with the visual, understanding the China of the West requires, for Spence, understanding 'the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting.' Spence's prodigious and eclectic scholarship is on full display here, ranging freely over seven centuries of the sightings of adventurers, novelists, politicians. Some of his sources are well known (Karl Marx, Max Weber, Mark Twain); some are moreobscure (the French novelist Pierre Loti, American writer Eliza Jane Gilbert); yet within Spence's skilled writing they all intrigue. Seldom does scholarship this detailed grab the reader so. This has always been Spence's genius. A wonderful book.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Worlds of Marco Polo

    It is entirely appropriate to the course of our own exploration that the first Western work devoted mainly to China should be evasive and problematic. As far as we know, Marco Polo's book The Description of the World, usually known as the Travels, was dictated to a man named Rusticello in the year 1298, while Polo was in jail or under house arrest. Purporting to describe the travels that Marco Polo took through Asia between 1271 and 1295, and concentrating especially on the period from 1275 to 1292 when Polo lived and worked in China as an agent for the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan, the book is a combination of verifiable fact, random information posing as statistics, exaggeration, make-believe, gullible acceptance of unsubstantiated stories, and a certain amount of outright fabrication. The same is true of other works written before and afterwards, but what matters to us about Polo's text is that it was the first such work by a Westerner to claim to look at China from the inside, and the force of the narrative description was strong enough to imprint itself in Western minds down to our own time.

    Polo's is not the first account in a European language to discuss Chinese people with some specificity. That distinction goes to the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck, who in 1253 was dispatched to the Mongol capital of Karakorum, northwest of the Chinese border, by King Louis IX of France, in an attempt to win the Khan Mongke to the Christian cause against Islam. Though William did not get to China itself, while he was in Karakorum he noted down whatever information he obtained from the Chinese living there. Rubruck realized that the "Cataians" he was meeting in the Mongol base area were the same people who had been known to the Romans as "Seres" or "Silk People" because the finest silk came from their domains. After noting that he was "reliably informed" that in Cataia could be found a city with "walls of silver and battlements of gold," Rubruck gave a thumbnail sketch of the Chinese:

    The Cataians are a small race, who when speaking breathe heavily through the nose; and it is a general rule that all orientals have a small opening for the eyes. They are excellent craftsmen in whatever skill, and their physicians are very well versed in the efficacy of herbs and can diagnose very shrewdly from the pulse. But they do not employ urine samples [urinalibus non utuntur], not knowing anything about urine: this I saw [for myself], since there are a number of them at Caracorum. Their custom has always been that whatever the father's craft all his sons are obliged to follow it.

Rubruck followed this observation with two equally precise sentences on Chinese calligraphy and paper money: "The everyday currency of Cataia is of paper, the breadth and length of a palm, on which lines are stamped as on Mangu's seal. They write with a brush of the sort painters use, and in a single character make several letters that comprise one word."

    In other parts of his narrative, Rubruck showed a blunt skepticism about some of the Chinese information he was given. After recounting a story of how in eastern Cataia, among "soaring crags" there were little hairy creatures whose legs would not bend, and who were hunted down by means of traps baited with wine so that they could be pricked for the drops of blood that yielded a rare purple dye, Rubruck twice mentions that he was "told this" by a priest of Cataia but had not seen it himself. And as to the country bordering Cataia where people remain forever the same age once they enter, Rubruck comments that though this was "told for a fact," he himself "[did] not believe it." Despite its many values, Rubruck's report on Asia in which these remarks were embedded remained a private report for the eyes of King Louis. Only three manuscripts of it from the thirteenth or fourteenth century have ever been located, all of them in England, presumably because Rubruck's English contemporary, the scholar-philosopher Roger Bacon, was impressed by it. But even if Roger Bacon drew on a manuscript version of Rubruck for his own studies, there is surely no way that Polo could have seen it.

