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Marco Polo's Effects on the East and the West (Fall 2012)

            Venetian explorer, Marco Polo had a great impact on the area of what is now modern day China. Because of his exploration of the area, as well as many other areas in the East, such as Indonesia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and India, China began to experience Western culture. Traversing the Silk Road, Marco Polo was able to not only bring elements of Western culture to the East, but Eastern culture back to the West. Although Polo was not able to bring much westernization to China himself, he invoked a desire to future Europeans to engage in Eastern interactions. This was because upon Polo's return, he returned to Venice wearing eastern attire with "treasures" at hand from the East, and people nicknaming Marco Polo "a millionaire." (the China Tourism).  Both directly and indirectly, Marco Polo was able to bring about a monumental leap of exploration into  history. 

            There are many forces that drove this movement. Such forces include the curiosity of new ideas of the East, the foreseen potential for trade of technologies between the two cultures, geographical influence of desire of discovery of the capabilities of acquiring unattainable resources and products due to the vast lands that separate the two cultures, and lastly, economic and social interactions between the East and West. However, the main force that fueled this exploration movement was because of Marco Polo and "The Travels of Marco Polo". Bringing back many stories of the East, he invoked curiosity to many future adventurers, including Christopher Columbus.

            Initially, a number of Marco Polo's stories were not believed by the Europeans of the time. After being imprisoned during the Venetian-Genoese War, Marco Polo told his stories to his cellmate, who later documented Polo's accounts of his travels into a book, later entitled "The Travels of Marco Polo". This book was just as influential in invoking people's curiosity of the East than Marco Polo's return with "treasures". This book was not immediately able to "brainwash" people into exploring the unknown, but over time, it grew on people. It was even the most, if not one of the most, influential entities in Christopher Columbus's trek over the Atlantic.

            People responded to Marco Polo's return with curiosity, envy, and desire. People were curious about Eastern civilization and culture and envied Polo, desiring the "treasures" he had. This sparked the determined ones to travel and explore the unknown. One of these "determined ones” was Christopher Columbus. Columbus, too, wanted to travel to the East, but he figured that traversing the lands would be too dangerous. He then concluded that crossing the seas would be most effective. However, his travel was not what it was thought to be. After much time crossing the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus had finally landed. He thought he had landed in China, but he had actually landed in what is now the Bahamas. This discovery led to many explorers setting up colonies in this new land--the New World. This changed the life styles of not only the migrant settlers who moved to this new land, but also the nations who set up the colonies in the New World.

            Marco Polo brought back with him many things previously unseen by Europeans during that time. Polo brought back a new technology to the West--a unique navigation device that was first developed by the Chinese--the compass. With a compass at hand, the world of navigation and exploration would change for the Europeans, as they were now able to navigate both land and sea more easily and efficiently. This also was a stepping stone for topography and map making. Maps would be more accurate, and give a universal direction for navigation with respect to a compass. In addition to technology, Marco Polo brought back with him paper, paper currency,  porcelain, raw silk, ivory, jade, spices, and noodles. Among the most significant of these items was paper. With these new items, the Europeans were then able to, hundreds  of years later, develop an effective printing press, in which mass prints were able to be produced.   A common misconception is that Marco Polo brought back with him tea. Marco Polo,                    in fact, did not bring tea back with him from his expedition. Tea was only brought back to Europe much later. This probably arose because of Marco Polo's association with the              Silk Road. Marco Polo was among one of the firsts to travel across the Silk Road,                    and tea was acquired via the Silk Road, so putting the two together, many would conclude      this.

            The Mongols introduced to Marco Polo a very new and intriguing concept--paper currency. He thought this was a very surprising. How could you substitute essentially worthless paper for gold and silver? However, seeing how it effectively worked, Marco Polo said : "With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything. And I can tell you that the papers that reckon as ten bezants do not weight one." (Silkroad Foundation). The idea of     paper currency arose to lessen the burden of traveling merchants carrying clunky gold and   silver coins everywhere they went, making traveling for the merchants much more easy and efficient. 

            Before Marco Polo's travels, Europe believed they were the most prosperous society in the world. This was a premature thought though, for they did not even know of the existence of China and the Mongol Empire, which were much more complex societies than Europe was. Some places in China and the Mongol Empire even had indoor plumbing and the successful economic usage of paper money was utilized in society. This made sparked a fire in the Europeans--igniting a desire to advance more and more. The fire was so much that the Europeans would eventually take over China in terms of advancement during Europe's industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.

