Beyond Marco Polo: Italians in Old China

Almost every visitor to China knows about Marco Polo, the 13th-century Venetian explorer who traveled to what was then the city of Khanbaliq (today’s Beijing), and served in the court of Kublai Khan for 17 years. Whether Marco Polo made it all the way to the Khan’s capital or not is a debate only slightly less heated than the controversy of whether it was Italy who learned about pasta from the Chinese or, as some Italian partisans would have it, the other way around.

Certainly, Marco liked to tell a good story, and his literary collaborator Rustichello da Pisa was a noted writer of romances, so there’s every reason to think that The Travels of Marco Polo featured a fair share of exaggeration and hearsay. Not that it’s a dealbreaker: Polo wouldn’t be the last laowai to embellish his time in China for a good story and a possible book deal.

While Marco might be the best-known Italian to travel to China (or not), he was far from alone in making the long journey from that sunny Mediterranean peninsula to the Far East.