“If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining it, and 5 minutes solving it” – Albert Einstein
Long ago a rich Arab was nearing death. He wanted to bequeath all his worldly possessions to his three sons, born to three different mothers. Since the sons were young, he wanted a wise man to look after them and his possessions. To find that wise man he devised a plan. He called his sons and relatives of his three wives to his room. He told them to divide his possessions among the three sons soon after his death.
One elderly relative pointed out that everything the rich man possessed was divisible by three except the 17 camels.
All remained silent, waiting for an answer from the dying man.
The rich man said: “Yes, I know that it is a problem. I want my 17 camels divided in the following proportions: My eldest son shall have half of them, my second son shall have one-third, and my youngest son shall have one-ninth.“
There was a murmur among those present in the room.
“I also want a wise person to administer my possessions and be the guardian of my sons,” the dying man said. “If there is a wise person amongst you who could solve this problem of dividing the 17 camels in the ratio I have bequeathed, then let him be the guardian.”
A few days later, the rich man died after writing his will, leaving his three sons and relatives of his three wives confounded.
The relatives approached the Sultan. Even in the Sultan’s court there was no one clever enough to solve the old man’s request.
A lot of suggestions came from various quarters. One minister suggested dividing the camels after they produced offsprings. Another suggested selling the camels and then dividing the proceeds among the three sons. The learned old judges of the Sultan’s court told the Sultan to declare the will void because it was inexecutable.
Then the court jester raised his hand.
“What do you suggest?” the Sultan asked.
“Your highness, if we think that there is no solution, we won’t be able to find any. The first step in solving any problem is to believe that there is a solution.”
“So, what should we do?” the Sultan asked.
“Why not we ruminate on this vexing problem for a week and then see whether we can come up with a solution,” the court jester replied.
“I think this clown is correct. We will meet again after a week and find out whether anyone comes up with a good solution.”
After a week all assembled at the Sultan’s court. But no one came forward with a solution.
The court jester approached the Sultan and said he has a solution. Everyone laughed. The court jester too laughed along with them.
The court jester smiled and said, “I will add your camel to the flock of the dead man. So, we now have 18 camels. The eldest son gets one-half of the flock, which is nine. The second son gets one-third, which amounts to six. The third son should get one-ninth that is two. So, nine plus six plus two amounts to 17. That will leave just one camel, the 18th camel, which is yours and I return it to you.”
Everyone at the court, including the Sultan marveled at the wisdom of the jester. Without any hesitation, they chose him to be the guardian to the dead man’s three sons.
So, whenever a challenging problem confronts you, always remember this story of the 18th camel. Since there is always a solution to any problem emulate the court jester and try to come up with an innovative solution.
Sometimes back I came across on Facebook the following thought-provoking conversation between a father and his son working for an IT company. It was in Tamil. I have embellished it for your reading pleasure.
Dad: “By the way, what do people working in IT companies do?”
Son: “Why do you ask?”
Dad: “Because I see them strutting about like the peacocks – aloof and serious.”
Son: “Appa (Dad), do you include me also in your remark?”
Dad: “In a way, yes. Is it because you guys earn hefty salaries?”
Son: “Appa, these westerners, especially the Americans, want everything done in a jiffy. And, for this, they are ready to spend any amount.”
Dad: “Yes. Yes. Loaded as they are, they can afford to spend on such things.”
Son: Almost all companies and banks in the US, UK, and other European countries are ready to spend any amount to develop software to do this thing or that thing. We call them ‘clients’.”
Son: “The IT companies have their offices and personnel in those countries to sniff out such clients who are ready to dole out heavy amounts. We call such personnel ‘Pre-Sales Consultants’, ‘Sales Consultants, etc.”
Dad: “What do your sniffers do?”
Son: “On approaching a potential client, our consultants will first introduce our company. They will highlight the pros where we excel more than our competitors.”
Dad: “So, your consultants will cast the bait and wait for the fish to bite!”
Son: “Yes. While nibbling the bait, the potential client will ask 1001 questions. They will want to know whether we can do this, do that and so on.”
Son: “Our Consultants will assert that our programmers can develop whatever they want. They will eulogize the members of our IT personnel as demigods who can create any kind of software for quick and efficient conduct of their business.”
Dad: “Then, you are a demigod?”
Son: “Hired as consultants at exorbitant salaries, it is their duty to say so.”
Dad: “What educational qualifications should a consultant have?”
Son: “Most of them are highly qualified MBA, MS, and such other degree holders.”
