In Dec of 2014, Netflix premiered its new historical drama Marco Polo to considerable fanfare. The reaction to the series has not been particularly positive. One reviewer termed it “The Most Gorgeous Thing You’ll Ever Fall Asleep To,” while another called it “practically binge-proof.” Rotten Tomatoes sums up the criticism as “an all-around disappointment.” The show has also been criticized for its reliance of Orientalizing stereotypes and flat characterizations. There are enough naked concubines to populate a porn film or ten, and half the characters know kung fu, including a few of the aforesaid concubines.And who knew that archery was a standard element in the education of Chinese women?
Despite these not-undeserved complaints, I kind of like the show. The sets, costumes, and scenery are uniformly gorgeous. It’s refreshing to see a western television show that allows so many Asian and Middle Eastern actors to play major roles; there’s only one white main character. And I have to cheer a show that tries to bring a relatively unknown (to American audiences at least) culture to life; it’s sort of refreshing that the white guy isn’t the interesting part of the show (although given that he’s the main character, there’s definitely a problem from a story-telling perspective). What so many critics deride as a slow pace can also be seen as trusting the audience to let the story unfold. So while the show has some major faults (like its rather bland main character), it also has enough virtues to make it worth watching. And it’s better than Reign, which has to be worth something.
I’ve hesitated to tackle Marco Polo for the simple reason that it’s a very long way outside my knowledge base. As an undergraduate, I took one course on ancient Chinese history, and apart from a little side reading from time to time, that’s as much formal instruction on China as I’ve ever gotten. I lack the background to comment intelligently on the physical culture of the show; the costumes and sets look gorgeous, but I simply don’t know how historically accurate they are.
Nevertheless, the show is in the public eye at the moment, so I’ll venture to critique some of the basic facts of the series.
Marco Polo and His Travels
Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant of the later 14th century. His father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo had traveled along the Silk Road to China in 1260 and then returned to Venice in 1269. Two years later, they set out for China again, taking the 17-year-old Marco with them, finally arriving in China around 1275. Marco returned, quite wealthy, to Venice in 1295, only to find his home city at war with Genoa. Marco used his wealth to outfit a ship for the Venetian navy, only to get captured by the Genoese.
While in prison, Marco dictated his memoires to another inmate, who added various other stories and details to Polo’s recollections. The result was a book known in English as The Travels of Marco Polo, something of a medieval best-seller. While Polo is the source of much of the material, he is not truly its author in a modern sense; nor was there a fixed text for the book, since it went through various revisions.
Scholars have long debated the historical reliability of the text. Polo claims that he, his father, and his uncle all became important officials in the court of Kublai Khan, but there is no mention of him (at least under that name) in the Chinese records of the period (records which mention a large number of foreigners). Some of his stories are clearly wild exaggerations, such as birds large enough to pick up elephants, and he makes several mentions of the legendary Christian king Prester John. Despite being a skilled linguist, he gives no sign of having learned Chinese. Some scholars claim that Polo never made it to China and instead cribbed his knowledge of the region from Arabic sources, while other scholars have argued that his work shows enough knowledge of the details of the Chinese economy to demonstrate its reliability. So the final verdict of the veracity of Polo’s tales has yet to be delivered, but Polo himself is a solidly historical character and he certainly claimed to have spent a long time in China.
Marco Polo in the Series
The series is, I think, unintentionally the beneficiary of the ambiguous historicity of Polo’s Travels. Although the show does not attempt to stick to Polo’s actual text but simply mines it for interesting material, the show can be understood more as a tall tale by Marco Polo than as a strict retelling of history (which is a good thing, because the series gets a lot of the history badly wrong). That way the show’s wire-fu stunts and lurid sexuality can be read more as Polo’s fantasies than as fact. Of course, if they had really wanted the show to be read this way, they would have added a voice-over narration.
The show opens with Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) sitting on a roof in Venice (in what might be a nod to Assassin’s Creed fans) when his father’s ship sails into harbor. Marco loves drawing on paper, apparently have free access to what is literally cutting-edge technology, since the first known paper mill in Italy wasn’t established until the mid-1270s. Marco meets Niccolo (Pierfrancesco Favino) for the first time, which is accurate.
