Marco Polo's World
"If you want to understand China's grand strategy today, you need look no further than Khubilai
Khan's empire.. . . The geopolitical aspects of Marco Polo's world approximates our own." (12)
Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy and the U. S. Military
Response in the Twenty-first Century. 2018. New York: Random House.
To the modern reader who wishes to have the backstory, I offer the greatest cross-cultural story in history.
An Excerpt from Taifun: Khubilai Khan Invades Japan by Sea. With some detail from BatuK Khan of the Golden Horde.
Minstrels sang of the feats of Alexander the Great in the squares of Italian towns. When Marco Polo wrote The Travels, the story of his exploits in the service of Khubilai Khan, perhaps he thought that the minstrels might sing of him, a merchant of Venice who traveled the world in the service of the most powerful ruler on earth.
The opposite was true. When Marco Polo published the account of his travels, his fellow Venetians branded him a liar and called him Marco Millions, Marco of the Million Lies.
Marco left China after seventeen years of service to Khubilai Khan. He was been homesick for Venice and wished to end his days in his native country. Khubilai Khan had offered him a noble marriage and a position at court, an elevation from his status as a merchant. In his native country. a merchant could not rise to be a member of the aristocracy.
The Mongol Empire was a meritocracy and a low birth did not mean that prospects were limited. Subudei, the greatest general in the Mongol Army, the greatest strategist after Chinggis Khan, had begun in life as a herder of reindeer and the son of a blacksmith.
Marco turned down riches and status. He missed his homeland and returned by sea to La Serenissima, the Most Serene Venice.
Marco began life employed in the emporium of his father and his brother. The Polo Brothers had a branch of their emporium in Constantinople, but they were dealing in ordinary goods and agricultural products, much of it from Rus, the medieval Russian state headquartered in the Ukraine, where Kyiv was the Mother of Russian Cities. The Polo Brothers wanted to engage in the trade in luxury goods, so they decided to go to China on the overeland Silk Road. They wanted to go to the source of the trade, that had been held for centuries by the Muslims of Anatolia (Turkey) and Central Asia and Persia. The best way to make a profit was by eliminating the middlemen.
On the way to China, they were forced to spend three years in Bukhara, a town famous as a center of Muslim culture, learning and trade. A civil war between rival khans stopped the traffic. Marco spent three years in a caravanserai, where his father and uncle learned the trading practices of Asia and Marco learned the languages of the Mongol court. The Khan had sent the Polos Brothers back to Europe as his envoys after their first trip. He requested that the Pope in Rome send him one hundred learned men to teach him about goverenance and laws in Europe. He had long heard of the activites of Europe in the Holy Land and Khubilai Khan wanted to know more. The Khan was disappointed when the Polos arrived with a lad of seventeen, but he soon changed his mind. Marco Polo, upon his arrival in China, spoke to the Khan in his own language. This was to prove a valuable skill.
Among the people he could trust was his principal wife Chabi. He had other close confidantes: his son the Heir Apparent Jinggim; his Tibetan lama, Pakpa; the great general Bayan, conqueror of Southern China; his Chinese chancellor Liu, and his European spy, Marco Polo, who was to report on affairs throughout the empire as the eyes and ears of the Khan. Marco received the paizi, the badge of authority entitling him to use the jam system, the post-roads. He entered his service of Khubilai Khan. He was rewarded with a salary and an elevation to the nobility, a rank he could not have attained in his native Venice.
It is clear from the writings that Marco regarded Khubilai Khan as the greatest, wisest and most powerful man on earth. The Khan was a great master of political theater, for his empire spanned much of the globe and he had to appeal to all of the people in his empire. To the Chinese, he was a Son of Heaven, to the Buddhists of Tibet, he was a Sage King or Cakravartin. To the Cenral Asians, he was a grand master
In Khubilai's splendid court at Shangdu in China, Khubilai Khan employed men of different nationalities. Turks and Central Asian ran his financial apparatus. The Confucians ran the bureaucracy of China. The was international and cosmopolitan. The ceremonies for the Khan's birthday and for New Year's were magnificent, with the nobility dressed in ceremonial robes of dazzling colors. Having a European at court was a mark of prestige. Having a European meant that the envoy had no part in the politics of the court. Marco could be trusted.
