If half a millennium of European expansion was inspired in no small part by a hoax, then surely we ought to know? But testing the veracity of Marco Polo today is not so easily done. The last British researcher into Marco Polo's travels died in 1957, and the last historian of China who knew any Mongol left for America in the Eighties, at about the same time that the last British scholar who had learned Mongol as well as Chinese - the originally intended co-author of this book - decided that there were no career prospects for anyone with such skills and converted himself (very successfully) into a historian of Chinese art. That left two or three good historians who dealt with Marco Polo's epoch in Asia, but largely from Middle Eastern sources, plus a handful of historians of China like myself who knew something of the issues, but generally avoided considering them unless compelled to do so. And with good reason: more than twenty-five years may have passed, but I distinctly remember how Frances Wood and I were warned that anyone contemplating working on the Mongol period in Chinese history would be issued with a bottle of aspirin, in view of the immense difficulties involved in studying an empire which employed in its administration not only classical Chinese (which we found hard enough) but also Mongol, Persian and Uighur Turkish.
LRB 30 November 1995 | PDF Download