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Marco Polo--Heroics or Hearsay?

A British librarian claims the legendary Italian never made it to China. By challenging one of history's great travel stories, she has stirred passions in both the East and West.

September 20, 1996|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Did librarian Frances Wood go too far when she suggested that one of history's most famous travelers may not have gone far enough 700 years ago?

The thought crossed Wood's mind when a distinguished Italian historian sidled up to her at a recent conference and archly predicted, "You will be killed."

Trouble began when Wood published a slim volume with a teasing but incendiary title: "Did Marco Polo Go to China?" She thinks he did not, describing her hunt for Polo as "a medieval mystery story" masked by cobwebs of literary embroidery across seven centuries.

"I simply wanted to separate the man, and such facts that can be established, from the myth. I knew that Marco Polo was a household name, but I was unaware that millions of people all over the world felt passionately about him and would be baying for blood," Wood said in her cluttered office at the British Library.

In challenging one of history's great adventure stories, Wood's book reflects long-standing academic doubts but has also captured popular imagination in both Europe and in China, catapulting her from reading room quiet to centerpiece of controversial seminars and talk shows.

Based on archival research across 20 years, Wood believes that the great traveler journeyed no further than Polo family trading posts thousands of miles west of China. Marco Polo was more adept at listening around the fire than tramping across terra incognita, she said. His book is mostly hearsay, Wood believes, although saying so has proved more incendiary than she ever imagined.

"I was amazed that people seemed aggressively upset and very predetermined to disagree. It surprised me because I always think that famous people are there to be looked at," said the 48-year-old head of the Chinese department at the library.

To her delight--and occasional dismay--Wood has achieved what many historians seek: to make the past seem alive and important to a general audience.

Publication of her book flooded the library switchboard earlier this year with calls from journalists near and far. "It's quite embarrassing if you work somewhere fairly quiet like a library and the switchboard is going berserk with calls from all of the world just for you."

Challenging a Hero

Wood has outraged historians in Italy and in China, countries in which Polo is a hero. Venice named its airport after a beloved native son. There's the Marco Polo bridge outside Beijing, and no tourist to the Chinese capital in the 1980s was ever allowed to miss the Marco Polo Carpet Shop at the Temple of Heaven. Across Asia, in tributaries of the storied Old Silk Road that linked West and East, Polo's name beckons modern travelers to restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops.

By contrast, Wood's hero-defiling has delighted Portuguese and Brazilian scholars.

"If Polo goes down, he takes Christopher Columbus with him, leaving the field to Portuguese explorers," she said with a grin.

Columbus carried a Latin edition of Polo's "Description of the World" with him to the New World. He scribbled notes in the margins but still got a wrong steer: Arriving in Cuba, Columbus, who was looking for India, believed that he had reached Japan.

In China, Wood found on a recent visit that even hotel workers knew who she was and why distinguished academics tut-tutted her passage. The workers would tease her: "Is this Marco Polo's suitcase? His umbrella?"

A 55-year-old American wrote from Seattle to proclaim himself the first person since the 13th century to have retraced Polo's journey from Venice to Beijing and to say he could refute all but one of Wood's reservations.

"I sometimes think it's a sort of male-female thing. For a lot of men, Marco Polo is a great hero they become attached to at the age of 6 or 7. If you question his role, they become terribly upset; as if you're being rude about their grandfather," Wood said one recent morning.

By training, her critics are quick to note, Wood is a Sinologist, not a historian. She has translated one novel from Chinese, and her four books about China include the exhaustive contemporary travelers' standby, "The Blue Guide to China."

Polo's own pioneer guide to China, as schoolchildren have been taught for generations, introduced the East to the West as surely as Columbus' voyages introduced the New World to the Old. Both, whatever their flaws, changed the shape of history.

Famous Travels

Probably written in 1298, scholars say, Polo's account of his 24 years abroad, 17 of them supposedly in China, is said to have been dictated to a writer of romances named Rustichello while the two men were prisoners in Genoa after their capture in an obscure sea battle between Venetian and Genoese forces.

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