Some Thoughts on MARCO POLO

Posted: January 2, 2015 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

I have been watching this Marco Polo show on Netflix, since there’s a lot of it and it’s new, at least, and I’ve watched everything else interesting on Netflix already. I’ve got some thoughts on it, but if you don’t want to read the long version, the short version is: this show is a pile of fucking garbage. Just lazy, clumsy, stupid, disrespectful. Junk all around. (I know that in the New Year I resolved to be kinder, but in a way I think calling this thing what it is IS a kindness. I’m being kind to you, dear readers, by not hiding this contemptible bullshit behind a euphemism, so that you aren’t misled by niceties.)

Anyway, here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

So Much Tits

Man, have the guys who made Marco Polo seen Game of Thrones, or have they SEEN Game of THRONES, amirite? There is so much tits in this show, you guys. Women just standing around naked, Kublai Khan apparently has a Hall of Tits that you have to go down and it’s lined with naked women, there’s a scene in the episode I just watched which was apparently auditions for the Hall of Tits that just involved twenty women standing around with their clothes off.

Literally just standing there, too, like regular, “I’m just standing around in a line” standing, which makes me wonder if there’s something about this idea that’s subversively feminist. It can’t be that the producers don’t understand that the primary appeal (to heterosexual men and, I assume to some degree anyway, homosexual women [maybe not though; lesbians, feel free to weigh in]) of tits is that we don’t get to see them very often, and when we DO see them it’s almost purely in a sexualized context, and this is what contributes to the sexualization of tits in the west.

If it’s not that they don’t know, it must be that they’re doing it on purpose, so is all of this just an elaborate attempt to rob Game of Thrones of its power by normalizing the presence of tits in every corner of our TV shows? Now GoT showrunners will have to think of actual ways to make exposition and long speeches interesting, rather than just having some lesbians get at it in the background.

For real, I have never been so tired of looking at naked ladies in my life. Every time they cut to the Hall of Tits, it’s “Aw, come on, AGAIN?” “Not ANOTHER shot of a naked courtesan!” “Surely this scene could have been shot with everyone wearing clothes?” I feel like I’ve been able to experience, in the smallest, most oblique way, what it’s like for women every second of every day to be immersed in pop culture. It’s exhausting.

No dongs, though. Never any dongs. This isn’t a porn for fuck’s sake, what’s wrong with you?

Kung Fu

Guys, you know me. I hell of love kung fu. I think it is The Best, and I think everyone should do it, and I love to see it in movies and TV shows. My favorite conceit is the “Everyone Knows Kung Fu” conceit, where all conflicts are mediated by spin kick and backflip fights. I love it, A+, good.

So you’d THINK that I’d be all about Marco Polo learning kung fu from a blind kung fu (karate? He’s kind of dressed like a Japanese guy) master so that he can kung fu fight Mongolians who use their own kung fu, or I’d be super into the minister of the dying Southern Song Dynasty using Mantis Style kung fu to defeat some soldier who had mastered Shaolin Five Animals Style kung fu in order to secure the respect of the people. (Because sure!)

Except, what? No! There was no Five Animals Style in the Yuan Dynasty! There was no Mantis Style in the Yuan Dynasty! There is a lot of suspicion that there wasn’t even Shaolin kung fu during the Yuan Dynasty.

Look, kung fu guys, they’ve got a lot of “mythic history” around the creation of their kung fu styles, but the fact is there is zero extant evidence of a Shaolin school of wushu (this means “martial arts”, and is a better term for a formalized system of fighting than “kung fu”) during the Song or Yuan Dynasties; modern scholarship generally suggests that Shaolin Wushu as we know it starts in the Ming Dynasty (the one after the Yuan). Five Animals – Five Families…well, look the actual history is complicated, but basically the Five Animals style comes together after the destruction of the Shaolin Temple (THE destruction of the Shaolin Temple; it probably got destroyed a bunch of times, but at some point towards the end of the Ming Dynasty or the beginning of the Qing Dynasty it was destroyed in such a way that ended it as an institution for teaching wushu), when the Five Elders of Shaolin went around developing their own styles while in hiding from the new Qing rulers.