    The China that Polo gave to the world in his own extended account was a benevolently ruled dictatorship, colossal in scale, decorous in customs, rich in trade, highly urbanized, inventive in commercial dealings, weak in the ways of war. Whether all that is true or not is only the beginning of the conundrum. Equally intriguing are two other aspects of the problem. Was Polo there at all? And was he writing about China or about something else? The difficulty of grappling with these questions is compounded by two other factors. First, we have less corroborative evidence about the life and upbringing of Marco Polo than about almost any other celebrated writer in history. Second, despite the intricate trail of the various manuscript versions of his book--over eighty have survived from the Middle Ages in a range of libraries and collections, and there is always the chance of more being discovered--we do not have the original manuscript, but only copies of a lost original, amended copies of those copies, and translations or abbreviations of copies. Nor do we even know with certainty the language of the "first" version. Most probably it was in Venetian or "Lombard" dialect, subsequently translated into Italianate French, and thence into Latin.

    The difficulty of finding out anything precise about Marco Polo intensifies the mysteries about the text itself. The only iron-clad evidence we have of the existence of the man Marco Polo is from his last will and testament, dictated as he lay at home in Venice, seriously ill, on January 9, 1323, in the presence of a priest and notary. This document also shows that as of this date, Marco's wife Donata was still alive, along with three of their daughters, Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta, the last alone still unmarried. The will shows Marco to be comfortably off, though not especially wealthy, as can be seen by his bequests to family and Venetian religious institutions. His social status is further indicated by a clause in the middle of the will: "Also I release Peter the Tartar, my servant, from all bondage, as completely as I pray God to release mine own soul from all sin and guilt. And I also remit him whatever he may have gained by work at his own house; and over and above I bequeath him 100 lire of Venice denari." Five years later the city of Venice gave to this same Peter all the rights of a Venetian citizen, due to his long residence in the city and his good deportment.

    But the depiction of Peter as a "Tartar" does not mean that Marco Polo bought Peter in the Far East, or that Peter was of partial Chinese stock. Virtually all slaves used in Venice, whether brought in from the Black Sea or elsewhere, were described as Tartars. There are brief references to Marco Polo in two other legal documents, one the will made by his younger brother, Maffeo (who seems to have been rather wealthier than Marco, whom he named one of his trustees), and one a complaint lodged by Marco against a fellow merchant who cheated him out of the profit on a half pound of musk. Marco won the case, with costs. These and a handful of other legal documents establish Marco as the son of Niccolo Polo (deceased by 1300) and the nephew of another Maffeo, deceased by 1318. None of these documents, despite prodigious research by many scholars, has yielded up a specific China connection of any kind.

    Thus the weight of evidence concerning the life of Marco Polo is thrown back onto his own book. Lacking any other evidence concerning the lost original, we have to accept the statement in the earliest surviving prologue that what we have now was dictated by Marco Polo to a certain Rusticello of Pisa, who claims in his prologue to the work that Marco dictated it to him while the two were in prison together in Genoa during the year 1298. That makes sense, for Pisa and Marco's native Venice were both at war with Genoa in the late thirteenth century, and prisoners captured by the Genoese were often held for some time in Genoa, while awaiting a ransom payment or a prisoner trade arranged through diplomatic channels. A Rusticello of Pisa had been quite a celebrated narrator of Arthurian romances some twenty years earlier, and since Marco Polo's book has much of the form and content of a typical romance-adventure of the time, the supposition is that the author of the Arthurian romances and Marco Polo's travels was the same man.

    Marco Polo himself probably could write fairly well, and dealt with correspondence in the course of his business, but would have had no experience composing any form of general narrative or travelogue. Nor was literacy among even the well-born assumed late in the thirteenth century. Several versions of the manuscript prologue to Marco Polo's Travels start with the words: "Great Princes, Emperors, and Kings, Dukes and Marquises, Counts, Knights, and Burgesses! and People of all degrees who desire to get knowledge of the various races of mankind and of the diversities of the sundry regions of the world, take this Book and cause it to be read to you." Such an opening sentence echoed directly the beginnings of many courtly romances, and would have been comfortingly familiar to readers and listeners alike. Stylistically, too, Rusticello as transcriber often followed the conventions of courtly romance rather than what we assume would have been the words of a seasoned traveler like Marco. For instance, Marco Polo's narrative contains quite lengthy accounts of seven of the greatest Far Eastern conflicts of his age, but all of them are stilted, formulaic, and repetitive, as they deal with vaguely defined massed armies and mounds of severed heads and limbs. As one of the great nineteenth-century scholars of Marco Polo expressed himself on this particular point: "One finds it impossible to conceive of our sober and reticent Messer Marco pacing the floor of his Genoese dungeon, and seven times over rolling out this magniloquent bombast, with sufficient deliberation to be overtaken by the pen of the faithful amanuensis."