Dad: “What! Do you need people with such high qualifications to just say ‘can do’?”
Son: “Yes. Their qualifications carry much-needed weight to inveigle a potential client.”
Dad: “And then what? Will the potential client transform into a loyal client?”
Son: “Appa, it is a bit difficult to predict. There is a lot of competition in the IT field. Like our firm, other IT companies in India and other eastern countries too would have approached the potential client.
Dad: “So, how will you secure the project?”
Son: “Here comes the power of persuasion. Our consultants will promise the potential client that members of our software development team being demigods would complete their project in 60 days what in reality would take more than a year to complete.”
Dad: “How can a project that would take a year to complete be accomplished in just two months? Would it be possible even if they work 24 hours a day? Doesn’t the promise amount to cheating?”
Son: “I won’t call it cheating because, during those 60 days, the client would be hazy about what the real needs are, neither will we be. Even so, we will deliver ‘a completed project’ in 60 days.”
Dad: “Then what will happen?”
Son: “The client will moan and say ‘This is not what we wanted’. They will then demand that we incorporate this, that, and so forth.”
Dad: “And, then…”
Son: “Our consultants will ask them to raise a ‘CR’.”
Dad: “A CR?”
Son: “Change Request.”
Dad: “What does that mean?”
Son: “Our consultants will tell the client that during the stipulated 60 days our company had accomplished work for the amount paid, and if the client requires anything else, then the client will have to pay extra.”
Dad: “Will the client agree?”
Son: “Yes. The client has to agree. Can you face the world with a half-done haircut?”
Dad: “Ok. Now tell me what your company does once they secure a project.”
Son: “First, we will form a team for the project. A Project Manager will head the team.”
Dad: “That means, the person appointed as the Project Manager will know every aspect of that project.”
Son: “Not at all. The Project Manager knows nothing of what the programmers under him do.”
Dad: “If so, what is his work?”
Son: “If any of us make a mistake, we will point our finger at the Project Manager. He is the proverbial Redeemer, ‘The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world‘, the martyr, and the scapegoat. He is always under stress wondering who in the team might be next trying to bury him. “
Dad: “Poor fellow.”
Son: “The success or failure of a project is in the hands of the Project Manager. If it is a success, the team gets the accolade, but if it fails, then he gets the boot. “
Dad: “I pity the poor soul.”
Son: “If we have any problems, we approach him.”
Dad: “Will he solve your problems?”
Son: “What! Solve our problems? Never. The company pays him to shake his head in the affirmative and mumble, ‘I fully understand your problem‘. It’s like you shake your head before Amma (mom).”
Dad: “I am glad to know that you at least accept me as the manager of this house. Carry on.”
Son: “Under the Project Manager are the Tech Lead, Model Lead, Program Developers, Software Testers, etc.)”
Dad: “You come under the category of…”
Son: “Developer. Most developers are from Tamilnadu, Andhra, and Karnataka.”
Dad: “What do the Testers do?”
Son: “The sole object of the Testers is to find fault with the work of the developers.”
Dad: “What! Your company pays Testers to find fault in the work of others?”
Dad: “So, with the combined efforts of all these staff, the project would be easy to complete, isn’t it?”
Son: “It’s not so. Only the developers and the testers work. Others, from my point of view, just idle.”
Dad: “Will you complete the project before the due date?”
Son: “Of course not. It would be a shame if we complete the work by the due date and it would rather be better to commit suicide because the management would think the work is just simple and start the process of retrenching.”
Dad: “But, won’t the client question the company about the time lag in completing the project?”
Son: “Yes. The client will! But, we will counter the client by saying, the computers they gave us were dusty; their staff coughed during the team meets infecting our staff; inclement weather; unpleasant working environment; toilets not clean; cobwebs on the ceiling, etc., and flabergast the client.”
Dad: “And then…”
Son: “The confused client, with no other option left, will give us some more time to finish the project.”
Dad: “And will you complete the project in time and hand it over to the client?”
Son: “Not at all. If we do that, then half the computer savvy people in our country will have to beg on the streets.”
Son: “A few weeks before handing over the completed project, we will stage a scene before the client. We will throw a hint that we had accomplished something stupendous in our project that only our developers could understand and manage.”
Son: “Like a new bride, the flabergasted client will beg us to not to leave and will request us to provide them a few of our developers who could stay with them to run and take care of the project. This additional process called ‘Maintenance and Support‘ will be an ongoing project for years to come.”
