The Million ‘Mortal Sins’: Marco Polo’s Travels and European Conceptions of Asian Cultures

Delivered at the annual Graduate Student Symposium at Perdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana in March 2013

When Marco Polo’s account of his travels throughout Asia was released in the year 1299 (originally entitled Il Milione or The Million, a reference to the sheer numbers of people and riches described within) his descriptions of “heathen” rituals and perversities horrified the European world. If Polo was to be believed (and if the maps he returned with were any indicator) nearly half the world was mired in ignorance and idolatry, sworn enemies of Western Christianity (a hard pill for any medieval reader to swallow). It is perhaps no surprise, then, that for much of the remainder of his life Polo was ridiculed and derided by his countrymen in Venice. In fact, according to Maneul Komroff in his 1930 edition of The Travels of Marco Polo, there exists no record to show that “a single one of his contemporaries really believed much of the story he told.”[i] Even upon his deathbed the most important people in his life (friends and family alike) begged him to confess the lies he had told about his time in Asia, to which he replied contemptuously “I have not told half of what I saw.”[ii]

The incredulity of these Venetians has been echoed many times in the modern academic world. As late as 1995, Dr. Frances Wood in her article “Did Marco Polo go to China?” questioned whether Polo ever went to China at all, concluding from certain glaring omissions (such as his failure to mention tea ceremonies, the practice of foot-binding, or even the famous Great Wall) and the absence of any Chinese record confirming his participation in the Mongul imperial government (let alone of his participation in the siege and capture of a Chinese city) that he most likely travelled only as far as Constantinople or the Black Sea and recounted the rest form hearsay and conjecture.[iii]

This claim has been contested by many scholars throughout the years, including Peter Jackson in his article “Marco Polo and his ‘Travels’” in which he supports Martin Gosman’s claim that “the incredulity [Polo] met with on his return to Venice sprang from an unwillingness to accept his depiction of a highly organized and hospitable Mongol empire that ran counter to the traditional Western Christian view of the ‘barbarian’ and especially the view of the barbarian Mongols” that had been prevalent from the very first years of interaction between the two groups, rather than from any actual inaccuracy.[iv] Jackson further argues that despite certain inaccuracies (of which he claims the absence of the Great Wall in Polo’s Travels is not one given that the structure we see today dates from the sixteenth century Ming dynasty) we, as modern readers, must not “consider the visit to China in isolation” and, instead, “take the work as a whole” (which Jackson claims is far more accurate than any given individual part).[v]

In recent years, however, many scholars have gone a step further in their consideration of Polo’s work. Rather than consider the accuracy or inaccuracy of Polo’s Travels, Dr. John Critchley argues in his work Marco Polos Book, it is perhaps more interesting to view it as a “valuable source for the minds of late thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Western Europeans than for contemporary traditions in Asia.”[vi] According to Critchley, Polo’s accounts of the Eastern world deliberately pandered to the Western European mindset and, more importantly, remained for many years the definitive (and only) source for Europeans about Eastern life (Christopher Columbus famously carried a copy of Il Milione with him on his voyage westward to Asia).[vii] It is far more important, Critchley concludes, to view Polo’s Travels as a lens through which can be seen the mental workings of an entire continent (Western Europe). Discussions of Asia and Polo’s accuracy thus become, for Critchley, “very much a secondary consideration.”[viii]

It is in the shadow of such calls for a deeper consideration of Polo’s Milione that I begin this project. Until now, discussion of Polo’s Travels has been unfortunately distracted by various detail-oriented arguments attempting to determine the authenticity of his account. Such questions should, I agree, be largely of secondary concern. In fact, when reading much of Polo’s descriptions of Eastern life (particularly in his portrayal of Eastern religions) it is difficult to imagine them as the most accurate representation of a non-Western culture. Throughout his descriptions of Eastern life, Polo consistently oversimplifies and misrepresents the nature of Eastern religions. Not only does he lump all of the Eastern religions together under the Christian label of “idolatry”, he repeatedly implies that every “misdeed” and “vice” the people of Asia commit is the result of their state of religious degradation. He combines this implication with the mention of thousands of scattered Christian communities throughout the East that were slowly being corrupted by Eastern influences (in spite of the occurrence of several miracles to prove the truth of their ideology).[ix]

Despite the fact that such characterizations are clearly wildly inaccurate, it is important that we take note of them. Indeed, I argue that because his descriptions of Eastern life were the most prominent (and only) source for information about the Eastern world, they helped create an image in the Western mind of an entire civilization that needed to be saved and shown the path of Christ. Ultimately, this mindset would evolve into the Western fear of the Oriental Other so brilliantly described by the postcolonialist Edward Said in his seminal book Orientalism in 1978. Because of accounts of Eastern life (most significant among them Polo’s Milione) that emphasized the area’s sheer unconverted barbarity, the subsequent European exploration of the Eastern world took on “the tone and vigour of a crusade, a bursting outward of passionate fervour for Christ and the bringing into his fold of the pagan.”[x] Eventually, “colonial rule” in the nineteenth century would come to be “justified in advance by [the] Orientalism” introduced by works like Polo’s Travels.[xi] Even as late as the twentieth century echoes of Polo’s language can be found in European newspaper clippings and letters, demonstrating the indelible mark Polo and others like him left on the European mindset and the history of the Eastern world.

