Meanwhile in the Far East there had been a tremendous conquest of which Europe for a time knew nothing. Sweeping over Asia the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan had captured everything before them, boasting that their horses could run without stumbling where cities had stood. The Mongols were barbarous, but they had the ability to absorb culture swiftly. By their third generation the conquerors were building China up to a cultural height never seen before. For the first time in history the whole of Asia, with the exception of a few Persian and Arabian territories, submitted to a single king. As a result the trade routes were open.
About 1260, two Venetian merchants, brothers, traveling east of Constantinople chanced to fall in with a group of envoys who had been to Persia on a mission from the great Kubla Khan. They were easily persuaded to join in the adventure, for they had heard rumors of Cathay and were eager to see the wonders. Kubla Khan received them well. He listened to their doctrine of Christianity and thought that he saw in it a new method for subduing his people. Therefore he sent back the two merchants, begging them to ask the Pope for two hundred men of letters to help in their mission. So the two brothers returned to Venice; but the only person whom they could persuade to join their expedition was the young son of one of them. His name was Marco Polo.
Many years afterward in a prison in Genoa, Marco Polo met a literary hack of the more respectable variety, a man who was used to abridging and recasting the Arthurian romances which were then so much in vogue, and this man persuaded Marco Polo to dictate his adventures. The imprisonment was only a year long, but it profited the world with a tale which was not duplicated for six hundred years; and the sights which young Marco Polo had seen as he crossed the desert were as vivid to the man of fifty as they had been to the boy of seventeen. It was not alone his knowledge of geography and his flair for languages which gave him more knowledge than any other European of his time; but it was his intimate acquaintance with the innermost workings of the Chinese Empire. Had he not been taken into favor by Kubla Khan? Had he not gone on expeditions to distant provinces and come back successful? Had not he--young Marco Polo--been sole governor of the great city of Yang Chow?
It was a wonderful tale, a tale that never ceases to be wonderful and remains modest to the end. Fortunately for the world Marco Polo had the spirit of an anthropologist. For the wisdom and valor of Marco Polo, you must hunt in the Chinese annals; his own story tells only of the Chinese, their methods of trading, their money, their customs. His account was too true to be believed. The priest who ministered to Marco Polo when he was over seventy and in his last illness asked him to confess his exaggerations. And Marco Polo, dying, said, "I have not told the half of what I have seen."
Slowly the maps began to indicate his travels, and other men began to follow where he had gone. The travelogues of these wanderers are far more exciting than any modern adventure story. They have all been gathered and edited by Sir Henry Yule under the title of Cathay and the Way Thither. No doubt the editor's humor and sympathy add much to their charm, but in themselves they might be described as was another far more fanciful tale, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but these are stranger than both."
Even before Marco Polo started there had been a general feeling among the prelates of Europe that the Tartars were anxious to be converted to Christianity--a conviction which arose from nothing but desire and tried belatedly to find roots for itself in the fabulous story of Prester John. Nevertheless from time to time we find records of some lone prelate rounding the Indian coast, stopping at Sumatra (where one man at least really thought he had found Paradise) and reaching Cathay. Or a group will set out to cross the desert, and one or two arrive, worn out by their travels, but steadily pursuing their mission, and sending letters back to the Pope for help. They must have been extraordinary men to set out as they did, and such valor is not without its effect in any land. The fact is, that having started on a completely false assumption, they then proceeded to make it true. A surprising number of Mongols were converted to the Christian faith.
On one occasion, about 1328, the last of the Christian missionaries in Cathay died. Then the Khan himself undertook to send an embassy to the Pope, "Lord of the Christians where the Sun goes down," requesting that there be frequent messengers of exchange and Friars sent to the desolate Christian flock. The return embassy was received with great kindness and courtesy. The Khan lavished his wealth upon them, so that the impecunious Europeans were driven to hard mental arithmetic before they could write home how much their host must have spent in their behalf.
It is good to record that there is not one of the genuine travelers of this period who does not tell the same tale of the Chinese. They are full of praise for the Chinese arts (surpassed by none--no not one nation--throughout the world), and for the amazing civilization, where traveling was safe even for a foreigner, because criminals were fingerprinted, the rogue's gallery sketched, and no unjust man ever escaped.
No wonder adventurers wanted to go to China! By the middle of the fourteenth century one man had made a sort of tourist guidebook to Cathay, listing the towns and the methods of selling goods, and telling just how the customs man should be tipped, what sort of a beard a traveler should wear, and recommending the kinds of guides (and the kinds of women) who would make the most suitable traveling companions.
Still in Europe, the rumors were uncertain. One or two of these men mention Marco Polo as the greatest of them all, but most had never heard of him. It was a long time before his fame spread, and two hundred years had passed before his tales were really believed. In the meantime the Mongol Empire had fallen, the trade routes were closed, and the few missionaries sent out from Avignon disappeared forever into darkness. The only possible way to China was through the west.