    The one specific example in the book of Marco Polo's successful activities at a field of battle is at first sight far more convincing than these other seven. Every detail seems to be in place. The mighty Mongol Khan is asking his assembled advisers how he should subdue the Chinese city of "Saianfu," which is stubbornly resisting his armies. The Khan's generals admit they are baffled, for the walls of Saianfu are so strong they resist direct assault, and the city also continues to receive regular relief supplies by river. But among the listeners are Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle. Polo's narrative continues:

    Then spoke up the two brothers and Messer Marco the son, and said: "Great Prince, we have with us among our followers men who are able to construct mangonels [catapults] which shall cast such great stones that the garrison will never be able to stand them, but will surrender incontinently, as soon as the mangonels or trebuchets shall have shot into the town."

    The Kaan bade them with all his heart have such mangonels made as speedily as possible. Now Messer Nicolo and his brother and his son immediately caused timber to be brought, as much as they desired, and fit for the work in hand. And they had two men among their followers, a German and a Nestorian Christian, who were masters of that business, and these they directed to construct two or three mangonels capable of casting stones of 300 lbs. weight....

    And when the engines were got to the camp they were forthwith set up, to the great admiration of the Tartars. And what shall I tell you? When the engines were set up and put in gear, a stone was shot from each of them into the town. These took effect among the buildings, crashing and smashing through everything with huge din and commotion. And when the towns-people witnessed this new and strange visitation they were so astonished and dismayed that they wist not what to do or say....

    So the men of the city surrendered, and were received to terms; and this all came about through the exertions of Messer Nicolo, and Messer Maffeo, and Messer Marco; and it was no small matter. For this city and province is one of the best that the Great Kaan possesses, and brings him in great revenues.

    There appears to be great documentary precision to this passage. Saianfu--an earlier variant of the name of the present Xiangyang, in northwest Hebei on the south bank of the Han River--is described in fourteenth-century Chinese sources as being the site of a protracted siege by the armies of the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai. The city held out from 1268 to 1273, and its fall marked the first stage of the collapse of the southern Song dynasty. The city was forced to surrender, according to these Chinese sources, because Kublai "sent to the West for engineers expert at the construction and working of machines casting stones of 150 pounds weight."

    Unfortunately for our acceptance of Polo's story, the siege was over by 1273, and from every item of evidence that we have there is no way that Marco Polo could have reached China before 1274. And also according to the narrative prologue to Marco Polo's book, his father and uncle must have left Kublai's capital of Karakorum on the way back to Venice after their first journey to the East by 1266 at the latest, well before the siege began. One of the earliest surviving manuscripts, as if aware of half this problem, mentions only the two brothers Niccolo and Maffeo as making these recommendations to the Khan three years into the siege, supervising the manufacture and deployment of the mangonels, and causing the surrender of the city. This version also does not include the statement that there were two Western technicians who helped in the manufacture and design. But we cannot be precisely sure if this manuscript chose to drop Marco because the copyist or editor knew for some reason that Marco Polo could not have been there, or whether this is in fact a copy very close to the original, and that though Marco Polo never said he was there, later editors wrote him into the story to make the narrative more vivid.

    These technicians, however, cannot be wished away along with Marco Polo, for Asian sources place them firmly at the siege site; but though agreeing that the technicians were from the west of China, these sources place the technicians' origins as being in what Europeans would call the Muslim Middle East: the Chinese sources even name the two men, Ala'uddin of Miafarakain and Ismael of Herat. Persian sources state that the experts came from Damascus (or Balbek) and mention there were three of them. To confuse the issue further, both Chinese and Persian sources agree that the Mongol armies had used such catapults to considerable effect since the time of Genghis Khan, around 1230. Yet, even if Polo cannot have been there, and might have been spuriously aggrandizing himself and his family, his account is astonishingly accurate about the general situation of the siege; and if he had an "outside source," written or personal, we do not know what it was.

