1 Introduction: Geographies and Inter-Asian Travel

Over the past century, history has become increasingly dominated by approaches that focus on the material basis of the discipline while other approaches are often written off as idealistic. When it comes to the mediaeval period in Inner Asia it is not obvious that a materialist approach is very useful. There is not a lot of evidence of trade along the so-called Silk Route, a term invented by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, a nineteenth-century German working with a colonial framework of expanding trade between Europe and China, rather than ever used by the people who lived along it. If trade is ruled out as a motivator then there is the obvious question of what did motivate the people who did travel between the two ends of the Eurasian landmass. This chapter will argue that there were three main groups of travellers within Asia itself, the diplomats, the religious and the unfree. Contrary to the modern expectation the persistent violence of Inner Asia made trade by land impossible and so the main driver was, simply, curiosity. Not just that people travelled for the pleasure of knowing, although some did, but that the opportunities arose for people to satisfy in their curiosity.Footnote 1

1.1 Inter-Asian Travel

Unlike the West, where Marco Polo starts his book by asking the reader to find someone to read it to them, East Asia has a much longer literate tradition resulting in more accounts of inter-Asian travel. However, almost all of these are a very limited social class drawn from the scholar-gentry. Thus the main source of literate travellers are those that travel on government business. Countries within the Chinese tribute system regularly sent tributary missions to Beijing and many of these have resulted in reports that display a great deal of curiosity about China. The best example of this would be the Qing-era Jehol Diary (Yŏrha ilgi) by the Korean official Pak Chiwŏn (1737–1805).Footnote 2 Pak was expected to write reports on his visit and let the Korean Court know about developments in China. In these reports, Pak discusses the Chinese economy, manufacturing, notable temples, the countryside and generally displays a high level of curiosity about Korea’s neighbour. He also included strong arguments in favour of learning from the Chinese to strengthen Korea as much as possible in order to fight the Manchus.Footnote 3 There has been a strong tradition of religious figures travelling within East Asia. From the earliest times to the modern period, Buddhist monks have travelled to and from China in order to spread their religion. These have included famous figures like Xuanzang (玄奘, c. 602–664 AD) who went to India to collect scripture. This tradition continued unbroken until the modern period when Japanese monks such as Ekai Kawaguchi (河口慧海, 26 February 1866–24 February 1945) who visited Tibet twice and Nepal four times between 1900 and 1915.Footnote 4 Other source of literate travellers in East Asia was those captives who were forced into exile in other countries. One example of this is the Korean official Kang Hang (1567–1618) who was taken to Japan during Japan’s invasions of Korea in the late Ming. From Japan, he wrote copious amounts about all aspects of Japanese society and government including lists of important Japanese generals, the structure of the Japanese government and Japan’s geography.Footnote 5 However, the majority of captives forced into slavery were not literate and so no record of their suffering has survived. Private merchants and traders did exist, but these have left very few accounts and almost never appear in the historical records.

1.2 The Geographical Background

To understand why trade is so rare, it is important to understand the geography of Central Asia. Stretching from southern Ukraine to Manchuria is a vast grass plain that has been occupied by various nomadic groups since the beginning of recorded history. Marked by rainfall so low that it cannot support much tree growth but enough for a sea of grass, the history of this region has been determined by geography but also by the domestication of the horse. It is a region shaped above all by mobility. It is not that these regions are incapable of supporting farming and sedentary societies. Lands previously held by nomads in southern Russia, northern Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Mongolia and the Great Plains of the United States are now some of the most productive grain-producing regions in the world. Inner Mongolia supports a population of almost 25 million people, and the former region of Manchuria has over 90 million people, virtually all of whom engaged in agriculture until recently.Footnote 6 Equally unsurprisingly, these grasslands, until recently, were also all dominated by nomadic groups that relied on their large herds of horses to raid, extort and enslave their weaker neighbours.Footnote 7 It is the highly mobile horse that enabled nomads to take these grasslands and hold them against all comers. As Paul J. Smith pointed out the Chinese were perfectly aware of this military advantage. In 1127, Lv Yihao, a military advisor to the Song Court wrote,

A level plain covered by shallow grass, on which horses can advance and withdraw with ease, is the perfect terrain for the use of cavalry. There one soldier on horseback can oppose ten soldiers on foot. But mountain forests and streams and marshes, which endanger and impede the forward and backward movement of horses, is just the right terrain for the use of foot soldiers. There one soldier on foot can defend against ten soldiers on horseback.Footnote 8

