I have been doing some readings on history, especially between 10th-15th centuries. I’m sharing my notes here on Marco Polo’s travel accounts. Then continuing with Ibn Battuta’s travel accounts and many others including film reviews, I’ll keep you busy with such historical readings in the following posts.
Marco Polo at chapter 4 describes Kublai Khan’s army in details. Historians say that in 1287, Marco Polo accompanied Kublai Khan’s army which aimed at destroying Khan’s uncle and his rival Nayan. Marco Polo tells that the war began with orders of Great Khan, with songs and sirens; and later on “fierce and bloody conflict began”. In the film “Black Rose”, Tris was complaining about the violence of Kublai Khan’s army. We don’t see the visual representations of war in the movie but it seems both Marco Polo and the movie emphasize the same themes on war and Kublai Khan’s army in general. Additionally Kublai Khan surrenders and captures Nayan, sentences him to death. His execution was handled brutally; Marco Polo says this happened by “enclosing Nayan between two carpets which were violently shaken until the spirit had departed from body…” Marco Polo says that Nayan was privately baptized and was a Christian. We can conclude that there was Christianity in China in 13th century, even among elites and commanders. It was mentioned in class that due to the increase in population in China, urbanization has reached its utmost level in 13th century. Marco Polo mentions a festival handled in China after the war. In this festival Kublai Khan celebrated prophets of four religions, which were worshiped by most of the people. Here we can conclude that there was no strict religious rule of government in China in 13th century. In chapter 10, Marco Polo describes the richness of Great Khan’s palace. His observations prove that China was one of the wealthiest states in the world in 13th century as mentioned in class. It was also interesting for me to learn that Great Khan had a guard team which consists of twelve thousand horsemen. In the movie “Black Rose” there was a huge caravan heading towards China with lots of goods in it. Marco Polo tells us about a caravan in chapter 24, and also mentions existence of trade with paper currency which was also pointed out in class: “When thus coined in large quantities, this paper currency is circulated in every part of the Great Khan’s dominions…” From Marco Polo readings, we also witness that China at that period was a centralized state in terms of economic relations which was another issue we discussed in class. Marco Polo, in the beginning of chapter 27 implies that “The Great Khan sends every year his commissioners to ascertain whether any of his subjects have suffered in their crops from unfavorable weather, from storms of rain or violent rains, or by locusts, worms or any other plague…” For one last point, in “Black Rose”, the English girl Mariam was chosen for service of Khan, and she was hidden and protected by Tris and Gurnie. In the readings, Marco Polo says that Kublai Khan had four legitimate wives. This gives us the idea that Marco Polo implied that there were several other women in the service of Khan by means of his sexual needs.
Ibn Battuta begins his observations of China by presenting information about Chinese resources such as porcelain, grain, gold, silver, hens and cocks. I’ve already stated that Marco Polo was talking about multi religious environment in China in 13th century. Ibn Battuta underlines similar issues; he states that “Chinese themselves are infidels” but there are Muslims living in China: “In every Chinese city, there is a quarter of Muslims in which they live by themselves, and in which they have mosques both for the Friday services and for other religious purposes. The Muslims are honored and respected.” One more similar issue both travelers imply is about finance. Both Marco Polo and Battuta imply that Chinese don’t use gold dinars of silver dirhams in their commerce, instead they use paper money. In class, it was mentioned that Chinese art was very sophisticated compared to Europe in 13th and 14th century. Ibn Battuta states that Chinese people are very skilled in art and “this characteristic of theirs is well known, and has frequently described at length in the works of various writers.” Additionally, about developed centralization and commercial facilities in China, Battuta claims that “China is the safest and best regulated countries for a traveler.
In the introduction part of the Travels of Marco Polo, it is stated that Marco, his father and uncle were the first Europeans to see Kublai Khan’s country. In the book, Marco Polo and his companions are called “Latins”, not “Europeans”. This gives us the idea that there was not such kind of emphasis on regionalism that embraces the whole Europe in 13th century. Moreover the fact that Marco Polo and his companions were the first westerners to visit Cathay indicates that interaction between Asia and Europe has newly begun. It was 13th century that the two continents and different civilizations began to interact with each other in a more communicable environment. Additionally, due to the consequences of this interaction, western countries begin to develop in scientific and technological terms, as depicted in the movie Black Rose. I think Black Rose is a very important work of cinema in terms of “history going to movies” because it was a movie about interaction between China(East) and England (West). In class discussion it was concluded that the movie includes orientalist tendencies in terms of cinematic representation, I think there is an exception to this, and a very crucial one which is the emphasis that China established “early modernity” before Europe. In class, it was mentioned that the debate on modernity is discussed nowadays; whether Chinese were the founders of modernity or not. In lectures we’ve covered lots of issues which would contribute to this discussion: How Chinese bureaucracy was well structured, efficiently working, grand canal, military and commercial fleets, gun powder (9th century), industry: metallurgy, iron production, textiles, the “Junk”, compass, paper money, developments in urbanization and urban culture in relation to art and literature, printing, first novels and poetry, etc… These were all indicators of why it is debated today whether Chinese were the first “modernists” or not.
The prologue part of the book includes a brief introduction of background Marco Polo’s travels. At the age of 17, Marco Polo joined his father and uncle to look for broader trade markets in East. In China, he stayed for 17 years and was appointed as an official of government. There he travelled all China and wrote records of his journeys. In class, we mentioned that Rusticiano, a novella writer was the person who wrote Marco Polo’s observations. They were together in prison where they wrote the travels. This copy was circulated throughout Europe and people were very interested in reading it because it was presenting knowledge on China that had never been heard before, like the paper money and the use of coal. Travels of Marco Polo fascinated people, and also inspired some to plan expeditions, such like Columbus. It was depicted in the movie, 1492: The Conquest of Paradise in which Columbus gave references to Marco Polo’s travel accounts. Although Marco Polo has been very popular among both scholars and public for centuries, there are debates whether he has really been to China or not, as was underlined in class discussion. Marco Polo says that he was an important officer in government, and in the prologue, I’ve already mentioned that they were the first Latins to visit China and Kublai Khan prepared celebrations for them, why wasn’t his name mentioned in historical records of Yuan Dynasty? Additionally he doesn’t mention printing, Great Wall, foot binding and tea, which were very crucial in Chinese everyday and cultural life in 13th century. There is a huge debate among historians on this issue. Most historians agree that the Travels aren’t hundred percent true but scholars like Henry Yule, Henry Cordier, Paul Pelliot, F. W. Cleaves, Leonardo Olschki reveal that Marco Polo had really been in China. In addition it is known that Chinese historian Yang Zhijiu found out a document in “The Yong Le Encyclopaedia Jingshi Dictionary” which holds records on three diplomatic envoys sent to China, is said to be proving that Marco Polo had been to China.
Picture: “Marco Polo in Asia” http://K-Bladin.deviantart.com/art/Marco-Polo-in-Asia-188488582