Cool things I learned about Marco Polo, the Mongols, and all that.
Marco Polo was a famous explorer, right?
Did Marco Polo really have a lover in China?
Was Emmajin real?
What’s the difference between Khubilai Khan and Genghis Khan?
Is Xanadu real?
Where did the name Xanadu come from?
Did Marco Polo personally visit Xanadu?
Where is Khanbalik?
Did Marco Polo really go to China?
Not exactly. Most teachers include him with the famous Europeans who explored the world. But Marco just tagged along with his dad and uncle, when they went back to China for their second trip there. He was a teenager when he left his home of Venice, and he probably didn’t expect he’d be 41 by the time he came home! He certainly saw a lot more of the world than his childhood friends did. In China, he got a chance to see many places his father and uncle had never visited. On their way home, they took the sea route and explored even more lands that few Europeans had ever seen. What really made Marco Polo famous – more famous than his dad or uncle – is that he took notes along the way and wrote a book about his travels after he got home. Remember that, next time you travel!
Think about it. He was 21 when he arrived in China, and 38 when he left China. Yet he never mentioned any girlfriend or lover or wife in China. Since we’ll never know, I decided to use my imagination and create a love affair for him. Since there were no European women at the Khan’s court in those days, it would have to be an Asian woman, Chinese or Mongolian. He was too lowly, as a foreign merchant, to be worthy of attracting the attention of a princess in the Khan’s family. Or was he?
No. I imagined her. Khubilai Khan had 22 sons by his four official wives and 25 sons by his concubines, so he had hundreds of grandchildren. I imagined her to be his eldest granddaughter.
Big difference! Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol Empire, the ‘World Conqueror.’ He united the Mongols and similar tribes into a single army, then headed south and west to conquer China and the lands of Central Asia. Khubilai Khan (also spelled Kubla Khan) was his grandson, the fifth Great Khan, and he took power in 1260, more than 30 years after his grandfather died. By then, most of the conquest was over – though not all! – and Khubilai was able to concentrate on keeping the Empire together and ruling it wisely. His people called him Khubilai Sechen, Khubilai the Wise.
Most people think Xanadu is a mythical place – like Shangri-La. Other people think Xanadu is just a movie and a song by Olivia Newton-John, about a nightclub! But Xanadu was a real place, site of the summer palace of Khubilai Khan. In Chinese, it’s called Yuan Shangdu, which means “the Upper Capital of the Yuan Dynasty.” Marco Polo called it Chandu, Shandu, or Xandu, depending on which version of his book you’re reading. A famous English poet named Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a dream about it and wrote a poem in which he called it Xanadu, and that spelling became widely used in English. In 2007, I visited the site of Xanadu, with my friend Jeanne DeMund. It was very hard to find. We had to drive northeast from Beijing to Chengde, then north over bad roads to a town called Dolonnor in Inner Mongolia, China, then 17 miles to the west. It is, I was told, exactly due north of the great palace in Beijing, on the same line of longitude. It was destroyed completely and burned down in 1369, when the Chinese overthrew the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. Today there’s not much to see there, only a few ruins of the palace wall, which was built of stones. It is a UNESCO heritage site, but very few tourists go there. Khubilai Khan built it around 1252- 6, when he was a regional prince in that area; after he became Great Khan, he renamed it and made it his summer capital. Marco Polo described it as having a marble palace, a cane palace, and fabulous gardens and woods. It’s sad to think there’s almost nothing left of this beautiful place.