Netflix’ Marco Polo series made quite a splash, drawing attention for its lavish sets, enormous budget (it’s reportedly the second-most expensive television series ever), and its rather lack-luster showing with critics. But, as I commented last time, I think it deserves some credit for trying to bring a little-known period and setting to Western audiences. The fact that the Mongols are well-known but little known-about in the West gives the series considerable room to play fast and loose with the facts, a bit the way the original source material probably does.
The Mongol tribes were first unified by Temujin, who assumed the title Genghis Khan (“Universal Leader”) in 1206. He began expanding, pushing westward into central Asia, parts of Persia, and modern Russia. To the east, he had to deal with China, but fortunately for him, China was politically disunited. The Jin Dynasty had broken northern China away from the Song Dynasty (who were forced to relocated their capital to southern China, and are thereafter known as the Southern Song) about a century earlier, and western China was ruled by the Xi Xia Dynasty. Genghis forced the Xi Xia into submission, and after a rebellion, completely destroyed and absorbed the territory in 1227, shortly before his death the same year.
As was the Mongol tradition, leaders were elected at a kurultai held at the Mongol capital of Karakorum, which required the presence of all the major members of the ruling family. (The Mongol state functioned a bit like a federation whose branches were ruled by members of the same family, with a senior member presiding over all of the parts.) Genghis was succeeded by his third son Ogedei, who in 1234 conquered the Jin Dynasty. On the western end of the growing Mongol Empire, his nephew Batu had largely conquered western Russia and the Caucasus region. Ögedei attempted an invasion of modern India, but was forced to retreat. In 1241, just before Batu was to invade eastern Europe, Ögedei died and Batu and the other Mongol princes were forced to return to Mongolia for a kurultai to choose his successor, thus sparing most of Europe a Mongol invasion it would probably have been unable to withstand.
In the two decades that followed, the various Mongol princes struggled over who would rule the Empire. First Ögedei’s son Güyük and then a cousin, Möngke, gained power. Möngke sought to purge the sons of Ögedei to secure his own branch of the family’s position. He attempted the conquest of the Southern Song, but died of disease in 1259 during the campaign, forcing the withdrawal of the Mongols to choose a new khan at a new kurultai.
At this point, the two main contenders were Möngke’s brothers Hulagu and Kublai, neither of whom was actually in Mongolia. Their brother Ariq Böke manged to get himself elected, but Kublai convened his own kurultai in China and had himself elected. That produced a civil war between Kublai and Ariq Böke. Ultimately in 1264, Ariq Böke surrendered. This rift was an expression of a growing cultural divide between what might be seen as the ‘Sinicizing Mongols’, who followed Kublai and found some elements of Chinese culture worthy of adopting, and ‘traditional Mongols’, who supported Ariq Böke and felt that the Sinicizing Mongols were becoming soft and unmongolian. Ariq Böke’s legacy was taken up by Kaidu, his nephew and successor.
In 1271, Kublai declared the new Yuan Dynasty in China, as a way of seeking support from the Chinese. He relocated his capital from Karakorum to Khanbalik (modern Beijing), despite considerable opposition from the traditionalists, who rallied around Kaidu.
While this was going on, the old Southern Song Emperor Duzong died in 1274 and was succeeded by his four-year-old son Zhao Xian as Emperor Gong. His paternal grandmother, the Dowager Empress Xie, acted as regent, while the Chancellor Jia Sidao controlled the army and much of the state bureaucracy. Sidao came to power reportedly because his sister was a concubine of Duzong’s father. He was extremely popular with Duzong, who insisted on standing up when he entered the room, much to the scandal of the court.
Finally, in 1273, Kublai’s forces, aided by a pair of Persian engineers, captured the Southern Song capital of Xiangyang. Sidao had managed to hide the military crisis from the court, and as a consequence was widely accused of corruption and incompetence; a particular charge was that his fondness for cricket fighting had distracted him from the more serious military problems at hand.
After the court fled Xiangyang and ensured a subsequent defeat at Yihu, Sidao was forced out of office and then murdered in 1275, despite Xie’s objections. The next year, the Song rulers finally surrendered to Kublai. Xie and Zhao Xian were sent to live at Khanbalik and Zhao was given the honorific title of Duke of Ying. He eventually was sent to Tibet, where he became a Buddhist monk. As an old man in 1323, his poetry incurred the displeasure of one of Kublai’s successors and he was forced to commit suicide.
