The Legend of the Venetian Knight-Errant at the Court of Kublai Khan, and the True Story of the Busy Official Marco Polo, how he Grew Rich in China and what he Kept Secret from his Readers

Readers of his book often called Marco Polo’s credibility into question.1 How could he have been in China, they asked, when he failed to report on so many conspicuous things? He did not mention the Great Wall, which nobody can easily overlook, nor did he describe the tea or the peculiarities of the Chinese writing. Moreover, instead of Chinese place names, his report often uses Persian and Turkish names, as written by a Muslim traveller. At one point, he claimed to have been governor of Yangzhou, then one of the largest and richest cities in China. His critics say, quite rightly, had he assumed such an important office, his name should appear in the records of the Yuan Dynasty. However, the documents of the Yuan never mention him. These ambiguities led readers to suspect that Marco Polo had his report copied from a Persian source somewhere in the Middle East to present it as “Wonder of the World” to a European audience.

There are good arguments to refute these doubts: In the 13th century the Great Wall was a dilapidated earthen wall, which barely resembled the impressive construction, erected by the Ming emperors 200 years later. Wherever Marco Polo traveled on the ancient Silk Road, he must have met Mongols drinking tea. In addition, Chinese communities resided in West Asia, as in all the trading centres of the empire. That Marco Polo fails to mention the tea appears to posterity, because this beverage has become so important in Europe, as a major oversight. For him, however, tea-drinking was only one of many peculiar habits – and he could not describe all those customs. Moreover, he understood the Chinese language well. Without mentioning the characters in their particularity, he speaks of the great diversity of dialects, noting that different regions nevertheless have a common language and “one uniform manner of writing.2

How Marco Polo became “Governor of Yangzhou”, is a special story, more on which follows below.

Early in the nineteenth century a knowledgeable, but ultimately misguided critic calls Marco Polo’s report a “clumsily composed” Christian propaganda text “to boost the zeal for the conversion of the Mongols”, invented “to redound to the benefit of both the clergy and particularly the merchant class.” Uncle, father and son Polo did accordingly not get further than to Bukhara “whither then, many Italians journeyed.” What is told of the countries east of the Mongol Empire, “are memories of common talks and travel stories by local traders.”3

The pious stories that Marco Polo weaves into his text were also missionary propaganda. Above all, they had a protective function as religiously correct passages in a secular text that came at a time when the Church  was eradicating Waldensians, Cathars, Joachimites and other Luciferiansin pious zeal. Back then, the pyres burned everywhere in northern Italy. A traveller, who reported on his services for the Great Khan, could easily fall into the suspicion of being a tool of hell. Many medieval theologians considered the ruler of the Tartars (ex tartarus = from hell) as Lord of Hell.4 Acts of the Saints, transcribed from devotional literature and interpolated in the travelogue, served as the repeated assertion that a faithful Christian, and not a secret idolater, wrote the text. To give weight to his position, Marco Polo does not shy away from passing off the most bizarre stories as historical events. He tells of a poor shoemaker, who the cruel caliph of Baghdad forced to prove that the Christian faith could move mountains. Of course, the mountain moved. “The khalif and all those by whom he was surrounded, were struck with terror, and remained in a state of stupefaction. Many of the latter became Christians and even the khalif secretly embraced Christianity, always wearing a cross concealed under his garment, which after his death was found upon him; and on this account, it was that, they did not entomb him in the shrine of his predecessors.”5

Pagan rulers who are crypto-Christians, secretly professing Jesus Christ, or even hovering on the brink of conversion together with all their nobles and the people, were common in missionary propaganda. Thus Kublai Khan himself was regarded as a future Christian. Allegedly, he instructed the brothers Maffeo and Nicolo on their first trip to China to ask the pope for able scholars to instruct him and his people in the true Christian faith.6 Moreover, he ordered oil from the lamp of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.7 Unfortunately, the dispatch of the 100 priests required failed. “If the Pope had sent out persons”, the writer regrets, “duly qualified to preach the gospel, the grand khan would have embraced Christianity, for which, it is certainly known, he had a strong predilection.” The absence of priests is particularly unfortunate, because the emperor has so many subjects.8 The reference to the many Chinese, who are more numerous than all the rest, was in itself for Marco Polo an argument to give things a unique importance.


Neimeng, Lioaning 202


Shangdu (Xanadu). Ruins of the palace   © U. Neininger


The Beginnings of a Legend  

The matter with the oil from the lamps at the Holy Sepulcher however, proved to be hugely satisfying. When Maffeo, Nicolo and Marco delivered the requested vials in 1275 after reaching Kambalu (Beijing), the ordered vials, the young Marco – he was only 21 years old – caught the attention of the Great Khan, who thought that he was virtuous and of a humble kind (“tugendhafftig vnd von diemütiger art”) and immediately knighted him. The Khan kept him in honour like one of his princes, and the “young knight” swiftly learned the languages of the Tartars, and quickly adopted their habits, as if he were a native (“eyn geporner mann des lands”).9

From a literary standpoint, the vial of oil of the Holy Sepulcher is an elegant insertion in the fashion of the time. Around the year 1190 Chrétien de Troyes‘ Story of the Grail was published, and soon became immensely popular via adaptations and translations all over Europe. Poets did not quite agree on the Grail. Wolfram von Eschenbach regarded it as a stone, but the majority of poets described it as a vessel containing a mysterious substance, which some said was the blood of Christ. The hero of the legend of the Grail is Perceval, who as a naive young man moved out into the world to become a noble knight of the Round Table of King Arthur.

