Hello everyone! Today’s post will be, as promised, on the first episode of Marco Polo, from the Mongol and Chinese point of view rather than that of Polo. In the previous post, it was discussed that the show was fairly faithful to the life of Polo principally because the surviving accounts of his life (including his own) were not especially detailed. The same cannot be said of Mongol and Chinese life during this period, however, so how does the show measure up in this respect? Before entering into a discussion of this subject, it should be noted that there are less personal details on the Mongol or Chinese characters than Polo, so a direct comparison between the treatment of the two cannot truly be made.
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While little introduction was necessary for the life of Marco Polo due to the (presumed) familiarity of many readers with the existence of the Republic of Venice and the fact that opening trade with China would be desirable, the same may not be true for the Chinese side of the story. So, a brief summary of the events which have dominated the previous century in China may be required. The China which the Mongols invaded at the beginning of the thirteenth century was split in two. In the South, the remnants of the Song Dynasty ruled over half of the territory they once possessed; in the north, the Jin Empire, formed by the Juchen who had defeated the Northern Song, ruled supreme. The Mongols, naturally, invaded from the north; as a result, it was the Jin who fell first. Although the conquest moved in fits and starts, the doom of the Jin arrived when the Southern Song, hungry for revenge, allied with the Mongols against them in the 1230s. The final Jin Emperor committed suicide in 1234. The respite from hostilities gained by the Song was brief, however. Before long, the Mongols turned against them as well; when the show begins, this conflict is entering its final stages, which would see the fall of the Song capital in 1276 and the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.
So this, then, is the situation in which China finds itself in the late thirteenth century, when the episode begins. We see China for the first time when Marco arrives in the court of Kublai Khan, in 1273; this is the same year in which, historically, the “walled city” of Xiangyang fell to the Mongols. As this is the same conquest for which the Mongols are preparing in the episode, this moment has been placed correctly in time. The basic elements of Kublai’s court are also correct; he was indeed the first Mongol ruler to embrace elements of Chinese culture, largely in an attempt to appease the Confucian officials whom he needed to run his empire. He also had his son, Jin, educated in Chinese culture; this is the son who is tasked with leading the attack on Xiangyang in the episode, who did indeed speak of his Confucian education. The tension felt between the more traditionally “Mongol” elements of the court and the Sinicized elements was, therefore, likely historical as well. One possibly ahistorical element of the Mongol court was that it was unclear whether Jin, the only son who was seen onscreen, was intended to succeed his father; if so, this would not be accurate as it was the son of his (deceased) eldest son Zhenjin, Temur, who succeeded him.
Thus, Kublai’s court is essentially accurate; the elements of Mongol rule in China which we see appear to mostly be accurate as well. It makes sense that the Polos were capable of reaching the Mongol court, because the Mongol rule over Eurasia led directly to the so-called “Pax Mongolica”, a period in which contact between China, Europe, India, and the other regions of the continent was much more frequent than it had been before. This was further aided by the Mongol promotion of merchant activity within their realm through the formation of merchant associations such as the Ortogh, which allowed merchants to spit the risk on caravan ventures. The religious experimentation which Kublai Khan brings up in one speech was also characteristic of the Mongols, as shown by their heavy promotion of Buddhism, a religion which was not particularly popular in China at the time.
The small elements of the Song court which were shown on screen also appear to have been mostly accurate; the name of the Chancellor, Jia Siado, for example, was correct. However, given the infrequency which with this was shown, it is difficult to comment any further on the matter.
Once again, when examined this show holds up surprisingly well; it may not be perfect in terms of historical accuracy, and it certainly has other issues, but compared to the majority of modern television shows it does quite well. Even though I dislike the show personally, I hope that other historical television and film will take their cue from Marco Polo in terms of historical accuracy, if nothing else. I hope you all enjoyed this post, and have a wonderful day.
1 Encyclopedia Britannica. “China: The Mongol Conquest of China.” Last modified December 28, 2015.
2 Encyclopedia Britannica. “China: China Under the Mongols.” Last modified December 28, 2015.
3 Encyclopedia Britannica. “China: China Under the Mongols.” Last modified December 28, 2015.
4 Columbia University. “The Mongols in World History: Kublai Khan in China.” Last modified 2004.
5 Columbia University. “The Mongols in World History: Kublai Khan in China.” Last modified 2004.
6 Columbia University. “The Mongols in World History: Marco Polo, Book Second, Part 1, Chapter IX: Concerning the Great Kaan’s Sons.” Last modified 2004.
7 Columbia University. “The Mongols in World History: Merchant Associations Alleviate the Perils of Caravan Trade.” Last modified 2004.
8 Michigan State University. “Anige, Himalayan Artist in Khubilai Khan’s Court.” n.d.
9 Encyclopedia Britannica. “China: China Under the Mongols.” Last modified December 28, 2015.