Smith points out that Lv greatly underestimates the advantage of the mobility given to the soldier on horseback. Citing a case in the war between the Song and the Nuzhen Jin Dynasties, Smith points out that seventeen Jin horsemen ran into a detachment of 2000 Song soldiers who blocked their way. Surrounding the Song soldiers and firing arrows into their ranks, the Song soldiers eventually broke and almost half of them died.Footnote 9 All through Chinese history, Chinese armies have been led out on to the steppe and all too often they have suffered a disaster as a result. Perhaps the greatest loss of life in a single battle before World War One took place on 1 September 1449 when a Ming Emperor led his army in person to confront the Mongols. In the following Tumu disaster, almost half his army of half a million is said to have died.Footnote 10

2 The Nomadic Option

If the steppe is shaped by mobility then it ought to follow that trade was widespread as one of the greatest impediments to pre-modern trade was the cost of transportation. One of the usual features of the literature on nomads is the general assumption that they favour trade. In this, they are often compared to China whose government is usually assumed to have been opposed to trade and commerce.Footnote 11 This is clearly an adaption of Western justifications of the Unequal Treaties and Treaty Ports although it is very hard to find evidence in the historical record of Mongols engaging in any trade at all.Footnote 12 Of all the precursors of long-distance Eurasian trade as laid out by Ron Harris, it is noteworthy that in this period the Mongols can only be said to have one—itinerant peddlers.Footnote 13 They lacked family firms, there is no evidence of loans or agents before the conquests, they had no applicable law (in the conquest period Mongol law was a secret and so could not serve as the basis of a mercantile system) and they did not form business partnerships until after the conquest of sedentary communities.Footnote 14 The Inner Asian merchant community par excellence was the Sogdians who came from settled farming communities.Footnote 15

This lack of interest in trade is illustrated by the basic facts of animal production in the Mongol world. It is an oddity that the Mongols produce very few animals per capita. As has been well known for a long time, the average herd size was well below the maximum that could be controlled by a single shepherd. Fredrik Barth found that the Basseri held fewer than 100 sheep per family while one adult could control up to 800.Footnote 16 In a sense what the nomadic tribes are producing is not sheep but young men. The aim is to maximize the amount of violence that a family group is capable of producing. This is necessary in a nomadic environment because even a moment of weakness means being pushed off the land and losing both animals and women.Footnote 17 Thus the adult males in a nomadic society do not routinely work in the sense understood in a sedentary society. As the first significant European traveller to the Mongols and envoy of Pope Innocent IV, the Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini (c. 1185–1252) noted,

The men do nothing but occupy themselves with their arrows and to a small extent look after their herds; for the rest they go hunting and practice archery … All work rests on the shoulder of women; they make fur coats, clothes, shoes, bootlegs and everything else made from leather. They also drive the carts and mend them, load the camels, and are very quick and efficient in all their work.Footnote 18

This shapes the way that economic exchange takes place on the steppe. Although Mongols show no particular sign of trade in the normal sense, they do exhibit Ran: an involuntary purchase where the buyer is able to use threats of violence to set the price.Footnote 19 Most notably in their relations with the Chinese, the nomads tended to demand luxury goods at prices set by themselves under a threat of violence.Footnote 20 This East Asian steppe tradition seems to be behind the famous massacre at Otrar leading to the Mongol invasions of the Islamic world. According to Ala ad-Din Ata Malik Juvaini, (1226–1283), a Persian official of the Mongol Il-Khanate in Iran, the Mongol envoys behaved so disrespectfully that the local governor, Inalchuq, was pushed to execute them.Footnote 21 This is perfectly in accordance with nomadic behaviour in China, but it seems to have come as a surprise to the Muslim world. In the modern period, this is often found in most nomadic communities as a persistent and unrelenting demand for gifts even though the threat of violence has been moderated by effective systems of law and order. In the Mongol period, most of the European travellers across Eurasia report similar behaviour which sometimes became outright theft.Footnote 22 The Dominican friar Simon of San-Quentin (c. 1245–1248), who was part of the diplomatic mission to the Mongols in 1245, pointed out,

