Xanadu: Marco Polo and Europe’s Discovery of the East
For most of us in the West, it is, famously, inextricably, Coleridge’s opium-inspired poetry that hovers like a Romantic spirit over Xanadu:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
But Xanadu exists besides the poetry. In another world, it is a place called Shangdu, 170 miles north of Beijing, in Inner Mongolia. Thus the puzzle: how to separate the prosaic reality of a location from its poetic existence? How does West meet East truly?
A few writers have taken up the challenge of this puzzle before, inspired by Coleridge’s soft deceptions. William Dalrymple did so with In Xanadu, which is now widely regarded as one of the contemporary classics of travel writing. John Man takes up the challenge again against the beautiful, bounding lie with this immensely readable historical account. But the beautiful liar he contests is not so much Coleridge – it is the Father of the man in the case, Marco Polo. And his travel is not into the present, but into the past.
Combining the roles of travel writer, historical detective, tracker and reader, Man retraces the steps of the famous thirteenth-century Venetian that first introduced Europe to Central Asia and China. The focus of his work is Polo’s encounter with Kublai Khan and his expedition is conducted against the failures and ellipses of Western texts and knowledge, of Euro-centrism. For, firstly, Polo’s Il Milione lacks any authoritative text and has a notorious and frustrating brevity, as we learn through Man’s journey. So much is missed out, which only experience may tell. And the western text fails even into the present. On one occasion, Man wishes to see a lake as depicted by Google Earth. He arrives, looks about. He is astonished. There is no lake. The reality behind the image is that global warming has robbed the land of the water. Google Earth is at least five years out of date.
Man’s retracing of Marco’s steps across Shangdu and Beijing is not only a remarkable exercise in historiography, but an intoxicating attempt to outline the qualities of the explorer and the Emperor, the enduring influence of the dreams of the former and the true greatness of the latter. Kublai Khan emerges from the book as an inspirational, multi-cultural leader. He was the richest and most powerful man in the world. His achievements, including his contribution to a Mongol-China alliance and ‘his stately pleasure dome’, a cutting edge feat of architectural ingenuity which Man examines at some length, show that his rule was aptly said to accord ‘ to the will of Eternal Heaven’. Marco Polo emerges in Man’s work as the sensuous lover of women, a character in a fairy story that is whisked away from life as a lonely orphan into a strange world of magic and beauty. Man embellishes on his romantic character with a suggestion that he had a secret marriage in Kublai’s empire, a ‘family story’ he hears from a modern-day Don Quixote claiming to be his ancestor.
Man’s achievement is to breathe life into the fascinating adventure of Marco Polo’s encounter with Kublai Khan and the East while maintaining the discipline of the historical detective. If, in the end, all the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together completely, if he does not tear away the veil upon every mystery, then this is no matter. For the effort Man has made – his sympathy and his understanding – are impressive.