History or romance?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 1995, 12:00am

Did Marco Polo go to China? by Frances Wood Secker & Warbury HK$235 WHAT a strange, flighty book this is, although to judge by the pre-publication publicity in Britain, the reader might have expected some kind of blockbuster instead of a mere 150 pages.

But the author deserves attention because of her position as the head of the Chinese Department at the British Library.

Her subject is a book written about 700 years ago by a Venetian merchant who happened to be in jail at the time. It was dictated to a fellow convict (who happened to be a hack writer) and consisted of the tremendously detailed and lengthy memories of a journey.

This trip, the author said, took him to Asia, included a 17-year stay in China as a diplomatic servant of Kublai Khan, and contained many amazing adventures.

His book is well worth reading. There is, however, no original manuscript. What we do have is about 140 copy manuscripts in various languages - and by various authors - each with their own interests to serve.

So far as one can judge, the book was a bestseller in an age when mechanical problems made bestsellers a rare commodity.

There was no such thing as printing, so each scribe could interpret what he was supposed to be translating in whatever way he wished.

Even 700 years ago, there were those who said that Marco Polo's tales were fake or at best an amalgam of other travellers' yarns. The readers did not seem to mind. Here, accessible, were tales of wonder and delight, and of regions far beyond their ken.

The tales remain so today.

In the introduction to the Marsden/Wright translation, the poet John Masefield, writing in 1907, states: 'It is difficult to read Marco Polo as one reads historical facts.

'One reads him as one reads romance . . .' But Masefield's doubts about authenticity, and those expressed by others during the past centuries, count as nothing for this current author.

'What most people don't seem to know,' declares Wood, 'is that a very serious challenge to Marco Polo's popular status has been raised by the most eminent of the German Mongolists.' What can Wood mean? Yet another sceptic? If you flip to the back pages, this seems to mean a paper written 30 years ago for the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch.

It was written by a gentleman called Herbert Franke who rates far and away the biggest entry in this small volume's multilingual bibliography.

Not included in the bibliography is the Encyclopedia Britannica, although there is a reference to it in the text.

It is interesting that Wood cites as evidence that Marco Polo never went to China his failure to mention the Great Wall of China, tea-drinking habits or the Chinese' characteristic style of writing. What do we find in the Britannica ? 'A man who failed, among other things, to mention the Great Wall of China, the use of tea and the ideographic script of the Far East.' Marco Polo is also pulled up for not mentioning foot-binding.

Not so curious: it was not practised at the Mongol court.

Wood reserves her most telling barb for Polo's failure to mention the Great Wall, on the grounds that astronauts can see it from the moon.

Over the centuries, nobody has ever suggested that Marco Polo went to the moon.

Great attention is also paid to whether Polo brought spaghetti from China to Italy.

Thus my doubts set in over Wood's doubts over this much-neglected classic.

Over the years I have found Marco Polo's tales a pleasant read on flights to Shanghai or Beijing.

Yes, the work may be a compilation of Persian, Arabic, Frankish or Latin half-heard adventures by a 13th-century ne'er-do-well, dictated to an inventive fellow convict.

But over the years, Chinese scholars have found enough in it to merit years of research, carried out with some scepticism.