Have you ever played the game in a swimming pool called Marco Polo? The game has one person keeping their eyes closed and that person yells, “Marco.” Everyone else must answer by yelling, “Polo.”
Did you know that comes from a real explorer? He had a great mustache but even more importantly, he was one of the first to explore China and tell all of the people of Europe about it.
Marco Polo’s Life
Marco Polo lived from 1254 to 1324. He was born and he died in Venice, Italy. Marco Polo explored the Far East and China for much of his life because he was a merchant.
His stories were the basis for what much of Europe knew about Ancient China for many years.
In 1254, when Marco Polo was born, Venice, Italy was a wealthy city. Most of the wealth came from trading with other areas. Marco Polo’s family fit right in because his father was a merchant.
The Silk Road
During Marco Polo’s time there was a trade route called the Silk Road. It was a trade route that went through a bunch of cities and trading posts all the way from Eastern Europe to Northern China. Since silk cloth from China was what was most popular trade item in Europe, the entire trade route was called the Silk Road because silk cloth was the thing traders brought back most often from China.
Back then people did not usually travel long distances. So, not many merchants traveled the entire Silk Road. People would trade between nearby cities or small sections of the Silk Road. All products would slowly make their way from China to Europe by being sold by merchants to the towns nearby. This took a long time and so many people were involved so by the time good got to Europe they were very expensive because every time the goods traded hands someone was trying to make a profit.
Marco Polo’s father and uncle had a different idea. If they went all the way to China and brought the goods directly back to Venice they thought they could make a lot more money by skipping all the middlemen. They did it but took them nine years
Marco Polo in China
Marco Polo was 17 years old when he first went to China with his father and his uncle.
On this first trip they met the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan who was the leader of all of China. They told Kublai Khan they would return to China.
It took Marco Polo three years to get to China. As he traveled the Silk Road he visited cities and saw many sites including Jerusalem, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, Persia, and the Gobi Desert.
Of course, as he traveled to these exotic placed he met a lot of different types of people and had many adventures.
Because Marco Polo lived in China for so many years, he learned to speak the language.
In fact, he traveled throughout China as a messenger and spy for Kublai Khan.
Marco Polo went as far south as where Vietnam is today. Because of these travels he learned about different cultures, foods, cities, and peoples. He was the first person from Europe to see many of these things.
Marco Polo was impressed with the wealth and luxury of the Chinese cities and he was very impressed with Kublai Khan’s court. Nobody in Europe had seen, or even dreamed of places like Marco Polo saw.
Kinsay was the capital city. It was large, well organized, and clean. Cities in Europe did not have things like the wide roads and city improvements like the Grand Canal and other great building projects.
Because everything was new it was very interesting. There were foods and spices no person in Europe had ever seen. There were interesting people. There were even animals that nobody in Europe could have imagined like orangutans and rhinoceroses.
The Travels of Marco Polo
It may seem strange that we know so much about Marco Polo. After all, he was a merchant and explorer, not a writer or historian.
Here is how we know so much about Marco Polo’s travels. After Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle had be traveling for about twenty years, they decided to go back to Venice for good.
They went on their first journey 1271 and they finally returned for good in 1295. But things were not peaceful at home. A few years after returning to Venice, their home city of Venice fought a war with the city of Genoa.
During that war Marco Polo was put under arrest. While he was a prisoner, Marco Polo told the story of his travels to a writer named Rustichello. Because Marco Polo was a prisoner he did not have anything else to do so he told the stories to Rustichello in great detail. Rustichello wrote a book called The Travels of Marco Polo.
The Travels of Marco Polo was a hit. It was read throughout Europe and translated into many languages.
Meanwhile, Kublai Kahn was overthrown and the Ming Dynasty took over China. The rulers of the Ming Dynasty did not trust people from Europe and so travel in China and information from China were hard to come by. Because nobody else could tell about China, Marco Polo’s book was even more popular.
- The Travels of Marco Polo was also called Il Milione or “The Million”.
- When Marco Polo traveled home he was rich so he had a fleet of ships. The ships also carried a princess. She was going to marry a prince in Persia. Today Persia is called Iran. The sea voyage was so dangerous that 700 people started the journey but only 117 survived. Fortunately, this included the princess who made it to Persia.
- Some people think that Marco Polo may have made up some of his adventures. But, when scholars have been able to check the facts Marco Polo is telling the truth. So I think his stories are probably all true.
- It is lucky that Marco Polo traveled when he did. While the Mongols and especially Kublai Khan ruled China, merchants were respected in China. Other dynasties thought merchants were low class. They even though merchants ruined the economy. If Marco Polo had tried to travel while those dynasties were in charge he would not have been nearly as successful.