    A different aspect of the authenticity problem arises in relation to Polo's career in China, those seventeen years between 1274 and 1291 in which he allegedly labored in Kublai Khan's service. Rusticello's prologue states that during his service with the Khan, Marco Polo learned the Mongol language (both spoken and written) and was familiar with the "written characters" of four other languages. As Polo grew in experience and knowledge, the Khan sent him on ever longer official journeys. At a certain point in his career, according to Rusticello, Polo made a key conceptual leap:

    Now [Polo] had taken note on several occasions that when the Prince's ambassadors returned from different parts of the world, they were able to tell him about nothing except the business on which they had gone, and that the Prince in consequence held them for no better than fools and dolts, and would say: "I had far liever hearken about the strange things, and the manners of the different countries you have seen, than merely be told of the business you went upon;"--for he took great delight in hearing of the affairs of strange countries. Marco therefore, as he went and returned, took great pains to learn about all kinds of different matters in the countries which he visited, in order to be able to tell about them to the Great Kaan....

    When Marco returned from his ambassage he presented himself before the Emperor, and after making his report of the business with which he was charged, and its successful accomplishment, he went on to give an account in a pleasant and intelligent manner of all the novelties and strange things that he had seen and heard; insomuch that the Emperor and all such as heard his story were surprised, and said: "If this young man live, he will assuredly come to be a person of great worth and ability." And so from that time forward he was always entitled Messer Marco Polo, and thus we shall style him henceforth in this Book of ours, as is but right.

    But these superficially precise references are never clarified in the long, descriptive body of the text that follows, and Marco Polo himself tells the reader neither the exact details of the business he conducted nor what "novelties and strange things" he had encountered that would have absorbed a man as experienced in the ways of the world and war as his master Kublai Khan.

    There is only one passage in the Travels that more precisely delineates Marco Polo's bureaucratic tasks. With reference to the city of "Yanju," which all scholars agree refers to the modern Yangzhou, a commercial hub on the west bank of the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, there is this passage: "And Messer Marco Polo himself, of whom this book speaks, did govern this city for three full years, by the order of the Great Kaan. The people live by trade and manufactures, for a great amount of harness for knights and men-at-arms is made there. And in this city and its neighbourhood a large number of troops are stationed by the Kaan's orders. There is no more to say about it." Quite apart from the problematic reference to "knights" and their "harness"--which sounds more like an extrapolation from the chivalric warfare of the European Middle Ages than anything we know about Chinese warfare and society--is the fact that after generations of diligent searching of Chinese and Mongol records by scores of scholars, no reference to any Westerner or member of the Polo family has ever been found in the extant lists of officials posted to the city.

    But if one might have been tempted by this to go further, and say the whole notion of Europeans being in the middle of Yangzhou in the late thirteenth century is inherently absurd, one would be brought up short by a discovery made by construction workers of the People's Liberation Army working to dismantle the walls of Yangzhou City in 1951, two years after the Communist victory in China. For embedded in the wall they found a marble slab, decorated with incised scenes from the life of St. Catherine, on which was the following inscription: "In the Name of God the Father, Amen. Here lies Katerina, daughter of the noble Dominico Yllionis, who died in the year of Our Lord 1342, in the month of July." The early transcriptions of this discovery rendered the woman's name as "Vilionis," but the great medievalist Robert Lopez was able to correct the reading and trace this family to a certain Domenico Ilioni, who was listed in a Genoese legal record of 1348 as having been the executor at some unspecified earlier time of the merchant Jacopo de Oliverio. This Jacopo had lived, says the document, "in partibus Catagii" (in the realm of China), where he had quintupled the stock of capital he brought out with him.

    A few years later another smaller tablet was found in Yangzhou, again with Christian sculpture above a brief Latin inscription, recording the death of a son of the same Domenico named Antonio in November 1344. What we seem to have here, therefore, admittedly thirty to forty years after Marco Polo's alleged tour of duty in Yangzhou, is a small but apparently flourishing commercial community of Italians in Yangzhou, making a good profit. Might not such a cluster have called for an administrator appointed by the Khan now ruling China to watch over their affairs? Such a community in the Middle Ages would also have needed some kind of religious support system if possible, and evidence for exactly this is provided by the Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone, who traveled to China on papal business in the 1320s. Odoric reported that he visited Yangzhou in 1322, and while there stayed at a house of the Franciscan Order, which was inside the city along with three Nestorian churches. The feasibility of Polo's service in Yangzhou is thus reborn just as it seemed easiest to reject it.

