Marco Polo on Europe and China

In the Middle Ages, there was not much knowledge about the continents of Asia and Europe. Although much of Chinese history is derived from within the culture, very little was documented from an outsider’s perspective. Fortunately, Marco Polo’s books documented some historical accounts of his journey to Asia and his achievements as a Venetian trader-cum-explorer to both Europe and Asia. Polo had a great influence on most of the areas he visited and the development of modern-day civilization exploration, trade, and technology.

Biography of Marco Polo

Marco Polo was a famous explorer, born in 1254 AD in a family of traders in the ancient city of Venice (Potts 51). Venice was a commercial center where merchants around the Mediterranean region traded from 1000 AD to the Victorian Era. Being a son of a powerful mercantile trader, he had the privilege of learning a lot from his parents. Since Polo came from an affluent family, he was able to acquire a good education, where he learned about classical authors and theology in the Latin Churches. He was fluent in both Italian and French dialects (Polo, 1929, 43). As he grew up, he showed a great interest in geography and history. These interests helped him to maneuver much of his inventions that came later in his life.

On his sixth birthday, his father Niccolo and his uncle Maffeo left for a Chinese voyage formerly known as Cathay and returned when Polo was 15 years old. In the next voyage, Polo accompanied his father and uncle in Asia when he was only 17 years old. His father and uncle had an advantage over the other travelers and the emperor presented them a golden tablet which was one foot long and three inches wide. The message inscribed on it was in the praise of God and the emperor Khan. The importance of this tablet was to act as a VIP passport nowadays or a Diplomatic Visa and its authorized travelers should be provided with horses, food, lodging, and tour guides as deserved.

In China, the voyagers had a long and difficult time because they had to rely mostly on horsebacks. They traveled through Persia, Armenia, Afghanistan, and over the Pamir Mountains as well as along the Silk Road which was the main trade route available. Marco Polo kept a detailed and updated journal. He recorded everything observable along the route and his impressions about the terrain. For example, when they neared the Gobi desert, he wrote that the desert is said to be too long that it can take a year to cross from both ends, there is nothing to eat at all. In the Mongol region, Polo stopped for a year to learn about this civilization and, upon reaching Cathay (China), Polo impressed emperor Khan with his vast knowledge about the Mongol traditions. The Polo also shared their knowledge about their homeland with Khan, they narrated about the Roman Church and about the Pope which made Khan more curious (Potts 51).

Trade Mastery in the Khan’s Palace

Polo became proficient in four languages by the end of his visit and spent 17 years learning about trade, industry, and more about the paper currencies in the Khan’s court (Potts 53). He saw the importance of using the paper currency in trade instead of carrying silver and gold as a means of currency. He realized that the Chinese had also invented a mode of sending messages where different horsemen passed letters to one another like relay race batons.

Before the 15th century, the contact between the Eastern and Western hemispheres was insignificant (Potts 51). Most people in Asia, Europe, and Africa were not aware of the existence of the American continents. Most often, the merchants were the pioneer travelers to new continents in search of new markets and trade goods. In 1271, Marco Polo was able to travel from Italy to China and described his adventures and experiences on the big waters in his book called Silk Road. In the book, he described the Chinese inventions such as papers, printing, and gunpowder. He encouraged European merchants to travel to distant places in search of mercantile goods (Polo, Waugh, and Bellonci 43).

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Khan’s palaces were some of the most elegant and fantastic structures available in the world by then. The walls were covered with silver and gold and the hall was quite large that six thousand guests would dine the same time (Tamai, Kitaro?, and Webster). The emperor had a stable full of pure-white horses which also provided milk for the royal family. Polo found out that each room was furnished with the finest examples of Asian paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art. The most surprising thing to Marco was witnessing some kinds of stones that burned like a log. The Chinese had found a source of fuel that was not ever imagined anywhere in Europe. It was known as coal.

During this period, Polo traveled as a European Christian in a totally new world. His main interest during all the voyages was people, birds and beasts, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and any other merchandise. In addition, he also traded in places in search of available sources of food and water or any other marketable exports and imports between Europe and China. His return to Europe came after staying for over 2 decades in Asia (Potts 54). He had mastered much of the Asian trade routes more than any other person in Europe at this time.

The emperor Khan thought it wise to work more closely with the foreigners in his palace that deal with disloyal locals. Khan observed the wisdom and intelligence that Polo had and used him to settle scores with his emissaries such as Kara-Jang of Southwest China (Tamai, Kitaro, and Webster). This expedition took Polo six months to complete. He fulfilled the mission of uniting the two leaders more wisely by paying close attention to all the things that came along his way to the South. Upon return to the emperor, Polo reported the progress of the mission he had sent to and also described a lot of remarkable things he saw on the way and those he heard. This information served as a source of intelligence to the emperor’s leadership and helped strengthen his rule and influence among the greater China and beyond.

