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February 26, 2024

The Mysterious Origin of “Marco Polo”

By Peter Dabbene

“Although Kublai Khan wished to identify with his Chinese subjects, Mongol rule was strict and foreign to the Chinese. [...] Many Chinese refused to serve or associate themselves with the Yuan administration, who they viewed as barbarian despots.” — from “Economic history of China before 1912,” Wikipedia page: Economic history of China before 1912

“[In Ancient China] infectious diseases were often associated with diet and the concept of du (poison/poisonous, etc.), and while not a primary focus, they were also considered to be transferrable between animals and humans.” — from “History of Epidemics in China” by Di Lu, Asian Medicine 16 (2021) p. 141

“[...] preferred foods [...] are further described as strengthening pu ("supplementing"), nourishing or being generally beneficial to various organ systems. “Food and Health at the Mongol Court” by E.N. Anderson, Opuscula Altaica, Essays Presented in Honor of Henry Schwarz, Center for East Asian Studies (Studies on East Asia, 19) (1994) p.33

“[Marco] Polo, a 13th-century Mariner from the Republic of Venice, describes his travels to Yuan-dynasty China and the court of Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, along with the preceding journeys made by Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, his father and uncle, respectively, in his Travels of Marco Polo. [...] In his return trip to Persia from China (setting out from the port at Quanzhou in 1291), Marco Polo said that he accompanied the Mongol princess Kököchin in her intended marriage to Arghun, ruler of the Mongol Ilkhanate [...].”— from “Europeans in Medieval China,” Wikipedia page:Europeans in Medieval China

“Kamul is a district situated within the great province of Tanguth, subject to the Grand Khan, and contains many towns and castles, of which the principal city is also named Kamul. [..] When strangers arrive, and desire to have lodging and accommodation at their houses, it affords [the men] the highest gratification . They give positive orders to their wives, daughters, sisters, and other female relations, to indulge their guests in every wish, whilst they themselves leave their homes, and retire into the city, and the stranger lives in the house with the females as if they were his own wives. [..] The women are in truth very handsome, very sensual, and fully disposed to conform in this respect to the injunction of their husbands.” — from The Travels of Marco Polo The Venetian (by Marco Polo) pp. 106-107, London : J.M. Dent ; New York : E.P. Dutton (1908)

The docks at the Port of Zaitun (later known as Quanzhou), China, 1291 C.E. Three Chinese mariners are preparing for their mission as part of a flotilla to transport the Mongol Princess Kököchin to her betrothed in Persia...

Mariner #1 (scanning a piece of paper in his hand): All right, then. The final question on the pre-boarding checklist: “Have you been contaminated by animal du?”

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: Certainly not! On the contrary, I have been consuming foods high in pu content, which will guarantee personal health, and by extension, safe passage for us all.

Mariner #1: Please explain.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: It’s simple, really. Everyone knows to avoid animal du. But few utilize the benefits of eating, drinking, and even bathing in animal pu.

Mariner #1: Hmm.

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: Oh, look! There goes the Emperor’s daughter and her escort.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: I wonder if they overheard our conversation about pu and du.

Mariner #2: I certainly hope so!

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: The Emperor’s daughter is radiant.

Mariner #1: She radiates beauty, elegance, and a bit of impatience.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: She is eager to get going.

Mariner #1: The final pieces of cargo are being loaded now. Our mission: to explore a strange “New World”…

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: Actually, we will be stopping at Persia.

Mariner #1: …to seek out new civilizations...

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: Just trading with the old ones.

Mariner #1: …to boldly go—

Mariner #2: —to drop off the Emperor’s daughter at the home country of her betrothed.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Boldly.

Mariner #2: Hmm.

Mariner #1: Who is her well-apportioned escort, he of the red cap, red outfit, and stockings?

Mariner #2: I believe his name is Marco. He is from a foreign land called Italy, and that is his native garb. Now he is a friend and servant of the Emperor Shizu, formerly known as “Kublai Khan.”

Mariner #1: Khan, the foreign invader whose father claimed our country as his own? Khan, who has spent lavishly on himself and raised taxes on we ancestral Chinese to pay the costs?

Mariner #2: That’s the one.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1 (Trembling with rage, fists closing tightly): Khaaaaaaaaaan!

Mariner #2: You will draw unwanted attention with such dramatic displays. Though I did find it passionate and enchanting, in a hammy sort of way.

Mariner #1: Don’t get me started on Khan. What about this Marco, you’ve met him before, spoken to him?

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: He has told us of fantastic things in the lands outside of China.