The show glosses over Polo’s journey from Venice to Khanbalik (modern Beijing) in a few minutes minutes, saying that the journey took about 3 years, when in fact it took about 5, but I suppose we can’t complain that they wanted to get to the Mongols right away. Niccolo literally gives Marco to the Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) to curry favor with him because the khan is angry that instead of bringing back Christian priests, the Polos have only brought a bottle of oil from the Holy Sepulchre. (That’s kinda sorta what actually happened. The khan had ordered the Pope to send 100 priests and a bottle of oil from the Holy Sepulchre, but he only got the bottle of oil. But the bit about Niccolo giving him Marco is made up.)
Kublai decides, apparently because he knows that Marco is the main character of the show, to make sure he gets a good education, and orders him trained in riding, falconry, calligraphy, archery, and martial arts. The series’ time-frame is unclear, but Polo seemingly becomes moderately proficient in all of these things (except falconry) in the space of a few months. This is pretty improbable; apart from the near impossibility of anyone acquiring those skills so quickly, Polo probably already knew how to ride a horse (he had just spent years journeying along the Silk Road, after all), and almost certainly wouldn’t be able to master Chinese calligraphy, a highly complex art-form, when he didn’t even know Chinese. Nor is there any evidence that Polo fought at all. But let’s just chalk all that up to the need to have the hero actually be able to do action-y stuff in an action series. (And, in all fairness, he actually does fairly poorly in most of his fight scenes, so I suppose the show is acknowledging the improbability to Polo becoming a great fighter after a few fighting lessons.)
Polo’s father and uncle get caught trying to smuggle silk worms out of China hidden in a hollow staff, and this gives Marco probably his most interesting plot-line, in which he is given permission to decide their punishment for himself. This is a remarkably silly story-line. In 551 AD, a pair of Christian monks actually did smuggle silk worms out of China, eventually getting to the Byzantine Empire, where a thriving silk industry sprung up, forming a major feature of Byzantine diplomacy until the 1140s, when King Roger II of Sicily attacked the Byzantines and literally stole the entire silk industry from them, bringing it back to Sicily, where it quickly spread to the rest of Italy. If the Polos thought they could get rich smuggling silk worms from China to Italy in the 1270s, they had a rather defective business plan, since it would be the equivalent of trying to make a killing by smuggling cars into Detroit.
Fun with Siege Weaponry
Toward the end of the season, Polo helps the Mongols conquer Xiangyang, the last remaining holdout city of the Song dynasty (I’ll tackle the problem with that in the next post). He teaches the Mongols how to build counterweight trebuchets. While this detail has been mocked in a few reviews I’ve read, it’s not quite as wrong as it might seem. While Song and Yuan China enjoyed some impressive technological developments in comparison to 13th century Europe, one place that it lagged behind was in the development of siege warfare, in part because China had fewer major fortresses than Europe. In the Travels, Polo claims that his father and uncle had provided the designs for trebuchets at the siege of Xiangyang; this is highly unlikely, since they were not engineers and were not in fact in China during the siege. (Most scholars think the khan got Persian engineers to build them.) So the show is getting two things wrong; Polo never claims that he personally designed the trebuchets, and it’s unlikely any of the Polos gave the idea to the Mongols. However, given that Marco does actually claim that his family gave the Mongols trebuchets, it’s a small modification to make Marco the one who did it.
A more serious problem happens with the trebuchets, however. Marco actually calibrates the range of the trebuchets, and figures out that they need a longer firing arm to reach the distances he wants. Such a feat was impossible for him. The range of a trebuchet is highly variable based on three factors: the length of the firing arm, the weight of the stone being fired and the weight of the counter-weight driving the firing arm. While modern engineering students, armed with a knowledge of Newtonian physics, can do a reasonable job calculating the range of a trebuchet, despite its rather counter-intuitive arc of fire, medieval engineers, lacking this knowledge, could not reliably calibrate a trebuchet, nor is it likely that they clearly understood the relationship between the length of the level arm and the range. Medieval trebuchets required a great deal of trial and error after they were set up, and hitting the same spot of wall repeatedly was virtually impossible. I’m also skeptical that trebuchets would actually be able to break through the walls of Xiangyang, given how thick the walls are in the show, but maybe that’s why I’m an historian going to the movies and not an engineer going to the movies (which, come to think of it, would be a cool blog too.)
Finally, the Mongols assemble the trebuchets near Khanbalik apparently and then drag them the roughly 650 miles to Xiangyang, instead of doing the sensible thing and carrying them disassembled, which would be much easier. But I suppose if you’re Kublai Khan, you can afford to show off your power by being an asshole to your troops that way.
Incidentally, here’s a little fun raw footage of the trebuchet scene