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Tampering with facts: how Marco Polo lied to us…

March 17, 2013
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree…
Did Marco Polo ever go to China, or was he the first unscrupulous journalist to write about far-away places in which he never set his foot? Having just re-read his memoirs, I must say -with bitter honesty, being myself a former fan of his- that the evidence is heavily against him… 
For one thing, if he had been such an important figure at the court of Kublai Khan for twenty years, in the 13the century, before he dictated his memoirs in prison in Genoa, giving such a profusion of fantastic details, he wouldn‘t have omitted the most striking fact for a European arriving for the first time in China: the chopsticks!… 
Nowhere, in Marco Polo‘s Devisament dou monde/De mirabilibus mundi is there any mention of the Chinese chopsticks. He describes gryphons and magic forests at the end of the earth, and writes at length about the giant bird called Rock, who lives in the island of Madagascar and feeds on elephants. As Borges reminds in El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios, Marco Polo even tells us that ”el Gran Khan“ sent a special mission to Madagascar to obtain a feather of the bird Rock, which feather had precisely ”ocho pasos de longitud“.
Alas, our bragging Venetian adventurer had totally forgotten to tell us anything about this great wonder for a Westerner: the fact that the Chinese were using two clumsy wooden sticks to eat their strange food without dirtying their shirt !…
One could, of course, object that Marco simply had gotten used to chopsticks and took them so naturally that he didn’t think they were worth mentioning…. Nonsense!  travellers and journalists never took anything “so naturally” as to think “facts were not worth mentioning”… On the contrary, they tended to add on the fantastic scale… But let’s see the Chinese themselves. This is how a real observer described the custom: 
Sima Qian, second century b. Ch., in his (History of the Han Dynasty”: “In the table ceremony, are put on the north side the wine cups, chopsticks and sauce bowls.”… A Chinese stating the obvious to the Chinese, right? He didn’t think everything was “so naturally” and that “facts were not worth mentioning”. 
Chopsticks are mentioned in Confucius, have been found in tombs from the second millennium b. Ch. and have been since in use not only in China, but also Vietnam, Korea and Japan…
Also, William of Rubruck, Marco Polo’s exact contemporary who traveled to Mongolia, describes at lengths the eating habits of the Mongols: “With the intestines of horses they make sausages better than pork ones, and they eat them fresh. The rest of the flesh they keep for winter. With the hind part of the hide of horses they make most beautiful shoes. With the flesh of a single sheep they give to eat to fifty men or a hundred; for they cut it up very fine in a platter with salt and water, for they make no other sauce. Prior to this, before the flesh of the sheep is served, the master takes what pleases him; but if he cannot eat it all he carries it off with him, or gives it to his servant if he be present, who keeps it; otherwise he puts it away in his captargac, which is a square bag which they carry to put such things in, in which they store away bones when they have not time to gnaw them well, so that they can gnaw them later and that nothing of the food be lost. ” 
NOTHING like this in Marco Polo… He writes about dragons and magic forests…

From → Paraphernalia

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