In Italy, the poet Rustichello of Pisa eulogised  the feats of King Arthur and his knights in Old French. The poet met Marco Polo in 1298 in Genoa, where both men were prisoners of war. Since Marco had been barely 17 years old when he set off for his journey to China, he certainly possessed only little formal education. He was, in the words of his most influential editor, Ramusio, “without any regular training in the art of composition.”10 Thus, he probably wrote in the dry style of a shopkeeper. It does not seem that he had ever thought of recording his experiences in a book before he met Rustichello. Now the Venetian had found a poet who could write down all the marvels he had experienced to make sure “that the great wonders and deeds of the almighty God remain not unsaid and not hidden.”11 The Pisan, however, had met the knight-errant, whose adventures he could glorify. In the prologue, he recommended the book to the emperors and kings, the dukes and counts. Definitely, he had a clear idea of its readership. No man was ever born, he praised his hero, “who searched and saw more in this world than the gallant knight Marco Polo.”12 Collaboration must have proved difficult between the poet and the merchant, the man of the past, who rewrote the Celtic legends from early European history, and the man of the future, whose travels were a prelude to the Age of Discovery. 

Kublai Khan, it is said at one point, sent his Venetian courtier “in an important affair of state” to Karazan (Yunnan). Marco behaved “with so much wisdom and prudence in management of the affairs entrusted to him that his services became highly acceptable.”13 Here Rustichello set the solemn tune, but also the narrator clearly does not lack self-confidence. It is noticeable that he does not say a single word about the important affair of state – certainly not out of modesty.

A contradiction characterises the whole book: our young knight Marco resides at the court of Kublai Khan, advises the ruler, travels on his behalf all over the country and shows up in high places. However, what is he doing in China in the first place? Only on two occasions does he make this clear. According to Ramusio’s edition, he served as governor of Yangzhou.14 Furthermore, towards the end of his stay in China, he took command over a flotilla. At that time, Princess Kogatin was attempting to travel to Persia as a royal bride. However, wars blocked the road to the realm of her groom, and the princess and her entourage had to turn back as a result. 

“About the time of their reappearance, Marco Polo happened to arrive from a voyage he had made, with a few vessels under his orders, to some parts of the East Indies and reported to the grand khan the intelligence he brought respecting the countries he had visited, with the circumstances of his own navigation, which, he said, was performed in those seas with the utmost safety.”15

The commander set sail with his flotilla and just happened to return in time to reassure the beautiful princess that she could travel safely to India. Certainly the young Marco knew his way around the East Indies. Even on the wide ocean he was the knight errant, moving through the world, from one place to another, always on the lookout for new adventures. 

In general, he is a hero who wanders aimlessly. He often vanishes over many chapters, disappearing from the text until he reports back as the narrator: “Marco Polo, in travelling through the province, has only noted such cities as lay in his route, omitting those situated on the one side and the other, as well as many intermediate places, because, a relation of them all would be a work of too great length, and prove fatiguing to the reader.”16 When he talks about himself, it is mainly to corroborate the accounts with the stamp of his authority. For example, he writes about the defeat of the Caliph of Baghdad: “I judge that our Lord Jesus Christ herein thought proper to avenge the wrongs of his faithful Christians, so abhorred by this khalif.”17 In addition, considering the marvel of the countless ships on the Yangtze he remarks “I, Marco, have to tell you quite honestly: In the whole world are not so many ships as in this country or on the river Quiam.”18 On the other hand, when he describes the rain of arrows in a battle: “I, Marco Polo, saw with my own eyes a heaven covered with arrows, going from one side to the other, as water raining from heaven.”19

The erratic description of the hero partly results from Rustichello’s literary weaknesses. However, the main cause of the erratic storytelling is a serious flaw in the narrative material. Although Marco Polo claims, that he “diligently and regularly” wrote down all the knowledge he acquired personally or by hearsay 20, he reveals to his readers nothing about his activities in China. He conceals his doings on purpose and quite systematically. His text raises many questions. However, the key question is not: “Was Marco Polo in China?” The question is: “What was he doing in China?”


Traveling here and there

For European readers, it may have seemed quite logical that the  knight errant and great voyager would receive a personal reward from the Emperor after his arrival. From a Chinese standpoint, however, the Polos were three strangers in a crowd of strangers who ended up in China. In the wake of the Mongol conquest, foreigners came in large numbers to the Far East as merchants, soldiers and enslaved prisoners of war. There were plenty of Turks, Christian Alans, Russians, Persians, Syrian Nestorians and other residents of the Mediterranean in China. Once Marco Polo mentions a German who built a catapult for the Mongols during the siege of a Chinese city.21 In the vast and indistinguishable mixture of foreigners living under Mongol rule, coming from afar, from Venice, was not enough to become an adviser to the Emperor. On the other hand, there were many opportunities for a young intelligent foreigner to enjoy at least a modest career as a Chinese official. 

The imperial bureaucracy at the time was already a venerable institution that followed longestablished rules. However, the Mongol invaders abolished the examinations, a substantial part of this institution. The sons of the steppe warriors, who had conquered the kingdom on horseback, had no chance against the sons of the native Confucian elite in the traditional examination system. Thus, ethnic criteria became crucial for selection. The Mongols divided society into four classes.22  They reserved the highest rank for themselves. The Semuren 色目人 (the „people of special class“ = the foreigners) followed them. The Hanren 漢人 (the northern Chinese and the former nomadic peoples who as conquerors and settlers had lived already for a long time in northern China) formed the third class. The last were the Nanren 南人 (the southern Chinese), pejoratively called Manzi 蠻子.23 Offices were assigned according to this order, but also according to aristocratic rank, military merit, loyalty and, less importantly, intellectual abilities. In order to monitor the effectiveness of their bureaucracy, the Mongol invaders retained the routine evaluation (kao ). Every three years – or every 30 months in the capital – they evaluated an official’s performance. Afterwards, the court decided on his transfer, promotion or demotion.  As rulers of South China, the land of Mangi, the Emperor appointed nine “viceroys”. One of these nine governors ruled in Hangzhou. He also received his post “like all other public officials” for three years only. 24 The rotation system worked reasonably well, although it occasionally led to abuse of power.25

In order to get – literally – on Marco Polo’s trail, we have to follow his travel routes. He seems to have travelled in a straight line. The graphical representation of his journeys in China comprises two lines: one route from Beijing to Yunnan, the other in a south-easterly direction from Beijing to Zayton (Quanzhou). The places he visited appear like beads on a string. Thus, one has the impression that Marco only undertook two major journeys in China (apart from his arrival). 

