Marco Polo’s famous 13th century journey from Venice to Beijing and beyond is retraced in this three-part series, exploring the worlds he wrote about, seeing what they look like now and asking searching questions about the relationship between East and West, then and now.
When Marco Polo travelled to China nearly 700 years ago he found China to be the centre of the world. And now, is history repeating itself? So asks Professor Qiguang Zhao, a teacher of Chinese culture, who is searching for the ‘shadow’ of Marco Polo today.
It’s not easy joining the modern world. We thought the only way was to chase the West.Are we losing what makes us Chinese?
After years of travelling, Marco Polo arrived at last at the new Mongol capital city of Beijing. Laid out perfectly, the new city was Chinese in its planning, the Mongol leader honouring the ancient beliefs of the conquered Chinese people.
The 1990s development of Beijing is the contemporary expression of China’s growth. Today’s high-rise development threatens the old residents who cling to their small homes and gardens while the buildings arise around them.
On his journey south, Marco Polo travelled along the huge waterway that Kublai Khan opened up for his new capital Beijing. If the Grand Canal impressed Marco Polo then, what would he have made of today’s massive North South Water Reversal Project, running underneath the great Yellow River to send water to the thirsty Beijing along 3,000 kilometres of canals and tunnels.
His travels take him to Hanghzou, the ‘City of Heaven’, where Marco Polo is entranced with the beautiful West Lake, a place where Chinese opera plays out amongst the riches of the city. As we recall Marco Polo’s response to the city he said was paved with gold, we meet one-time poor boy Lui Pengfeing, who made his millions here with Chinese lanterns. The internet trading operation Alibaba, bigger than e-Bay and Amazon together, is part of China’s new wealth, its gateway to the world.
As old China comes face to face with its modern self, we follow a young couple who choose to wed in a western-style fairytale wedding.
Professor Zhao, himself caught up in Venice’s own Carnival, contemplates the demise of the West and questions whether new Marco Polos will be drawn to the East. And if so, what will come of these encounters?