On a great number of occasions, Polo writes with disdain of the sexual and moral deviance of nearly every group he encounters (all of which he attributes to the perverse nature of their religion). Wherever Polo travels he records the immoral acts of the people he finds alongside the label of “idolaters.” In Campichu (believed to be Zhangye), Polo records with amazement that “many . . . mortal sins are regarded by [the people of Campichu] with indifference” and that “they live in this respect like the beast of the field.”[xii] What’s more, Polo tells his European audience, “the unlicensed intercourse of the sexes is not in general considered by these people as a serious offence” and, as a result, “the laity . . . take to their beds those who are cousins by blood, and even espouse their mothers-in-law.”[xiii] The depravity only continues, Polo assures his readers, in places like Kamul (Kumul) and Kain Du where the heads of households allow visiting guests to treat their women as their own and even, in places like Thebeth (Tibet), send merchants their young virgins to be deflowered (because, according to Polo, sexual experience is required for marriage).[xiv]

In fact, Polo posits, because sexual relations are such a common occurrence in the East the entire population had been so desensitized that questions of love and individual personality were inconsequential. Should a member of the rich upper class wish to gain the hand of an attractive young woman from a lower class, they need only “make valuable presents to her parents and relations, beauty alone being the quality held in estimation.”[xv] Such a “scandalous custom,” Polo proclaims, “could only proceed from the blindness of idolatry” and encompasses every aspect of Eastern life, degrading the people’s morality to such an extent that they spend their lives “addicted to pleasure . . . attend[ing] to little else than playing upon instruments, singing, dancing, reading, writing . . . and the pursuit . . . of every kind of amusement.”[xvi] They cannot even follow the basic requirements of hygiene, Polo asserts, “exhibit[ing] themselves in a filthy and indecent state, and [being] devoid of respect for themselves, or for those who see them . . . living altogether in a squalid style.”[xvii] Furthermore, in places like Bascia, the people “worship idols; are of a[n] . . . evil disposition; and are skilled in the art of magic, and the invocation of demons.”[xviii] The “idolaters” of the Pacific islands of Nocueran and Zipangu (Japan) are, according to Polo, “a most brutish and savage race” that upon finding any person not of their own nation “cook[s] and eat[s]” that person in a most “convivial manner, asserting that human flesh surpasses every other in the excellence of its flavor.”[xix] All this despite the fact that Polo most likely never even visited either island chain.[xx]

The sheer ignorance and fabrication with which such sections were written is perhaps the defining characteristic of Polo’s descriptions of the East, particularly of religion (which he believes to have caused the moral degradation of Eastern civilization responsible for the acts he describes). Perhaps most importantly, although the multifarious sects of each Eastern religion cannot be defined by any one single label or tradition, Polo essentializes all under the label of “idolatry.” According to him, the “beginning of idolatry” (in this case, Buddhism) can be traced to a singular source – the termination of the life of Sogoman Barchan (Buddha) who fled a life as the son of the king of Zeilan (Ceylon), rejecting “worldly possessions . . . the allurements of women, and every other imaginable gratification” to seek a private life of contemplation on a “lofty mountain . . . in the observance of celibacy and strict abstinence.”[xxi] When Sogoman Barchan died, according to Polo, “the father, distracted with the most poignant grief, caused an image to be formed of gold and precious stones, bearing the resemblance of his son, and required that all the inhabitants of the island should honour and worship it as a deity.”[xxii]

However, according to Buddhist tradition that directly contradicts Polo’s assertions, Siddartha Gautama (Buddha) was born in what is now southern Nepal, and, upon unsuccessfully attempting to live in isolation, began to teach people far and wide about the Dharma (“truth” or “law) of human existence.[xxiii] By living morally, Siddartha told his followers, one could eventually achieve parinirvana, the final nirvana of ultimate enlightenment and oneness with the universe (something he achieved upon his death in the town of Kushinagari).[xxiv] At no point was he ever considered to be a god, deity, or supernatural being. Rather, he was thought to be a “man who had found the answer to the deepest dilemmas of human life and had made that answer available to others.”[xxv] In fact, he was so successful in making his answer to life available to others that it soon spread throughout the Eastern world and becoming part of China’s “Three Teachings.”