Dad: “Now, I understand the workings and strategies of an IT company. It’s not only marrying a woman, but also maintaining her for an indefinite period in the future!”
Do you know how life changes when a young couple decides to become young parents? Do they think it boils down to adding more commitments and costs? Or do you already know about the emotional toll and everything it entails? Here’s a story that elucidates it all.
“We are sitting at lunch one day when my daughter casually mentions that she and her husband are thinking of “starting a family.”
“We’re taking a survey,” she says half-joking. “Do you think I should have a baby?”
“It will change your life,” I say, carefully keeping my tone neutral.
“I know,” she says, “no more sleeping in on weekends, no more spontaneous vacations.”
But that is not what I meant at all. I look at my daughter, trying to decide what to tell her. I want her to know what she will never learn in childbirth classes.
I want to tell her that the physical wounds of child bearing will heal, but becoming a mother will leave her with an emotional wound so raw that she will forever be vulnerable.
I consider warning her that she will never again read a newspaper without asking, “What if that had been MY child?” That every plane crash, every house fire will haunt her.
That when she sees pictures of starving children, she will wonder if anything could be worse than watching your child die.
I look at her carefully manicured nails and stylish suit and think that no matter how sophisticated she is, becoming a mother will reduce her to the primitive level of a bear protecting her cub. That an urgent call of “Mom!” will cause her to drop a soufflé or her best crystal without a moments hesitation.
I feel that I should warn her that no matter how many years she has invested in her career, she will be professionally derailed by motherhood. She might arrange for childcare, but one day she will be going into an important business meeting and she will think of her baby’s sweet smell. She will have to use every ounce of discipline to keep from running home, just to make sure her baby is all right.
I want my daughter to know that every day decisions will no longer be routine. That a five-year-old boy’s desire to go to the men’s room rather than the women’s at McDonald’s will become a major dilemma. That right there, in the midst of clattering trays and screaming children, issues of independence and gender identity will be weighed against the prospect that a child molester may be lurking in that restroom.
However decisive she may be at the office, she will second-guess herself constantly as a mother.
Looking at my attractive daughter, I want to assure her that eventually she will shed the pounds of pregnancy, but she will never feel the same about herself.
That her life, now so important, will be of less value to her once she has a child. That she would give herself up in a moment to save her offspring, but will also begin to hope for more years, not to accomplish her own dreams, but to watch her child accomplish theirs.
I want her to know that a cesarean scar or shiny stretch marks will become badges of honor.
My daughter’s relationship with her husband will change, but not in the way she thinks.
I wish she could understand how much more you can love a man who is careful to powder the baby or who never hesitates to play with his child.
I think she should know that she will fall in love with him again for reasons she would now find very unromantic.
I wish my daughter could sense the bond she will feel with women throughout history who have tried to stop war, prejudice and drunk driving.
I want to describe to my daughter the exhilaration of seeing your child learn to ride a bike.
I want to capture for her the belly laugh of a baby who is touching the soft fur of a dog or cat for the first time.
I want her to taste the joy that is so real it actually hurts.
My daughter’s quizzical look makes me realize that tears have formed in my eyes. “You’ll never regret it,” I finally say. Then I reached across the table, squeezed my daughter’s hand and offered a silent prayer for her, and for me, and for all the mere mortal women who stumble their way into this most wonderful of callings.
Please share this with a Mom that you know or all of your girlfriends who may someday be Moms. May you always have in your arms the one who is in your heart.”
This video of rescuing a child that fell into a borewell may be three years old. It made a great impression and still inspires me.
In the village of Bebera in Romania, a 2-year-old baby girl, Alina, fell into a five meters deep borewell. Rescuers spent almost six hours to save the child. But all their efforts seemed futile.
Then, an angel from the watching multitude, stepped forward. She volunteered to help retrieve the child that had fallen in the borewell. The angel was a teenager named Fornica. Her thin frame just fitted the 15-inch diameter mild steel borewell casing.
After securing her with ropes, the rescuers directed her into the borewell, head first.
The first attempt was a failure.
The undaunted brave teenager volunteered to plunge into the borewell a second time.
While the whole nation was watching and praying, the brave teenager made her second attempt and succeeded in retrieving the 2-year-old Alina, safe and sound.
