Posted by Rob.
Polo’s novel, whether it may go by the title Il Milione, Divisament Dou Monde, or simply Travels, is primarily a factual travel narrative, right? Or is it a handbook for merchants? Or perhaps it is a nothing more than a forum for interesting gossip—foreign “tabloids” for 13th century Europeans? As famous and widespread Polo’s tale is, it is interpreted by different people and cultures as remarkably different things. Upon its publication, it was seen by medieval scholars as “mere romance and fable” (Zhou 3), for Christopher Columbus it was a collection of useful facts, and for Polo himself, it simply could have been a way for him to remember his experiences in the East. However, these are all interpretations stemming from Western culture. Studying how an Eastern scholar interprets Polo’s novel, on the other hand, provides an interesting perspective.
From the viewpoint of Chinese scholar Gang Zhou, Marco Polo’s Travels is a perfect example of “xiaoshuo”, an Asian genre that was used to “signify insignificant topics and ideas” (Zhou 1) Polo’s writings exemplify many traits of this so called “small talk”; including anecdotes, family histories, geographical records, unofficial biographies, and trivial talks. The small talk genre in ancient China is analogous to the “grocery store” tabloids of today. Both are concerned with exposing the secrets and lives of famous individuals or events. Polo relates the secrets of the Great Khan’s personal life to his readers when he reveals the “concubines” of Kubliai; the women in groups of 6 “who serve the Khan for three days and three nights at a time in his chamber and his bed” (Polo 123). Polo seems to delight in revealing such intimate secrets of the Khan to his readers. Of course, Polo didn’t dare put the Khan in a bad light, like tabloid writers of today do to celebrities, but he still seems to revel in being so close to the powerful leader.
Polo lived and worked with Kubliai Khan for 17 years of his life, and his main job was to observe and take notes for the emperor on the people and places of his kingdom. He was the eyes and ears of the Great Khan, and related stories to Kubliai of places unknown. Does this seem familiar? Polo in his Travels writes this exact way: feeding us detail after detail of unknown and wondrous locales, with fantastical anecdotes and historical references thrown in for good measure (and to keep us interested). Polo’s writing style seems to be heavily influenced by his time spent in service of Kubliai. Even Polo’s signature “it is true” and “you must know” phrases he repeats several times throughout the novel seem to spawn from his experiences as the Khan’s “gossip”. Polo is convincing Kubliai that everything related to him is the absolute truth, not to be questioned, as he is now trying to convince us.
So, to wrap this topic up, I guess there are two questions up for discussion: is Polo merely a “small talk” writer—that is, a gossip? Also, how did Polo’s experiences influence his writing style? Spending 17 years anywhere must affect how one thinks, so how did the culture of Mongol Asia change Polo? As for me, I believe that Polo is but a “tabloid writer” (not to say he isn’t interesting!), writing of people and events that will generate excitement, though their factual origin may be questionable. I also believe he writes this way primarily as a result of his experience as a “gossip” of Kubliai Khan; but as history shows, Polo’s novel can be interpreted however an individual wants.