One of the more interesting elements of Netflix’ Marco Polo series is the way it explores the tensions present in early Yuan China between traditional Chinese culture and the upstart but now dominant culture of the Mongols. By the time Genghis Khan conquered China, Chinese culture was already thousands of years old. China had been ruled by emperors for about 1400 years. As a result, China was proud of its old, sophisticated culture and viewed the younger non-Chinese cultures around it as barbarians, upstarts, or uncultured, much the same way that the Romans and Byzantines thought of the cultures around them. The more influenced a culture was by Chinese culture, the more “cooked” it was in Chinese eyes. To be subjected to Mongol rule was a terrible shock, because they were “raw”, entirely uninfluenced by China when they arrived on the scene.
Chinese culture was heavily focused on agriculture and was in that sense sedentary. As befitting a true “civilization” (which technically refers to a culture that builds cities), China was characterized by permanent urban settlements that fostered substantial economic and cultural specialization. China possessed a complex and minutely graded state bureaucracy today referred to as the mandarins; to qualify for a position within the bureaucracy, a candidate had to have successfully passed rigorous civil service exams which emphasized practical bureaucratic skills such as knowledge of mathematics, taxation, and agriculture; military skills such as horseback riding, archery, and military strategy; and cultural skills such as music, court ritual, and the Confucian classics that underlay much of Chinese culture. As a result, the mandarins were both bureaucrats and scholars. The mandarinate was a meritocracy of knowledge and skill in applying that knowledge, and access to the system was surprisingly open, allowing many talented non-nobles to rise to high levels of power. Above the mandarins, however, was the emperor, who typically inherited his office from his father or other close kinsman.
In contrast, Mongol culture was nomadic and not urban in any modern sense of the term. The culture emphasized the maintenance of herds of horses and sheep. The horses were used for warfare and transport, while the sheep provided milk, meat, wool, and other necessities (although the Mongols definitely consumed mare’s milk and ate horseflesh to some extent). Because they lived off their livestock and the livestock had to have fresh supplies of grass to eat, the Mongols had to move around over the course of the year, which meant that they lived out of tents and did not build permanent structures or cities. As a non-urbanized people, cultural and economic specialization was low; most adult men were expected to engage in hunting, herding, and warfare. Leadership was based on a mixture of family ties, military skill, personal loyalty, and in the case of the khans, election. In other words, these two cultures had almost nothing in common.
Initially, Genghis and Ögedei simply imposed Mongol organization onto China. Those who possessed the khan’s seal were given near-total authority, and the Chinese were taxed almost arbitrarily. By the end of Ögedei’s reign, however, the Mongols had begun to standardize their rule of China, and Chinese advisors persuaded Kublai to embrace the role of a traditional Chinese emperor. His first major signal of this was his decision to abandon Karakorum, the traditional Mongolian “capital”, in favor of two cities, Shangdu in Mongolia as the summer capital and Khanbalik (modern Beijing) as the winter capital. As a result, Mongolia ceased to be the heart of the Mongol Empire early in Kublai’s reign. Then in 1271, he adopted the traditional nomenclature of the emperors, declaring a name for his dynasty, the Yuan. Over the course of Kublai’s reign, he increasingly adopted the Chinese model for his administration, while retaining the Mongol military system.
However, he imposed a distinctly non-Chinese social hierarchy, which put a tiny Mongolian elite at the top, followed by non-Chinese allied peoples, then residents of the former Jin and Xi Xia states in Northern China, and finally on the bottom the residents of the Southern Song in Southern China. This last group made up perhaps 80% of Yuan China’s population, paid the highest taxes, and in violation of the traditional mandarin meritocracy were excluded from high government office. The result was a system in which ethnic mixing was sharply discouraged, which led to the perpetuation of hostility against the Mongols by the native Chinese peoples who never fully accepted the Yuan as a truly Chinese dynasty.
In the Series
The series, to its credit, addresses this cultural tension in a variety of ways. The traditional Mongols are shown as one end of a spectrum of culture, the Southern Song as the other end, and Kublai’s court at Khanbalik as somewhere in between.
