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Why Marco Polo Could not Speak Chinese
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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 language.

Yang quoted a historical document as saying that "none of the officials with the administration of Jianghuai Province (areas between today's Huaihe River and Yangtze River heavily populated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.

H. 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.


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