Marco Polo WAS in China

I never doubted it for a minute. Historical revisionists have been saying for years that Marco Polo’s famed Travels were a tissue of lies compiled from other sources. Hans Ulrich Vogel, a Sinologist from the University of Tübingen (where Pope Benedict once held the chair of dogmatic theology), has accomplished a staggering act of scholarship that involved sifting through a vast amount of primary source material in Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, German and Spanish, comparing arcane lore about currency and the salt trade. His verdit?

Vogel concludes that no other Western, Arab, or Persian observer reported in such accurate and unique detail about the currency situation in Mongol China. The Venetian traveler is the only one to describe precisely how paper for money was made from the bark of the mulberry tree (morusalba l.)  He not only details the shape and size of the paper, he also describes the use of seals and the various denominations of paper money. He reports on the monopolizing of gold, silver, pearls and gems by the state – which enforced a compulsory exchange for paper money – and the punishment for counterfeiters, as well as the 3% exchange fee for worn-out notes and the widespread use of paper money in official and private transactions.

Marco Polo is also the only one among his contemporaries to explain that paper money was not in circulation in all parts of China. It was used primarily in the north and in the regions along the Yangtze, but not in Fujian and certainly not in Yunnan, where according to Polo, cowries, salt, gold and silver were the main currencies. This information is confirmed by Chinese sources and by archaeological evidence. Most of these sources were collated or translated long after Marco Polo’s time – so he could not have drawn on them. He could not read Chinese.

There’s more, and it’s fascinating stuff.

Vogel even makes use of a bit of Catholic history to bolster his point. One alleged strike against Marco Polo was that he’s never mentioned in Chinese documents. He’s not the only one:

Even Giovanni de Marignolli (1290-1357), an important papal envoy at the court of the Yuan rulers, is not mentioned in any Chinese sources – nor his 32-man retinue, nor the name of the pope. Only the “heavenly horse” sent as tribute from the “Kingdom of Franks” in 1342 gets a mention.

Historical controversies are rarely settled conclusively by new research, but this one is pretty well settled.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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