For the series, Mongol culture is very simple. They live on horseback and in gers (Mongol tents sometimes mistakenly called yurts, which is actually a Turkish version of the structure). Karakorum is depicted as being much less a city than a camp ground; the only permanent structures it seems to have are some grain bins. They feast vigorously on roasted sheep while sitting around campfires. For sport, they wrestle, and they allow women to serve as warriors. This last detail seems loosely accurate; historically Mongol women were given considerable domestic authority and participated in sports like wrestling, horse-racing, and archery, but probably did not engage in warfare on any regular basis. The Mongols dress in a mixture of leather, fur, and cloth, and wear a very distinctive haircut and beard. They don’t seem to have concubines, only a few servants.
In contrast, the Southern Song are entirely city-dwelling, with the major Southern Song characters living in complex palaces with large spacious rooms arranged around cultivated gardens. Their court protocols are complex and refined, and political intrigue takes the form of back-room deals and secret plotting. They wear fine silk clothing, go beardless for the most part, and instead of complex haircuts, they have elaborate hats. Whereas the Mongols are horse-riding nomads, Xiangyang has an enormous wall around it manned by archers. The women seem to live very different lives from the men, with numerous concubines. They occasionally impose foot-binding on their women, a genuine historical practice that literally crippled women so that they would have to be physically carried. The only sport they seem to possess is cricket fighting.
The court at Khanbalik has elements of both these cultural poles. It lives within a palace, although one that is much darker than the one at Xiangyang. Instead of a delicate lacquered throne, Kublai lounges in an enormous fabric-draped throne that seems made from stone. He and most of the other Mongols wear the traditional Mongol hairstyle, but their dress is more Chinese. Kublai’s elaborate Hall of the Five Senses is a sprawling harem populated by numerous concubines overseen by Empress Chabi herself, who personally selects her husband’s partners. The only game they engage in is a board game that looks like a version of chess. Kublai shows some respect for Chinese cultural traditions (in one scene, he consults the I Ching) but doesn’t seem to truly appreciate them.
The figure who most effectively represents this cultural tension is Prince Jingim (Remy Hii). For the most part, Jingim is shown as an ineffectual whiner who is constantly getting upstaged by Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy), but he becomes interesting when he shows himself as torn between Mongol cultural and Chinese culture. He struggles to be militarily effective, knowing that the Mongols will not respect him if he is a poor war leader. But he dresses in a more Chinese style. His hair is styled completely differently than the other Mongols; he wears his hair long and either loose or in a bun, without braids or the distinctive Mongol forelock, and he doesn’t wear a beard. It has the effect of making him seem curiously feminine in contrast to all the bearded, braided men around him, but perhaps that’s meant to underline his ineffectiveness in Mongol eyes.
But Let’s Not Forget the Western Viewers
However, there’s a third culture relevant here, that of the Western world. In the series, that view is represented by Marco, but he rarely offers much pushback against either Mongol or Chinese culture. For the most part, he is presented as a tabula rasa for Eastern cultures to write on. He is Christian, but apart from one brief moment when his possession of a cross becomes an issue, he never expresses any religious opinions or any sort of alternate view of Mongol or Chinese morality. Perhaps the only time he truly criticizes Mongol culture is when he demonstrates horror and disgust after he realizes that the Mongols are literally butchering and stewing the captured soldiers of the Southern Song. The scene is truly horrific, but it’s not clear (at least to me) what the point of it was. Nor am I at all certain that this is historically accurate; I certainly haven’t been able to find any sources that claim the Mongols actually did that.
However, while Marco doesn’t really represent Western culture within the series, the fact that the series was made by Westerners for Westerners feels inescapable. Rather than seeking to explain Chinese or Mongolian customs in a way that will normalize them for viewers, the show tends to treat its setting as an excuse for gaping at how different Mongol and Chinese culture are. The series frequently resorts to clichéd notions of Asian society.