    Polo's text is full of countless such conundrums. This is not surprising, for he writes as a man of his time, and this generalization seems sustainable whatever manuscript is being discussed, or whatever role one ascribes to Rusticello as author or amanuensis. This means that the format of each description follows certain rhythms which can be found in medieval writings and in the diplomatic reports of the ambassadors from Venice serving overseas: in sequence the rulers, the ruled, the social rankings, the provinces, the clans, the customs, the products. Polo's book may seem an odd merchant's handbook to us, but there were others rather like it for other areas of the world; pioneering traders and roving missionary diplomats all mingled what we now call "marvels" with their sober detail, for marvels were what their readers expected to hear, and if they had heard them before, so much the better, and so much more trustworthy the source became. "Any medieval traveler was the bearer of news," as John Critchley observes. The ideal landscape was always a cultivated one, in such accounts, and mountains were full of strangeness and danger.

    Polo seems to have known no Chinese, and his transcriptions of Chinese names are invariably similar to or related to those in Arab travelers' texts. But even contemporary Italian merchants in London garbled English names so totally that many are almost unrecognizable. Polo never mentioned tea, or Chinese calligraphy, which seems extraordinary if he lived in China for seventeen years; nor did he record cormorant fishing, or comment on the bound feet of Chinese women, or mention or visit the Great Wall. But he did record the use of coal for fuel, the size of Peking's brothel quarter and its position--outside the main city walls; he did see paper money and try to describe its manufacture and function. He did describe the massed boats on China's eastern rivers, and note the importance of salt and its bulk shipment in China's economy. He also noticed price stabilization techniques and stockpiling of grain in state storehouses, and public baths.

    This combination in Polo of ignorance and precision has led centuries of readers down to the present day to wonder about his sources of information. Later versions of Polo's manuscript, say those made after 1340, had many new sources to draw from, and hence copyists and editors could have added their own embellishments, rather than go back to other (now lost) original drafts of Polo's own words. Odoric of Pordenone traveled extensively in China during the 1320s, and the report that he submitted to the papacy on his return circulated in at least seventy-three manuscript copies. The pioneering "world history" of the Persian scholar Rashid ad-Din, which gives many details on China he gleaned from Chinese texts and perhaps Mongol respondents, was completed by 1310, and the elaborate and immensely popular fictions of Sir John Mandeville--which were believed to be accurate by many fourteenth-century readers--were already widely circulated in the 1350s. There were houses of Franciscan friars in several Chinese cities, and so many Italian merchants were traveling to China that Balducci Pegolotti in his famous handbook of 1340 spent two chapters delineating the route.

    Most intriguingly, one Nestorian Christian from North China named Rabban Sauma, of Turkic-Mongol descent, was dispatched to the West by Kublai Khan around the year 1276, just as Polo is believed to have reached China. After many adventures, Rabban Sauma reached Naples in 1287, and France later that same year. But there is no evidence that his original narrative, written in Persian, was known in Europe at the time; indeed, no Persian version has ever been found, and the account has survived only in a Syriac translation that came to light in the nineteenth century. Thus for any Polo manuscripts that were circulating before 1330 or so, there is no clearly authenticated rival text from which he or his copyists might have borrowed.

    One obvious source of information that Marco Polo might have naturally drawn upon was the two people who are described as having accompanied him on his travels, his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo. It was they who pioneered the commercial route to Karakorum in the 1260s to which they returned with the seventeen-year-old Marco in 1273-75. Deeply experienced and courageous travelers that they were, and skillful traders, what were they doing for the long period between 1275 and the year 1291, at which time (both Western and Mongol sources agree) they began the dangerous route back to Europe by sea, as escorts to a Mongol princess sent as bride to the Mongol Khan in Persia? The prologue to Marco Polo's Description of the World is rich in details on their activities on their first journey, but silent about them on the second--except for the incident of the siege and the mangonels. It is feasible that they were traveling and trading in Mongol China and Central Asia in the 1270s and 1280s, and that Marco was only with them some of the time if at all. Maffeo Polo, a well-off merchant, had a house on the north shore of the Black Sea, in the town of Sudak, as attested by various sources. Could Marco have been based there, gathering potentially relevant commercial and travel information from a range of European and Arab traders, which he then fused with information supplied by his father and uncle when they at last returned?