Such greed consumes them that when they see something which pleases them, immediately they pull at it with great vehemence or carry it away by violence from the man who owns it whether he is willing or unwillingFootnote 23

Similar opinions are expressed by others from outside of Europe so this cannot be written off as an expression of bias against nomads. The famous Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) also writes:

[I]t is their nature to plunder whatever other people possess. … They recognize no limit in taking the possessions of other people. Whenever their eyes fall upon some property, furnishings, or utensils, they take them.Footnote 24

It is perhaps ironic, given the mobility of the Mongols themselves, that they so often imposed immobility on everyone else. Around 1602 the Jesuit Benedict Goës walked from India to China with a merchant caravan. He noticed the fear the merchants had of attracting the attention of nomads in what is now northern Xinjiang, as this area

Ha[d] an evil fame on account of its liability to Tartar raids, and therefore this part of the road is traversed by merchants with great fear. In the day time they reconnoitre from the neighbouring hills, and if they consider the road safe they prosecute their journey by night and in silence. Our travellers found on the way the bodies of sundry Mahomedans who had been miserably murdered. Yet the Tartars rarely slay the natives, for they call them their slaves and shepherds, from whose flocks and herds they help themselves.Footnote 25

The most common experience of all travellers in the Mongol period was being stuck far from home while waiting for fighting among Mongols to end so that they could continue to travel. The most famous description of this is Marco Polo who explains how his father and uncle ended up in China by saying that they had only intended to go to Sarai, on the Volga River in modern Russia. However, fighting broke out between the Golden Horde, based in southern Russia, and the Il-Khanate, based in what is modern Iran which meant that “no one could travel without peril of being taken”.Footnote 26 A brief lull in the fighting allowed the Polos to travel to Bukhara, where they had to stay for three years as they “found they could neither proceed further forward nor yet turn back again”.Footnote 27 In the end, they were able to make the trip as envoys of the Mongol Khan, not as merchants, as an ambassador from Persia told them “in our company ye shall travel with perfect security and need fear to be molested by nobody”.Footnote 28 It was as envoys of the Great Khan that they were able to return to Europe, carrying an official golden tablet as proof of their status.Footnote 29 When the three Polo men attempted to go to China together, it took them three and a half years to get there.Footnote 30 However, they took the most arduous route possible, crossing into southern Xinjiang through the Wakhan corridor, suggesting that other routes over easier terrain were not safe.Footnote 31 Even while travelling in service of the Khan, Marco Polo was attacked by Mongols and his entire group was enslaved or killed except for seven survivors.Footnote 32

Other travellers reported similar problems caused by Mongol infighting. Rashid al-Din, (1247–1318), who served as vizier to the Il-Khans, pointed out that it was normal to execute the dependents of rival Mongol rulers and seize their goods. This may refer only to those sedentary merchants who entered into ortaq relations with Mongol princes but it is possible that it means anyone from a place ruled by a rival.Footnote 33 The Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck (1248–1255), sent by Louis IX of France to convert the Mongols, regretted that the Nestorians would have accepted a Patriarch appointed by the Pope and so essentially joined the Catholic Church “if the routes lay open”.Footnote 34 The Italian Franciscan and future Archbishop of Beijing, John of Monte Corvino (1247–1328) said that fighting among Mongols in 1305 meant that he had heard no news from Europe for the previous twelve years.Footnote 35 Islamic sources report much the same problems. When the Moroccan-born Berber religious scholar Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Batuta, commonly known as Ibn Batuta, (1304–1368/1369) wanted to return to Morocco, he could not by land because of fighting between various Mongol groups.Footnote 36 He knew of someone who had tried to cross by the land route but he had died.Footnote 37 He had both arrived and departed from China by boat and so avoided Inner Asia completely. He could not have been more clear about the dangers posed by Mongols to travellers, saying that the area around the Great Wall was

occupied by wandering tribes of heathen, who eat such people as they can catch, and for this reason no one enters their country or attempts to travel there. I saw nobody in [Canton] who had been to the Great Wall, or who knew anybody who had been there.Footnote 38