Marco Polo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. Before his death, friends and readers of his book visited him and urged him to admit that his book was a fiction. Marco would not relent. He told them:
“I have not told half of what I saw!“
Marco Polo has been long regarded as the earliest and most distinguished of European travelers of all times for traversing Asia from one extremity to the other. He surpassed every other traveler of his time in the extent of the unknown regions he visited, as well as in the amount of new and important information he had collected. His description of the Chinese imperial court and the Chinese empire under the most powerful of the Asiatic dynasties, and tales of the adjacent countries in the Far East, forms a grand historical picture not painted by any other traveler of his period.
Authenticity is important in any travel narrative, otherwise it altogether becomes a worthless romance. A profound ignorance veiled Europe when the Polos returned from the East. Doubts of the authenticity of Marco’s tales arose since most of the regions he had traversed were wholly unknown at that time. And his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age. Also, many editions of Marco Polo’s travelogue proliferated in an age when printing was unknown. The narratives varied from one another, often corrupted to a great extent.
Even now, some argue that Marco Polo never reached China, but cobbled together secondhand accounts of what he had heard. They say there are inaccuracies in the tales. They point out that he never mentioned the basic elements of Chinese culture, such as drinking tea, the use of chopsticks, the Chinese characters, or the tradition of foot-binding.
Responders to such skeptics have stated that if the purpose of Marco Polo’s stories of travels was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his readers to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Marco lived among the elite Mongols. Foot-binding was almost unknown among the Mongols and was rare even among Chinese during Polo’s time.
Some observers, who have only a cursory view of the history of China, say he never mentioned the Great Wall in his book. These people are ignorant of the fact that the Great Wall, familiar to us today, is a Ming structure constructed, about two centuries after Marco Polo’s travels in China, to keep out northern invaders.
It is odd that Marco Polo never produced a single map to accompany his narrative accounts in the ghostwritten book. Hence, scholars have long debated its the veracity. Now, there is new evidence in favor for this historical puzzle of whether Marco Polo did indeed visit China and the Far East. The proof is in the form of a curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents purported to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo.
In the 1880s, Marcian Rossi, an Italian, immigrated to the United States. He brought along with him a collection of sheepskin vellum he said were of the 13th and 14th century. There were 14 little-known maps and related documents detailing Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East. These documents bear the signatures of the three daughters of Marco Polo — Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.
The existence of these parchments came to light only in the 1930s, when Marcian Rossi contacted the Library of Congress. He explained that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian Admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family. But the collection did not undergo exhaustive analysis.
Are the maps forgeries or facsimiles? They created a problem for the historians of cartography. Did Marco Polo’s daughters, whose names appear on some of these artifacts, preserve in them geographic information about Asia as told by their father? Did they inherit the maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to a Venetian admiral who had links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and for what purpose?
While some historians discounted the 14 parchments as mere fantasy, forgeries, or facsimiles, others wanted a balanced, detailed study of the documents.
Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, spent more than a decade studying the artifacts. He translated the Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions found therein. All but one of the original documents, a map Marcian Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft in Texas. Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those originals.
The map donated by Marcian Rossi to the Library of Congress, dubbed “Map with Ship,” is a curious one. It has an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appears to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. The map was not a navigational aid because it lacks longitude and latitude reference lines.
Olshin has detailed the results of his intensive research in his book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps.” The book is the first credible book-length analysis of these parchments. It is a balanced, detailed, and a non speculative work of cartographic scholarship, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation. Olshin charts the course of the documents from obscure origins in the private collection of the Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s. He describes the investigations by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI for their authenticity. Olshin describes his own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps.
After a thorough tracing of Marcian Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin asserts that Rossi’s explanation that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.
Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the document “Map with Ship,” depicts Alaska for certain although there are similarities. Olshin also admits, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is not settled. The ink on the parchments remains untested. A radiocarbon study of the sheepskin vellum of one key map, the only one subjected to such analysis, dates it to the 15th or 16th century, making it at best a copy.
Regardless of the origin of the documents, Olshin offers insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography. He then takes his readers on a fascinating journey to the early legendary lands of the Chinese.
Alessandro Scafi said in Times Literary Supplement (UK):
“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese … Fascinating material … Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open … A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”
The parchments in the Rossi collection may not only back up Marco Polo’s claim that he journeyed to the Orient, but also could reveal he might have set foot on the North American continent, 200 years before Christopher Columbus. It is purported that Columbus carried a well-worn copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his historic 1492 voyage. It is conjectured that the travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus to seek a westward sea route to the riches of East Asia, but instead landed in the New World.
When Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo, arrived in Italy they found the Republic of Venice at war with the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, that had one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean.
Marco Polo joined the Venetians in the war. He commanded a galley equipped with a trebuchet, a type of catapult that used as a siege engine in the Middle Ages. The Genoans captured Marco in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta, and imprisoned him.