Mariner #1: Such as?

Mariner #2: New musical instruments, like the “pipe organ.”

Mariner #1: Tell me more.

Mariner #2: He claims there are men with very large organs, so large it takes two men to handle the equipment.

Mariner #1: I would pay to see such an organ!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: It is said these organs can stir the soul and reach the deepest, innermost depths of a man, allowing a beam of hope to penetrate even in places where the sun does not shine.

Mariner #1: Most intriguing…

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Alas, for now such things must be left to the imagination.

Mariner #1: You are correct, we have our own job ahead of us. It might not be as exciting as handling a large organ, but luckily, my junk is up to the task.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: I don’t believe I’ve had the please of seeing your junk in person... though I’ve heard many complimentary things about it.

Mariner #1 (proudly): It’s right here, take a good look!

Mariner #2 (impressed): Hmm... bigger than I would have expected!

Mariner #1: And always well-maintained.

Mariner #2: May I touch it?

Mariner #1: Whoa! I don’t know how you do things in your part of China, but where I’m from, you don’t touch another man’s junk within minutes of meeting.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: I’m sorry, I just thought I would examine your junk for readiness. You’ve had no problems with that soft wood?

Mariner #1: Hard wood is overrated. Soft wood might not be as impressive to some, but I’ve gotten to know my junk quite well over the years, and it is fully capable, I assure you. Maybe later, if everything goes smoothly, I will allow you to touch my junk.

Mariner #2: Very well. I suppose you’d want the same opportunity with regard to my own junk?

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: I’m sure we can work something out to everyone’s satisfaction.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: There goes that friend of the Emperor again… or would you prefer if I say “that friend of the Khan?”

Mariner #1 (Trembling with rage, fists closing tightly): Khaaaaaaaaaan!

Mariner #2: Your resentment regarding the rule of China by outsiders has been noted. Again.

Mariner #1: Thank you. Simply put, the Khan is full of du.

Mariner #2: Put aside your “Khan du” spirit, please. It is preventing us from completing our task.

Mariner #1: I apologize, but the Mongol Khan-troll of China causes me great Khan-sternation.

Mariner #2: There’s no need to be Khan-tentious. I would not advise Khan-frontation, but if you insist on Khan-tinuing this way, perhaps you should request a meeting at the Khan-sulate, or even the Emperor’s private Khan-dominium, to air your Khan-plaints. Be polite—a little personal Khan-tact might might make you feel better, and even resolve your Khan-undrum. Just be careful what you say in your Khan-versation or you may end up Khan-fined. And keep in mind that the Emperor is Kahn-serving many Chinese customs, and shows real Khan-cern for the people.

Mariner #1: On the Khan-trary, our “Emperor” is a Khan-descending Khan-man who offers us nothing but disguised Khan-tempt. He is willing to Khan-serve tradition only as far as it serves his goal of Khan-quest, and no number of Khan-sessions will change that. You may choose to Khan-form, but I have no desire to Khan-tribute to these foreign Khan-taminations. Mixing their customs and ours has created Khan-fusion, and this continuing Khan-flict is a Khan-test of cultures that will end in Khan-flagration.

Mariner #2: All right, enough pun-ishment. I Kahn’t take any more.

Mariner #1: Agreed. No more distractions.

Mariner #2: By the way, I notice that the Emperor’s friend, Marco, has quite a large package.

Mariner #1: That qualifies as a distraction.

Mariner #3: Yes. And yes.

Mariner #1: I wonder if it’s a gift for the Princess?

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #1: Or her betrothed?

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: You never know, maybe it’s intended for us.

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #1: It looks rather unwieldy… I fear he might trip over it.

Mariner #2: Let’s follow him on board. I’ll help him with it. (Boards ship.)

Mariner #3: No. (Boards ship.)

Mariner #1: (Boards ship.) Be careful! You’re going to knock him off balance!

Mariner #2 (fumbling): Whoops! There he goes! Marco’s fallen over the side of the ship!

Mariner #1: Can he swim?

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: We should do something!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Ahh! Don’t push me in! I’ll take you two with me!

Mariner #1: What did I do? Our companion is the one—ahh! We’re falling in!

Mariner #3: Yes.


Mariner #1 (treading water): Now we are all wet.

Mariner #3 (treading water): Yes.

Mariner #2 (treading water): I don’t see Marco! We have to save him!

Mariner #1: Over there! He is struggling with the weight of his water-soaked clothing!

Mariner #2 (yelling): Take it off, Marco!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Do you see his package?

Mariner #1: No, but it’s probably just hidden from view.

