Hi all, today we're going to cover Netflix's Marco Polo Series and uncover how much it both relates and does not relate to the actual accounts of Marco Polo's travels.
Disclaimer: Our review is separated into three portions, the first being the portrayal of facts and actual events that happened within the Mongol Empire, contrasted with those within the Netflix Original - Marco Polo. This will sequentially be followed up by the significance that this disparity creates.
Firstly, we got to get all the facts right, and what better way to start than to introduce the two main characters of the show:
Kublai Khan (FACT)
Kublai Khan was the grandson of famed Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan who united the entire Mongolia. Following his grandfather’s footsteps, Kublai being a great conqueror himself conquered the whole of China to become the first Mongol emperor of China to form the Yuan dynasty. We are going to look at some of the series of events that led to this man’s incredible feat, being the first man of nomadic descendants, which the middle kingdom Han Chinese deem as barbarians to rule the whole of China.
The Quest For the Throne:
Great Potential: Kublai was trained in horseriding, archery and combat skills as of any Mongolian child. However, he proved to excel in it and moved on to be well versed in the art of warfare. After his elder brother Möngke ascended the throne as the Great Khan (Emperor of Mongolia) he was entrusted with the duty to rule over Northern China which he further expanded with several successful military campaign
Challenge for throne: After the death of his elder brother, Kublai was to become the successor of the throne. However, his younger brother Böke had consolidated power and challenged him for the throne. As such the competing claims sparked a civil war between the two factions, with Kublai eventually emerging victorious in 1264. Ariq Böke surrendered in Shangdu (also known as Xanadu) to Kublai, who spared his life.
From Conqueror to Ruler: Kublai had high tolerance for the Chinese culture, where he even embraced the Chinese culture and philosophies. As such he surrounded himself with Chinese advisors and mentors to teach and guide him in becoming a benevolent and wise ruler. He also expanded the trade between China and the Western countries, use of paper money and improved infrastructure.
Emperor of China: Kublai Khan was the first Mongolian Ruler to become the Emperor of China and saw the passing of the Song Dynasty and proceeded to establish the Yuan Dynasty - Where he ruled from Nadu, which is modern day Beijing.
Who was Marco Polo (FACT)
Marco Polo was the son of a merchant from Venetia. At the age of 17, he traveled with his father and uncle to China via the Silk Road, where he gained insights and experienced the different cultures and workings of the kingdoms on the way. When he finally reached China, he met Kublai Khan who then was already the ruler of most parts of China. After which, served in the Khan’s court as an official and confidant for 17 years, where he traveled and explored most parts of China before returning back to Venetia as a wealthy merchant - Famed for his travels and expeditions to the Eastern Regions of the world.
Relationship between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan: (FACT)
Kublai Khan himself took quite a liking for Marco Polo, being that Marco was not only a gifted linguist and master of four languages but he was also a fantastic conversationalist where he was able to describe and share tales of his travels, greatly engaging the Khan. As such the Khan bestowed him a high position and sent him on special diplomatic missions to neighbouring kingdoms of India and Burma. Later he was even appointed tax inspector of Yangzhou and official of the privy council. During the Khan’s later years, he reluctantly released Marco Polo and the kins back to Venetia with the understanding that their lives may be in danger should he pass away. This goes to shows how close and important Marco Polo was to the Khan.
How far from the facts did the Netflix Original "Marco Polo" Stray?
The TV Series and the inaccurate portrayals: (FICTION)
Introduction & Summary of Marco Polo (The TV Series) : The series features an outsider’s perspective and eyes into the various events that happened in Mongolia under the rule of Kublai Khan, from the eyes of Marco Polo. What we see in the TV series is a portrayal of a power struggle that was inherently fictional. The TV Series mimics a "Game of Thrones" like plot, while in actual fact none of these power struggles within the royal family existed.
Chronological Disparity: The chronological sequence of events within the show does not align with historical records. At the beginning of the series, the scene started with Marco Polo, his father and uncle presenting Kublai Khan with the Jerusalem holy oil that he requested previously. By this point, Kublai had already conquered most of China, including Xiangyang. The civil war between Ariq Boke (his younger brother) had also been downplayed and simplified, into a simple duel between the two, where Kublai won. We also observed an accentuation and hyperbole of the importance that Marco Polo played within the Mongolian Empire through the depiction of his effectiveness in the conquering of Xiangyang - Through the conveyance of the design of the french trebuchet , this depiction was false because the concept of the trebuchet was already introduced by muslim engineers within Kublai's court.