            Europe was not the only one that positively affected by Marco Polo's travels. Unsurprisingly, China, too, was affected in a positive manner. Marco Polo had introduced gunpowder to the Chinese. With this, the Chinese were able to utilize gunpowder to make not only fireworks, but military arms too. They were able to develop their military weapons from steel weapons and hand-combat weapons to more advanced arms. They were able to make ammunitions like fire lances, but more importantly, the Chinese were able to develop the rocket. Without the Chinese's invention of multi-staged rockets, it is possible that the future development of the space shuttle would not have occurred.

            With trade between Europe and China, the Europeans were introduced to citrus fruits, spices, and other newly seen goods. Having seen such goods like these, the Europeans started to buy these things from the Chinese. The Europeans also had goods of their own that the Chinese would buy. This was the symbiotic relation the two had with each other. The trade between the two would boost both economies, as it would also open up many jobs in both lands. The West had new materials to work with in cooking and the like, while the East had things like gunpowder, which opened up jobs to make armaments and fireworks. The introduction to these new items both positively impacted the West and East directly through economic income gain and through the opening of new jobs that would allow the poor to learn skills that no one yet knew how to perform in these jobs.

            Not only materialistic goods were introduced to China. Marco Polo tried to bring Christianity to the East, going through emperor Kublai Khan first. Khan was, surprisingly, all for Christianity. He deemed it as "good". Despite Kublai Khan's reputation for honoring all religions, the fact that he claimed "...truest and best the faith of the Christians... declares that it commands nothing that is not full of all goodness and holiness" (Bearcat). A great impact of Christianity upon China would not come about though. Before Christianity could gain momentum and spread throughout the East, the Mongol Empire had fallen to the Chinese. After this victory, China was to be  orthodox Confucian, under a new dynasty--the Ming Dynasty. Although Marco Polo's attempt to expand the Christian religion was a failure, his close network interactions with the Mongol emperor led to much prosperity for the East and the West.

            Marco Polo's interactions with Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan led to more interactions between the Europeans and the Chinese. Because of Marco Polo's travels, not only were people in Europe curious about the civilizations in the East, but the people in the East were curious about the civilizations in the West. The Chinese were always in favor of exploration of the West, dating back to the Han Dynasty (200 BC- 200AD) when Emperor Wu deployed diplomat Zhang Qian on a mission to explore the West. Prior to this, interactions between the East and West were only of economic activity though Central Asia. There were no direct interactions between the two cultures--only indirect ones. After Marco Polo's travels though, direct interactions were now occurring. Marco Polo, having been deployed on a mission to China by emperor Kublai Khan, was able to hold a number of government positions in China, such as ambassador and governor of Yangzhou, a city in eastern China, and established mutual diplomatic connections for Europe with the East. This was the first step of Western interactions with the East, setting up a precedent that would not make Europeans be seen as an unknown danger to the Chinese. Western merchants were now arriving in China. Their arrivals coincidentally were during the Tang Dynasty, a time of economic and cultural growth was at its prime. This furthered magnified the Chinese's growth as a civilization.

            The Silk Road was a huge factor in the future of European and Chinese interaction. On Marco Polo's first venture to the East with his father and uncle, they had to hurdle over the dangerous Gobi Desert. If he were to cross it again, the likelihood of surviving would not be too high. Instead, he traveled northward, around the desert, and came into contact with what would now be known as the Silk Road. This was an easier route to traverse than the Gobi Desert, and would also prove to be a more effective route than to sail the oceans to China. With the Silk Road, trade and interaction between the East and West would become more affluent and prospering.

            Marco Polo can be attributed to being the spark for the Age of Exploration. His book "The Travels of Marco Polo", proved to be the most influential factor in the many European adventurers exploring the world. People like Christopher Columbus, Magellan, and Gama, all were caught up with the curiosity of the unknown, and trekked to discover the undiscovered of which would be the homes of civilizations unseen to the Europeans before, including the Native Americans and Africans. The Age of Exploration started with Marco Polo and his own exploration to the East. 

            The interactions and future accounts of exploration succeeding Marco Polo's travels should all, if not mostly,  be attributed to Marco Polo himself. Without Marco Polo's courageous journey to the East, Europe, the Mongol Empire, and China would have undergone much different paths in history than they did in reality. The trade of culture, goods, and ideas between the East and West built not only each land's respective advancement in technology and as a society, but also the world as a whole. Marco Polo's trek was a monumental stepping stone to the progression of the industrial eras and national growth of many nations around the world, both inside and outside of Europe and Asia. 

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