Marco Polo Was in China

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By Ursula Kampmann
Translated by Honeycutshome

August 21, 2014 – Marco Polo was in China: this is the title of a book, released in 2013, written by Tübingen-based sinologist Hans Ulrich Vogel. In his weighty monograph, he opposes all scholars who promote the, surely best-selling, theory that Marco Polo did not reach China at all, but had merely compiled his work by using other sources. They take this hypothesis from the fact that Marco Polo keeps silent about some things that we today consider typical for the Chinese civilization. To be specific, he made no reference about the Chinese being quite fond of tea and cultivating the custom of binding the feet of their women. Admittedly, Marco Polo did not borrow the chlichés about ancient China that our contemporaries cultivate.

Hans Ulrich Vogel, Marco Polo Was in China. Brill Leiden – Boston 2013. 15,5 cm x 24 cm. Hard cover. 643 p. with pictures in color and black and white. ISBN 978-90-04-23193-1. 167 euros.

What all the scholars keep forgetting is the fact that the look at a foreign culture is always influenced by one’s own priorities. This holds true until the present day. The gourmet is interested in the local cuisine, the culture vultures are looking for historical buildings. Naturally, Marco Polo, too, had his own point of view. He was a merchant. Hence, he was not so much interested in the Chinese women’s feet but in the monetary conditions of the country. This is the area in which Messer Milione provides a real wealth of detail which so far has not been made good use of in reconstructing the Chinese payment system. This is where Hans Ulrich Vogel comes in who undertakes this task with such great patience and attention to facts that no question remains unanswered. He confronts the exact reports of the Venetian traveler with Chinese sources and exploits archaeological finds to scrutinize his theories.

The picture that unfolds to our eyes is a nuanced one of a sophisticated monetary system with variations according to province. The famous Chinese paper money, for example, did not circulate in the entire empire but only in a part of the country. Marco Polo describes accurately in which cities the paper money could be used for payment – and his accounts perfectly match the conclusions we have arrived at on the basis of other sources.
The Venetian of course provides many more details on this currency that was quite alien to him. He expanded on the manufacturing technique of the paper money that had been issued by Kublai Khan after the great monetary reform of 1260. He recorded that both counterfeiters and persons unwilling to accept the notes were sentenced to death. He deals in great detail with the layout of the notes with the signatures of the officials and the seal of the Great Khan and adds the denominations in which the notes were circulating. All this findings can be verified by the latest research, and Hans Ulrich Vogel states that there is no other source available that is as rich in detail as Marco Polo. Being a merchant, he simply was really interested in such matters.

Hence Marco Polo likewise described the use of cowrie shells in Yunnan and Southeast Asia, which Vogel devoted the third chapter of his book to. As a matter of fact, Marco Polo is not the only author prior to the 19th century, who mentions this currency. In the practical manner that befits a merchant, he gives the exchange rate for cowries: 80 snails for a weight unit that equates 2 Venetian groats, or 24 piccolo, respectively.

Chinese sources actually confirm this declaration of value, albeit the value was to slump later. When the Mongols tried to replace the cowries with paper money, they failed in the Yunnan Province. The state did not really enforce the introduction of its fiat money because in Yunnan the gold was quite cheap in comparison to the rest of the empire. That has not gone unnoticed by Marco Polo who informs his readers that changing cowries for gold would pay off there.

In several chapters at once Hans Ulrich Vogel deals with salt as means of payment and the role that the salt played in regard to the Chinese state income. This is another field where Marco Polo offers a wealth of detail, notabene as the only non-Chinese author. On the other hand, that does not come as a big surprise for Venice had become rich thanks to the trade with salt which is why Marco Polo, too, was quite interested in this essential raw material.

In his conclusion, Hans Ulrich Vogel modestly admits that, strictly speaking, only a reference to Marco Polo in a contemporary Chinese source could furnish ultimate proof that he actually had been to China. Even though that was exactly what a Chinese scholar claims to have found, his findings were controversial. In addition, he, i.e. Hand Ulrich Vogel, would deem it rather improbable that a comparatively humble servant like Marco Polo would have been granted the honor of being mentioned in such a source.
But the attention to detail in Marco Polo’s description of China was much greater compared with all the other Western authors whose trips to China have not been doubted by scholars. So, why was Marco Polo considered to be non-authentic? What other reason could this have then (and this conclusion is drawn not by the author but by the reviewer) than to make much money thanks to a spectacular theory in popular science literature?

At any rate, Hans Ulrich Vogel has written anything but a popular scientific book. Although his English is clearly structured and easy to read, one has to spend time and effort in order to follow him through his 425 pages. The reward for this effort is an entirely new picture of the Chinese economic system with incredible insights into every-day life. I strongly recommend anyone to go to all the bother of reading the entire monograph, even though the publisher’s price of €176 appears a bit too high.

You may order the book directly at the publisher’s website by clicking on this link.

The book is also available as an e-book, albeit at the same price.