Netflix is billing its newest original series, Marco Polo, as one of the most lavish television shows ever produced, at a cost of $90 million for ten episodes. The series is also the streaming service’s first real foray into the world of history. Lapham’s Quarterly asked Polo biographer Laurence Bergreen, author of Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, to recap and respond to each episode.
My eyes are rolling, my mind is reeling, my brain is numb. After watching five hours of Netflix’s Marco Polo I’m not at all persuaded the series is as entertaining as its makers seem to think it is, let alone reasonably informative or accurate. The yarn’s flailing attempts to devise an adventure story around Marco Polo confirm my suspicion that actual historical events are generally far more interesting, quirky, and fantastic than the musty fictions filmmakers come up with. As the series makes apparent, Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, is the truly interesting figure here, not Marco Polo, and Kublai makes the plot go ‘round. The real Kublai was more sophisticated and memorable by far than the two-dimensional figure on the screen. It’s hard to tell from this series, but he’s one of the most important leaders in global history. During the thirty-four years of his reign—from 1260 to 1294—he founded the Mongol dynasty in China, which, to use a wild but perhaps not inaccurate analogy, would be equivalent to founding the Inuit dynasty in North America. During the years of his reign, his empire was the largest in the world, and some say it was the largest ever.
Compared to Kublai’s power, influence, and vision, Western leaders of the same era—including popes and heads of state—were small potatoes. Europe, as you may know, was embroiled in the Crusades at the time, while the Mongol empire was advancing in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Kublai expediently combined Mongol might and Chinese sophistication in an extraordinary blend. Yes, there were concubines, and concubines make great television, but the Mongols were perhaps the first culture to devise a coded language used to communicate official documents across their vast empire, and to develop a version of the pony express to traverse it—there was no other way, as horses were the fastest means of transportation. All of this happened during Kublai’s reign, and could have affected Marco Polo some way if the series makers had decided to delve into the history.
Up First: A Recap of Episodes 4 and 5
At the end of the previous episode, Marco’s curiosity gets the best of him. When he peeks into Kokachin the Blue Princess’ hiding spot, which contains bags filled with silk garments, he finds (and is bitten by) a snake.
Recovering from the snake bite, Marco fantasizes about the Blue Princess and awakens when Khan’s son Jingim is sent by the Khan to check on his health. Barely able to walk, Marco rushes to warn the Blue Princess that snakes are finding their way into her hidden bags. Za Bing, the princess’s ogre of a bodyguard, turns Marco away, but not without revealing he is a eunuch and making a pass at Marco: “Have you ever sampled the third sex, Latin?”
Marco is interrupted by the arrival of his father and uncle, who say they are coming to pay tribute to the Khan, though we later find out they’re in town to smuggle various valuables out of the Khan’s territory. Before their crime is discovered, Marco returns to see the mysterious man in the teahouse who purchased the Blue Princess’ necklace from a horseman; Marco thinks this horseman stole the princess’s necklace from her hiding place. In addition to buying stolen jewelry, the man in the teashop is perpetually randy, greeting Marco by saying, “Your chest is puffed. In this place that’s what the whores do when they want to get fucked.” Marco is having none of this, and so he beats up the fellow without much trouble and stabs an antler into his shoulder. After this Marco gets the information he wants (the location of the horseman), but threatens to return if the information is false. “Please do,” whimpers his opponent. Marco follows things back to horseman who sold the jewelry, but is arrested (his father’s hidden goods were just discovered) before he can land more than a few blows on the jewel thief. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the horseman, named Tulga, and the princess are old pals and in cahoots. She hides jewelry, and he recovers and sells it.
At the Khan’s court it is announced that the Song are offering a parlay. When Jingim and Ahmad (the finance minister) arrive to meet the Song, chancellor Jia Sidao is absent. It turns out Jia had no idea about the parlay mission until his concubine sister (and spy) Mei Lin informs him. The Song empress is behind it, in an attempt to disempower Jia. The empress’ ambassadors agree to pay tribute to the Khan in exchange for a cessation of aggression. Episdoe four ends with a montage of Mei Lin and the Khan’s wife, Chabi, practicing the art of sexually pleasing the Khan with each other, the Song ambassadors being slaughtered by Jia’s henchmen, and the chancellor Jia telling his niece a fairy tale about foot-binding before breaking her feet in his hands. Marco is released from prison and is told it is now his job to determine his father’s punishment.