    Such speculations may or may not have weight, but in an important sense they are irrelevant to the story. For as the British medievalist John Critchley puts it, what makes Polo extraordinary is not the route he took on his travels, or his specific experiences, or his own character and person. It is quite simply his book, and the fact that it got written at all. Thus the salient question is not so much how as why it got written.

    On this, we have no evidence at all. But we can be pretty sure it was not to make money--one could not make money from a manuscript copy painstakingly written by someone else and recopied to be deposited in a monastery or royal or aristocratic library. Was it just dictated to pass the time in jail? Yule, in the passage I quoted above, wrote of Marco Polo "pacing his dungeon floor" in Genoa, but that may be wide of the mark. If Polo was a well-connected Venetian prisoner of war being held for ransom, then he might have been held under some form of quite comfortable house arrest, pledged not to leave Genoa but otherwise fairly free to roam. His book could have grown discursively, through question and answer applied to some fundamental outline of the kind supplied in the existing prologue.

    One early manuscript, known as the "Z" manuscript, discovered in Toledo only in the 1930s, seems to suggest this. In it there are a number of comments that are found in few or no other manuscripts, and appear to be answers directed to an unknown interlocutor, perhaps skeptical or merely curious about certain details of Polo's experience. It may or may not be significant that this Z manuscript does not include any mention either of Marco Polo's three-year appointment in Yangzhou or the activity by him or his family with siege equipment in the battle for Xiangyang. Could Polo have withdrawn such claims after insistent questioning? Or could later copyists have inserted the details in their own manuscripts after reading some other source to give what they thought was extra circumstantial weight to Polo's account? Did Polo himself modify different versions of his story to different copyists at different times? Apart from the later will that indicates his marriage to Donata, we know nothing of his life in Venice after his release from prison, probably in 1298 or 1299. The Venetian records show no ransom agreements, no civic responsibilities, no real estate purchases or commercial ventures. No Venetian men of letters mention reading his accounts; none of their great libraries record early acquisition of a copy. But in some circles he had acquired the nickname of "Il Milione" by around 1310, probably because of the millions of fables he recounted rather than the millions of ducats he had accumulated.

    One ingenious explanation of the book's existence is that Polo wrote it to gain preferment, perhaps in the suite of some ambassador to or from Venice. Thus the long descriptions of Mongol court politics and Polo's bureaucratic and traveling experience were designed to present him as an able and experienced man of the world, who could undertake any assignment requiring tact, calmness, courage. In this view, we might see his book as a kind of resume or vita--rambling indeed according to our current procedures, but not without vigor and effectiveness in the context of the times. This speculation, like so many others, has some evidence to support it. Two of the earliest known Polo manuscripts, preserved in France, have a passage written on the front stating that they were presented by Polo himself to the French ambassador Thibaut of Cepoy in Venice in 1307. As a commoner, Polo would have had little chance of preferment in the Venetian world, where in the 1290s social hierarchies were congealing and the elite protecting and reinforcing its own privileges. But France may have seemed more open, and certainly the Travels contain many passages on the Mongol-Chinese flexibility in hiring the more lowly born and on their generous rewards to those who served them loyally.

    If much of Polo's account was thus designed as a mixture of self-promotion and oblique criticism of Western meanness as contrasted with Eastern opulence and openness, then other aspects of his description may have had similar polemical or moralistic intent. His book might have been designed in part as a commentary on his own native city, as much as an accurate representation of life in China. Polo was the father of three daughters, as stated clearly in his will, and we may hypothesize that he sought to bring them up as well as he could. Did this perhaps give him an added inducement to portray a China of moral certainties that would contrast favorably with the notoriously free and easy sexual attitudes of many Venetians? According to one of the manuscripts that can be dated to around 1315, Polo--who never noticed that Chinese women had bound feet--nevertheless chose to describe the character and deportment of Chinese women at some length:

    You ought to learn too that the girls of the province of Catai are beyond others pure and keep the virtue of modesty. They do not indeed skip and dance, they do not frolic, they do not fly into a passion, they do not stick at the windows looking at the faces or passers nor showing their own faces to them, they give no ready hearing to unseemly talk, they do not frequent feasts and merrymakings. And if it happens that they go to some proper place, as perhaps the idol temples [or] to visit the houses of kinsfolk and relations, they would go in the company of their mothers, not staring improperly at people but wearing on the head certain pretty bonnets of theirs which prevent an upward look, so that in walking they always direct the eyes on the road before the feet. Before their elders they are modest; they never speak foolish words, nor indeed any in their presence, except when they have been asked. In their rooms they keep at their tasks and rarely show themselves to fathers and brothers and the elders of the house. And they pay no attention to suitors.