Marco Polo himself says quite the opposite. He claims to have travelled widely: “When the grand khan sent me, Marco, to fulfill an order in distant lands of his kingdom, I often stayed four months on the trip, and explored all the things I met with diligence, traveling here and there.”26 He travelled often, he says, here and there, in every part of the empire. 

The chapter on the distances from Beijing to Yunnan and Beijing to Quanzhou usually begin with the indication of the distance from one place to the next. Taken by itself, the initial sentences create an itinerary, similar to the topographic descriptions used by the travelling merchants in Southwest China until very recently.27  The itineraries record the distances from place to place, the bridges, fords, fountains and mountain passes, the predatory and welcoming villages, and in general, all points a traveller should know. Regular updated and revised, the itineraries preserved the travel experience of several generations of traders.

Marco Polo undoubtedly owned such itineraries and brought them back to Italy. Therefore, itineraries must have been among the records he requested from Venice when he wrote his book in Genoa.28 The information on distances and facts were surely a great help in outlining the text. That explains the schematic beginning of the chapters: “At the end of ten days’ journey from the city of Gouza, you arrive (as has been said) at the kingdom of Ta-in-fu …” (chapter 29). “Leaving Ta-in-fu, and travelling westward, seven days‘ journey, through a fine country in which there are many cities and strong places, where commerce and manufactures prevail, and whose merchants, travelling over various parts of the country, obtain considerable profits, you reach a city named Pi-an-fu …” (chapter 30).  “In a western direction from Pi-an-fu there is a large and handsome fortress named Thai-gin …” (chapter 31). “Upon leaving the fortress of Thai-gin, and travelling about twenty miles, you come to a river called the Kara-moran …” (chapter 32). “Having crossed this river and travelled three days’ journey, you arrive at a city named Ka-chan-fu … “ (chapter 33).29

The breakdown by itineraries reinforces the impression of an awkwardly patched, “clumsily composed” work. Thus, it partly resembles a logbook. 1st day: Arrival in Ta-in-fu. 2nd day: Continue to Pi-an-fu. 3rd day: Stay in Thai-gin. 4th day: Continue to Kara-moran. 5th day: Arrival in Ka-cian-fu. This pedantic structure interferes constantly with the romantic momentum Rustichello tries to give the text. Almost completely absent from the mundane reports and the far-flung storytelling is the personal, realistic narrative. Descriptions as of the bridge that became famous in Europe under his name are rare: “Upon leaving the capital and travelling ten miles, you come to a river named Pulisangan, which discharges itself into the ocean, and is navigated by many vessels entering from thence, with considerable quantities of merchandise. Over this river there is a handsome bridge of stone, perhaps unequalled by another in the world. Its length is three hundred paces, and its width eight paces, so that ten men can, without inconvenience, ride abreast.”30

This textual structure has led commentators to assume that Marco Polo only undertook two long trips in China. They usually ignored his own claim that he had travelled over the whole country. Certainly, he never travelled back and forth across China, and once again it was Rustichello who was responsible for maintaining that the Khan had sent Marco Polo “to confidential missions in every part of the empire. Undoubtedly, he travelled extensively in China, but always in areas where he had some ordinary work to do. He was active in the coastal area of the southeast, on the Grand Canal and in the mountainous regions of the southwest. The text describes his doings implicitly, as a knight errant travels “in lands faraway to kings and lords”31 and not from government department to government department.

If a nobleman, a highly honored courtier, an adviser to the Emperor is in charge, then he sails across the sea as a commodore.  Residing in a city, however, he must be at least a governor, personally appointed by the Emperor. Certainly, it was not a careless copyist, who elevated Marco Polo from a simple official to governor. The editors just refused to believe that an “Honorary Companion of the Emperor” when he deigns to hold office, does not govern at least a Province. The Creussner-Edition however, notes here soberly:

“I, Marco Polo, ordered by my master, the great Khan, was three years in the service of the governor and captain of the land Mangi.”32

He had taken a typical Chinese officials career where dislocations in three-year intervals were the norm. Exceptional however, and a common occurrence in the Mongol period only, was the fact that a foreigner could make a career in the Chinese bureaucracy.


How Marco became an official

Below Rustichello’s high-spirited descriptions, on the realistic layer, the text explains how the young man from Venice gained access to the civil service. Marco Polo rarely mentions personal names, and then only in historical contexts. An exception is his travelling companion Zufficar, about whom we learn that he was a Turkish merchant and a baron33, and a “great master of the ores or mines”, responsible for mining in the province Chinugiatasal, where he had stayed for three years.34  On his way back to the capital, he met Marco.