Mariner #2: He’s gesturing something… I don’t understand!

Mariner #1: He wants us to close our eyes as he strips off his clothing.

Mariner #2 (shutting eyes): Very well Marco, we will close our eyes! Do you understand?

Mariner #1 (eyes shut): He’s not answering. Keep treading water, and keep your eyes closed. It is only polite to preserve his modesty.

Mariner #2: And an element of mystery can be quite exciting.

Mariner #3 (eyes shut): Yes.

Mariner #1: Call him again.

Mariner #2: Marco!


Mariner #1: Did you hear that?

Mariner #2: He responded this time! But what was that he said? “Polo”?

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: I’m not sure. Again.

Mariner #2: Marco!


Mariner #1: You’re right! He’s saying “Polo!”

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: What can it mean?

Mariner #1: “Polo,” eh? Polo means “pilaf” in Mongolian.

Mariner #2: In Chinese, you mean.

Mariner #1: No.

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: Pilaf… the man must be hungry! Bring rice, quickly!

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: Do you really think he doesn’t want rice, or are you just being a naysayer, as usual?

Mariner #3: Yes. No.

Mariner #1: He’s treading water, I don’t think he wants to eat.

Mariner #2: If someone wanted to bring me rice, I wouldn’t turn him away, water or no water.

Mariner #1: We should go to him. He probably needs help.

Mariner #2: Removing his clothing, you mean?

Mariner #1: No, staying above the water! Not drowning!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Marco!


Mariner #2: He said “Polo” again!

Mariner #1: From the sound of his voice, it seems like he is moving away from us.

Mariner #2: You mean he’s trying to avoid being touched by us?

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Why would he be avoiding us?

Mariner #1: Perhaps our earlier discussion about pu and du?

Mariner #2: But I explained already, we are full of animal pu, not animal du!

Mariner #1: The distinction seems lost upon him.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: If only we could grab him and make him understand! Marco!


Mariner #1: He keeps saying the same thing: “Polo.” Wait— Chinese—I mean, Mongolian—is not his native language!

Mariner #2: You’re right, of course! But what other meanings could “Polo” have?

Mariner #1: A game, with horses and mallets!

Mariner #2: A water sport, played while wearing a headcap and goggles!

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #1: Maybe skip the horses? I don’t think they swim well anyway.

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: Maybe he believes he’s found a geographic pole?

Mariner #1: The North and South poles are far from here.

Mariner #2: Maybe it’s the East Pole. Or the West.

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #1: Wait… are you peeking?

Mariner #2: No! I mean, uh…

Mariner #3: No. Maybe. Yes.

Mariner #2: Hey! How would you know anyone was peeking, unless you were peeking?

Mariner #1 Err… let’s hear it again. Marco!


Mariner #1: Same response every time: “Polo.”

Mariner #2: Does “Polo” mean “pole,” like a long stick?

Mariner #1: No, that’s silly.

Mariner #2: Oh. I thought maybe he wanted a a long stick to grab onto.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: That would make sense.

Mariner #1: Maybe he’s just asking for a comfortable, casual yet dressy shirt?

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: The Princess says she is throwing down a lighter piece of clothing for him.

Mariner #1: A comfortable, casual yet dressy shirt?

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: She says he looks good in it.

Mariner #3 (peeking): Yes.

Mariner #2: I think I just touched him!

Mariner #1: Stop bragging.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: We can open our eyes now, he should be at least partially covered.

Mariner #2 (opens eyes): It was him! I touched him!

Mariner #1 (opens eyes): It feels as if we have reached some crucial turning point.

Mariner #3 (opens eyes): Yes.

Mariner #2: Agreed, but unfortunately his package remains hidden somewhere under the water.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Marco seems to be directing his gaze… toward that teenaged boy on the ship.

Mariner #1: You mean the one with the striking resemblance to him?

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: The boy is extending his pole with his hands!

Mariner #1: He’s a bit clumsy with it.

Mariner #2: He’s young and inexperienced. He’s probably never had an audience while he worked with his pole before.

Mariner #1: He’s waving it everywhere. He doesn’t seem to have much control over it. Watch out—!

Mariner #2: He’s poked Marco with the pole and temporarily blinded him!

Mariner #1: How do you know it’s temporary?

Mariner #2: I’m an optimist.

Mariner #1: Marco seems angry at the boy.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Listen! Marco is yelling again! But now he’s saying…

Mariner #2: “Marco!”

Mariner #1: Never mind that! Get the boy to lower his pole to us!

Mariner #2: But without blinding us.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Polo!