Is this really China? Or is it a reverse image of Venice, as Critchley has suggested, one that shows us not so much Polo the traveler as Polo the "ageing father of teenage daughters"?

    However, if chastity and decorum were two of the aspects of his China--whether real or imagined--that Marco Polo hoped to pass on to his readers as well as to his daughters, it was not the aspect that caught the attention of later medieval or Renaissance readers. From the start, readers were searching in Polo for support of their own fancies, rather than for moralistic musings, and he did not disappoint them. The most significant of the fourteenth-century works that can be shown to contain material drawn from Marco Polo--Chaucer and Dante have been combed in vain by dedicated Polo scholars--is the Romance of Bauduin de Sebourc, Third King of Jerusalem. Much of this romance's background incident is drawn directly from Polo, and the lady of the story, Ivorine, who is wooed and won by the future King Bauduin, comes entirely from an early chapter of Polo's history on an evil caliph who brought up his band of assassins in a carefully constructed Paradise, complete not only with "wine and milk and honey" but also with "ladies and damsels, who dallied with them to their hearts' content, so that they had what young men will have." Even the description of Ivorine's eyes--black and lustrous--comes from Polo's description of the black and lustrous eyes of his master Kublai. Polo fed many later dreams with his depiction of the Khan's host of concubines attending their lord in groups of six at a time, in revolving three night shifts, "both in the room and in the bed and for all that he needs; and the great Kaan does with them what he pleases."

    Marco Polo's most famous early reader, Christopher Columbus, was impressed by the sensual elements in Polo's discussion, as well as by the commercial possibilities he opened up. The first printed version of Polo's work (from a Latin manuscript of the 1300s) was published in 1485, and Columbus clearly had a good knowledge of its contents before his voyage of 1492. In 1496, after his return, he ordered his own copy, and either then or later made close to a hundred notations in the margins. These marginal notes--written mainly in Latin, with some Spanish words interspersed--show the passages that most sharply caught Columbus's attention. He was struck by the practice of burning retainers and womenfolk to accompany their lord after his death, mentioned on one occasion by Polo; and next to a passage on the marriage practices of Tibet, Columbus jots down the words, "They do not want wives save from among the women who have already had intercourse." Reading Polo's discussion of the people of "Cayndu," Columbus is caught up sharply by another custom, and notes that "the men offer their wives and their daughters to passing travellers." He also notes the assassins with their garden of sensual delights, discussions of miracles and unicorns, and the location of the home of Prester John.

    But despite these expressions of interest in the sensual and the arcane, most of the time, as we would expect, Columbus is tracking Polo's text for items of trade and clues to its dangers and successes. Thus he highlights Polo's references to gold and silver, bulk sales of fine silk, spices, porcelain, and precious and semiprecious stones, from rubies and sapphires to topaz and lapis lazuli, along with fine wine, and pearl divers. Equally significant to Columbus are the direction and seasonal time of monsoon-fleet sailings, the prevalence of pirates or cannibals, and the locations of likely sources of food and other supplies. Columbus highlighted several promising-sounding cities in China, including Yangzhou and Hangzhou, and commented on their trade possibilities, but next to only one city did he write the phrase mercacciones innumeras--an "incalculable amount of trade." This he wrote opposite the name of "Cambalu" (or Kambaluk), Polo's name for the city of Peking, Kublai Khan's new capital in China. And to highlight his sense of excitement, Columbus added a new motif to his marginal words. It was a drawing of a hand resting on what could be a bank of clouds or a rolling sea. The fingers of the hand were all closed tight, except for the topmost index finger, which pointed straight out, dramatically, at the news that had aroused it.

Meet the Author

Jonathan D. Spence is Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, where he has taught for thirty years. He has been awarded MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. The Search for Modern China won the Lionel Gelber Award and the Kiriyama Book Prize.

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