His fellow traveller’s knowledge certainly impressed the master of ores and mines. Marco could tell him about Armenia, where they used oil as fuel, or Kerman in Persia, where they used mining zinc to produce an eye ointment (sormeh) and medicine to treat skin diseases. Despite his limited formal education, the young man proved to be an able inquirer into geological and chemical phenomena: 

“They take the crude ore from a vein that is known to yield such as is fit for the purpose, and put it into a heated furnace. Over the furnace, they place an iron grating formed of small bars set close together. The smoke or vapour ascending from the ore in burning attaches itself to the bars, and as it cools becomes hard. This is the tutty; whilst the gross and heavy part, which does not ascend, but remains as a cinder in the furnace, becomes the spodium.”35

In Afghanistan, he was interested in the mining of rock salt with iron tools.36 His observations about the salt mining in particular, must have been very useful for his later career as an official.

On the way to Beijing, Zufficar explained the production of asbestos to him. In ancient times, merchants had introduced asbestos cloth from the Roman Orient to China. Because of its fire-resistance, it became the subject of many miracle stories. The Europeans believed asbestos being the hair of the salamander, living in the fire.37 In China, the famous alchemist, Ge Hong, described asbestos as the hair of a white rodent that feels quite comfortable in the flames.38

In 1267, the Minister Ahmed39 petitioned Kublai Khan to access the asbestos deposits in his realm.40 Until then, the Chinese had regarded asbestos as an exotic commodity. Zufficar was certainly very familiar with asbestos production, and may even have supervised the mining. Marco Polo summarizes the master’s knowledge as follows:

“The fossil substance procured from the mountain consists of fibres not unlike those of wool. This, after being exposed to the sun to dry, is pounded in a brass mortar, and is then washed until all the earthy particles are separated. The fibres thus cleansed and detached from each other, they then spin into thread and weave into cloth. In order to render the texture white, they put it into the fire, and suffer it to remain there about an hour, when they draw it out uninjured by the flame, and become white as snow.”41

Marco calls asbestos “a substance of the nature of the salamander”, but he adds to his definition: “And you may know in truth that salamander of which I speak is not a beast nor serpent, for it is not true that those cloths are of the hair of an animal which lives in fire, as one says in our country …  No beast nor any animal can live in fire, because each animal is made of the four elements, namely air, water, fire & earth, so that an animal of any kind has in it heat, moisture, cold, & dryness.“42 Berthold Laufer explains: “Marco Polo, with his keen power of observation and his large share of common sense, was the first to shatter the European superstition.”43 Neverthe­less, people believed until modern times that asbestos was the hair of the salamander.44

The young Marco, who now approached the imperial capital, had to contemplate finding work in China.  As there was only a slim chance to become a personal adviser to the Emperor, he had to consider a more common career. In a situation like this, it was extremely useful to know a “good fellow”, who held a senior position in the administration of the imperial mines.

Zufficar had noticed his companion’s scientific interests. As Marco came from a family of merchants, he certainly also had a good head for figures. That was another huge advantage for his future profession. The Turkish mining official obviously recommended the talented young man to the salt distribution agency.45 The salt authority in Yangzhou had merged with the department of transportation and developed into a second tax office. The officials of the salt distribution authority were therefore a kind of tax officials. Semuren largely managed the finances of the Yuan, as the Mongol invaders mistrusted their subjects particularly in tax matters.46

Marco was a perfect choice for the agency. His life in the service of the salt distribution authority differed completely from the world of secret state affairs, which the romance writer Rustichello envisioned for him. Nevertheless, the narrator and his poet successfully created a text, in which both levels had their own place. Indeed, their cooperation was a stroke of luck: The chivalric romance, which enlivened the otherwise dry text, made the success of the book possible. Very fast, it became popular in a variety of transcripts, translations and adaptations. Marco Polo was not the only European who visited China at the time, and certainly, other returnees had as well many interesting things to talk about. Oderico of Pordenone, who a few decades later, from 1323 to 1328, was travelling in China, remarks on Hangzhou, he would not dare to speak of the gigantic proportions of this city, had he not “met at Venice people in plenty who have been there.”47 All those travellers vanished into oblivion because none of them had found his Rustichello.48

Even the masterful description written by William of Rubruk, who had visited the Mongol capital Karakorum 1253-54, only survived  by accident. Just three manuscripts of his Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis were preserved, all in England, where Roger Bacon used the text of his Franciscan frater to study the tales on Gog and Magog.49

Marco Polo repeatedly reports about salt, salt production and salt transport. These dry topics certainly displeased Rustichello.  It would have been a comfort to him had he known that later editors of the text, whose original has been lost, busily promoted the legend of the knight errant and at the same time pruned the passages about the realities of his life in China. Thus, most editions abbreviate the descriptions of salt production in the province Kaindu. The Ramusio edition, however, reproduces the passage in full in 1559: 

“In this country there are salt-springs, from which they manufacture salt by boiling it in small pans. When the water has boiled for an hour, it becomes a kind of paste, which is formed into cakes of the value of twopence each. These, which are flat on the lower, and convex on the upper side, are placed upon hot tiles, near a fire, in order to dry and harden. On this latter species of money the stamp of the grand khan is impressed, and it cannot be prepared by any other than his own officers. Eighty of the cakes are made to pass for a saggio of gold. But when these are carried by the traders amongst the inhabitants of the mountains and other parts little frequented, they obtain a saggio of gold for sixty, fifty, or even forty of the salt cakes, in proportion as they find the natives less civilized, further removed from the towns, and more accustomed to remain on the same spot; inasmuch as people so circumstanced cannot always have a market for their gold, musk, and other commodities.”50

