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Did Marco Polo really go to China?

I have heard this question a lot, and someone asked me just yesterday. Here's my answer:

Yes, it seems highly likely he did. From the day he got back home, people thought Marco Polo was exaggerating or lying about the fabulous wealth and wonder of the empire he claimed to have visited. In those days, Venice was the most powerful, prosperous city in Europe, and Venetians did not want to believe there was a land that was far more advanced. In fact, they called Marco “Il Milione” because he claimed to have seen “millions and millions” of jewels, people, soldiers, everything.

About 50 years after his book came out, an extremely popular travel book appeared, by “John Mandeville,” about a journey to the Orient. It was lively and fun to read, and told of terrific monsters, dog-headed cannibals, people with ears hanging to their knees, and men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders. It later proved to be mostly invented or borrowed from other writers, so that made people wonder about the truth of Marco Polo’s book, too.

For hundreds of years, Europeans could not travel safely to the Far East, so they had no way of checking. However, when Europeans began to explore Asia, they found that most of Marco Polo’s descriptions of remote places were remarkably accurate. Many Europeans did travel to China during the relatively peaceful years of the Mongol Empire, both traders and priests, so it is not hard to believe that one of them wrote a book about his travels when he got home.

For a scholar's explanation of these doubts, see F. Wood's Did Marco Polo Go To China? A Critical Appraisal by I. de Rachewiltz. I find his arguments compelling.

- November 13, 2010 - 

61: Khubilai Khan exhibit catalogue book

Met catalogueLook at this gorgeous book

The Met calls this book an “exhibition catalogue” but it is more like a lovely coffee table book. Printed in Italy, with 342 pages, it is chock-full of gorgeous photographs of the amazing items on display at the exhibition – as well as many other items not displayed. It also has ten essays by Met Asian art curators and other experts, with fascinating details about the daily life of the Mongols, the flourishing of many religions then, painting and calligraphy, textile and the decorative arts.

I’m still absorbing information from this fantastic book. Here’s just one cool fact I gleaned from it.  In the portrait of Empress Chabi, she is wearing a robe with stripes made of “cloth of gold” fabric. The Met curators found a fabric swatch in the Cleveland Museum of Art that seems to exactly match the patterns in Chabi’s clothing in her portrait! These curators have jobs like Indiana Jones, traveling the globe to make such discoveries.

Two more reviews of Daughter of Xanadu have been posted online, by Jessi and Steph. Both are available on goodreads.

And I've made my first appearance as a guest blogger, on a site that challenges readers to read more books by and about "persons of color."  It's called the POC Reading Challenge.  Check it out!

- November 11, 2010 -

74: High school classroom

High school students meet the Mongols

Today, about a hundred high school students listened as I gave my sClassroom visitpiel about why the Mongol Empire matters in history. I spoke to four AP World History classes at the local high school my daughter attended in Bellevue, WA. The technology gods must have been smiling because my PowerPoint presentation worked smoothly!

My message: the 13th century was a fulcrum of history, when the balance of power began to shift from Asia to Europe.  Why?  Because the peace created by the Mongol conquests allowed for

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69: Khubilai Khan exhibit

xanadu pillarMeeting Khubilai

Today, I explored Xanadu. I was very tempted to touch a marble column with carved dragons that once stood in Khubilai Khan’s front hall. I reached out and almost stroked a marble dragon head that graced his roof. I examined a cloth-of-gold robe one of his guards may have worn. I stared into the eyes of his portrait and that of his chief wife, Chabi.

Yes, this means I am in New York, and I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty.”

Originally, all of the items came from the Mongol Empire –  from China, from Mongolia, from Central Asia, from Korea. Many are on loan from various museums in China, including items relatively recently unearthed. But other items were loaned to the Met from museums in Japan, Boston, Cleveland, even Kansas, and many are from the Met’s own collection -- displayed side-by-side with rarely seen items from China.

What amazes me is

Read more: 69: Khubilai Khan exhibit

73: The Inside Story, celebrating SCBWI writers

The Inside Story, celebrating SCBWI writers

Last night, I was privileged to be one of 18 local authors and illustrators celebrating new children's or young adult books at Parkplace Books in Kirkland.

This terrific event, called The Inside Story, began in 1998 and takes place twice a year. It is a salon sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) - Western Washington. Writers and illustrators who are members get a chance to speak about their newly released books. This year's theme: Books Are Hope, inspired by the new book Hope for Haiti, by Jesse Joshua Watson.

I was at the far end of a long table filled with distinguished writers, and most of them had books available for sale and signing. I had only a fake book: my beautiful book jacket wrapped around another book, masquerading as Daughter of Xanadu. But I had lots of postcards to hand out and a good 'inside story' to tell.

We each had a grand total of

Read more: 73: The Inside Story, celebrating SCBWI writers

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