History in Focus
Marco Polo in Yunnan?

Did the great Venetian traveller reach Yunnan? Almost certainly not, but still his accounts are the first words Europeans heard about this far-away region.

At the end of the 19th century, the great English historian Colonel Sir Henry Yule investigated Polo’s accounts and reconstructed his journey through the Asian world in the annotated translation of “The Book of Ser Marco Polo” (Yule 1903).

Aided by then recent exploration he identified the region Polo described in the chapters 48 to 53 of his account as Yunnan, travelling southwards from Sichuan to Kunming (Polo’s Yachi), then to Dali (which Polo mentioned as Carajan) and Baoshan (Polo’s Vochan, it was Yongchang at the time). From there the ‘Great Descent’ began into the Burmese lowland.

But did Marco Polo really go to Yunnan? Many questions have been raised whether he even went to China at all (Wood, 1995). There is not a single mention of Marco Polo in any Mongol accounts. But even if this could somehow be explained, how comes that Marco Polo never mentioned the Great Wall, never mentioned Chinese characters, never mentioned tea, never mentioned bound feet. . . ?

All traits of Chinese culture would surely have been fascinating for a European to see – and would have been fascinating for other Europeans to hear about. Indeed his entire account is strangely void of personal experience.

It reads more like a second-hand account of somebody copying an old travel book – it has long been suggested that Marco Polo may have copied other, maybe Persian, accounts of China (Franke, 1994).

If even if we did give Marco Polo the benefit of the doubt about his journey to China – did he really go to Yunnan? There is nothing in his account that even hints at a first hand experience, everything Marco Polo could have obtained from Chinese, Muslim or Tibetan traders telling a good yarn.

If he had travelled to Yunnan, would he not have mentioned the Three Pagodas at Dali? Would he not have mentioned the endless up and down crossing the Hengduan Mountains on his way to Baoshan? Would he not have mentioned snow on the Cangshan range? But what he mentions, he would have not seen on the journey he described. Other impressions seem plainly wrong.

  • The brine-wells: Polo’s path from Kunming to Dali would have not taken him through the actual salt areas around Heijing or Qiaohou. But if he had been reading or hearing merchant accounts of Yunnan, they would have certainly mentioned them.
  • The great serpents: Yule took Polo’s serpents for crocodiles. But his description resembles more Chinese fable-animals than anything else.
  • From Dali to Baoshan: A normal caravan journey from Dali to Baoshan took even in the 19th century ten days. Even with fast horses, Marco Polo could have hardly made it in half that time.
  • The Golden Teeth: Some ethnic groups today gilt their teeth, some might have done so in his time. But there is nothing to indicate that this was ever a widespread practice in Baoshan. If he found this worthwhile mentioning, why did he never mention bound feet?

Did Marco Polo go to Yunnan? Almost certainly not. Yet, even when it is nothing more than a second- and third-hand account: his are the first stories Europe ever heard about Yunnan.