The salt monopoly guaranteed the state a higher income than all the other kinds of taxes.51 Yunnan was particularly important. As a border region with troubled neighbours, it enjoyed a special status. The tax remained in the province, which was ruled by a grandson of Kublai Khan. There are, said Marco Polo, “salt-springs, from which all the salt used by the inhabitants is procured. The duty levied on this salt produces a large revenue to the king.” Because the few factories and the few transport routes were easy to control, the salt tax was continuously increased as a secure source of income. In particular, it helped to cover the immense costs of warfare for the Mongol armies. In Yunnan, reported Marco Polo, salt is so expensive that only “persons of the higher class” could afford it. They prepared raw meat by cutting it into small pieces and putting it in a spicy pickle of salt. The poorer people “only steep it, after mincing, in a sauce of garlic, and then eat it as if it were dressed52

In line with the bureaucratic routine, Marco must have spent at least three years in Yunnan. Considering the wealth of material, he probably held two or three posts successively in the southwest. His career then took him to southeast China. He travelled to Yangzhou, and one can say with certainty that he stayed in the city of Hangzhou, which he so accurately describes, for three years. As an official of the governor of “Mangi” (i.e. South China), he was probably involved in moving the government department from Yangzhou to Hangzhou.53

The central salt authority supplying large parts of the country with the commodity supervised 29 salt offices54, most of which were located in the area between the coast and the Grand Canal. However, the most profitable saline area was Cangzhou in the north. The city on the Grand Canal was a trade centre for eight salt mines and is still a centre of salt production in China today.55 As Marco Polo again describes the production comprehensively, we can presume that he held office in Cangzhou. As so often in his description of a city, the narrator enumerates a few platitudes: 1. The inhabitants worship idols. 2. They burn bodies. 3. They use paper money. Then he goes into detail:

“In this city and the district surrounding it they make great quantities of salt, by the following process: in the country is found a salsuginous earth; upon this, when laid in large heaps, they pour water, which in its passage through the mass imbibes the particles of salt, and is then collected in channels, from whence it is conveyed to very wide pans, not more than four inches in depth. In these it is well boiled, and then left to crystallize. The salt thus made is white and good, and is exported to various parts. Great profits are made by those who manufacture it, and the grand khan derives from it a considerable revenue.”

The Yellow River, which at that time flowed south of the Shandong Peninsula into the sea, formed the boundary between Cathay and Mangi. Right from the southern shore, Marco reported, they manufacture salt in large quantities “sufficient for the supply of all the neighbouring provinces. On this article the grand khan raises a revenue, the amount of which would scarcely be credited.”56


After making a fortune, the tax official is getting in trouble and returns home

After 17 years in China and making a fortune, Marco Polo was in trouble. According to Creussner’s edition:

“When the young knight, Master Marco Polo was with his father altogether seventeen years at the court of the great emperor of Cathay, he was kept in such a great honor that the Lords became somehow envious. By now he thought with increasing frequency of an honorable departure, as he was fearful that the Lords in the long run would not tolerate him.”57

The knight errant therefore asked the Emperor for a discharge. In the version by Ramusio, however, it is solely homesickness that makes him decide to leave China: “Our Venetians having now resided many years at the imperial court, and in that time having realized considerable wealth, in jewels of value and in gold, felt a strong desire to revisit their native country, and, however honoured and caressed by the sovereign, this sentiment was ever predominant in their minds.” Yet, Kublai proves to be extremely affectionate and very concerned for his Venetians: Such a trip is still dangerous, he warns, and in general, if money is the question, that problem can be solved. He offers them to double their wealth. When they still insist on leaving, he simply denies them their wish. 58

Rustichellos romantic masterpiece is the description of the parting of uncle, father and son from China.

Every chivalric romance must include a beautiful damsel (“ein schöne iunckfrawen”) who needs the protection of the gallant knight and who in the right moment comes to his aid.59 Marco had found such an exemplary young Lady, “seventeen years old and well built”.60 Princess Kogatin was on her way to her future husband Arghun, the “King of India”. (Arghun ruled only over Persia, but India he would have loved to have.)  The Persian envoys, who “heard the Latin knight praised and knew about his virtue” promised to support his wish to travel back to Venice. The “young queen” personally pleaded with the emperor for permission to sail across the sea in company of the knight Marco.61 This request the magnanimous ruler could not deny.  As a farewell gift, Kublai presented his Venetians “with many rubies and other delicious gems of great value.” However, they had to promise that they would soon return to China. 

One thing seems to be indisputable: uncle, father and son Polo had become rich in China. “In the enjoyment of health and abundant riches”, they reached their home.62 Ramusio describes how they unstitched the hemlines of their clothes once they arrived back in Venice and took out incredible amounts of jewels.63

Bureaucrats in China regularly amassed a fortune while in office. Of course, they did not become rich through receipt of personal gifts from the Emperor. An emperor who presents his officials with a box full of emeralds and rubies only exists in Rustichellos chivalric romances. Officials at the salt administration usually acquired a fortune because they embezzled a considerable part of the duties and taxes. Yunnan, where the taxes were high and the transport routes easy to monitor, was a good place for a greedy official. The costs for consumers, Marco Polo reports, went up “in proportion as they find the natives less civilized, further removed from the towns, and more accustomed to remain on the same spot; inasmuch as people so circumstanced cannot always have a market for their gold, musk, and other commodities.”64 He argues here like a modern social scientist writing about the exploitation of the periphery by the metropolis.

In Yunnan and the neighbouring borderlands of Burma, people paid for their salt and the salt tax with precious stones and pearls. It is very likely that part of the jewels the three Polos carried to Venice were earned by  Marco as a tax official in the southwestern corner of the Mongol empire. 

The misappropriation of tax revenues was quite common.65 Thus, an official lived in permanent fear of a corruption complaint. To insure himself against such a twist of fate, he needed a circle of friends as helpers in need.

