February 19, 2013

Marco Polo, Venice To Xanadu, Book Review

Marco Polo, From Venice to Xanadu
By Laurence Bergreen
Alfred A. Knopf
New York 2007

Marco Polo

This is a biography of Marco Polo, son  of a Venetian trader who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries. When I grew up I learned that Marco Polo was famous for introducing noodles to Italy. Goes to show how much bad information people believe in a free country like the United States. Laurence Bergreen reveals that travelers who went to China from Italy before Marco Polo brought noodles to Italy. This book is easy to read yet maintains a high standard for academic accuracy, with many details about the many copies of Marco's travel book and the conflicting differences.

Marco is famous for much more important things. He inspired Christopher Columbus and Magellan. He revealed to western civilization that China had paper money. Marco's father and Uncle traveled to China first and returned. They brought 17-year-old Marco along on their second trip. He lived with Kublai Khan the enlightened ruler of the Mongols for 17 years. Marco "considered himself a trader in fabrics, gems and spices. But ultimately he traded in knowledge of the world and its people, thereby anticipating the Renaissance, and beyond. Through his account, he led both East and West into the future."

"Marco Polo had learned to overcome being a stranger in the Mongol Empire, only to find that he had become a stranger once more" when he returned home to Venice. Kublai Khan extended more freedom to women than western civilization. Women served in the military. Marco traveled through the Mongol empire working for the Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan.

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan tolerated all religions. All people worshipped as they chose. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism flourished under this Khan. He had his magnificent palace in Cumbalac which is now Beijing. It was safe to travel from Europe to China because the Khan ruled the Silk Road. He had created a post office system with horses posted every 25 miles. That was supplemented by fast human runners for shorter trips. That made it possible for the Khan to remain informed of what was happening throughout his wide empire.

The Mongols at the time were considered dangerous and sinful by the Pope and by "those who are not befuddled by mental torpor."  "The Mongols abhorred the thought of spilling blood. Their methods of 'bloodless' executions included smothering by stuffing the victim's mouth with stones or feces." Others were "wrapped in a carpet and trodden to death by horses." Mongols ruled foreigners, including but not limited to Armenians, Nestorians, Jacobites, Georgians, "Genoese, Venetians, Jews, Muslims, Uighurs, Russians and Persians." Outnumbered by the Chinese, "to lessen corruption, and to preserve their identity, [. . .] the Mongols enforced segregation." Chinese subjects could not "learn the Mongol tongue; [. . .] bear arms, or marry Mongols." Marco expressed concerns about intolerant Muslim laws.

Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, from  Navarre, preceded by 100 years, Marco's writings about his travels to the east. But it was not published until the 16th Century, and translated until the 17th Century. And Benjamin only traveled to Baghdad and back. Marco visited the village of Kamul (now called Hami) where women were shared with visitors. Yet the family unit remained intact. Bergreen reports "One in twelve Asian men--that is, one in every two hundred men worldwide--carries the Y chromosome originating in  Mongolia at the time of Genghis Khan." Eight percent of Asians in one Oxford University study "were direct descendants of Genghis Khan," called by some the most prolific "lover in history."

Mongols were focused on the warrior life. They conquered the entire Asian  continent in a few years. Their philosophy was "all war, all the time." There was no such thing as a civilian. Everyone participated. They could go for days without food. They drank the blood of their horses for sustenance.

Marco Polo Bridge (also Lugou Bridge) outside Beijing

Bergreen explains Marco Polo's problem. "He had found his way into a confluence of civilizations several centuries advanced over Western Europe. How to explain them all to his skeptical audience? Making the future credible exceeded even Marco's patience and powers of persuasion."

Chinese astronomers employed a system where the equator was a circle around the globe since 2400 BC. It was not adopted by European astronomers until Tycho Brahe, the Dane adopted it in the 16th century. Urban planning was also farther advanced in China than in Western Europe. A town bell sounded beginning a nightly curfew. Mongol guards took "poor and crippled persons to shelters and hospitals." The capitol city, Cambulac was safer than Venice.

Women of Tibet were worth more as they had more sexual partners. When travelers passed through the men would bring their daughters out to offer them to the people passing through. Coal was used for heat in China for 1,000 years before it was similarly used in Europe. It was not used widely until the 18th Century in European countries. Women of Quinsai (now Hangzhou) were encouraged to have orgasms, while men were not; in order to preserve their "vital essence."  Kissing was prohibited in public. Homosexuality was discouraged, but lesbianism "was tolerated and even expected."

In Quinsai tardy workers were beaten. Printed books and materials were plentiful "almost two hundred years before the the invention of moveable type in Europe." Kublai Khan wanted to rule the world. In his attempt to conquer Japan he found he was not suited to naval warfare. When a high ranking Muslim serving Kublai Khan was exposed as a traitor and thief, he was killed and all of his wealth and followers were seized. Khan purged all Muslims from his court.

Marco Polo Bridge

Marco traveled to India for the Khan. Some say Marco brought back the idea of ground lenses for eyeglasses and later for the telescope. China used gunpowder for three centuries before Marco brought the knowledge to Europe. That revolutionized warfare. The book of Marco Polo's travels was written by a Pisan named Rustichello, while they were in a Genoese prison. "Most of Marco Polo's contemporaries scorned or simply ignored his feats, but eventually history remembered."

"No single individual would have been able to fulfill all the literary and historical tasks that he set for himself; the range of knowledge and the distances he covered were just too immense for one gentleman of the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth to discuss with complete accuracy. But in his ambitious attempt, he extended the bounds of human knowledge and experience and imagination."

An estimated map of Marco Polo's travels

"Marco's peculiar sensibility stemmed from the decades he spent among the Mongols. [. . .] he could think like a Mongol, and see the world as they saw it.[. . .] he was as eclectic as his mentor Kublai Khan in matters of faith, and his belief system was as inclusive and porous as that of the Mongols."

"Although he identified himself as a Christian at the beginning and end of his life, he moved among Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious groups. [. . .] In his worldview, the real and the marvelous mingle freely--sometimes harmonizing, sometimes colliding."

"[T]he world Marco Polo explored is in many ways lost to history, but important aspects of his portrayal are strikingly contemporary. [. . .] he understood that commerce was the essence of international relations, and that it transcended political systems and religious beliefs [. . .] Throughout Marco's world, people lived according to absolutes, both political and spiritual, but he recognized that in a tumultuous, ever-changing time the only absolute was the power of belief itself."

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