Tattooing in the Travels of Marco Polo

I was recently at one of my favorite annual book fairs in Chicago, the Newberry Library’s sale of donated books to support their collections, hunting for volumes I might want to add to the tattoo library. One of the books I stumbled upon was a nice-looking hardcover coffee-table-sized translation of the Travels of Marco Polo. I had read many times in passing that Polo wrote about tattoos he encountered in Asia, but never had the opportunity to read through a copy to find all of the references. Here was the perfect opportunity to cross that item off the research to-do list.

Polo was born in 1254 and ventured to the Far East to start his quarter-century journey when he was 17. His travel narrative has enjoyed continued popularity ever since its publication at the end of the 13th century. I’m not sure if this particular edition–a 1982 version of Ronald Latham’s 1958 translation–is considered a good translation (something for further research), but Latham was a serious Polo scholar who advanced the compelling hypothesis that Polo had the book ghostwritten in 1298-99 by a well-known romantic writer, Rustichello of Pisa, so presumably it’s reputable. Some people have even hypothesized that Polo never made it to China (despite the considerable level of detail in some of his descriptions that seemingly must have derived from first-hand observation); it’s a topic of renewed recent debate. I do know that, as with many medieval texts, Polo’s narrative survives in different forms (apparently there are approximately 150 manuscript versions). I’m not sure how much the tattoo descriptions vary from edition to edition.

Since little has been written about these Polo tattoo mentions, I thought, at the very least, I could transcribe them here with some annotations as to what jumps out as interesting to me and what added evidence I might quickly find. Polo mentions tattooing in detail three times, and I’m quoting the passages here unabridged with plenty of the surrounding text to give context.

Men’s Tattooing in Vochan

After leaving Kara-jang, the traveller continues westwards for five days till he reaches a province called Zar-dandan. Its chief city is called Vochan. The people here are idolaters and subject to the Great Khan. They have all their teeth of gold–that is to say, every tooth is covered with gold. They make a cast of gold of the shape of their teeth, and with this they cover both their lower and their upper teeth. It is only the men who do this, not the women. The men also make a sort of stripe or circlet round their arms and legs with black dots. These are produced by means of five needles tied together with which they prick the flesh till they draw blood, whereupon they rub in a black ink that produces an indelible stain. And they reckon it is a distinction and an ornament to have such a stripe of black dots. The men are all gentlemen, according to their notions. They have no occupation but warfare, the chase, and falconry. All the work is done by the women, and by the other men whom they have taken captive and keep as slaves. (p. 155-56)

Vochan is apparently Yung Chang (which correlates with contemporary Baoshan in China’s western Yunnan province). There is still tattooing in Yunnan today. Here’s one documentary about facial tattooing on Derung women…quite different from the tattooing described here, but interesting to think about possible historical trajectories. (I’ll refrain from making commentary about how sad it is that these women feel pressure to remove their tattoos.)

Extensive Tattooing on Men and Women in Kaugigu

Kaugigu has its own king. The people are idolaters and speak a language of their own. They have submitted to the Great Khan and pay him a yearly tribute. The king is so lecherous that I assure you that he has fully 300 wives. Whenever any woman in the country excels in beauty, he takes her to wife. The province is rich in gold. It also abounds in precious spices of many sorts; but they are very far from the sea and for this reason are of little value as merchandise and are sold very cheap. There are plenty of elephants and animals of many other kinds and no lack of game. The people live on meat, milk, and rice. They have no grape wine, but make an excellent wine of rice and spices. All the people alike, male and female, have their flesh decorated in the following fashion. They have their flesh covered all over with pictures of lions and dragons and birds and other objects, made with needles in such a way that they are indelible. They make these on their faces, their necks, their bellies, their hands, their legs, and every part of their bodies. And this they do as a mark of gentility: the more elaborately anyone is decorated, the greater and the handsomer he is considered. First of all a man will have such images as he may desire sketched out in black all over his body. This done, he will be tied hand and foot, and two or more persons will hold him. Then the master craftsman will take five needles, four of them fastened together in a square and the fifth in the centre, and with these he will work all over his body, pricking out the images previously sketched. As soon as the pricks are made, ink is applied to them, and then the figure as sketched appears in the pricks. During the process the victim suffers what might well pass for the pains of Purgatory. Many even die during the operation through loss of blood. (p. 163-4)

Kaugigu appears to be in northern Vietnam (perhaps Giao Chi/Jiaozhi), and the tattoos Polo describes fit later evidence of tattoos on people in this region from Burma, across Thailand, and into Cambodia and Vietnam. One interesting article I found while casually seeing what the internet had to offer about this relates quite a bit more about medieval tattooing in Vietnam, some of which Polo failed to mention (although he certainly couldn’t have seen it all). I’m going to hazard a guess the bit at the end about people dying from being tattooed is hyperbole for dramatic effect.

Tattoos on Travelers to Zaiton

The people here are idolaters and subject to the Great Khan. It is a delightful place, amply supplied with all that the human body requires; and the inhabitants are a peaceful folk, fond of leisure and easy living. Many people come here from Upper India to have figures pricked out on their bodies with needles, as described above. (p. 207)

I find this passage particularly interesting because it notes that travelers came here to get tattooed. One can’t help but wonder if Polo himself got tattooed here! Despite Polo referring to people coming here from “Upper India” this port is in China. Scholars believe Zaiton refers to today’s Quanzhou (or possibly Xiamen).

Further Thoughts re: Possible Influence on Europe

I’m no expert on medieval-period cultures of Asia, so I’ll leave the in-depth research as to which tattoo traditions are being referenced here in Polo’s writings to those who are in a better position to interpret the above passages. What strikes me, as a specialist in Renaissance and Early Modern European tattoo history, is the influence this text might have had on European tattooing at the time. Medieval European tattooing is by far the most under-researched area of Western tattoo history. Some religious tattooing was clearly happening in the Middle Ages, but little documentation has been uncovered. Polo was Italian, and we know that by the late 16th century there was a vibrant pictorial tradition of religious tattoos in Italy (as well as in the Holy Land, which was part of the Silk Road). Were those traditions influenced by the stories told in this popular text, perhaps passed down via oral tradition? One can’t help but wonder. One of my favorite quotes about the antiquity of modern European tattooing alludes to Mediterranean sailors getting tattooed “from time immemorial”…might they have heard Polo’s medieval tales and then have been inspired to tattoo more elaborately or to experiment? Here’s the full Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu quote from 1791:

We should be wrong to suppose the tattooing is peculiar to nations half-savage; we see it practised by civilized Europeans; from time immemorial, the sailors of the Mediterranean, the Catalans, French, Italians, and Maltese, have known this custom, and the means of drawing on their skin, indelible figures of crucifixes, Madonas [sic]. &c. or of writing on it their own name and that of their mistress.

Once the era of the printed book dawned, Polo’s travel narrative continued to be popular and was among the earliest books printed (there’s a 1496 incunabulum edition, for example, and here’s a comprehensive list of printed editions). So people would have been regularly reading his detailed descriptions of how to tattoo and the kinds of images that could be tattooed. People like to mimic and experiment what they’ve read or heard about–one can posit that some people who read this text might have been inspired to try their hand at tattooing. To think that European tattooing existed in a vacuum, devoid of any cross-cultural influence before the Age of Exploration seems misguided, especially given texts, like Polo’s, that vividly describe tattoos. Perhaps someday supporting documentation for my hypothetical musing about this possibility might emerge.


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