The Controversies Over Marco Polo

By Debra Kelly on Friday, January 9, 2015
Arrivée_des_frères_Polo_à_Bukhârâ
“I have not told half of what I saw.” —Marco Polo

In A Nutshell

One of the world’s most famous explorers, there’s quite a bit of controversy over whether or not he actually did everything he claimed to do. Supporters of Polo’s adventures say that he relays quite a bit of accurate information that could have only come from firsthand experiences, but others claim that he also gets quite a bit glaringly, obviously wrong. Some claim that everything’s the truth, others claim he only made it to the far edge of Western Europe and collected his information from other explorers and merchants, while some give him credit for making it at least to Beijing.

The Whole Bushel

Marco Polo (pictured above arriving to Burkhara) is one of the most well-known explorers of any age. His expeditions into China are nothing short of legendary, and he opened up the Far East to a Western world whose imaginations had already been captured by the foreign continent. But he certainly hasn’t been without controversy, and it’s been suggested that he didn’t actually go to China at all.

Doubts about his adventures into the Far East surface as far back as the middle of the 18th century. Claims were made that he just picked up stories from other travelers and compiled them into a book. And even earlier, people throughout the Middle Ages absolutely didn’t think it was real, instead viewing the work as complete fiction rather than the truth about life in the Far East.

For a long time, part of the problem lay in his depiction of the Eastern civilizations as having any semblance of civilization. They had traditions, rituals, currency, and organized cities, and it was a far cry from the barbarian hordes that most people pictured as ravaging and pillaging their way across the continent.

Later, though, people began to doubt his stories for another reason.

Naysayers point out what they say are some pretty glaring inconsistencies in his works. As a member of the court of Kublai Khan, Polo writes about accompanying the warlord on several attempts at invading the neighboring Japan. Invasions were in 1274 and 1281, but according to archaeologists and researchers from the University of Naples, certain events—like a typhoon—were attributed to the wrong voyage.

His descriptions of the ships have been found to be largely wrong, too, as have some of the terms he uses to describe various practices like the application of pitch to the hulls of ships.

There has never been any mention of Marco Polo, his father, or his uncle found in the court documents or private writings of the people who were in the Khan’s court at the same time he was; it seems unlikely, people say, for he would have been just as much of an oddity to them as they were to him.

That’s not the end of the debate, though, and other scholars point to what they believe to be direct evidence that he was, in fact, exactly what he said he was and actually did go on all the expeditions that he claimed.

Supporters of Polo and his family point to some fairly specific points that they say could only have come from the source.

Part of Polo’s detailed accounts include descriptions of the paper money that was in use at the time; not only does he detail the use of paper money, but also describes what each amount meant, how much could be bought with the money and exactly what it all meant in economic terms.

He also explains just how salt was produced. Typically, salt production was done by boiling water taken from brine wells, a process that was usually done by minorities and one that produced a relatively small amount of salt—making it a valuable commodity. He talks about shipping salt off to other regions, the ways in which the export was taxed, and knows just how amounts would convert into terms that would be more familiar with Western audiences.

Those who support the idea that Marco Polo did, indeed, spend years in the court of Kublai Khan as claimed argue that there are no other places that much of his information could have come from, especially considering he couldn’t read Chinese. That hasn’t stopped the naysayers who claim he only made it part of the way and relied on others for his information, though, and the whole thing it still a bit up in the air.

Show Me The Proof

Reviews in History: Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues
The Telegraph: Explorer Marco Polo ‘never actually went to China’
ScienceDaily: Marco Polo was not a swindler: He really did go to China

  • Hillyard

    Did he get all the way to China or just part way and fudge the rest. Much like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know. Good article Debra.

  • Fegelein Heinz Catsup

    After reading this, mixed with an earthquake in our place… Mindblown! I “almost” “believe” his stories until now.