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All the time that Marco Polo stayed in the palace with the Great Khan, he never declined to travel on special missions. Due to his European background, anti-Asian forces were able to break a truce with him on behalf of China because they thought he was only present in China for diplomatic relations with Europe (Altenburg, Schmitz, and Stamm 237). The Great Khan realized that Polo was more important to his leadership than he thought because he brought news from every country and region that China conducted business with. All the business missions that he was sent to undertake were successful and the Chinese palace entrusted him even the most reliable and interesting business missions. During this time, Khan had a powerful influence along the trade routes, and safety against the bandits and pirates was guaranteed to those who had the golden tablets.

The Great Silk Road

This was a system of trade routes and cultural diffusion program lines that were essential in the transfer of culture, education, and religion to the Asian continent from the West and East. During the Middle Ages, the network-connected merchants, traders, monks, soldiers, pilgrims, urban inhabitants, and migrant pastoralists from India, China, Venice, and other cities along the Mediterranean Sea. The route derived its name from the lucrative trade of Chinese silk that was traded along the length of the trade route (Riddle 34). This trade began in the Han Dynasty in 206 BC, expanded into Central Asia through the missions and explorers to the imperial Chinese envoy (Tamai, Kitaro, and Webster). China took an unlimited interest in ensuring the safety of the trade routes and products which were extended by the Great Wall to enhance the protection of imports and exports.

Silk Road trade was a major factor in the growth of social and political advancement in China, the Middle East, Europe, and the Indian subcontinent. The route opened the long-distance trade, socioeconomic and political interactions between various civilizations. Although silk was the main trade commodity from China, more goods were traded. Religion, faith was shared, synthetic philosophies and technologies were taught, and also diseases spread along the route (Wells 33).

Marco Polo has remained probably the most famous Western traveler in the Middle Ages on the Silk Road route. He excelled and motivated all the other travelers through his determination to write and influence potential traders during his 24 years link with China. He did more research than his entire team of predecessors by exploring the culture, trades, kingdoms, and geography of all places involved. He discovered and documented more information about Mongolia, China, Europe, the Indian Subcontinent, and Middle East countries (Mecca). As illustrated by Polo, this long-distance relationship with China and South Asia increased his capacity to understand the route and came back to tell tales, making his literature the greatest travelogue (67).

From the time Marco Polo traveled with his father and uncle along the route for the first time, the journey from Venice to the East was very long and risky. The route was dominated by war, torn kingdoms such as Armenia, Afghanistan, Pamir, and Persia. Polo developed new routes through the help of emperor Khan in order to avoid the same problems he encountered with his seniors. He helped China to make a northern swing, shortening the route by first arriving at the South of the Caucasus and then the kingdom of Georgia. Then the travelers would journey along the same region parallel to the western coast of the Caspian Sea to reach Tabriz and proceed to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf.

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The main intention of this expedition was to establish a sea route from the Mediterranean region to the Chinese port. However, their ship got wrecked at Hormuz. They only managed to stitch it together with twine made from the husk derived from the Indian nuts (Tamai, Kitaro, and Webster). They then decided to overland the Cathay continuing eastwards to Kerma through Balkh and Herat to Badakhshan, where Marco recuperated from an illness he had acquired during the excursion. After a whole year of staying in Badakhshan, the team proceeded to the highest notable place in the world (Pamir) which would be explained to be the modern-day Himalayas.

Polo’s Contribution to the Health Field

When Polo and the company reached the Taklamakan Desert along the Taim basin, they avoided the southern trade route and passed through Yarkland, Cherchen, Khotan, and Lop-Nor. Marco’s acute intelligence and keen eyes noticed one of the most peculiar characteristics of people living in Yarkland. He describes them as those, who have a certain abnormality of the enlarged thyroid glands. Polo blamed the water that was available in this region and has caused the goiter problem. In the rivers that flowed along with the Perm province, the stones referred to jasper and chalcedony were present. Apart from discovering a new trade item, Polo identified a market for common salt. He would trade common salt from northern China with the quartz in the South, thus solving the people’s goiter problem.

The Battle of Genoa

After arriving home, Polo captained a naval ship headed to fight against Venice’s rival city Genoa. The ship got captured and Polo became a prisoner of war. Venice had fought a series of unending wars with Genoa in order to gain control of trade routes along the black sea region. During his time in prison, Marco Polo met Rustichello, a writer from the city of Pisa, who encouraged him to write about his experiences in his travel around Asia and the resulting books became the world’s famous travel literature in the Medieval period. The first book was The Description of the World and the second one was The Travels of Marco Polo (Polo, 1948, 98). Some of the readers of his literature thought that the stories were too incredible to be true based on the difficulties in Polo’s Asian voyages. After one year in prison, Polo was released and went back to Venice to start a new life. According to the illustration of Potts, Marco lived in Venice much of his later life, until his 70th birthday when he met his death in 1324 (61). On his deathbed, he told his family and friends that he only said half of what he witnessed in his life.