At the opening of episode five we discover that assassins are on their way to kill the Khan. When they break in and land a poisoned dart in the emperor’s neck, Marco uses his hard-earned kung fu skills to fight off the assailants until Bayan, Khan’s blind martial-arts master, and Byamba, the emperor’s bastard son, arrive and subdue them. The poisoned Khan is unconscious and Jingim and Ahmad are furious. Suspecting that the Song were behind the attack, they argue they must go to war immediately. Marco chimes in that he knows of the famous “hashshashin,” a renowned group of mercenary assassins, and volunteers to see if they are behind it. He and Byamba are sent on the mission by Jingim, who cheerfully expects they will not survive.
In Xiangyang, chancellor Jia Sidao is able to make the slaughter of the Song ambassadors look like the work of the Mongols. No questions are asked, and Jia is given control of the army. Meanwhile, Jingim discovers Jia’s plan and finally caves to Ahmad’s guidance that they at least prepare for war. Yousef confronts Ahmad about his enthusiasm for war, cautioning, “Ego, not armies, destroys empires.” Before the infighting gets any worse, the great Khan recovers and gives command for his armies to muster.
Marco and Byamba’s quest to find the source of the assassins goes well until they are cornered in a trading house after asking for opium from the famous old man who controls the “gates to paradise.”
In the desert Marco and Byamba smoke opium and Marco falls into a dreamlike state in which he alternates between fantasies about Kokachin and an orgy. When he wakes up he meets the old man, who, without much danger or intrigue, gives Marco a piece of evidence about who sent the assassins. On their way back, Byamba offers Marco a chance to escape, cautioning him that if the Khan is dead he will have no friends in the capital. “Are we not friends?” asks Marco, who seems to think his future lies in the Mongol empire rather than in Venice. After their return, Marco pleads with Kublai Khan to consider pardoning his father. The Khan lets them off easy: Marco personally brands them and the episode ends.
A few Kublai basics: he was a grandson of Genghis Khan, and succeeded his older brother Möngke in 1260 before defeating Ariq Böke, his brother, in a civil war that ended in 1264. Disunity constantly threatened his empire, which stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea and from Siberia to Afghanistan—in all, about a fifth of the inhabited world. Kublai’s empire came to be known as the Yuan dynasty, which included Mongolia, China, Korea, and other regions. In 1279, the Yuan army conquered the Southern Song dynasty, meaning Kublai was the first non-Han emperor to conquer all of China: an incredible accomplishment.
During his long reign, Kublai also presided over an expansion of science and technology, the result of his importing and supporting Muslim mathematicians and scientists. No fewer than thirty Muslim officials served at Kublai’s court, and he appointed no fewer than eight Muslim governors to the dynasty’s twelve administrative districts. His support of Muslim scholars and astronomers led to the construction of an observatory, and Muslim astronomers set about correcting flaws in the Chinese calendar. Then there were the Muslim cartographers who produced accurate maps of the Silk Road that were helpful not only to Mongols but to merchants everywhere. At the same time, Muslim physicians built hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai, and Muslim mathematicians brought Euclidean geometry, trigonometry, and Arabic numerals to China.
There was more, but you get the idea: Kublai oversaw an impressive range of changes to China—military, political, scientific, and mathematical—in and around those interludes with concubines.
There are a few books I’d recommend that discuss this remarkable period, books that go way beyond the rather limited aims of the Netflix series. Probably the best biography is Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times by Morris Rossabi, which provides a modern, integrated overview. The same author has also written Modern Mongolia, which provides a survey of Mongolia today. Also of interest is Jeremiah Curtin’s The Mongols: A History, a particular favorite of Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote the foreword. Originally published in 1908, this remains a robust and intriguing survey for the general reader. See also John Man’s biography, Kublai Khan. I would also recommend Frances Wood’s The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, an illustrated and scholarly introduction to the phenomenon and period, filled with intriguing observations about Marco Polo no less than Kublai.
These books may well spoil the Netflix series for you, because once you read them, or even skim them, you’ll realize how much more there is to be said and appreciated about this enthralling era. And don’t forget Marco Polo’s Travels, which are available in many editions.
With Malcolm Nicholson.