Even when pro-Mongol commentators are trying to be reassuring they usually show how dangerous travel on the steppe was. The Persian scholar Juvaini wrote “[f]or fear of [Chaghatai’s] yasa and punishment his followers were so well disciplined that during his reign no traveller, so long as he was near his army, had need of guard or patrol on any stretch of road”.Footnote 39 That is, the roads were safe as long as you travelled in an armed convoy close to a powerful ruler. This is backed up by the account of Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, an Italian who was employed by the Florentine Compagnia dei Baldi in Antwerp from 1315 to 1317; in London in 1317, in Cyprus from 1324 to 1327 and again in 1335. Pegolotti pointed out that when a Mongol ruler died the road was not safe for merchants until a new ruler was firmly in power. As the route through the grasslands controlled by nomads was the least safe part of the trip Pegolotti recommended travelling in a group of at least sixty.Footnote 40 Pegolotti claimed that nomads would simply demand money from travellers amounting to a quarter of the total expected costs of using the route from the Mediterranean coast of Turkey to Tabriz in the northwest of Iran.Footnote 41 This insecurity persisted well after the Mongol Empire. In the fifteenth century when Athanasius Nikitin travelled from his native Tver in Russia to India between 1466 and 1472, he was robbed by nomads twice before reaching Iran,

The smaller of our boats ran foul of some fishing-stakes, was seized, and instantly plundered, with all my things in her. In the larger vessel we reached the sea, but having grounded at the mouth of the Volga we were taken …There they took her … dismissing us bare and naked beyond the sea, and forbidding us to return home …. Then came the Kaitaks [a tribe that occupied what is now Daghestan] and made the whole party prisoners, and we came to Derbend, but we [were] robbed.Footnote 42

3 The Lack of Trade

When it comes to evidence of trade, it is possible that the main accounts are shaped by the need to tell a good story. Marco Polo, for instance, might well have said that his father and uncle were the first “Latins” Khubilai Khan had ever seen in an effort to heighten the dramatic effect.Footnote 43 However other European travellers do not mention seeing other Europeans either. John of Plano Carpini did not mention a single Western European who could support his claims. Even though the Mongols by this stage controlled parts of what would become Eastern Europe, he did not meet any Eastern European merchants on the steppe. The only Europeans he mentions were Russian princes going to pay their respects to the Great Khan and Western merchants trading with the Russians from the West or via Constantinople.Footnote 44 In 1305 John of Monte Corvino claimed that he had had no confessor for eleven years and had heard no news from Europe for the previous twelve.Footnote 45 The lack of a confessor shows that Catholic missionaries did not travel to, or within, China with any frequency as it would have been unlikely for any European to have missed the chance at confession in such a dangerous part of the world. In 1346 or 1347, the Italian Franciscan John de Marignolli visited southern China as part of an embassy from Pope Benedict XII between 1338 and 1348, but did not mention seeing a single European merchant although he did mention a fondaco, a warehouse and inn, run by the Franciscan mission.Footnote 46 This absence of evidence is not unique to European sources. Ibn Batuta does not mention any European merchants in China. Even modern Chinese scholars have not been able to find any evidence of Europeans in China at all apart from a small number of well-known missionaries.Footnote 47

The strongest evidence of European trade to China in this period is the work of Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, the Libro di divisamenti di paesi e di misuri di mercatanzie e daltre cose bisognevoli di sapere a mercatanti, commonly known as the Pratica della mercatura which was written between 1335 and 1343.Footnote 48 It has been argued elsewhere that this text does not refer to a trip to China, and the strongest reasons involve mobility. Pegolotti’s handbook recommends using donkeys to cross the deserts and vast grass plains on the edge of Siberia between Crimea and China. However, donkeys are not typically kept by Inner Asian nomads and so would have been hard to acquire.Footnote 49 Donkeys simply lack mobility as well as being unable to carry substantial loads and do not like cold weather. This is very important in regions where travellers with poor mobility might die if they fail to reach the next well. Not only would no one use donkeys to cross Inner Asia there does not seem to be a single historical account of anyone doing so. The reference to using pack horses within China to follow the Grand Canal from Hangzhou to Beijing is also unexpected. Horses are not typical of southern China and there is no reason to use them if water transport is available.Footnote 50