During Kublai’s conquest of the Southern Song, one of his most important generals was Bayan Chingsang. Marco Polo refers to him as “Bayan Hundred Eyes”, probably a mistranslation of the Chinese form of ‘Bayan’. Bayan was probably a Mongol; he married a niece of Empress Chabi. He remained a very important figure at Kublai’s court, and his support enabled Kublai’s son Timur to succeed to the throne in 1294.
If you’ve seen the series, you’ll recognize much of the preceding summary, but very distorted. The historical Marco Polo arrived in China in 1275 or 76, well after the capture of Xiangyang, but the cinematic Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) arrives in 1273, well before the capture of Xiangyang. That means that all the events of the first season happen in the space of perhaps half a year or a little more, which strains plausibility, given the considerable distances that Polo travels after he gets to China (just his journey to seek out the Old Man of the Mountain takes at least 3 weeks one way, according to the episode in which it happens).
The first major crisis in the series is the rebellion of Ariq Böke, which in fact happened almost a decade before Polo’s arrival. In the series Kublai kills his brother, but in fact the khan spared him, although he died later that year. When you put this together with the capture of Xiangyang, it’s clear that there’s no way to reconcile the events of the film with history; events are happening both too soon and too late.
An even bigger chronological mutilation involves Kokachin, the Blue Princess of the Bayaut. In the series, Marco sees Kokachin (Zhu Zhu) soon after his arrival at court, although it takes him a while to actually get a chance to speak with her. She explains that she is a princess of the Bayaut tribe, which was wiped out by Kublai. She is being kept at court until an appropriate marriage can be arranged for her, and by the end of the season, the decision has been made to wed her to Jingim, Kublai’s son and heir, which is a problem, because Marco is in love with her.
Kokachin the Blue Princess was a real person; when the Polos got permission to return to the west in 1296, their last service to the khan was to escort her to the Ilkhanate of Persia, a breakaway branch of the Mongol Empire under the rule of Hulegu’s descendants. She was 17 at the time, meaning that she was born around 1279. So the real Kokachin hadn’t even been born when Marco arrived at Khanbalik (making her Marco Polo‘s version of Isabella of France, I suppose). Also, Kublai did not wipe out the Bayaut tribe; they still exist today as one of the most important branches of the Mongolian people.
The Mongol general Bayan has become Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), a blind Chinese Taoist monk and martial arts expert. The character engages in a lot of cool wire-fu chop-socky and spouts a good deal of “ancient Chinese wisdom”, but his depiction is so far removed from historical reality as to bring the series perilously close to outright fantasy. It ought to be obvious that in the real world, blind men cannot routinely outfight sighted men or chop a piece of fruit into four pieces in mid-air, but as I’ve learned from the search history on my blog, there are a lot of people out there who suspect that such things might be plausible.
The series’ depiction of Jia Sidao is also problematic. They get some details about him right; he was the chancellor in the early 1270s and oversaw the defense of Xiangyang. His sister was reportedly an imperial concubine, and he was genuinely obsessed with crickets, earning him the derisive nickname the Cricket Minister. But whereas in the series Jia Sidao (Chin Han) is a master politician, cunning schemer, and powerful martial artist, the historical Jia Sidao is remembered more as an incompetent politician who owed his power to somewhat undeserved imperial favor and whose military screw-ups have sometimes been identified as the primary cause of the defeat of the Southern Song. The climactic battle between him on the one hand and Marco and Hundred Eyes on the other is entirely fictitious. (And would it have been so hard to get the whole cast to agree on one pronunciation of his name?)
As I said, I think the best way to approach this series is to consider it neither a depiction of historical fact nor a version of the Travels of Marco Polo, since it doesn’t conform to the text very well, but simply as an alternative tall tale from Marco Polo, telling us a story that is exotic enough that he assumes we won’t realize just how much he’s making up and reworking the facts.
Correction: In an earlier draft of this essay, I referred to the Mongol general Subutai as a nephew of Genghis Khan. After being challenged on this by a couple of commenters, I looked into it more closely, and found conflicting statements on the issue. Since I’m not a Mongologist and can’t entirely evaluate the information for myself, I decided to be cautious and remove the reference to Subutai entirely. Sorry for the mistake.
Correction: In an earlier draft of this essay, I referred to Hulagu and Kublai as Mongke’s sons. They were in fact his brothers. I regret the mistake.