While spending several months in prison between 1298–1299, Marco became a friend of a fellow prisoner Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer of romance. Marco told Rustichello about his time in Asia. Rustichello soon committed his stories to paper in Old French. The romance writer also incorporated into it tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.
After his release in 1299, Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa together turned the written notes into a travelogue titled “Livre des Merveilles du Monde” (Book of the Marvels of the World) or “Devisement du Monde” (Description of the World). In Italian the account appeared as “Il Milione” (The Million) or Oriente Poliano and was published later in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.“
Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China.
Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed popular chronicle of his experience in medieval China to the world, but he definitely was not the first European to travel to the Far East.
During the time of the great Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, the Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241, proved disastrous. The loss threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.
Four years later, with the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, dispatched the first formal Catholic mission to the Mongols. It was partly to protest against the latter’s invasion of Christian lands, partly to gain trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their intention for the future. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission.
The mission started on Easter day April 16, 1245, from Lyon, where the Pope then resided. Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.
Their journey was perilous. The Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.“
Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. By the time they reached their destination Ögedei Khan was dead.
On August 24, 1246, Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear their allegiance to him.
When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November, 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”
Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity. These early missionaries were largely inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes), Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and in the tradition of the 12th through the 17th century.
The accounts about this mythical king vary. They are just a collection of medieval popular fantasy. One such account depicts him as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. Polo mentions the fictional monarch in his book, and even asserts that Prester John fought a great battle against the Mongol ruler Genghis Kahn.
A Lombardian surgeon also had reached the city of Khanbaliq in 1303. A merchant named Petro de Lucalongo, had accompanied the monk John of Montecorvino to Khanbaliq in 1305.
In his work “Histoire de l’Empire Mongol,” Jean-Paul Roux, a French Turkologue and a specialist in Islamic culture says that a person named André de Pérouse had mentioned that there was a small Genoese colony, in the harbor of Zaytun in 1326. Andolo de Savignone was the most famous Italian resident of the city. In 1336, Toghon Temür, the 15th Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the 11th Emperor of the Yuan dynasty sent him to the West to buy “100 horses and other treasures.“
In 1339, a Venetian named Giovanni Loredanoto returned to Venice from China during the reign of Emperor Toghon Temür.
A tombstone with the name of Catherine de Villioni, daughter of a Dominici, who died in 1342 during the reign of Toghon Temür was discovered in Yangzhou.
Well-known master artists of the medieval times steeped the manuscripts like the one shown above in enchanting colors.
The Travelogue, “The Travels of Marco Polo” soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form. It gave the curious Europeans in the Middle Ages craving to know more about the marvels of the Orient, the first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan. Rarely have secular topics had such an intense echo.
The Travelogue is divided into four books:
Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco Polo traveled through on his way to China.
Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan.
Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, and the East Coast of Africa.
Book Four describes some of the then-recent wars among the Mongols, and some of the regions of the Far North, like Russia.
No authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book exists. The early manuscripts differ much from one another. Also, inadvertent errors and discrepancies crept in during the process of copying and translating.
The published editions of the travelogue either rely on single manuscripts, or a blend of many versions. For example, the popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 is the handiwork of R.E. Latham, who blended several manuscripts together to make a readable whole.
A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot based their 1938 English translation on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50 percent longer than other versions.
Some published editions carry notes to clarify, as exemplified in the English translation by Henry Yule.
To date, approximately 150 manuscript copies exist in various languages.
After his release from prison, Marco Polo returned to Venice. He married and raised three daughters. During the next 25 years, he carried on the family business.
A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.
The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.
Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.
In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.
Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout his dominion.
Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.
In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.
Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.
In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.
The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars: Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.
At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.
Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.
When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.
The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.
Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.“
In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.
The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.
Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.
Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy. He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.
The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.
In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.
The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”
The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive. They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km). The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.
Did the eunuch admiral Zengh He set foot in America?
According to medieval Chinese sources the eunuch Zheng He, the favorite admiral of the Yongle Emperor, commanded six expeditions between 1405 and 1422. Again, between 1431 and 1433, at the request of the Xuande Emperor, Admiral Zheng He commanded a seventh expedition. The fleet he commanded was the largest maritime fleet in the world.
Zheng He sailed to Indonesia, India, Ceylon, Arabia, Africa and many other countries in the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean). Whether Zheng He or any of his associates set foot in the Americas is now open to debate. Nowhere in these Chinese accounts is even a hint that the 15th century Chinese made landfall in the Americas. Yet, a few modern writers conjecture that the Chinese sailed to lands as far as the Americas.