If later in life, the Great Khan had a tendency to paranoia, it was because he had enemies. He could ot put the power of the purse in the hands of the Confucians. The Mongols were a conquest dynasty. There were very few of them compared to the vast population of China. The Confucians could rule China by the book, by the classics, without an army. Early in his career, the Khan discovered a plot againt him, a collaboration with the Southern Song Dynasty from within his own court. Southern Song was the Han Chinese dynasty south of the Yangzi River, brilliant in its culture, rich in mercantile activites, but divided in government and weak militarily and unable to take back North China from the foreign dynasty. Foreign dynasties had been ruling North China for four hundred years. The Southern Song had never known a foreign invader.
Khubilai Khan, like his grandfather Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) believed that it was his destiny to govern all peoples. This was a sacred trust handed down to Chinggis Khan by the Eternal Blue Sky, the deity of the shamanists. The Mongols had begun a campaign against the South before Khubilai came to the throne. Khubilai merely succeeded after two generations of advances against the South.
Marco came to China as the campaign was successful. It was a new era in Mongol warfare, for the man born to the horse engaged in naval warfare against Song. Without ships, he would not have conquered Song. Marco, of course, understood naval warfare, being a Venetian. Marco had an assignment in the Salt Monopoly, a post that utilized Marco's experience in Venice. This period is the subject of a standalone story, a work of historical fiction created for young readers, Cobalt Blue: Marco Polo in Dadu. This is a work in progress. I will post a sample chapter on this website, in the Blog in the Spring of 2024.
The story told in Taifun: Khubilai Khan Invades Japan by Sea is the story of Khubilai Khan's late period, the consolidation of the victory against Southern Song, and Khubilai Khan founding a dynasty, naming an Heir Apparent, and ascending the Dragon Throne. It also tells the story of the corruption of the Villainous Ministers, including the one. A Tibetan, who looted the Song tombs. This was an extreme disappointment to Khubilai Khan because he had given his word that the tombs would be protected. Khubilai Khan also presided over the splitting up of the Empire. The center could not hold. This is a work of narrative history. I based my original research on the research of Morris Rossabi, biographer of Khubilai Khan. This is the world that Marco Polo entered. He was not only an observer, he was a participant.
Khubilai had a rage for good government from the beginning of his career. But nothing lasts forever. His most trusted advisor, Minister Liu retired. His lama returned to Tibet to govern there in Khubilai Khan's name. His son was kidnapped and his wife went into a decline. His favorite general was accused of cowardice by inexperienced young commanders. When he lost his friends and supporters late in life, Khubilai Khan went into his Lear period. Khubilai Khan had begun his career in brilliance and in glory and ended in a crack-up. His lama told him that the change was an illustration of the Buddhist principle of impermanence. Everything changes. Nothing lasts forever. Sic transit gloria mundi, Thus passes the glory of the world. It is a story of impermanence, to put it in Buddhist theme.
Marco was valuable to Khubilai Khan because as a European, Marco had not sided with any of the factions at court. In short, he was a good spy, a secret envoy, a loyal official reporting back on the various personalities who pursued their own interests, the Confucians, Buddhists from Central Asia and Tibet and the Muslims from Central Asia.
The Pope of the Church of Rome wanted to convert all of Asia to Christianity. Khubilai Khan resisted and informed Marco that the only reason that he did not convert to Christianity was because the Mongol nobility who were shamanists would feel he had abandoned his heritage.
Nothing was further from the truth. This was part of the political theater. In his private life, Khubilai Khan was a true Mongol who hunted and performed the rituals of The Ancestors. The Mongol nobility was split into factions, some in favor of Khubilai's innovations and some members of his own family who thought he had become too influenced by the Chinese and had abandoned his heritage. Several of these went to war against him.
Khubilai Khan and his principal wife Chabi had converted to Buddhism because the old religion, the shamanism of the steppes, was not sufficient for their spiritual needs. They were of the younger generation of the nobility, and they were progressive..
Marco states that he believed that Khubilai Khan would have converted to Christianity, with the result that his barons and the common people following in time.
Religion offered Khubilai Khan a way to appeal to his subjects, but public conversion to Christianity was not a possibility, even if it offered better relations with the Pope. The Pope was looking for an alliance with the Mongols against the Saracens of the Middle East, and sent European envoys to the Mongol court to find out if this was a possibility. It was not.
