The Yuan Dynasty only lasted for a little less than a century in China, but has captured the imagination of western historians mainly because it was during this period of Mongol ascendancy that China was first "discovered" by Europe. In part this was a natural consequence of the Mongol invasions, which would extend out of Asia into eastern Europe, sacking the German city of Breslau in 1241 and advancing towards Vienna until news of the death of Ogedei Khan (who was himself the designated political heir of Genghis Khan) leading ultimately to Mongol withdrawal from Europe. To a certain degree, the establishment thirty years later of the Mongol-run Yuan Dynasty in China by Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai represented part of the larger geopolitical effects across all Asian and Europe resulting from the Mongol's establishment of the largest land-empire in history. But the idea of Europe's "discovery" of China in this period comes mainly from the end of the thirteenth century, when a handwritten manuscript entitled Il Milione by the Italian merchant Marco Polo would begin circulating a firsthand account of Kublai's court in Shangdu (or "Xanadu" as it was known in Europe). Modern criticism of the "Orientalism" of western views of China have led to a certain amount of skepticism toward Polo's account of the Yuan dynasty -- including Frances Wood's provocative theory that Polo's work was pure fiction -- yet Polo was not the only non-Chinese observer to record his impressions of the Mongol invasions which remade China and would extend as far as western Europe in the twelfth century. I would like to examine Polo's account of the Yuan alongside other sources, to ask whether the multiethnic character of the Yuan dynasty, in some way, an encouragement for western interest in China once the Mongols who founded the Yuan Dynasty has culturally refashioned themselves as Chinese.
It is worth noting at the outset that the Yuan period saw the imposition of racial classification categories on the population, perhaps because the usurping dynasty was itself not ethnically Chinese. So for instance the word "Manzi" -- which Polo records as "mangi," and which he uses regionally, as in his account of Kublai's reign: "you should know that in all the provinces of Cathay and Manzi and in all the rest of his dominion, there are many disaffected and disloyal subjects who, if they had the chance, would rebel against their lord" (Polo 115). "Cathay and Manzi" are used as Polo for the names for the northern and southern portions of the pre-existing Chinese states. Yet in fact these regions had polarized badly during the centuries immediately before Polo's visit in the Song and Jin Dynasties, and were in a state of antagonism at the time of the Mongol conquest, and as a result these two political divisions were made, by the Mongols, into official castes, and were considered by them to be separate races, "Khitai" and "Manji." The Mongols themselves provided an ethnically separate ruling caste, and the final racial division was the catch-all group of "Semu," which comprised all the rest of the peoples who were neither Chinese nor Mongolian but fell under Mongol rule, including the Persians, Turks, Russians, and Uighurs. Polo, of course, can not be expected to know the difference between the geographical divisions (which reflected political reality) and the racial divisions (which were a Mongol invention and imposition). Yet Polo was aware of the racial difference between Kublai Khan and the Chinese subjects of the Yuan Dynasty, and to some degree he regards the Mongols as a model of multicultural acceptance: "These Tartars do not care what god is worshipped in their territories. So long as all their subjects are loyal and obedient to the Khan and accordingly pay the tribute imposed on them and justice is well observed, you may do as you please about your soul….whether you be Jew or pagan, Saracen or Christian, who live among the tartars. They freely confess in Tartary that Christ is a lard, but they say that he is a proud lord because he will not keep company with other gods but wants to be over all others in the world." (Polo 47). If Marco Polo is our source, apparently the Yuan Dynasty was a model of tolerance.
First we must consider the source, though. Ought we to regard Marco Polo's account of the Yuan Dynasty to be a genuine historical source, or is it a better source for the history of the European "Orientalist" imagination? The question was posed most provocatively in 1995, with the publication of Did Marco Polo Go to China? By Frances Wood. Wood believes that Polo "probably never traveled much further than the family's trading post on the Black Sea and in Constantinople" -- in other words, that his travels made it to the crossroads of Europe and Asia, but his information about China is entirely second-hand. Perhaps the best-known of Wood's claims against the veracity of Polo's account of China is her list of those things which Polo omits to mention -- these include books and printing, which existed in China at this period but would not make it to Europe until the fifteenth century, but also trade goods like porcelain (in which Polo might be expected to demonstrate some interest, but he fails to mention it) but also salient cultural facts like the binding of feet or the preparation and consumption of tea. In Wood's estimate the most problematic of these is the fact that Polo fails entirely to mention The Great Wall of China, which is certainly a significant omission for a work that purports to be a travelogue. She also notes his absence from historical sources which -- based on the account Polo gives of working as an actual emissary for Kublai Khan -- ought to record him. However, Wood is forced to concede the basic point that the presence of the Polos in China during the Yuan dynasty, if not wholly imaginary, is certainly more easily imagined than their presence in subsequent periods when racial segregation was a greater priority of China's rulers. As Wood writes of the Yuan rulers,
Despite the scanty evidence of the sojourn of Italian merchants, the Mongols were clearly less concerned with keeping out foreigners than later Chinese rulers. Their frequent use of non-Mongol and non-Chinese experts is well-known, and their control through family branches of most of Asia meant that travel was generally less restricted than at other times. That they allowed foreign Christians to build cathedrals in Chinese cities and reside there (Italian bishops lived in Quanzhou from 1313 for a decade and at Peking from 1307-28) also indicates a lack of insularity, which obviously extended to the free travel of merchants in the silk-producing areas around Yangzhou (Wood 15).
Yet one of Wood's most persuasive suggestions is that the Chinese names in Polo's text occur in a Persian form. This would seem to indicate the use of another literary source, and indeed we have three separate surviving Persian accounts of China in chronicle histories from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which may have provided Polo with a source of additional information.
We will return to the Persian accounts of the Yuan dynasty shortly, but it is worth noting that to a certain degree Wood's thesis has been disproven. Bergreen's 2008 study of Marco Polo makes it clear that the account that he gives of one of the more memorable services he provided to Kublai Khan has, in fact, been confirmed in the documentary sources of the time.
The Polo Company's mission to deliver Princess Kokachin to her rightful king and kingdom has attained special significance in recent years because it is the only event described by Marco that is confirmed in detail by Chinese and Mongol sources. In 1941 and again in 1945, Yang Chih-chiu, a Chinese scholar, compared Yuan dynasty sources with Marco's detailed rendition of the circumstances of his departure from China and discovered that they matched almost perfectly, with the significant omission of the names of the three emissaries from Kublai Khan. An account written in about 1307 by Rashid al-Din, the authoritative chronicler of the era, told very much the same story, mentioning Princess Kokachin and the three ambassadors who accompanied her, corresponding closely with the details Marco set forth. Like his Chinese counterparts, Rashid al-Din did not mention the three Polos by name, but the existence of an independent informant confirming precisely features of Marco's description amounts to more than mere coincidence. Taken together, these sources confirm that Marco escorted the princess to King Argon and was in service to Kublai Khan, just as he claimed. (Bergreen 304)
Rashid al-Din is the last and most substantial of the Persian chroniclers of China, and it bears a substantial likeness to Polo's account. Indeed the two writers seem to have been at work in roughly the same time -- Rashid's history is supposed to have been finished in the first decade of the…