Debunking Marco Polo's debunker Historian: People resented having Marco Polo's famous journey to China exposed as a fantasy. Much to the author's surprise, some predict her death.

Sun Journal

December 14, 1996|By William D. Montalbano | William D. Montalbano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- Did librarian Frances Wood go too far when she suggested that Marco Polo, one of history's most famous travelers, may not have gone far enough 700 years ago? The thought occurred to her when a distinguished Italian historian sidled up to her at a recent conference and archly predicted, "You will be killed."

The trouble began when Wood published a book with a teasing but incendiary title: "Did Marco Polo Go to China?" She thinks he did not, thus challenging one of history's great adventure stories.

"I simply wanted to separate the man, and such facts that can be established, from the myth. I knew that Marco Polo was a

household name, but I was unaware that millions of people all over the world felt passionately about him and would be baying for blood," Wood says in her cluttered office at the British Library.

Wood believes the great traveler journeyed no further than Polo family trading posts thousands of miles west of China. Marco Polo was more adept at listening around the fire than tramping across terra incognita, she says. His book is mostly hearsay, Wood thinks, although saying so has proved more incendiary than she ever imagined.

"I was amazed that people seemed aggressively upset and very predetermined to disagree. It surprised me because I always think that famous people are there to be looked at," says the 48-year-old head of the Chinese department at the library.

By training, her critics are quick to note, Wood is a Sinologist, not a historian. She has translated one novel from Chinese, and her four books about China include the exhaustive contemporary travelers' standby, "The Blue Guide to China."

Probably written in 1298, Marco Polo's account of his 24 years abroad -- 17 of them supposedly in China -- is said to have been dictated to a writer of romances named Rustichello while the two men were prisoners in Genoa after their capture in an obscure sea battle between Venetian and Genoese forces.

As the story goes, Polo's father and uncle, both Venetian traders, journeyed east in about 1260, eventually meeting the great Mongol leader Kublai Khan. They returned to Venice but left again almost immediately, accompanied this time by teen-age Marco. Arriving in Kublai's capital as a "young stripling" of about 21, Polo impressed Kublai, who dispatched him to report on remote southern Chinese provinces he was conquering.

Polo "paid close attention to all the novelties and curiosities that came his way so that he might retell them to the Great Khan," according to his book, which was a medieval version of a best seller, widely translated and circulated in his own time -- and ever since.

Rustichello, who wrote fiction, probably embellished the story, scholars say; some fanciful editors over subsequent centuries certainly did, says Wood. Still, Polo's travels stand as the first record by a European of the great Mongolian and Chinese civilizations.

Polo's description of Kublai's court, of porcelain and paper money and of Chinese cities such as Beijing and Yangzhou has been read across centuries as an accurate, firsthand portrait of an astonishing new civilization.

Wood, emerging from an exercise in retrospective deduction, is a firm disbeliever.

"I don't think Marco Polo ever went to China. When I'm feeling generous, I think his father and uncle might have gotten as far as Mongolia. But I don't think Polo himself went much further than Constantinople [today's Istanbul] and the Black Sea, where the family had trading posts," she says.

Polo recounts his enduringly popular story in guidebook style and acknowledges that some descriptions are secondhand, but Wood thinks the whole thing might have been a retelling of tales he had heard or read in sources now lost, perhaps a Persian account.

"It's a rather good fantasy, really, a bit like marrying a prince or something," she says. "You stagger over there, and the emperor thinks you're the best thing ever and gives you a wonderful job and looks after your father and uncle."

Wood is troubled that Polo tends to get important facts wrong: He says he helped win a battle that took place long before he could have reached the city where it was fought, she says.

Neither, she adds, does the Great Khan's wandering reporter comment on hallmarks of Chinese life that startled later European visitors: tea, fishing with cormorants or the bound feet of women -- all commonplace in 13th-century China but unknown elsewhere. Polo offers no word of chopsticks or the Great Wall.

Nor does he appear in extensive Chinese archives from the crucial 1271-1295 period. His passage left no ripple in official records, gazetteers or private journals in places he claims to have visited, and in some cases remained for substantial periods. He does not figure in thick volumes listing foreign experts who worked for the Mongols.

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