If his circle was too weak to compete with other circles in the bureaucracy or an individual became isolated within his circle, the government confiscated the assets he had accumulated, sent the offender into exile or had him executed. A prudent official therefore always had to be on his guard against intrigue. In his long career, Marco Polo had had many opportunities to study the uncertainties of a civil servant’s life. When he realised that some powerful people around him had “become envious”, he was experienced enough to seek his dismissal from the service. 

In short: Marco Polo was working as an official for the state’s salt monopoly. He, like others, amassed a fortune in his office. Why did he not tell his readers about this?

First, there was the influence of Rustichello who needed for the hero’s part of the text a glorious knight at Kublai Khan’s Round Table, and by no means a middle level civil servant. More important however was the stigma resting on the tax collector in the Middle Ages, which precluded Marco Polo from confessing to his profession. Christianity considered the “publican”, as well as the moneychangers, usurers, pawnbrokers and other professions involved in financial transactions, to be dishonorable.66 The New Testament, in the Middle Ages the supreme authority in matters of ethics, told the story of the forgiving Jesus, who, sitting at a table with publicans and other sinners, becomes the scorn of his enemies. In the famous parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee considers the tax collector worse than the extortioners, the unrighteous and the adulterers.67

This explains why the traveller writes explicitly about salt, the salt tax, general finance and the monetary policy, and seems to be quite uninvolved, as if he had received this information by chance, such as when he reported from Quinsai (Hangzhou): “The account being made up in the presence of Marco Polo, he had an opportunity of seeing that the revenue of his majesty, exclusively of that arising from salt, already stated, amounted in the year to the sum of two hundred and ten tomans (each toman being eighty thousand saggi of gold), or sixteen million eight hundred thousand ducats.”68 He boasts about his firsthand knowledge, and maintains he acquired it accidently.

The Chinese bureaucracy was never reputed to give outsiders an opportunity to add up its figures. Here speaks a man who was involved in the operation. The image of the famous traveller may now lose a bit of its lustre. He was not a famous court official of Kublai Khan. He was not involved in important state affairs. However, there can be no doubt that he was in China.