4 What Drove Contact: Curiosity

If trade is ruled out as a reason for long-distance contact during the Mongol period, the obvious question is why people were travelling at all. The most commonly given reasons among European sources at this time were religious and diplomatic as with the East Asian accounts. The Europeans had heard that there were Christians, or at least non-Muslims, further to the East and they might be recruited for the ongoing struggle with the Islamic world. The Mongol conquests represented an opportunity to convert a people without a written scripture. As no one knew anything about the Mongols, and much of the knowledge available was not very reassuring, the motives behind these contacts seem driven by a curiosity about the possibilities involved and fears of the dangers involved. Western governments wished to know what they did not know but did not know enough to judge the risks. This would explain why rather minor religious clerics were sent to carry out this diplomacy at the time rather than Court officials. It would matter little if a low-ranked Franciscan was killed in Central Asia. However not all the friars were on official business. The Italian Franciscan Odoric of Pordenone (1286–1331), who writes perhaps the best account of China in this period, simply wanted to go to the East to convert the pagans and had asked permission of his abbot for leave in order to do so. His account is marked by descriptions of tea drinking, Chinese writing, bound feet, fishing cormorants and a wealth of other details about China at this time including the very curious claim that the women of China were the most beautiful in the world.Footnote 51 He was curious enough about China that he even visited a temple,

In one of those monasteries which I visited there were three thousand monks and eleven thousand idols. …. I went thither at the hour fixed for feeding their idols, that I might witness it; and the fashion thereof is this: All the dishes which they offer to be eaten are piping hot so that the smoke riseth up in the face of the idols, and this they consider to be the idols’ refection. But all else they keep for themselves and gobble up. And after such fashion as this they reckon that they feed their gods well.Footnote 52

What is perhaps unusual about Odoric’s account is that when he was curious about an issue he did not let sectarian differences impede him and he repeatedly claims to have asked people from every community. For instance, when trying to estimate the size of Hangzhou, he said “I made diligent inquiry regarding the city, and asked questions of Christians, Saracens, idolaters, and everybody else, and they all agreed as with one voice that it had a circuit of one hundred miles”Footnote 53 He was willing to eat with Buddhist monks and discuss the transmigration of souls with them.Footnote 54 The good friar clearly had a highly curious mind and this does not appear to be uniquely European either. Ibn Batuta seems to have wandered across much of Eurasia at this time, going north into Russia and south across the Sahara as well as all the way to China, out of pure curiosity. As a religious scholar and judge, he had the sort of knowledge that was in demand in Islamic communities right across Eurasia. There appears to be some evidence of curiosity about the Western end of the Eurasian landmass in China. Two of the most poignant pieces of evidence of Europeans in China during the Mongol period are the tombstones of the children Katerina and Antonio Vilioni found in Yangzhou, dating to 1342 and 1344 respectively.Footnote 55 Katerina Vilioni’s tombstone seems to have a collector’s mark inscribed on it suggesting that someone had found it sufficiently curious that they obtained it.

Curiosity played a role at every level of society. Well after this period East Asian governments were using diplomatic travellers to satisfy their curiosity. Part of the reason for this is that the East Asian tradition is that the Emperor does not travel, or at least not among ordinary people. The number of times Chinese Emperors have left the palace to go on tour around their Empire is so small that it is noteworthy when they do it. The ethnically Chinese Daoist master Changchun (長 春 子, born Qiu Chuji, 丘 處 機, 10 February 1148–21 August 1227) was summoned to Samarkand because Genghis Khan was curious about his teachings and especially claims that he had the means to prolong life.Footnote 56 His disciples wrote an account of his travels that provides a great deal of information on the conditions around Samarkand, and an interesting view of the steppe world across Central Asia. The opportunity to convert the ruler was too great to pass up. The prime example of curiosity shaping the history of this period is in Marco Polo’s account. According to Polo, when he was presented to Khubilai, what struck the Khan was his discreet and prudent personality which led him to appoint the younger Polo to a diplomatic mission. Observing that other envoys were boring, Marco Polo tried to pique the Emperor’s curiosity,

he had taken note on several occasions that when the Prince’s ambassadors returned from different parts of the world, they were able to tell him nothing except the business on which they had gone, and that the Prince in consequence held them for no better than fool and dolts, …. For he took great delight in hearing the affairs of strange countries. Mark therefore as he went and returned, took great pains to learn about all kinds of different matters in the countries which he visited, in order to be able to tell about them to the Great Khan.Footnote 57