The most obvious way it does this with the excessive use of kung fu and occasional wire-fu stunts. The series suggests that knowledge of kung fu was wide-spread; Kublai has appointed the blind martial arts master Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) to teach kung fu to various members of the court, including his son Jingim (Remy Hii) and Marco. The Song Chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han) and his sister Mei Lin (Olivia Chang) are both brilliant martial artists, as are at least some of the soldiers of the Song army and the assassins who attempt to kill Kublai. Another concubine, Jing Fei, also seems to know some martial arts. The Mongol princess Kokachin and Empress Chabi are apparently skilled archers.
All of this is improbable. While kung fu existed in this period, it certainly wasn’t widely known; it’s highly unlikely that concubines and foot soldiers would have been trained in it. The history of Chinese martial arts is quite complex and there seems to be considerable debate whether Shaolin kung fu was particularly common before the 16th century (some sources insist it was, while others argue that the historical evidence for this is largely fabricated by later generations). The mandarins did study military matters, but probably more from a theoretical perspective than as a matter of daily regimen (remember, they were bureaucrats and scholars), and there’s no evidence so far as I know that Jia Sidao was personally a warrior. Having so many characters be martial artists is really just pandering to Western audiences who have been trained to expect kung fu in any film set in Asia. In this, the series is perhaps slightly less racist than the embarrassing tendency of every Asian character in a 1980s Hollywood film to know martial arts (Short Round, I’m looking at you), but not by much.
Examples of Asian exoticism abound. Concubines are everywhere in Xiangyang and Khanbalik, and the series repeatedly dwells on the lurid sexuality of the Hall of Five Senses (the name a cliché in itself); in one scene we witness one concubine pleasuring another with a silk scarf. Jing Fei does exotic dances for Chancellor Sidao. Poison is a common method of assassination; the assassins who attack Kublai use it, and Mei Lin uses it in an attempt to kill Chabi (although I have to say that poisoning your lips strikes me as a particularly dangerous way to kill someone if you actually intend to live). Kokachin’s bodyguard is a eunich who needs a special instrument to urinate. Sidao is fond of insect metaphors; he gives the young Song emperor that most Chinese of insects, a preying mantis, as a moral lesson. Kublai Khan is a decent and rather sympathetic character, but he is also an autocratic military despot of an entirely non-democratic system (the series barely acknowledges that Kublai was actually elected by the Mongols), while Jia Sidao is an emotionless, calculating monster who whores out his sister, mutilates his niece, and orders his concubine to commit suicide. So the show gives us both stereotypes of Asian rulers at once.
In particular, Chang’s Mei Lin fits a lot of the stereotype of the Dragon Lady. She is an Asian beauty, very sexualized but also very dangerous, employing both seduction and violence as tools for assassination. Unlike some Dragon Ladies in Western literature, she is not a mastermind, but rather her brother’s puppet, but at the end of the season she appears poised to find her agency. In fairness, she’s motivated primarily by maternal love rather than lust for power, but in most other respects she fits the cliché. (As a side note, can I point out how odd it is in the last episode that, as she’s trying to escape captivity, she would pause to scrutinize a mural?)
The result of all of these clichés is to confirm Western stereotypes of China as mysterious, sexualized, and dangerous, as profoundly different from Western culture. This is perhaps the worst aspect of the series. On the one hand, it seeks to introduce Western viewers to a time and place that is little known to them, and it strives to have at least a semblance of historical accuracy (although it’s quite free in its manipulation of the facts), but on the other hand it feels a need to lure viewers in with familiar clichés and sexual debauchery.
And this, I think, is a big part of why the series has not done very well with critics and viewers. It seeks to emulate the HBO model offered by shows like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, which draw viewers in with a promise of tits and ass and violence in every episode. But it also wants to have the more leisurely pace of a prestige drama on PBS. The result is a show that is too languid for those who want lots of sex and too sexual for those who want a period drama. It is too cliché-ridden and factually inaccurate to be highbrow and too talky to be lowbrow. While offering us the clash of Mongol and Chinese culture, it has accidentally situated itself within a very different culture clash of modern Western society.