On January 1, 2002, Gavin Menzies, a British author and retired submarine lieutenant-commander, published his controversial book titled: “1421: The Year China Discovered the World.“
In his book, Menzies claims the Chinese reached America 70 years before the Iberian explorer Christopher Columbus. He says the Chinese not only discovered America first, but they also established many lost colonies in the Caribbean. He also asserts that the same fleet circumnavigated the globe.
China lost most of its historical records of the country’s explorative marine voyages during centuries of turmoil in the country. So, Gavin Menzies has cobbled together some plausible evidence supporting his controversial conjectures. He uses some suggestive and a little ridiculous grab bag of evidence. Experts in the field scoff at the theories suggested by Gavin Menzies. There is no real evidence.
According to Menzies, the Ibderian explorers: Ferdinand Magellan, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Francisco Pizarro, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Thomas Cook et al., had “discovered” lands the Chinese had already visited, and these renowned European explorers sailed with maps charted by the Chinese cartographers.
Almost all critics and historians have rejected and debunked Menzies’ theories, conjectures and assertions as grandiose and speculative re-creation of little-known voyages made by Chinese ships in the early 15th century. They have categorized Gavin Menzies as a “pseudo-historian”.
In the June 2004 issue of Journal of World History, Robert Finlay in his review titled “How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America,” shows that Gavin Menzies’s book has no foundation.
One reviewer of Gavin Menzies’ book, Andrew, says:
“There are books that break new ground with bombshell research and there are books that spellbind us with the skill of their deception. This book is the latter. Menzies takes a tremendous dump on the sensibilities of his readers, bombarding us with outrageous claims backed up with erroneous facts and arrogant speculation.“
Another reviewer, Adam, has commented:
“I have to say that I enjoyed reading this book, if only because it made me so angry at the gross inaccuracies and completely imaginary scenarios that the author made up. He claims to have information from anthropology, archaeology, geology, geography, history, etc, but what he really has exists only in his own mind.“
On page 103, Gavin Menzies claims that on the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic stands a large red sandstone rock, some three meters high, with inscriptions on it. Menzies claims the Chinese carved these inscriptions in the Malayalam language, spoken by the people of Kerala in India. He says he photographed the inscriptions. But he does not provide copies of the photographs, nor line drawings of the inscriptions or translations. In fact, red sandstone is not found on the Cape Verde Islands.
Dr. Pitt Reitmaier, a tropical doctor at the University of Heidelberg posted the above photo of the rock Pedra da Nossa Senhora (Rock of Our Lady) he found in Ribeira do Penedo, Cape Verde. Reitmaier says:
“In 1421, the year when the Great Wall was finished, China sent out a fleet of more than one hundred ships to discover the world. Reports say they crossed the Indian Ocean from Calicut to the African East Coast – what was not new for Arabo-Swahili, Indian and Chinese captains in the Middle Ages.
They rounded the Cape of Good Hope and went North following the African West Coast. Then (as always when discoverers come to Cape Verde) a serious storm took them to the arquipelago, presumably to Santo Antão. And here – as in other places they visited – they left behind “carved stones” (Creole: rocha scribida) in order to give proof for their presence to later generations of discoverors.
So far the fascinating story told by submarine captain Gavin Menzies in his book 1421 The Year China Discovered the World. He diagnoses the writings on this rocha scribida as Malayalam, the language spoken to date in Kerala, southern India – and in its harbour city of Calicut, where the fleet has started from. “
Later Menzies follows the fleet to Greenland, the North Pole (he claims), the Americas, the Strait of Magellan before it crossed the pacific ocean and found back home to China.
The name Pedra da Nossa Senhora stems from the Catholic interpretations of the writings as a first document of Portuguese sailors setting foot on Santo Antao Island. The central part with the cross documents the death of a portuguese sailor.“
In the footnote to his post Dr. Pitt Reitmaier says:
“If you go for historical evidence, most likely you will not believe Menzie’s story. Reknown historians argue that none of his findings are new and that his way to combine the facts in a thrilling story is highly speculative and cannot stand scrutiny by scholars. e.g.: The carvings were identified as something like “Malayalam” by an employee of the Bank of India, not by any linguist or historian. Why so? India has excellent historians and linguists by the hundred!
My personal opinion goes to two extremes:
– isn’t it wonderful food for thought, sweet and sour, full of phantasy, even if wrong?