Beijing, June 2012  

English version: Berlin, November 2016  

© 2016 Ulrich Neininger

  1. I wrote a first version of this text as a consultant to a TV documentary in the mid-1990s. At that time, a book by Frances Wood (Did Marco Polo Go to China?, London, 1995) was popular, in which the author claimed that Marco Polo had never been to China. The documentary shared that view. Unfortunately, my advice could not prevent that.
  2. The Travels of Marco Polo, a Venetian. Translated from the Italian, with Notes by W. Marsden, London 1818 (ed. J. Masefield, London 1908) 2, 77 :319.
  3. Karl Dietrich Hüllmann, Städtewesen des Mittelalters, Bonn 1829, vol. 4 :360.
  4. Roger Bacon (Opus Maius, 1266) equates the Mongols with Gog und Magog, who accompany the Antichrist in conquering the world. Cf. Jurgis Baltrusaitis, Das phantastische Mittelalter. Antike und exotische Elemente der Kunst der Gotik,  Frankfurt 1985: 246. The Florentine preacher Ricold of Monte Croce at the end of the thirteenth century provides etymological reasons for his warnings: Mongoli is a corruption of the name Magogli. (Anna-Dorothee v. den Brincken, Gog und Magog, in Die Mongolen, ed. Walter Heissig, Claudius C. Müller, vol. 2: 29). Some decades later, Jean de Roquetaillade had a vision: the Antichrist resides in Zaitun (Quanzhou, the port city from where Marco Polo started his journey back home) in the person of a two-year-old boy. Folker Reichert, Begegnungen mit China. Die Entdeckung Ostasiens im Mittelalter, Sigmaringen, 1992: 224.  
  5. The Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1, 8 :47.
  6. Das puch des edeln Ritters vnd landtfarers Marcho Polo, Friedrich Creußner, Nuremberg 1477 :11. (in German) This ist the first printed edition of Marco’s  book.
  7. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :7.
  8. The Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2,2 :160.
  9. “Dar umb er in von stundt zu ritter machete”, Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :14
  10. Ramusio writes admiringly: “Nor is that all, for one marvels also how the aforesaid gentleman was able to give such an orderly description of all that he had seen; seeing that such an accomplishment was possessed by very few in his day, and he had had a large part of his nurture among those uncultivated Tartars, without any regular training in the art of composition.” Henry Yule, The Travels of Marco Polo, Bd. 1, Marco Polo and his Book, Introductory Notices, I. Obscurities 2.
  11. “Das dy grossen wunder vnd gescheft des almechtigen gotz nicht verswigen und verporgen pleyben”, Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :14.
  12. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :7.
  13. The Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1,1 §4 :48.
  14.  The Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2,60 :443.
  15. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1, 1, § 5 :25.
  16. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2, 54 :272 f.
  17. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1, 8 :45.
  18. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :87. („Ich Marcho sprich/ und glaubet mir für war/ das in der ganczen welt nicht so vil schiff seynn als in dem landt oder auff dem Wasser Quiam“).
  19. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :59. („Ich Marcho polo mit meinen augen sach den hymel verdackt mit eytel pfylnn/ die von eynen teyl zu dez andernn gingen nicht anders denn ein groß wasser von hymel regnet“).
  20. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1,1, §4 :48.
  21. The Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Henry Yule), vol. 1; 2. book; chapter 70.
  22. Herbert Franke, Die Mongolen in China, in Die Mongolen, eds. Walter Heissig, Claudius C. Müller, vol. 2 :58.
  23. Manzi = the Mangi of Marco Polo.
  24. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908), 2,68, §8 :305. About the selection of officials in the Yuan-Dynastie: Charles O. Hucker,  A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, Stanford 1984 :67.
  25. Marco Polo cites the example the rule of the villainous Minister Achmak (Ahmed). This most powerful man next to the emperor promised the fathers of beautiful girls an official position, in exchange for their daughters. “The matter being so far arranged, Achmac repairs to the emperor and informs his majesty that a certain government is vacant, or that the period for which it is held will expire on such a day, and recommends the father as a person well qualified to perform the duties.” Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908), 2, 8 :177. These appointments, reports Marco Polo, are also made for three years.
  26. According to the Latin translation of Francesco Pipino, a contemporary of Marco: Quodam tempore magnus rex, me Marcum, ad remotas partes sui Imperii negotio destinavit. Ego autem de civitate Cambalu iter arripiens, mensibus quatuor in itineribus fui. Ideo quae in via illa eundo, et redeundo reperi declarabo. Die Reisen des Venezianers Marco Polo im dreizehnten Jahrhundert. eds. August Bürck and Karl Friedrich Neumann, Leipzig 1845, 2, 27 :355.
  27. In the early 1970s, I met travelling merchants, Chinese Muslims, in northern Burma who still used such itineraries.
  28. Many of the travelling merchants in China at that time came from the Islamic Middle East. Accordingly, the proportion of itineraries written by Muslims must have been large. So Marco Polo sometimes is using Persian instead of Chinese place names. The itineraries, which he used, were in his time no longer up to date. The Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) at the beginning of their rule had renamed many places. Most regional administrative centers which were called 府 Fu, changed to Lu路. (中國歷史地圖集 Historical Atlas of China, Shanghai 1982, vol. 6, The Song, Liao and Jin dynasties; vol. 7, The Yuan und Ming dynasties.  Such the city of Taiyuanfu changed to Taiyuanlu und Pingyangfu became Pingyanglu. Marco Polo writes Ta-in-fu and Pin-an-fu. These obsolete forms of names run through the entire report. According to the Yuan yitong zhi, 元一統志 (op. cit.  in History of Yuan (Yuanshi 元史, ed. 中華書局  :58 :1390) wurde Taiyuan im Jahre 1218 und Pingyang (Yuanshi 58: 1379) renamed „at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty“.
  29. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) :226 ff.
  30. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2, 27 :222.
  31. He travelled „in ferre landt zu künigen and hernn“, Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :15.
  32. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :85. „Ich Marcho polo von meynß hernn des grossen Chams wegen/ pey dem verweser und haubtman des lands Mangi drey gancze iar was.“ The country Mangi is southern China, which had been ruled by the Song Dynasty, before it in 1279 was annexed by Kublai Khan. For the Mongols it was occupied territory, they distinguished from northern China –  “Cathaya”, which had been dominated for centuries by Central Asian nations.
  33. Marco Polo, The Description of the World, Ed. A. C. Moule and Paul Pelliot, 1 :60. The Name Zufficar is Arabian: Dû-’i-fagâr, vulg. Zuifigàr. Originally, the name of a sword captured by Mohamed and bequeathed to his son Ali.  Cf. Paul Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo, vol. 1, Paris 1959 :610 (202).
  34. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :46. („Also ich Marcho polo eyn guten gesellen hett der was auß dem landt/ und meynes herrn des grossen Chams diner was wol als ich/ und in dem landt alle ercz arbeyten ließ/ und der hieß Zufficar /eyn erber weyser und cluger mann/ eyn grosser meyster der erczte oder pergkwerck.“) Chijinailu, 赤集乃路. A landscape of East Turkestan. The Description of the World,  (eds. Moule/Pelliot) 1 :156.