These teachings, according to Michael O. Coogan in his book Eastern Religions, represented an incredibly complex mixture of Eastern ideologies that combined Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism to “provide methods for self-cultivation and transformation.”[xxvi] According to Coogan, while Buddhism “provide[d] an elaborate cosmology, a structured theology, and a detailed theory of the afterlife”, Confucianism “addresse[d] matters of government and social behavior”, and Taoism “offer[ed] methods of spiritual and physical healing, a means of commerce with the spirit world, and securing blessings and protection” from ill fortune.[xxvii]

Unfortunately, rather than addressing any real divisions of Eastern thought, Polo continues to treat Easterners’ practices with his characteristic ignorance, describing a Taoist funeral as an idolatrous ceremony intended to placate “the spirit of [a] defunct” that could “be incensed against the family and cause them injury” rather than a means of “restoring harmony in [a] family” and “ensur[ing] that the soul of a beloved family member spends a minimal amount of time suffering for any misdeeds.”[xxviii] Polo even implies that Easterners’ enter into their religions without intelligent consideration, writing that when the “idolaters” of Zipangu are asked why they continue to participate in ceremonies “so wicked and diabolical that it would be nothing less than an abomination to give an account of them ,” their only answer is that “their fathers did so before them.”[xxix] This, despite the clearly documented Eastern emphasis on intellectual debate and learning.[xxx]

Furthermore, according to Polo, not only do these “idolatrous” Eastern religions have the power to make individuals blindly follow them without complaint, they also have the power to corrupt. After a lengthy discussion of the religious faith and morality of the monotheistic religion of the Tartars (in reality the polytheistic Tengriism of the Mongols), Polo concludes by writing that “all that has been . . . related is spoken of the original manners of the Tartar chiefs; but at the present day they are much degenerated . . . forsaking their own laws” and “adopt[ing] the customs of the people who worship idols.”[xxxi] The power of the Eastern religions to corrupt even the most moral would have been particularly alarming to Western European Christians reading Polo’s narrative of the East where he also speaks of the legendary Christian kingdom of Prester John and several hundred thousand secret Christians in the East that each day were succumbing to “idolatry.”[xxxii]

Some might argue that such tales are nothing more than examples of European concepts of utopia. There is indeed some element of that in Polo’s writing. Stories of Eastern lands engulfed in sexual lechery and those of the kingdom of Prester John would have both fired the imagination of medieval Europeans eager to escape the drudgery of their everyday lives. To view Polo’s Milione through such a simplistic lens, however, would be a mistake. Polo’s tone is unmistakably one of condemnation for the immoral acts he found during his travels and he emphasizes their role in the degradation of monotheistic cultures like that of the Tartars and Prester John. Such implications would have been clear to any European reader to which his account found its way and, because Polo’s narrative “provided the first comprehensive and detailed account of China and South-East Asia,” those implications played a significant role in defining Western European dialogue on the Eastern world.[xxxiii]

According to this dialogue, despite the incredible technological advances of Eastern civilization, its people continued because of their religion to practice a wide variety of sexual and moral deviancies.[xxxiv] This unfortunate state of affairs was compounded by the impending downfall of Christianity in the East. Thus, the Eastern world became (in a European mind informed by Polo’s incredibly flawed account) one desperately in need of salvation. When some Europeans (like the intellectual Jesuits) attempted to accommodate Eastern practices and began to practice them themselves, they were viewed by other Europeans (like the Dominicans that arrived later) as corrupted by idolatrous Eastern influences and were driven from Asia. As a result, the only dissenting voice against the conception of Asia created by writers like Polo was silenced. It is for this reason that many Europeans that subsequently entered Asia did so (according to Michael Edwardes in his book Asia in the European Age, 1498-1955) “as paladins of Christ with crusading zeal, intent upon drying up the great sea of paganism and uniting . . . the world . . . in a spiritual empire at whose head would reign the Pope as priest-emperor and vice-regent of God on Earth.”[xxxv] Their belief was simple: “the heathen lay under the surety of eternal damnation, on the very edge of the pit.”[xxxvi] It was the duty of the Europeans to “snatch them – however much they might resist – into the arms of Christ and the certainty of His salvation.”[xxxvii] They were convinced that a Christian education “would raise the [Asians] from their slough of superstition and idolatry.”[xxxviii]

Such language and thought continued to appear in the twentieth century. Christian missionaries to the East, for example, often complained that “some savages cannot be persuaded by a lifetime of effort to be decently clothed” or receive a Christian education and continue to be “sunk in a quagmire or bodily and spiritual quackery” and idolatry.[xxxix] Even someone as educated as Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany wrote in a letter to his cousin Tsar Nicholas II of Russia of the necessity “to unite in resisting the inroad of Buddhism, heathenism and barbarism for the Defence of the Cross.”[xl] Much of this language continues to this day in popular discourse not only in Europe, but in its spiritual successor, the United States, where the fear of the Oriental Other is alive and well (though perhaps not quite as openly displayed as in past centuries).

