Chinese Whispers

Was Marco Polo a ‘sexpat’?

25 min listen

In This Episode

When I recently came across a book review asking the question ‘was Marco Polo a “sexpat”?’, I knew I had to get its author on to, well, discuss this important question some more. The 13th century Venetian merchant Marco Polo’s account of China was one of the earliest and most popular travelogues written on the country. Polo spent years at the court of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, and whose family founded the Yuan dynasty in China.

My guest today, and the author of that book review, is the historian Jeremiah Jenne. Jeremiah has lived in China for over two decades, and he is also the co-host of the fascinating podcast Barbarians at the Gate, all about Chinese history. He has been doing a series of historical book reviews for the relatively newly established website China Books Review, and in re-reading The Travels of Marco Polo, he noticed that there was a lot of sex.

We talk about all of this, of course, but there’s a serious point here too. How much do Europeans observe when they go to China and how reliable are their accounts, understood and told through the perspective of the outsider? How much has Marco Polo’s portrayal of China moulded the western mindset on the country in the centuries since, and even today? And what does it say about the China of the 13th century that a trio of Venetian merchants could make it to the heart of the Mongol empire?

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