However, the curiosity of Kings and their assorted officials also had a negative aspect. During the Ming dynasty, a Korean official called Ch’oe Pu (1454–1504) had been heading home from his post on Cheju Island to observe three years of mourning for the death of his father when his ship had been blown off course in a storm. With very limited control over the speed and directions of his ship, he ended up off the coast of Zhejiang near Ningbo.Footnote 58 His experience though shows the darker side of curiosity as he raised a great deal of suspicion. Ch’oe was repeatedly questioned about where he came from by highly suspicious officials. The Ming dynasty at this time had a problem with Japanese pirates and the local officials had a very limited understanding of Korea so naturally, the assumption was that Ch’oe was a spy. He was warned to keep his curiosity under control with an official privately telling him,

I see that you are not an evil man. But simply because your speech is not the same, you are really like someone blind and deaf. I truly pity you, and I shall tell you something; remember it. Be very careful of yourself. Do not talk freely to people.Footnote 59

While Ch’oe could not speak to the locals he was able to offer written explanations based on a common understanding of Classical Chinese grounded in Confucianism. Koreans at this time prided themselves on their Confucian orthodoxy and to some extent Korea was a more thoroughly Confucian society than China. This provided him with a framework to talk to the Chinese. As with the prisoner of the Japanese Kang Hang, it would have been naïve for Ch’oe to think that his behaviour would not have legal and political consequences back home and so his behaviour had to be above criticism. The report that Ch’oe wrote shows the dangers he was in because of the curiosity of others. The Chinese constantly prod him to see if he is really Japanese and ask for information that might have been politically and militarily sensitive. A Chinese official demanded that,

If you are a Korean, write and bring to us [a statement of] the historical periods of your country, its changes of rule, the capital cities, the geography, the people, the customs, sacrifices, rules for mourning, population, military system, land tax, and styles of dress. We shall compare it with the Histories and note what is and is not so.Footnote 60

These officials seem to be well aware that attracting the Emperor’s attention was not a good idea. After being interrogated, the Chinese officials remove all references to bandits and pirates in Zhejiang in the report and so Ch’oe refuses to sign what is a false account. Ch’oe is then privately warned that the Emperor did not need to know about such things and Ch’oe should look to his own safety.Footnote 61

In a series of odd encounters, Ch’oe was prodded in what was perhaps a test of his character. He was told to abandon filial piety in order to advance his career in serving the Chinese government. He was asked to write the Korean King’s surname and personal name, which should have been taboo. Ch’oe responded in a thoroughly Confucian manner insisting that a loyal minister was also a filial son and that even if he was outside Korea, the King’s name was forbidden.Footnote 62 He was constantly put in positions that he felt might compromise his loyalty to his King. Even the smallest things provoked suspicion such as his poem of thanks to a local official. He was immediately questioned about how he knew so much about the geography of the area.Footnote 63 The Chinese seem intently curious about the degree to which Korea had adopted Confucianism and his interrogators came back to this over and over again. He was asked about which literary models Korea followed and his grasp of Classical Chinese culture. Ch’oe firmly asserted Korea’s mastery of traditional Chinese literature,

They asked, “What are your literary styles?” I said, “The memorials follow the polished style of Sung and Yuan, the narratives and essays follow T’ang and Sung. Interpretations are required of passages from the Five Classics, and questioning commentaries are required of passages from the Four Books. In everything we follow Chinese forms. … They said, “Name the Classics and the books in order.” I said, ‘Golden Mean”, “The Great Learning”, “The Analects” and “Mencius” are the Four Books. The “Book of Changes”, “Book of Odes” “Book of History”, “Spring and Autumn Annals” and “Book of Rites” are the Five Classics.

Despite these repeated demonstrations of familiarity with the Confucian classics, the Chinese continued to refer to him as a barbarian.Footnote 64 A Chinese official openly said to him that, “The laws of the country are extremely strict, and the punishments decreed are very severe. A new regulation Imposes banishment for divulging Information to barbarians. Do not show others any of what I have written; it is only for you to know”.Footnote 65 He was taken to Beijing and held prisoner while being told he was being given an award. His response was to downplay curiosity about his motives by falling back on Confucian values in an effort to get home,

