In December of last year, Netflix released their series Marco Polo, which centered around the life of the Venetian explorer in China. My interest in the series was piqued, admittedly because I know very little history about the world outside of the West. Sure there's the basic knowledge everyone has of Eastern civilizations: the Analects of the great sage Confucius, the origin of tea, and the invention of gunpowder. But I know absolutely nothing about the samurais in Japan, or about the different dynasties in China, or about Hinduism and the Bhagavad Gita. My knowledge of the East, unlike the West, is extremely limited. This is an embarrassing admission to be sure, seeing as how I could tell you anything you wanted to know about the holocaust, the American revolution, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, or why Napoleon was a hero rather than a villain; but there you have it, my confession is made.
The travels of Marco Polo seemed, then, to be the perfect segue from studying the history of Western civilizations to Eastern ones. I could research his travels, and then eventually use those travels as a stepping-stone to learn more about India and China, more about Buddha and Sun Tzu, more about caste systems and the vedas, so on and so forth. But first, in order to further motivate my interest, I watched the Netflix series Marco Polo. And good god, I thought, what wasn't there to love? Plenty of battle scenes, plenty of sex, plenty of drama. Bravos and accolades to the cast and crew all around! It was a whole season of Game Of Thrones meeting Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
But then came the inevitable disappointment. As I started researching and asking the basic questions (Who was Marco Polo really? Where did he go? What did he do? And why?), I came to find that The Travels Of Marco Polo are just about as "historically accurate" as L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. In short: Not only is it likely that the explorer Marco Polo never traveled to China, it's likely that an explorer named Marco Polo never even existed at all and that the book about his travels is a work of fiction.
There are three good reasons for why the non-existence of Marco Polo should be taken seriously.
1. Besides the book The Travels Of Marco Polo, there is no real record of the explorer Marco Polo. A 1366 inventory detailing all of the possessions of a Marco Polo living in Venice does exist however, and is often cited as proof by those who choose to believe in the existence of the explorer. Yet upon close examination, all the inventory says is that this Marco Polo had silk and rhubarb— without a doubt Asian items, but Venetian traders using the silk route made it completely possible for citizens of Venice to buy these items without ever having to leave the city. Thus having these items in no way proves travel.
Additionally, there are two other problems with assuming that the Marco Polo of the inventory is the Marco Polo of historical fame. For one, the inventory is dated 1366... 42 years after the explorer Marco Polo allegedly died. Two, Polo was a very common last name in Venice during the 13th and 14th centuries (according to a Smithsonian documentary on Marco Polo). In other words, the inventory (remember, 42 years late) could very well be a forgery. No doubt with the many Polo families in Venice, more than a few individuals from them would seek to capitalize on the Marco Polo legend. Even assuming no one in any Polo family would ever dream of trying capitalize on the legend of Marco Polo by forging an inventory of his belongings, there's still the possibility that a Polo named their child Marco because of the legend, and that Marco Polo made an inventory of his stuff in 1366.
Given that Polo was a common last name at that time, and given that the silk route allowed for many items from the East to be sold by street vendors in Italy that this deceased-Marco Polo could have bought from, this is not a sufficient record demonstrating the existence of the famed explorer Marco Polo, assuming the record is even an honest one at all. Thus, all we are left with as a witness to Marco Polo's existence is The Travels Of Marco Polo. "But wait," you might object, "The only records we have of Socrates existing is the work of Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes, and you don't doubt his existence." And you would be quite right. However, the reason why one presumes a Socrates really existed based on the accounts of him given by others, is because there's no real motive in inventing a character like Socrates, nor are there any supernatural or miraculous claims made about the person Socrates or his deeds, and moreover, the writings about Socrates have not changed over time. These same things cannot be said in regard to Marco Polo and his Travels, and this leads to my second point.
2. The Travels Of Marco Polo contain wild and far-fetched accounts of magic, including people with their heads in the middle of their chests, people with dog faces, half-men half-unicorns, etc., that the explorer in the book claims to have witnessed. But what makes The Travels Of Marco Polo even more suspect, is not what it does mention, but what it fails to mention. Had Marco Polo truly traveled all over China in the late-1200s, he would have noticed the Great Wall, the use of chopsticks, the practice of footbinding, etc. Yet the Travels make mention of none of these things. A European seeing China for the first time would certainly have noticed these distinct characteristics of the culture.
Then again, what The Travels Of Marco Polo does choose to mention (aside from its mythological accounts) doesn't redeem it either. For instance, "Marco Polo" says in his Travels that he ended the siege of Xiangyang in 1279, when in fact the siege of Xiangyang had been ended by Persians two years before he could have possibly reached China. This suggests a later writer of The Travels Of Marco Polo, who had knowledge of the siege, but did not know the dates and who simply sought to insert the main character into the event. This writer is most likely Rustichello da Pisa.
Even in Marco Polo's Travels, the explorer claims that he dictated his account to Rustichello. But it's far more likely that Rustichello was the only author of the account of Marco Polo. This is because Rustichello was not a journalist, but a fantasy/romance writer (who, it should be noted, contributed a great deal also to Arthurian mythology). He therefore would have been an odd choice for an allegedly seasoned explorer to entrust his memoir to, but a great ghostwriter for a fictional tale meant to entertain an audience. Rustichello's authorship would explain some of the more mythological elements of the Travels (like the half-man half-unicorn), as well as also explain the omission of major features of ancient Chinese culture (such as tea and the Great Wall that any real traveler would have noted).
Lastly, there are over 100 different versions of The Travels Of Marco Polo, and as the centuries have continued the book has gotten longer. Early editions are normally about 2-300 pages, while later editions range from 5-700 pages. Either Rustichello writes from his grave and Marco Polo continues to recall new memories from his, or future writers have added to a yarn they instinctively know has already been spun. The credibility of the actual book itself, then, leads me to the third and last point.
3. There is no corroboration of the accounts found in the Travels from Chinese sources. This is highly unusual for the Chinese, who were meticulous record keepers. Not only would it be strange for the Chinese not to make any mention of a European guy ending a major siege in their civilization, but not mentioning Marco Polo would also be strange considering how in The Travels Of Marco Polo, "Marco" claims he was made the governor of Yangzhou, where he allegedly ruled for several years. There is no mention in ancient Chinese gazetteers of a Marco Polo ever being governor in the area of Yangzhou. Before you go saying "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", keep in mind that the ancient Chinese kept gazetteers of every governor, including throughout the Mongol period, which can still be accessed today (you can also see Dr. Frances Wood's Did Marco Polo Go To China?)
To be sure, Marco Polo occupies for many that weird historical space between legend and fact. We cannot be sure, for instance, if a William "Braveheart" Wallace ever really existed. Nor can we be sure of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. But for me at least, the question of whether or not there was a Marco Polo— who sailed to China and returned in glory— is resolved in the negative.
However, my skepticism toward The Travels Of Marco Polo should in no way be construed as being motivated by a belief that a European in those times could not have possibly traveled to China. In fact quite the opposite. Not only was the silk route already in existence 11 centuries before Marco Polo was allegedly born, and therefore European travel to the East certainly possible, but furthermore, it's confirmed that 20 years before Marco Polo's alleged journey began— in 1240— a Franciscan monk named Giovanni da Pian del Carpini reached China and became very well-known by the elites within the Mongol empire; many other Catholic missionaries would make the same trip in the 1250s in attempts to convert the Mongols to Christianity. So rather than my contention with the Travels being that a European reaching China was some impossible feat in those times, my contention, instead, is with the Travels making a European explorer reaching China such a big deal when it wasn't.