Mariner #2: Polo!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Marco is still yelling!

Mariner #1: “Marco! Marco!” He just keeps repeating it.

Mariner #2: Why is he saying his own name?

Mariner #1: Hmm. I just realized—I think the boy’s name is Marco, too!

Mariner #2: Hmm. There were rumors that the Italian once visited the city of Kamul.

Mariner #1: The town of extreme and pleasurable hospitality?

Mariner #2: That’s the one.

Mariner #1: Was this approximately 18 years ago?

Mariner #2: Maybe. Probably.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Could the boy be his child?

Mariner #2: Maybe. Probably.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: The Italian is struggling to stay afloat.

Mariner #2: The Princess says he’s drowning!

Mariner #1: He’s trying to grab onto us!

Mariner #2: Oh, look who wants to touch us now, huh?

Mariner #1: Don’t let him!

Mariner #2: That will serve him right!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: He’s yelling to get the boy’s attention!

Mariner #2: Ha ha! “Marco! Marco!”

Mariner #1: Don’t waste your breath making fun of him and his high-pitched, panicked voice.

Mariner #2: Very well. (Shouts) Polo!

Mariner #1 (shouts): Polo!

Mariner #3: Yes!

Mariner #1: Despite our urgent requests, the boy continues to lower the pole to Marco, and not us.

Mariner #2: The boy is yelling and waving us away from the pole. I think he only wants his father.

Mariner #1: What is the boy saying? I‘ve got water in my ears.

Mariner #2: “Solo Marco.” Or maybe “Marco Solo.”

Mariner #1: Marco?

Mariner #2: Solo?

Mariner #3: No. No.

Mariner #1: Grab the pole, so he is forced to fish us out along with his father.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Got it!

Mariner #2: So do I! And Marco, too! His sight has returned!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Pull us up!

Mariner #3: Yes!

Mariner #2: Haha! Like a net full of fish, we are all tangled together. I don’t know where I end and the rest of you begin!

Mariner #3: No.


Mariner #1: Ah! Solid deck beneath us again.

Mariner #2: It looks like Marco the son has rescued Marco the father!

Mariner #1: And look! There is Marco the Elder’s package!

Mariner #2: It seems to have shrunk a bit in the water.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Oh my… the truth about his package has been revealed.

Mariner #2: The package was… stuffed with scraps of cloth… to make it look bigger.

Mariner #1: Cheeky, mischievous, and a bit disappointing, but amusing nonetheless.

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: And inside was a rolled-up pair of pants all along!

Mariner #1: Meant as a gift for the Princess’s husband, no doubt. But because of the situation, it seems she is giving it to Marco instead.

Mariner #2: Wait, which Marco?

Mariner #1: The not-dry Marco. The Marco without the polo.

Mariner #2: “Marco no Polo” is gibbering on about something again.

Mariner #1: He’s indicating himself.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: “Marco.” “Polo.”

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Hmm. (Pauses.) Oh, that must be his full name! Marco Polo!

Mariner #1: How silly of us!

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: He’s gibbering again.

Mariner #1: In “Italian.”

Mariner #2: The Emperor’s daughter is encouraging Marco Polo to repay us for saving his life with a gift from Europe.

Mariner #1: Saving his life? And she’s not being sarcastic?

Mariner #2: Not to blow my own horn, but I did play a key role in the rescue.

Mariner #1: If I could blow my own horn, perhaps I wouldn’t be so interested in foreign men with large organs.

Mariner #2: Hmm?

Mariner #1: I’m referring to my recently-damaged double-reeded musical instrument, the suona horn.

Mariner #2: Oh.

Mariner #1: What else would I be talking about?

Mariner #2: You do seem to be a very horny fellow, I suppose.

Mariner #1: I suspect your own innate horniness exceeds even my own.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: What shall we request as our reward from Marco Polo? Fine clothing? Gold?

Mariner #1: The idea of a large organ is very exciting.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #2: Yes.

Mariner #1: Yes.

Mariner #2: With a man who knows how to use it, of course.

Mariner #1: How would it be transported?

Mariner #2: We could use your ship, after it makes its delivery of the Emperor’s daughter and her entourage.

Mariner #3: Yes.

Mariner #1: Do you think my old junk is compatible with a large organ?

Mariner #3: No.

Mariner #2: It might take a bit of twisting and maneuvering, but I think it could work.

Mariner #1: Excellent. Let it be done.

Mariner #2: We will make beautiful music together.

Article © Peter Dabbene. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-07-31
Image(s) are public domain.
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