First Impressions: Marco Polo’s Imprint upon Human Geography

Authors: Judy Schaaf*, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Topics: Asia, Human-Environment Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: Marco Polo, medieval travels, European ideas about Asia
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 5:00 PM
Room: Studio 5, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


During the period of Mongol empire, Europeans traveled the Silk Roads, forming first impressions of the diverse peoples of Persia, Mongolia, India, and China. Traveling the Silk Roads on errands of conscience and of commerce—as ambassadors, tradesmen, and adventurers—they recorded their views of these new worlds. Although their experiences differed widely, their impressions have a consistency that created a European image of the Asian “other” that persisted even after the Renaissance expansion of European empire gave Europeans opportunity to revise it. Exploring the early development of the European idea of the Asian “other,” this presentation reviews classical conceptions, surveys early travel accounts and maps, and then focuses on China in Marco Polo’s Description of the World. Polo's book survives in more than 150 unique manuscripts and fragments. Widely distributed, translated and retranslated, the Description enlarged the European imagination, spurred exploration and trade, informed European foreign policy, and helped to put Asia, especially China, literally on the map, although extant maps suggest it required almost a century for the Description to influence cartography. Although primarily an eyewitness account, Polo’s book embeds, and sometimes contends with, classical conceptions and historical records. Polo associated with Tartar conquerors and did not actually examine indigenous cultures, but his Description represented China in enduringly influential ways. Polo was the first European to account for the distant Orient, truly to discover it for the West, and he made a lasting imprint on western popular conceptions of Asia and Asians.

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