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.
Before getting round to the latest batch of Marco Polo episodes, I must add an additional study (in English) to the titles I recommended last time. The work is mammoth: Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, which was first published in 1948. Those who have heard of Needham’s book will utter a giant “of course.” Those who are new to the title will register disbelief at the size of the undertaking, which is in some ways indicative of the scope of Chinese society, including the years Marco Polo surveyed China for Kublai Khan.. First published in 1948 and planned to be “only” seven volumes, this work, compiled by a team of scholars under Needham’s supervision, quickly grew to several times that length. I can’t help but think of Needham, who lived from 1900 to 1995, as in some way the modern equivalent of Marco Polo. They both assembled great compendiums of knowledge—science, philosophy, mathematics, physics, and much more—and reflect the state of knowledge and understanding of the world at the time they lived. Marco Polo knew, perhaps, as much about the world, especially Asia, as anyone alive at the time, thanks to his twenty-four year-long sojourn and ceaseless curiosity. Needham, born in London and educated at Cambridge, knew as much or more about China than any other modern figure in the West. Both men tried as best they could to explain the East to the West. Anyone who wishes to learn about the real wonders Marco Polo experienced, from the printing press to gunpowder to ground glass, all unknown or very primitive in the west in his day, would benefit from consulting this multivolume extravaganza.
Up First: A recap of Episodes 6 & 7
Episode six of Marco Polo begins with flashback revealing that the woman we know as Kokachin the Blue Princess is in fact an impostor. The real princess committed suicide rather than subject herself to the wrath of the Khan’s empire, and an attendant seized the chance to become royalty.
Back in the present day, Marco confronts Kokachin, trying to figure out who she is and what she is hiding, and convinces her that she ought to trust him with delivering her jewels.
Marco and Byamba, the emperor’s bastard son, continue to try to figure out attempted assassination of Khan, and on their way Marco bids adieu to his branded father and uncle, who are banished from the city. The prime suspect in their investigation turns out to be Sanga, the tax collector who was executed by trampling in episode two for hiding the payments of linen he’d been receiving. While Marco tries to extract a history of Sanga’s travels before his death, Byamba compares the map he received in the last episode from the mysterious old man in the desert to some writing at Sanga’s house. Later Marco and Byamba question the finance minister, Ahmad, and the Khan’s vice regent, Yousef, neither of whom take kindly to being investigated.
In Xiangyang, Chancellor Jia Sidao is practicing his sadistic hobby of foot-binding. The Song empress mocks him—“tis a powerful man who injures little children”—but he is undeterred. Fed up with Jia’s antics, the empress attempts a second nullification of his powers by convincing the Song council to elect a new chancellor. Jia accepts the news with little grace: “You are an old woman with a dead husband and no power.” Later he sends word for Mei Lin, who is still in residence at the Khan’s palace, to assassinate Khan’s wife, the Empress Chabi, but her first attempt, using deadly lipstick meant to kill the empress with a kiss, fails when she is instead forced to kiss the concubine straddling Emperor Khan. Mei Lin, though, is determined, and a second dramatic attempt sees her killing guards and shooting arrows. She misses and is apprehended.
Another flashback opens episode seven, this one of a teenage Jia Sidao and Mei Lin. Mei Lin, it is revealed, has been offering her services to older men for a long time, largely to keep her brother alive after their parents died.
Back in the present, Mei Lin is brought before the court of the Khan. She pleads for mercy, claiming she’s merely been trying to save her daughter, currently in the possession of her malicious brother Jia. Empress Chabi nearly kills her on the spot, but she ultimately elects to keep her alive and use her to gain access to the Song court. The Khan is reluctant to appear soft by letting an attempted regicide go unpunished, but his wife convinces him of the merits of her plan: “Do not use a battering ram when an arrow will do.”
Later, Chabi sets herself the task of determining whether or not Kokachin (whom we know to be an impostor) is daughter-in-law material.
Using the information supplied by Mei Lin, the Khan sends Bayan, the blind martial arts instructor, and Marco on a mission to assassinate Jia and collect as much information on the Song rebels as possible. Jia makes a last feeble attempt to stay in power by delaying the coronation of the new chancellor, but it seems he has no more allies. He decides instead to just kill the new chancellor himself—no one seeming to question how a calligraphy pen found its way into the man's throat. Their struggle perfectly coincides with the arrival of Bayan at the Song court. He becomes briefly involved in a three way skirmish and slays a group of guards. The camera cuts, and the next we see of the two fighters, Bayan is heading home with Marco (and Mei Lin’s daughter) and Jia presides over the coronation of the young emperor while covered in blood.
While on the subject of Marco Polo mythology, let’s dispense with the myth that he brought pasta back from China to Italy. In fact, there was pasta in Venice, and all along the Silk Road, for hundreds of years before he embarked on his travels. He did, though, bring back the Chinese-inspired invention of paper money, revolutionizing trade, as paper money was much lighter and more portable than the gems and coins in general use at the time. He also described coal, though he had a hard time getting anyone in Venice to believe his stories of perpetually burning stones; instead, Europeans continued to burn
the much less efficient wood and peat. He also brought back descriptions of ground glass. Of what possible use could that be? For eyeglasses and for telescopes. Again, the real Marco had a difficult time persuading Europeans of their applications.
I’ve been waiting in vain for the Netflix series to mention these and other inventions (or did they go by when I nodded off—despite my best efforts?), and gnashing my teeth at the gloomy, pseudo-serious machinations of plots and characters (note to scenic designer: darkness does not equal profundity). The only bright spot, and I blush to say it, because as bright spots go it wasn’t all that much, was an implied lesson in physical love between two of Kublai’s women. This little aperçu of soft-core pornography appeared as though it had been plucked from a sexploitation epic to give the Netflix series, with its torpid, melancholy characters, a bit of a pulse. That in turn reminded me that the series has very little of interest to say about Kublai Khan’s remarkable wife Chabi, who was probably more popular with their subjects than the emperor himself, and who did much to facilitate his reign. The series occasionally makes gestures in Chabi’s direction, but as played by Joan Chen, she comes mainly off as a warrior princess who occasionally provides women to feed her husband’s insatiable sexual appetite.
Although women are depicted mainly in demeaning roles in the series, in reality, women exerted a great deal of influence in Mongol life. The real Chabi’s great gift was for placating the masses, and helping to keep her husband on his throne when all those around him were trying to depose him. It was Chabi who helped bring Buddhism, which had a political component, into government, and she who urged Kublai to treat the Chinese imperial family reasonably well so as not to inflame their many followers. Chabi also kept the nomadic Mongols from appropriating Chinese territory, which could have touched off a civil war. Last but not least, Chabi was a fashion trendsetter; her distinctive headpiece, the boghtagh, which resembled an upside-down boot, was copied by women all over China.
Although we know what both Chabi and Kublai Khan looked like, we have no likeness of Marco Polo, no sketch, not even a written description However, a careful reading of his travels gives some sense of the inner man, if only by implication. Again, the series misses this, but the young Marco Polo who set out from Venice was not quite the same person who returned a generation later. It’s clear from his descriptions of people, places, and things in the early chapters that he looked at the world as a conventional Christian did; he considered Buddhist practices, for instances, as “idolatry,” pure and simple.but in later sections of Polo’s Travels, after he’s been away from Venice for years, he regards various religious practices with a more appreciative mindset, and it becomes almost possible to consider the mature Marco Polo as a kind of Buddhist. I haven’t seen evidence of this transformation (or any other transformation) of Marco in the seires, despite seven hours of viewing. After all his travels, even his beard looks the same.
With Malcolm Nicholson.