It was not strange that Marco Polo (1254-1324), an Italian traveler
who had stayed in China for 17 years, could not speak Chinese,
since he had been here during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when
Mongolian nobles governed.
Yang Zhijiu, a history professor at Tianjin-based Nankai
University, known for his academic study on Marco Polo, noted that
though emperors of the Yuan Dynasty did appoint some officials of
Han ethnic group to strengthen Mongolian rule, these low ranking
officials were not able to improve the status of the Chinese
Yang quoted a historical document as saying that "none of the
officials with the administration of Jianghuai Province (areas
between today's Huaihe River and Yangtze River heavily populated
with people of Han ethnic group) knew how to write".
"Even Mongolians at that time could not write in Chinese," he said,
"how could today's people expect Marco Polo, a foreigner from afar,
to understand Chinese and write in that language?"
Marco Polo came to China with his father and uncle in 1275. "The
Travels of Marco Polo", a widely known travel record allegedly
taken by the traveler, cause debate among today's scholars.
Polo noted in his book that he knew four languages, and their
alphabets and ways of writing. But he did not specify which the
four languages were.
Most of the names of Chinese places mentioned in the travel notes
were written in Mongolian, Persian, or Turkish. For example, Marco
Polo wrote Lugouqiao Bridge in southern Beijing as "Pulisanghin",
meaning "stone bridge" in Persian.
Yule, a famous British researcher of the travels, deduced that
Marco Polo probably used Persian, a common language among
foreigners of the Yuan Dynasty, when he communicated with these
foreign guests of Yuan emperors.
Yang assumed that the four languages that Marco Polo understood
were Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish.
That Marco Polo did not understand Chinese was a pity, resulting
from the situation in China at the time. Yang stressed that it did
not prevent Marco Polo from being a friendly envoy from Italy.