  35. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1, 20 :71. Tutty: Arabic: tūtīyā. The is Tutty is obtained from the flues of zinc-smelting furnaces. It is sold as a polishing powder. The sormeh is as a cosmetic ointment still in use.
  36. Salt from the Taloqan Mountain. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1,24 :80.
  37. Illustrious knights as Perceval wore such refractory cloth. Salamanders of the Agremuntin Mountains wove his tabard in the flames. „Der wâpenroc gap planken schîn, ime berge zAgremuntîn/ die würme salamander/ in worhten zein ander/ in dem heizen fiure.“ Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, Ed. Karl Lachmann, 5th. ed., Berlin 1891 :15, 735, 23. Asbestos also had a place in the cult of relics. According to Marco Polo, a Tartar prince bequeathed a wrapper made of asbestos, in which the sweat cloth of the crucified Christ had once been kept, to the Pope. The Chinese texts tell of a robe of the Buddha sewn from asbestos cloth, which, the King of Kashgaria gave to an Emperor of the later Wei around the year 460. Weishu (魏書,ed. 中華書局) Peking 1974, 102: 2268. See: Berthold Laufer, Sino-Iranica. Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran, Chicago 1919 :498.
  38. Berthold Laufer, Asbestos and Salamander. An Essay in Chinese and Hellenistic Folk-Lore, in B. Laufer, Sino-Tibetan Studies. Selected Papers on the Art, Folklore, History, Linguistics and Prehistory of Sciences in China and Tibet, ed. Helmut Walravens, vol. 1 :253 (333).
  39. The same man who offered offices to the fathers in exchange for their beautiful daughters.
  40. Yuanshi 6 :116 und 205 :4558. B. Laufer, Asbestos and Salamander. Sino-Tibetan Studies. ed. Walravens, vol. 1 :285 (365). The Location of the Bieqiechi Mountain 別怯赤山 cannot be clearly determined. Probably it is to be found in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) on the edge of the Altyn-Tagh (Altun Shan), where nowadays huge asbestos mines are operated in the Kharkliq (Ruoqiang) and Cherchen (Qiemo) districts.
  41. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) :1, 39 :109.
  42. The Description of the World (eds. Moule/Pelliot), vol. 1 : 186.
  43. B. Laufer, Asbestos and Salamander :245.
  44. How tenaciously this superstition survived is testified by Johann Jacob Merklein, a Franconian ship’s doctor who arrived in Java in 1645. Merklein describes a drastic animal experiment in order to verify the widespread view that salamanders live in fire, several animals were thrown into a fire, only for the observers to realise that they burn slowly on the red-hot coal. Cf. J. J. Merklein, Journal oder Beschreibung alles desjenigen/ was sich auf währender/ unserer neunjährigen Reise/ im Dienst der Vereinigten/ geoctroyrten/ Niederländischen/Ost-Indianischen Compagnie/ besonders in den selbigen Ländern täglich begeben/ und zugetragen, Nürnberg 1663; 2. Aufl. 1672 (Repr. Den Haag 1930 :25).
  45. The salt distribution authority (yanyunsi 鹽運司), which managed the state’s monopoly on salt, was founded in the year 758, when the Tang emperor, after the rebellion of An Lushan, opened up new sources of tax revenue.
  46. That is why they preferred in China, as in other Mongol territories foreigners in their finance system, as in Russia, where the Golden Horde engaged especially Saracens, Jews and Chinese as tax collectors. Valentin Gitermann, Geschichte Rußlands, vol. 1, Frankfurt/Main 1965 :98.
  47. Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, vol.1 (The Travels of Friar Odoric), London 1866 :114.
  48. He was not the first European traveller in China, but that does not minimise the value of his report. Schopenhauer says that “the finder of a thing is only the one who recognises its value, picks it up and preserves it; it is not the one who picks it up and drops it again. Therefore Columbus, and not the first castaway, who suffered a shipwreck there, is the discoverer of America. Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena, vol. 1 (1851) Zurich 1988.
  49. Peter Jackson and David Morgan, eds., The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His journey to the court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253 – 1255, London 1990: 52.
  50. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2, 38 :241 f.
  51. Cf. Paul Ratchnevsky, Un code des Yuan, vol. 4 (Bibliothèque de l’Institut des hautes Etudes Chinoises), Paris 1937 :258 ff. and Herbert Franke, Geld und Wirtschaft unter der Mongolen-Herrschaft. Beiträge zur Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Yüan-Zeit, Leipzig 1949 :148
  52. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2, 39 :245
  53. Hangzhou was also important for the salt monopoly. The taxes on salt, he reckons, totaled 6.4 million ducats a year. “This vast produce is occasioned by the vicinity of the province to the sea, and the number of salt lakes or marshes, in which, during the heat of summer, the water becomes crystallized.” Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2, 69 :310.
  54. Hucker, Dictionary of Official Titles :578 (7921).
  55. Liguo, Limin, Haifeng, Foumin, Foucai, Haiying, Yanzhen, Fumin. These eight names remind us of an undertaking that was started in order to determine the locations of the various salt marshes and salt wells that Marco Polo must have inspected on his travels. I thought I was the first to find out that Marco Polo was employed as a civil servant in the salt monopoly. Happy about my great discovery for some time, I then became aware of a section in Notes on Marco Polo (vol. 2 :834). Paul Pelliot notes the importance that Marco Polo attaches to the saline areas: „From this fact, the inference may be drawn that Polo’s services with Qubilai (Kublai) were in all probability, for a great and perhaps for the greatest part, connected with the salt gabelle. And when Polo speaks of his three years’ tenure of office at Yang-chou, I should not be surprised if his had been indeed an office in the salt administration.”
  56. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2, 59 :279.
  57. „Als der iung ritter herr Marcho polo mit seynem vater nicholo polo an des grosssen keysers von Cathay hoff stunden sibenczehen gancze iar in grossen ernn In solcher maß das im die landt hernn etwas neydt trugen und wol gedacht offt und dick / wie er mit ernn sich mocht von dann scheyden/ und wol sorg hett die landt hernn in die leng nicht wurden leyden.“ Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :16.
  58. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) Prologue § 5 :22.
  59. Marco, certainly inspired by Rustichello, devoted a passage to the modesty and purity of young Chinese women and enumerated all their virtues: they do not dance, jump, fool around, stand at the window, listen to idle chatter, visit unseemly festivities or stare people in the face, and they always keep their eyes to the ground. Description of the world (eds. Moule/Pelliot), vol. 1: 304.
  60. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :46. („Dyse was an irem alter in dem sibenczehesten iar/ und schön an maß.“)
  61. Das puch des edeln Ritters (ed. Creußner 1477) :17 („Also diese hernn/ und auch die iung künigin an den keyser pegerten die genad/ das er vergünnen wolt dem ritter marcho polo der iunckfrawen geselschaft zu thun in das landt gen India. Das der keyser der iungen künigin nicht versagen torfte unn im des vergund“).
  62.  Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 1,1,6 :30.
  63. The Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Yule), vol. 1, Marco Polo and his Book, Introductory Notices, I. Obscurities 2.
  64. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908), 2, 38 :242.
  65. Yoshida Tora, (Tr. H. U. Vogel) Salt Production Techniques in Ancient China. The Aobo Tu, Leiden 1993 :39.
  66. Evamaria Engel, Frank-Dietrich Jacob, Städtisches Leben im Mittelalter: Schriftquellen und Bildzeugnisse, Köln 2006 :293.
  67. Luke 18:9-14.
  68. Travels of Marco Polo (ed. Marsden 1818/1908) 2, 69 :311.