Cultural Disparity: Throughout the show we observed the segmentation of the mongols into two portions: the highly traditional Mongols who were traditionally proud nomads, and those that became indoctrinated by Kublai Khan's rule - The more modern, accepting Mongols who resided alongside people of a wide array of ethnicities. Karakorum was the traditional capital of the Mongol Empire where houses were things were traditionally more rural with a sacred culture being kept within the bounds of the capital, outsiders from other states were not welcomed as they were within Kublai's walled cities.
The Mongols were depicted to be peaceful people; who loved their revered Khan. Culture was sacred to them, dating back to old cultural practices such as the consumption of Airag (a traditional Mongolian Alcoholic Beverage) and the settlement of choosing a ruler through a Khanate - These depictions were accurate to some extent. It also, accurately depicts the reign of free belief - no dominant or fixed religion up till the 17th Century where Tibetan Buddhism became the dominant religion of Mongolia. It is however prevalent within the show that the Mongolians look up to the blue sky as a religious symbol, where the big blue sky was where all of then would end up upon death, this distorts the religious beliefs of the Mongolians because it is synthetically pasteurised to create distinction from other ethnicities - making the Mongols seem more mysterious and distinct.
Significance of the dissonance between Fact & Fiction: (Our Thoughts)
- A distortion of Mongolian Culture: We felt that the prevalence of disparity in the portrayal of fact and fiction within the show created dissonance between what the actual Mongolian Culture was, and what it was portrayed to be.
Significance: Cultural retention is becoming increasingly diluted as a result of globalisation and the interconnectedness of today's world. Marco Polo, the series augments and exacerbates this dilution of Mongolian Culture, underplaying many of the sacred practices that defined and distinguished the Mongolian empire.
2. Ridiculing the Mongolian Empire: The inherent power play that is fictionally created ridicules Kublai Khan and the Mongolian Empire - This is portrayed firstly though the ease of which a foreigner could enter the sacred Mongol Court; Culturally ridiculing the Mongols.
Significance: It is evidence enough to substantiate the detrimental impact of fiction on many of our cultures today. For the sake of entertainment and garnering of views to create popularity and in turn reap monetary and economic profits, production companies will not stop at culturally ruining ancient representations of civilisations that have preceded us by hundreds and thousands of years.
Though the television series and actual records of Marco Polo’s journey may differ from one another on certain levels, there are details of Marco Polo’s roles within Kublai's Court that have been accurately portrayed. In attempt to create an interesting and thrilling plot to appease viewers, the TV series has most certainly distorted many facts that have long been established. Indeed, Marco Polo was a famed merchant and traveler for his experience through the eastern world. These experiences however, should not have been conflated to equate Marco Polo contributing to the growth of Kublai Khan's empire on such an exorbitant level.
This is our critique of the TV series, we do hope that through the course of this blog post, you guys have learned more about Mongolian Culture and most importantly, learnt to separate facts and what they are, to fiction - what social media and modern society has compelled us to believe.
1: Yuan Dynasty: http://www.biography.com/people/kublai-khan-9369657
2: Civil War: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toluid_Civil_War
3: Chinese Culture: http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/chinese-and-taiwanese-history-biographies/kublai-khan
4: First Mongolian Ruler: http://www.history.com/topics/kublai-khan
5: Marco Polo: http://www.biography.com/people/marco-polo-9443861
6: Diplomatic Missions: http://www.biography.com/news/marco-polo-facts-netflix-series
7: Netflix Promotional Poster: http://netflixlife.com/files/2015/08/Marco-Polo.jpg
8: Kublai Khan (Image) : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kublai_Khan_square.jpg
9: Marco Polo (Image) :https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marco_Polo_-_costume_tartare.jpg
10: Group of Rural Mongolians (Image): http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bulstrode/mongolia/mongolia.html
11. The Khanate: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khanate
12. Airag (Mongol Food): http://www.mongolfood.info/en/recipes/airag.html
13. Karakorum (Capital): http://www.mongolia-travel-guide.com/mongolia-karakorum.html