The Travels of Marco Polo

by Marco Polo

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In this story of his thirteenth-century experiences in China under the Mongol rule of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo describes an encounter with an Eastern civilization before ideas of "Orientalism" had taken hold in western European thought.

"Orientalism" is a term coined by Edward Said to describe how western European nations viewed the inhabitants of the vast territory that stretches from the Middle East to China. Said argues that in order to justify domination and control of these lands, Europeans labelled all their cultures, though widely divergent, as "Oriental." "Orientals" were characterized as mysterious, feminine, treacherous, and childlike, as well as in need of European guidance.

Polo, whether his account is a firsthand account or a recollection of what he had been told, is untainted by any idea of what the Chinese "should" be. His accounts thus speak of Asia and the Chinese with respect. While Polo never abandoned his Christian and European perspective, he was able to appreciate the many ways in which the Mongol empire was a superior civilization.

For example, Polo marvels at the use of lightweight paper money and the sophisticated communications system that allowed news to travel quickly across vast territory. He observes an industrial capacity that outstripped Europe's in terms of iron and salt production, and he appreciates a standard of living in which people lived in fine cities, dressed in silk, and ate from porcelain bowls while frequenting bathhouses. He sees the Chinese simply as members of another civilization, different though they are, that Europeans could in many ways emulate rather than dominate and plunder.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Travels of Marco Polo is an account of Polo's adventure through the Orient in the thirteenth century. It is more of a firsthand account of his travels than a cohesive story line, showing the various nations he visits and the many rulers he gets acquainted with.

Throughout the story, he visits the Middle East, China, Japan, India, Africa, and many other places. He spends time in the court of Kublai Khan and details the events of the Mongol Wars in that region.

Being one of the first European voyagers to this region, he is able to view it with pure motives and without any internal lens, showing great admiration for the Eastern societies. This story is one of the best Western accounts of Eastern society at the time because it is so unspoiled by Western ethnocentrism. Polo shows great respect for their spice trade and the sprawling civilizations that these nations have developed, regardless of how different they are from Western society.

He is one of the first to respect the technological and social advancements that Eastern societies had made, because, at the time and soon thereafter, many people looked down on what they viewed as "barbarian" Eastern societies. His respect gives a wonderful account of the status of society in that region of the world and gives an unrestricted view of their trade, economy, politics, and technology.

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