Marco was the first European to explore the Great Khan's empire. As he describes it in the travels, Marco’s own faith in God increased because he saw the world's variety. He spoke of trees: he had seen box trees in Georgia in Southern Russia, firs in Mongolia, palms in Persia--vast thickets of palms of immense variety-- and plantations of mulberry trees in China which are used in the manufacture of silk.
Marco had seen immense forests around Xanadu, the vineyards of Kashgar and the bamboo forests of Tibet. He had also seen the garden of the Khan’s capital where he had trees brought from all over his Empire growing on a huge hill covered with malachite from Russia. In the arboretum, the malachite ground was always green.
The Saracens had monopolized the trade of spices, both aromatic and medicinal, from the Orient since ancient times. They did this by keeping secret from the merchants of Europe the true locations where these spices were grown. Marco Polo discovered the true sources of all these spices and shattered the old structure of trade, the monopoly by the Saracens.
One thing unknown in the West and a marvel of Cathay (Marco's name for China) was a kind of fuel called coal. According to Marco, this marvelous item was black and compact. When ignited, it gives off, a heat, glowing bright red when it has reached its highest temperature and turning to gray ash when it burned out. It was so abundant that in the public baths in China, even a comon person could have three hot baths a week. In winter, one could have a hot bath every day. Marco deduced that the people of Cathay had risen to a much higher level of personal hygiene than the people of Venice. A hot bath in Veice was considered a great luxury to be enjoyed only by the nobility. In China, even the common man had a coal-fueled hot bath. The nobility in China had private baths. If there were no other type of fuel other than wood, the forests of China would have long since disappeared. Only coal made the burning of wood unnecessary. Marco recorded that the Chinese believed that bathing was good for the health. Marco records that he greatly enjoyed the custom.
The Supreme Khan founded a college of physicians at his court. There were hundreds of healers practicing every type of medicine in the empire. This was important to Khubilai, for in his later years, because of his over-indulgence in eating and drinking, he developed a painful case of gout. Khubilai's son-in-law was the King of Korea. Khubilai is demanding that King Cheongyal build him ships to invade Japan by sea, and Chong tries to dissuade him. The King came to court on the Emperor's birthday and offered him shoes made out of fishskin, by a Korean family. These were renowned for easing the pain of gout, and Khubilai accepts the fish shoes with gratitude.
The marriage of Jinguk, the Princess Supreme, Khubilai's favorite daughter to the King of Korea, is the subject of my serialized story Fish Shoes: A Palace Drama. Written for young readers, this is a work of historical fiction that is posted on Wattpad, the serialized story platform. It is free, and may be used as a companion text for students in classes of global history, from ninth grade and up. Korea is the least known of the Mongol campaigns, but it is important because it is the gateway to the Maritime Silk Road in southeast Asia. Marco Polo is a character in this story, because Marco befriends the Heir Apparent, and the two young men try to warn the Emperor about the corruption of his Muslim Finance Minister.
Marco Polo performed the tasks that Khubilai Khan asked of him. He was young. Had he had years and wisdom, he might have accomplished more. When he returned to his native land, he found that what he wrote of in the Khan's lands was not believed. He had been called a liar and asked to recant the stories he told.
He proved that what je saw and heard was true because he recorded the places of origin of many commodities which Europe had only been able to acquire through the Saracen merchants.
These places have not been known to Europe before so that any man who called Marco a liar could see for himself by reading the stamps on the crates of spices in European warehouses--when they have not been removed. The Muslim traders wanted to competition, so they kept the origin of their goods a trade secret. The citizens of Venice did not have the knowledge of exotic languages to read the labels on the crates and they did not believe him.
They called him Marco Millions and laughed at him, but Marco Polo's book became the greatest travel book of all time.
Perhaps at night, in his city of Venice, he took out the gold paizi, the emblem of his authority under the Khan, and wondered if he should have stayed in Khanbalik, as the Khan’s city was called.
On those nights, perhaps a melancholy overtook him. To sweep away this heaviness of spirit, perhaps Marco lifted a glass of wine to him and offered a toast: “To Khubilai Khan, who understood the meaning of “the millions."