Throughout our study of Marco Polo’s Travels thus far, we have heard of the many places Marco Polo has journeyed to while serving under the great emperor of the Tartans, Kubilai Khan. Because Marco Polo was gathering information about these provinces to relay back to the Great Khan, it seems as if every description of a place somehow relates back to the glory of their great ruler. These descriptions make it obvious that Marco Polo’s account was slightly biased toward what Kubilai Khan wanted to hear, but up until Chapter 3, we have no significant information about who this Kubilai Khan really is, besides the fact that he is the ruler of a vast empire. Chapter 3 provides us with more information about the identity of the Great Khan. The chapter begins by stating its purpose: to convince the reader that Kubilai Khan was the greatest ruler to ever live. In a way, this purpose is somewhat fulfilled. Marco Polo discusses the many achievements of Kubilai Khan, including his successes in battle, his ability to put down rebellions, his great palaces and many riches. Kubilai Khan is described as a great and powerful ruler, but also one who cares about his subjects, through his charity and almsgiving to the poor, as well as his fair treatment of his subordinates. However, throughout the many anecdotes told to describe the Great Khan, there are several that seem to characterize him as not so great. These include the stories of his many wives and mistresses, as well as the corruption caused by one of his close subordinates, Ahmed.
Aside from his four legal wives, Chapter 3 also describes the Khan’s many mistresses who are chosen by his emissaries. These emissaries are sent out to certain provinces where they select the most beautiful women according to the Khan’s specific “standard of beauty.” The emissaries thoroughly inspect these women, and those who are chosen are taken from their homes and families and brought to the Khan, who then chooses the women he approves of to be his mistresses. In this way, Kubilai Khan treats women as objects of sexual pleasure, as well as takes them away from their homes and families. For someone who’s supposed to be the greatest ruler to ever live, Kubilai Khan’s treatment of women doesn’t seem to put him in a very favorable light. In addition to this, Kubilai Khan also allows corruption to occur in his government through Ahmed, a man “who surpassed all the rest in his authority and influence over the Great Khan,” so much that the Khan gave Ahmed the free hand to basically do whatever he wanted. Because of this, Ahmed could cause the death of anyone who hated, as well as reward with government jobs anyone who would hand over their daughters to be his mistresses. The fact that Kubilai Khan allowed this to happen doesn’t seem to support his characterization as a great ruler either.
One might wonder why Marco Polo spent the entire book up to this point describing the greatness of Kubilai Khan, only to later reveal details about his personal life and corruption within his government that undermine his greatness as a ruler. While the previous two chapters reveal information that Marco Polo gathered for the Khan, this chapter seems more geared toward Marco Polo’s western audience as a source of entertainment. This audience probably enjoyed hearing the scandalous details of Kubilai Khan’s private life, details that normally aren’t revealed about rulers.
Another element to support the idea of this western audience is the discussion of religion in Chapter 3. While Kubilai Khan is described as being painstakingly impartial to the different religions practiced in his empire, it is revealed that he actually favors the Christian religion, but hasn’t converted because he doesn’t want to upset his subjects of other religions. This seems like another appeal to Marco Polo’s western audience in Europe, where many people practiced Christianity. These Europeans probably would have been more likely to appreciate Marco Polo’s anecdotes about the Khan if they had this sense of familiarity, knowing that this foreign ruler believed in the same Christian God as them.
In my opinion, there are several details about Kubilai Khan in Chapter 3 that seem to support Marco Polo’s attempts to appeal to his western audience in Europe. What do you believe is the significance of these stories and do they reveal anything about Marco Polo’s Travels as a whole?