Thus, by examining Marco Polo’s narrative of his Travels in the East one can find an important contributing factor to the foundation of discourse surrounding Western Europe’s imperialism in the East which (because of his descriptions of perverse religious practices taking place in thirteenth century Asia) took on a decidedly religious tone and came to be viewed by Europeans as the “white man’s burden” they must bare for the good of humanity. Such altruistic imperialism was, according to the imperialists, necessary if an entire continent was to be saved. Though some justification would no doubt still have arisen to explain European involvement in the non-Western world, it is perhaps possible that Europeans would not have dressed their methods in such overtly religious terms had Polo’s Milione not provided them with such ample fodder for doing so. Instead, some other motivation would have been found for the exploitation of Asia and the true impact such works of literature can have on historical events might not have been so apparent.

Bezertinov, R. N. Tėngrianstvo: Religija︠Tjurkov I Mongolov. Naberezhnye Chelny: Izdvo Ajaz, 2000. Print.

Coogan, Michael David., and Vasudha Narayanan. Eastern Religions: Origins, Beliefs, Prac tices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Edwardes, Michael. Asia in the European Age, 1498-1955. (New York: Praeger, 1962): Print.

Hudson, G. F. “Marco Polo.” The Geographical Journal 120.3 (1954): 299-311. Print.

Hudson, Geoffrey F. Europe & China; a Survey of Their Relations from the Earliest times to 1800. Boston: Beacon, 1961. Print.

Jackson, Peter. “Marco Polo and His ‘Travels'” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61.1 (1998): 82-101. Print.

Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999. Print.

Moffett, Samuel H. A History of Christianity in Asia. [San Francisco, Calif.]: Harper San Francisco, 1992. Print.

Polo, Marco, William Marsden, and Manuel Komroff. The Travels of Marco Polo;. New York: Modern Library, 1926. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Smith, Bonnie G. Imperialism: a History in Documents. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

[i] Marco Polo, William Marsden, and Manuel Komroff. The Travels of Marco Polo. (New York: Modern Library, 1926), xxii.

[ii] Komroff, xxiv.

[iii] Cited in Peter Jackson. “Marco Polo and His ‘Travels'” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61.1 (1998): 82

[iv] Jackson, 82.

[v] Jackson, 83.

[vi] Cited in Jackson, 82.

[vii] Samuel H. Moffett. A History of Christianity in Asia. (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 446.

[viii] Jackson, 82.

[ix] Moffett, 446.

[x] Michael Edwardes. Asia in the European Age, 1498-1955. (New York: Praeger, 1962), 19.

[xi] Edward W. Said. Orientalism. (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 39.

[xii] Komroff, 83.

[xiii] Komroff, 83-3.

[xiv] Komroff, 78-9; 191-2; 188-9.

[xv] Komroff, 101.

[xvi] Komroff, 188; 78.

[xvii] Komroff, 108.

[xviii] Komroff, 63.

[xix] Komroff, 268.

[xx] Geoffrey F. Hudson. “Marco Polo.” The Geographical Journal 120.3 (1954): 300.

[xxi] Komroff, 283-4.

[xxii] Komroff 284

[xxiii] Michael David Coogan and Vasudha Narayanan. Eastern Religions: Origins, Beliefs, Prac tices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005), 112-5.

[xxiv] Coogan, 115.

[xxv] Coogan, 115-6.

[xxvi] Coogan, 216.

[xxvii] Coogan, 216.

[xxviii] Coogan, 295-6.

[xxix] Komroff, 268.

[xxx] Coogan, 126.

[xxxi] Komroff, 95.

[xxxii] Komroff, 85, 86, 102, 187, 216, 329; Moffett, 446.

[xxxiii] Hudson, 300.

[xxxiv] Komroff, xvii; xvi.

[xxxv] Edwardes, 99.

[xxxvi] Edwardes, 99.

[xxxvii] Edwardes, 99.

[xxxviii] Edwardes, 110.

[xxxix] Cited in “The Medical Side of Mission Work” from the New York Times of May 1, 1900.

[xl] Cited in Bonnie G. Smith. Imperialism: a History in Documents. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 99-100.


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