Marco Polo--Revisionist History?

I came across an article/link some a few months ago that made the claim that Marco Polo did not actually make it all the way to China–that he probably made it no farther than Persia. Unfortunately, I no longer have the source. Is this a case of someone just trying to get some publicity, or are there credible arguments for this case. The only thing that I remember from the article was that the author stated that Marco Polo did not use any “local” names for any of the places.

Huh, next thing they’ll be saying that the water game played by children (“Marco!” “Polo!”) was really invented by Ben Franklin.

Seriously, I believe the question of what Marco Polo actually did (or whether he actually existed) has been debated in academic circles for some time.

Okay, so HOW, then, did Italy get noodles?


Poor MP! He has been alternately held up as a superhero traveller and dismissed as a liar almost since the day his book was first published. As Dex noted, there are many differences of opinion as to what he actually did or did not do.

However, most of the dispute has to do with where he fit in Chinese society. His book reads as though he was a trusted advisor to Kublai Khan, but the information he provides does not appear to be at the level of a court insider.

The names he gives for the cities he visited do tend to be the names known (vaguely) to Europeans from their appearance on the “Silk Road.” There are three things to remember about that: 1) his audience, 2) his ghost-writer, and 3) the multiplicity of texts.

  1. Just as an American writer today would generally write of visiting Finland, Cologne, or Lake Lucerne rather than Suomi, Köln, or Vierwaldstätter See so that his audience would recognize the locations, MP could have used the names that he would expect to have been recognized.
  2. MP did not write his own manuscript, dictating it to a fellow prisoner named Rustichello (or Rusticiano–we can’t even agree on his name), who was a writer of Romances (ripping sagas of knights battling for honor–not bodice rippers). The book was written in a Franco-Italian dialect which has not survived, so there is a possibility that we have misunderstood the assumed pronunciation of various words.
  3. MP’s story was published before the printing press revolutionized the publishing industry. We have over 120 manuscripts of the book dating to that era, and none are believed to have been the original.


Frances Wood wrote Did Marco Polo Go to China? Her contention is he did not and that his account is based on works by other travelers including his father and uncle. Personally, she failed to convince me.

Whether he did get to China or not, and no matter what social position he had, The story is still a great read!

On the other hand, a book called “Myself and Marco Polo” by Paul Griffiths, is not. It looks at first glance to be about Rustichello writing the story, but soon degenerates into “serious fiction”. I could have lived with the chocolate-coloured tiles he mentions, but when MP describes a building with towers on the ends as looking like rugby goalposts I lost patience with it.

Bob the Random Expert
“If we don’t have the answer, we’ll make one up.”

As for noodles, according to a food anthropologist speaking on the Food Network (which you can take for whatever it’s worth), claimed that noodles started in many places of the world around the same time, Italy and China being two of the places.

There were actually types of pasta (what people vulgarly call “noodles”) in Italy long before Marco Polo, before his civilization and even before the Roman Empire. Apparently pasta in Italy was eaten by the Etruscans as early as the 12th-11th century BC.

Other ancient inhabitants of Italy, Villanovans, Umbrians, and Picenes, may very well have had Pasta even before the Etruscans.

Vulgar, indeed. When you go down to Chinatown, do you ask for a nice big bowl of pasta in miso broth with fishcake and spring onions? Pfui.


Okay, I reread Woods’ book and here’s her main arguments:

1 - Polo is not mentioned in any Chinese references from the period.

2 - Polo did not mention a number of unusual and/or interesting Chinese practices: ex. tea drinking, chopsticks, foot binding, calligraphy, the Great Wall.

3 - Polo got a lot of his facts wrong about dates and geography.

4 - Polo’s book is an impersonal third person narrative. Many of the descriptions of locations or events are not written from a personal viewpoint.

5 - Polo used virtually no Chinese names of terms in his book. Most of the names he used were Persian.

Here’s my counterarguments:

1 - Other European travelers to China of the period were not mentioned. Granted, most of them were not as important as Polo alleges he was. Most likely, Polo exaggerated his role in events.

2 - Polo was a merchant not a scholar. He gave detailed descriptions of things like currency exchange rates and local luxury items. In addition, his narrative was actually written by a ghost writer who probably removed some of the less interesting or believable items.

3 & 4 - Polo was writing about some of these events twenty years after they happened without the aid of notes. Minor errors and a certain detached style are to be expected.

5 - Persian was the main trade language used in Asia at the time. Polo probably relied on Persian translators to speak with the local Chinese.

Keep in mind also the path that Polo’s narrative took. He traveled for seventeen years before returning home. He started relaying his story three years after his return. His ghost writer, Rustichello, undoubtedly reworked some of Polo’s story for literary purposes. There are no extant copies of Rustichello’s original. Even the earliest surviving works are rewrites by later authors based on the lost original or earlier rewrites. Many of these later authors edited Polo’s story and added other author’s work to pad out the book.

Hold your horses Ukele, or you might come off looking like a happy pfui trigger. I was referring to PASTA, which is VULGARLY called “noodles”. You indicate by your mention of China-town that you know that pasta and noodles are not the same item, even though they are similar.

In english-speaking countries, the distinction is not usually made (or not made very well), and pasta is grouped together with noodles under the same name. Well they are not the same thing; they are different foods. To call pasta by the proper name, “pastasciutta”, is to be correct. You are also correct if you abbreviate it to “pasta”. But to call pasta “noodles” is considered incorrect by Italians, who are the ones who ought to know about pasta.

That is not to say that noodles are vulgar–not at all. Just the grouping of pasta into the noodle category is a vulgar thing.

Incidentally, I don’t need to head down to China-town–I happen to live in Hong Kong.