Marco Polo: Tabloid Writer?

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writes this exact way: feeding us detail after detail of unknown and wondrous locales, with fantastical anecdotes and historical references thrown in for good measure (and to keep us interested).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.

4 responses to “Marco Polo: Tabloid Writer?

  1. I definitely have to agree that he was a “tabloid writer”. His entire experience in the East was to entertain the Khan. He would go on escapades to fulfill certain business requirements, but as we mentioned in class, his reports to the Khan were more focused on the people and the experiences he had in the different lands. The Khan knew the that the business aspect of the travels would be completed without a problem, so he wanted to understand the other lives of people in his territories.

    Marco Polo learned from this experience to write or speak whatever pleases people. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, as long as he looks good and can tell a good story. The people in the west had little to no idea what the east was like, so Marco Polo could have said anything about the east and they would have believed him. Just as with tabloids, normal people don’t know what goes on in Hollywood or in celebrities’ every day lives, so whatever the tabloids produce is what they believe.

  2. “Tabloid writer” does seem to be an accurate description, retelling any story or “fact” whether it is true or not. But I’m not sure that Marco Polo deserves the negative connotations associated with tabloids, mainly that of unreliability. But there is one way to avoid the negativity while still using the same all-inclusive story-teller definition: Men in Black. In that universe, the tabloids are the more reliable sources of information because they don’t throw out stories that seem too crazy or outrageous as something like the New York Times might. With this kind of background, tabloids are more reliable than conventional news because they don’t go through a filter. They tell it like it is whether you believe it or not, just like Marco Polo.

  3. I do agree that Marco Polo was a “tabloid writer”. He wrote this story to entertain his readers whether that be his western audience, or even the Great Khan himself. They would have wanted to hear about the so called gossip of the east. The people of the west wanted to hear about the lavish and magnificence of the Mongol Empire. It was very intriguing to them. Westerners wanted to hear about the 10,000 man hunting party and his palace that was a mile long. He exaggerated on almost everything because that was interesting, and that’s what people wanted to hear. As we have said in class before, how would people of the west known he was exaggerating? They didn’t know, they had no idea. They had never been there, nor would they ever go there. They could only take Marco Polo’s word for it.

  4. Coming off the third article (claims that Kublai Khan himself was the wonder/marvel talked of in the book), I think the viewpoint of smalltalk/gossip hits the spot–only insiders with tidbits about concubines and who are close to the Khan would be able to provide such juicy material to outside readers.

    I think something to keep in mind while reading through “Travels” is that Marco Polo didn’t write the book himself. Though historians and other analysts say that you can differentiate between the two voices, there will always be an elements of uncertainty as to who is talking. Hence, the tabloid writing style that the book follows could be the easiest way the author decided to publish it.

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