The argument that Marco Polo may not have ever gone to China, but only cobbled together his stories of China from second-hand accounts learned from Persian or Arab merchants (for example) is hardly a new one. But an article from the Sydney Morning Herald today describes a few points made by a set of researchers chiming in with their two cents.
This is not a subject I have myself read up on at all, really, so for me, it’s pretty much all new. They make some excellent points questioning why Polo, if he was indeed active within the Chinese/Mongol Yuan Dynasty Court, does not appear in any Mongol or Chinese records. If he was such a keen observer of Chinese life and customs, as he seems to be from his writing, why are there no mentions of tea, chopsticks, foot-binding, or the Great Wall? And why does he employ Persian words and placenames so frequently, instead of Chinese or Mongolian ones?
Definitely food for thought.
However, the core “new findings” today’s article focus on are, I think, points which fall flat. Daniele Petrella of the University of Naples, the leader of an Italian archaeological project in Japan, has been examining the Mongol invasions of Japan, and argues that Marco Polo got so many details wrong, he could not possibly have come to China – had he come to China, and spoken directly with eyewitnesses to these events, he would not have gotten the number of masts on the ships wrong, or confused the events of the 1274 invasion for those of the 1281 attempt.
Yet, while these points may be more well argued in Dr. Petrella’s own academic writings, going on what is more superficially and more briefly explained in this news article, it seems to me that these arguments hold little water. Even according to the standard understanding of Marco Polo’s journey, i.e. that he did go to China, and spend time at Court, and learn all about that part of the world, it is not alleged that he ever went to Japan. And even if he had gone to Japan, that’s not to say that he would have witnessed the invasions himself first-hand, or would have been able to meet the right people, and speak their language, well enough to get the story straight (truthfully, accurately) from people there in Japan. So, I don’t think it at all unreasonable to think that, if he did in fact go to China, it should still fall well within the realm of possibility that he did not get all his facts straight when hearing about the Mongol invasions of Japan second-hand from someone who doesn’t speak Italian, who may have gotten some facts wrong himself, etc.
The other arguments presented in this article are quite compelling, and I could certainly be swayed to believing that Polo never made it past Persia. I’d certainly be intrigued to read more. But the Japanese/Mongol invasions ships argument, it seems to me, doesn’t hold up any better than the Mongol ships themselves held up in that famous kamikaze typhoon.