– if this is the way, submarine captains draw conclusions in their leasure time … how dangerous are they at work?”
Linguist Christopher Culver says:
“I would like to offer a perspective from my own individual profession, linguistics. Menzies writes, for example:
‘Linguistics provide further evidence. The people of the Eten and Monsefu villages in the Lambayeque province of Peru can understand Chinese but not each other’s patois, despite living only three miles apart. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century inspector employed by the government of California to survey the native population, found linguistic evidence of a Chinese-speaking colony in the state.‘
The first assertion, on the Peruvian village, is not sourced at all and is either the personal fancy of the author or some minor crank idea. The second, however, is cited to an 19th-century bit of scholarship evidentally done without appropriate field methods. He goes on to claim that Chinese sailors shipwrecked on the East Coast of the United States would have been able to communicate with locals, as these would have included Chinese who had walked over the Bering Strait. Chinese walk across to Alaska and across all North America, but end up speaking Middle Chinese, and yet leave no trace of this dialect on neighbouring Native American languages? Risible fantasy. There’s even an assertion that Navajo elders understand Chinese conversation, and an assertion that the Peruvian village name Chanchan must be Chinese because it sounds (at least to him) like “Canton”. Perhaps the silliest Peruvian connection is between Chinese “qipu” and Quechua “quipu“; Menzies seemingly doesn’t understand that “q” represents a completely different sound in each language. So, I hope that the reader with some training in linguistics can see what kind of arguments are used in the book, and beware accordingly.”
“John A. Ruskamp Jr., Ed.D., reports that he has identified an outstanding, history-changing treasure hidden in plain sight. High above a walking path in Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument, Ruskamp spotted petroglyphs that struck him as unusual. After consulting with experts on Native American rock writing and ancient Chinese scripts to corroborate his analysis, he has concluded that the readable message preserved by these petroglyphs was likely inscribed by a group of Chinese explorers thousands of years ago.”
Whether Zheng He’s fleet circumvented the horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, and then sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas is speculative. More concrete evidence is necessary to convince the modern historians to rewrite history as “the Chinese reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus!“.
On June 27, 1425, the Hongxi Emperor’s son Zhu Zhanji (March 16, 1399 – January 31, 1435), at the age of 26 ascended the throne of the Ming dynasty as the Xuande Emperor, the fifth Ming Emperor. His era name “Xuande” means “Proclamation of Virtue“.
The Xuande Emperor continued the liberal policies of his father, the Hongxi Emperor.
On May 25, 1430, the Xuande Emperor issued an imperial order for the arrangement of the necessary provisions for the dispatch of Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, Li Xing, Zhu Liang, Yang Zhen, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, Yang Qing and others on official business to the countries of the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean).
On June 29, 1430, the emperor gave Zheng He command over a seventh and final expedition (1431 – 1433). This was the largest treasure fleet assembled, with more than 300 ships and 27,500 men.
Zheng He’s mission, this time, was to announce the new emperor’s reign to the “distant lands beyond the seas”, to revive the tributary relations promoted during the Yongle Emperor’s reign, and to conquer far-lying foreign lands and bring them into polite submission.
The mission was also, in part, an attempt to restore peace between the two trading partners of China – Malacca and Siam. The ships for this voyage were named befitting their peace mission, such as Pure Harmony, Lasting Tranquility, Kind Repose, etc.
The emperor bestowed on Zheng He the title “Sanbao Taijian“.
On January 19, 1431, Zheng He’s fleet left the shores of Longwan in Nanjing, China.
On February 3, 1431, the fleet arrived at Liujiagang.
Some courtiers of the Ming emperors were apprehensive of the expensive treasure fleets. Zheng He and his associates concerned about being vilified after their death decided to document Zheng He’s previous voyages on a stone tablet. On March 14, 1431, they erected the following [Liujiagang] inscription at the Palace of the Celestial Spouse in Liujiagang, Jiangsu:
We, Zheng He and his companions [including Admirals Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Qing], at the beginning of Zhu Di’s reign received the Imperial Commission as envoys to the barbarians. Up until now seven voyages have taken place and, each time, we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels. We have…reached countries of the Eastern Regions, more than thirty countries in all. We have…beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away, hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, whilst our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing those savage waves.
On April 8, 1431, the fleet arrived at Changle, where they remained until mid-December. On the 11th month of the 6th year of the Xuande reign, they erected the Changle inscription.