Our coming here had nothing to do with affairs of state. After being on the verge of death, we sought only to return home alive. Now our dying breath has grown strong, our dried guts have softened, our hurt feet are healed, and our weak bones have hardened. That is all because the graciousness of the Emperor in caring for strangers is generous and great. I without having served China in the slightest, have received that generous and great kindness. I am already embarrassed; why, then, should there be a giving of awards? What I want is to go home quickly, see my old mother, bury my dead father, and carry out my filial duties. How can the Board of Rites know what urgency this son feels?Footnote 66

Eventually, Xh’oe was granted an audience with the Emperor even though it is likely that this audience served no purpose other than the Emperor’s curiosity. Ch’oe, caught in a highly charged political moment, was asked to dress appropriately for the occasion. Ch’oe could have been executed if he offended the Emperor, or if he offended his King. His response was to hold on to the certainties both countries shared: he refused to take off his mourning clothes out of respect for his late father claiming that, “Mourning for a parent is something that one must observe. To wear beautiful clothes is to be unfilial. I am human; how can I take off my mourning clothes and put myself in the position of being unfilial?” The Chinese officials did not accept this, trying to argue that dressing properly to meet the Emperor was like reaching out a hand to saving a drowning sister-in-law, one of them saying,

I discussed that today with His Excellency, the President of the Board of Rites. For the time being, mourning for a parent will be unimportant and Heaven’s [i.e. The Emperor’s] gracious-ness important. The rite of bowing acknowledgement cannot be dispensed with.Footnote 67

When this failed to work, the Chinese officials simply physically removed his hat and replaced it with a proper Court one instead.Footnote 68 Thus, according to Ch’oe’s account, Ch’oe managed to uphold Korea’s reputation for being Confucian while satisfying the Emperor’s curiosity.

5 Conclusion

During the Mongol period, there appears to have been no expansion of trade, but a great opportunity for people to travel to the other ends of the Eurasian continent. This opening up produced some of the most extensive travel writings before the modern period in a variety of cultures. Not only did Chinese people like Changchun travel to what is now Uzbekistan, but Marco Polo, among others, travelled to China, while figures from the Islamic world like Ibn Batuta managed to wander from Spain to Canton. This is largely an incidental, not intentional, result of the Mongol conquests. Despite traditions of border closure, Koreans like Ch’oe Pu could travel to China and reach home safely. In so far as can be determined, these travels were not motivated by materialist motives. There was little effort to trade and none to conquer. They seem to have been largely motivated by curiosity and a desire to learn. There does not even seem to have been much motivation to let other people know. Marco Polo might have taken his story to his grave if he had not been taken prisoner by the Genoese. Odoric of Pordenone waited until old age before setting his story down. For the West, these early discoveries were most important because they had been out of touch with the wider world for longer. Not since the Roman Empire had embassies travelled to China from Europe. Marco Polo’s book would have a revolutionary impact not least because Christopher Columbus would carry a copy with him to the Americas. These travellers had brought the world together in a small way.

In another way these travels mark an important divergence. Alfred W. Crosby has argued that the period 1200–1600 marks a revolution in the way the West thought. The West became more quantitative in how they thought about time, space and mathematics as well in painting, music and bookkeeping.Footnote 69 But it may be just as likely that the Islamic and Confucian world moved away from such trends as the West invented them. Ibn Batuta and Ch’oe Pu are two learned men whose knowledge subsumed them within the dominant religious and political traditions of the day that did not necessarily require a great deal of curiosity. Ibn Batuta was a religious scholar and judge. Young men in the Islamic world would go on achieving renown and reward by studying religious texts and being appointed as Islamic judges, but their work remains of little importance outside the world of the religious scholar. Starting in the tenth century, Islamic scholars would be warned against curiosity as one of the defining features of the Sunni School was that some things had to be accepted as they were without asking why (bila kayf).Footnote 70 Ch’oe, unfortunately executed after his return to Korea for being on the wrong side of a political dispute, was a Confucian scholar. Generations of young East Asian men would go on studying to pass the Imperial Examinations where they were told they would find rewards.Footnote 71 To all but a small number of specialists the results of their work are of little interest even to their descendants. The European religious tradition of learning had required celibacy and so was perhaps not all that appealing to most young men. Other options were becoming attractive. At about this time the first universities in Europe are opening which were neither the handmaiden of the Church nor the plaything of the government. Students had the option to study what they were interested in. In a sense, curiosity had become institutionalized but only in the West. The growth of knowledge was soon to be spectacular.