Marco Polo’s Contribution through Writing

Although most stories were incredible and almost hard to believe, the book The Travels of Marco Polo captured a vivid imagination of the European people who had no idea of what the Asian cultural concepts were like. He was an amazing scholar and the narrator and he was quite open-minded to learn about the culture and languages of people completely different from his own. The book captures the way of life of different people from the uncivilized tribesmen of the mountain to the most exalted royalties in the Chinese palace.

Modern historians and anthropologists consider the writings of Polo’s travel as a source of information regarding the culture and trade that took place in the Medieval time. Most of the stories that were considered to be ‘make-believe’ in the 1300 AD were later confirmed by the 18th-century explorers. Although Polo hardly spoke Chinese and did not discuss much of the Chinese culture in his literature, most Chinese historians value his writings as a reliable source of information regarding the battles of the middle ages in Asia. His book The Travels of Marco Polo became popular throughout Europe as it was translated into every major language in Europe (Riddle 67).

Explorers and geographers who came after Polo’s voyages in the 14th century and those who existed at that time did not respect him much. However, the cartographers of the 15th century found this information quite useful in drawing the maps of some European and Asian regions particularly those that relied on trade. Marco Polo was the first person to develop a system of measuring distances traveled based on the time it took. In addition, he was the first person in history to compile a record of the trade routes across Asia by naming kingdom after kingdom and how they related geographically with one another. Due to this achievement, his literature is considered to be the precursor of contemporary geographical science.

Polo’s Contribution to Geography

There were many forces that drove Polo’s movements along the Silk Road like the desire to generate new ideas from the East. The most foreseeable potential for the trade was to exchange the technologies between the two diverse geographical locations with the aim of discovering the abilities to achieve unattainable resources in the local market. During his stay in Genoa prison, Marco described in his book the geographical features that were present along the Silk Road and the customs of China (Wells 89). This information helped the future generation of explores, like Ibn Battuta, to draw sketchy maps of the region and develop more affordable and cheaper sea routes to India and China. Polo’s contribution was turned to be the first masterpiece in the development of public transport routes from Eastern and Southern Europe to some parts of the Asian continent.

Due to various reasons, the breakdown of the Silk Road came to pass. The European traders could no longer access the East to acquire more knowledge and the East could not access Europe. Some of the main problems that affected the route include the Balkan wars and the attack of traders by the Ottoman Turks (Tamai, Kitaro, and Webster). Although Marco Polo’s literature had gained popularity, most people only regarded it as a legendary story. However, the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gamma utilized this knowledge in the 14th century to search for an alternative route to India and China while navigating through the African continent (Napoli 56). Other navigators include Columbus and Bento De Goes.

Marco’s Contribution to Religion

Through the narration of Polo, Kublai Khan learned about the existence of the Roman Empire, the Pope, and the Christian faith. Christianity was among the three major foreign religions practiced in China. It was the second after Buddhism and long before Islam. By the end of the first voyage, Khan persuaded the Polo family to return home and persuade the Pope to send a hundred of educated Christians and come back with them in their next voyage (Lopez and McCracken 49). However, this did not happen, but on their return journey to China, they came with seventeen years old Marco.

Previously, China was attacked by the Mongols who established a Mongol Dynasty for a period slightly longer than one century. The rulers linked with Europe as their main internationalization strategy. The empire invited the Pope and the Roman administration about the existence of a large number of Nestorians in the South of China. According to Lopez and McCracken, the Catholic Pope sent missionaries to Beijing in 1294 to help the remaining faithful Christians link up with the others and spread the gospel in South Asia (47). The empire was tolerant of various religions that were observed in the region and also allowed the Roman Catholics to build churches. By the end of the Mongol dynasty, there were lots of churches built in Beijing and other upcoming cities in China. The Chinese strongmen who resented the Mongol dynasty rebelled and most faithful Catholics and Nestorians were left without protection. The Chinese burnt down most of the churches and expelled the two Christian religions. During the reign of Emperor Khan and the close relationship that existed between them and Europe through Marco Polo, the reformation of Christianity was enabled.


Most European societies received Polo’s travel stories to China as fairy tales and thus hard to believe. However, his book enlarged people’s knowledge about geography and thus the fallacies of the churches about religion were breached. Polo’s book became a source of knowledge in promoting the development of global navigation in the fifteenth century. The emergence of numerous sailors began as a result of his motivation. Thus, it can be concluded that Marco Polo’s visits to the Asian continent opened a new stage of Earth exploration in Europe.

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