Eunuch admiral Hong Bao
In the early 15th century, the Ming emperors Yongle and Xuande, sent a Chinese eunuch named Hong Bao, on overseas diplomatic missions.
In 1412, between the third and fourth voyages of Zheng He’s fleet, the Yongle Emperor sent Hong Bao as the envoy to Thailand.
In 1421, Hong Bao participated in the sixth voyage of Zheng He during which foreign envoys were transported back to their countries, as far as the kingdom of Ormus in the Persian Gulf.
Hong Bao’s name appears in the Liujiagang inscription made by Zheng He. According to the inscription, Hong Bao was one of the five Assistant Envoys.
Ma Huan (c. 1380 – 1460), was a Muslim voyager and translator. He was a Chinese who converted to Islam when he was young. He knew several classical Chinese and Buddhist texts. He learned Arabic to be able to translate.
Ma Huan accompanied Admiral Zheng He on three of his seven expeditions: 4th, 6th and the 7th, to the western oceans.
During the expeditions, Ma Huan took notes about the geography, politics, weather conditions, environment, economy, local customs, even the method of punishment meted out to criminals. After returning home after his first expedition, he began writing a book about it. The final version of his book titled Yingyai Shenglan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores) was ready around 1451.
The American historian Edward L. Dreyer (1940 – 2007) known for his works on the history of the Chinese Ming Empire analyzed the preserved sources about the voyages of Zheng He, in particular Ma Huan’s book. According to Dreyer, Hong Bao was the commander of one of the detached squadrons of Zheng He’s fleet during the Seventh Voyage (1431 – 1433).
Hong Bao’s squadron visited Bengal after separating from the main fleet in Semudera in northern Sumatra or in Qui Nhon in Champa. From Bengal, Hong Bao’s squadron proceeded to Calicut in southern India. On December 10, 1432, the main fleet came straight from Semudera across the Bay of Bengal.
Before leaving Calicut, Hong Bao sent seven of his personnel, including Ma Huan, to Mecca and Medina aboard a native Indian ship sailing to Jeddah. Hong Bao appointed Ma Huan as emissary to Mecca.
While the main fleet left Calicut towards the kingdom of Ormus, Hong Bao’s squadron went from Calicut to various destinations on the west side of the Arabian Sea in southern Arabia and Horn of Africa, including Aden and Mogadishu.
Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang dynasty (618–907) in Kenyan villages. These are believed to have been brought over by Zheng He’s fleet during the 15th century ocean voyages. According to a local oral tradition, 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors, part of Zheng’s fleet, washed up on shore there hundreds of years ago. They converted to Islam and married local women.
An article titled “China’s Great Armada, Admiral Zheng He” written by Frank Viviano appeared in the July 2005 issue of National Geographic. Viviano described that on Pate Island, fragments of ceramic articles of Chinese origin had been found around Lamu. The administrative officer of the local Swahili history museum claimed they were of Chinese origin, from Zheng He’s voyage.
Viviano wrote that the eyes of the Pate people resembled the Chinese. The ancestors of the Pate people were said to be from indigenous women who married shipwrecked Chinese sailors of the Ming period. Famao and Wei were some of the names among them which were of Chinese origin. The ancient Chinese sailors had named two places on Pate as “Old Shanga,” and “New Shanga”.
A local guide who claimed descent from the Chinese showed Frank Viviano graves of Chinese sailors layered with coral. They were almost identical to Chinese Ming dynasty tombs, complete with “half-moon domes” and “terraced entries”.
Death of Zheng He
On the return voyage, Zheng He became very ill. According to one theory, he died in 1433, shortly after the seventh voyage. Some believe that he died and was buried in Calicut. But there is a second conjecture that Zheng He continued being the defender of Nanjing and died in 1435.
In 1985, a namesake Muslim-style tombwas built in Nanjing on the site of an earlier horseshoe-shape grave. The tombcontains his clothes and headgear as his bodywas buried at sea.In June 2010, Wang Zhigao, the Chief of Archaeology Department at Nanjing Museum announced that a Ming Dynasty grave recently found near Zutang Mountain in the Jiangning District of Nanjing was identified as that of Hong Bao and not of Zheng He as surmised earlier.
Cult of Zheng He
Zheng He became the object of cult veneration among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. The influence he had over Asian culture was so strong that he is still considered a god by Indonesian Chinese. They have built temples to honor him in Jakarta, Cirebon, Surabaya, and Semarang. The temples of this cult known after either of his names, Cheng Hoon or Sam Po and are peculiar to overseas Chinese.