The same is true for Mantis Kung Fu (I actually don’t remember which kind this dude knew, but I assume it’s Northern Praying Mantis, because Southern Praying Mantis is an indigenous Hakka style, and there’s a legend placing the creation of Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu in the Song Dynasty). So, yeah, there’s a legend placing its creation in Song, but most other legends place it in the Ming Dynasty – and again, these are legends. Legends are created retroactively to lend legitimacy to something, and you can see, knowing even a tiny bit about the history of China, why, if you were living in Ming Dynasty China, you’d want to connect your school to Song Dynasty China: the Yuan Dynasty was the dynasty created by the Mongols, who conquered China and who everybody hated, destroying Southern Song Dynasty and eventually getting overthrown by the Ming. When you connect your school back to the Song Dynasty, you are basically saying, “this is a true Chinese martial art, descended from the REAL time of Chinese culture, not that shitty period where the Mongols were in charge.”

(For reference: Marco Polo takes place in 1264 – it features Kublai Khan defeating his brother Ariq Boke in the second episode, which dates it pretty precisely – the Ming Dynasty is founded in 1368, a hundred and four years later.)

Having some guys practice Five Animals and Praying Mantis Kung Fu during the early Yuan Dynasty would be like Marco Polo being an expert in the rapier – a weird, clunky anachronism. Except not; Marco Polo with a rapier would be a weird clunky anachronism, but this is kind of worse, and the reason that it’s worse is because here in the West, we straight up cannot get over our idea that all Chinese people know kung fu, and it’s all they talk about, all the time.

China’s history has a lot of stuff in it! It has a lot of things that don’t have anything at all to do with kung fu! It’s okay to write a story that takes place in China but does not prominently feature kung fu. Even though kung fu is cool, and people who practice it are very cool, it is not actually very respectful of Chinese culture to suggest that Chinese culture revolves around kung fu, especially in the 13th century before wushu as we know it was invented.

Some Other Thoughts on History

I mean, blah blah blah, there’s a lot of history that’s weird here. Kublai Khan talks about his father, Tolui, who, according to The Secret History of the Mongols, sacrificed himself in a religious ritual so that Ogedei Khan would recover from sickness and could continue conquering. According to Ata-Malik Juvayni (a Perian historian in Kublai and Tolui’s court) he died of alcoholism. So, Marco Polo decided to go with alcoholism as the explanation, but no mention is made of the fact that there’s an official story, and that story is way different? Kublai Khan’s mother, Sorghaghtani Beki, was both 1) a Christian, and 2) the most powerful woman in the Mongol empire before she died (making her, in fact, one of the most powerful – if not the most powerful – women in the history of the world). Kublai Khan doesn’t mention her once. The Song Dynasty isn’t decisively defeated until 1279 or something; is this show going to actually take fifteen years? Well, Marco Polo was in China for 24, so maybe it’ll take longer. The Polos, incidentally, did not abandon Marco to the court of Kublai; they had been invited by Kublai Khan in the first place (who had never met barbarians before) (sorry, “Westerners”), and they all hung out together for the duration of their stay.

What fucking language are these guys speaking? Marco Polo comes to the court and introduces himself, he speaks Uighur and Mongolian, he talks fluently to Kublai Khan in some language that we’re meant to understand is being rendered in English. At one point, he talks about an Italian proverb, and that is rendered in Italian, so…so what, are they speaking Chinese? But when his father leaves him to Kublai Khan, Marco cries out to his father in what sounds, to us, like English. So…so what’s going on here? If here English equals Chinese, why would Marco, in a moment of distress, call out to his father in Chinese?

How does he, now that we’ve brought this up…look. Chinese (here I am referring to the many dialects of Chinese, which tend to all share some of these features in common, to a greater or lesser degree; frankly, I have no idea what dialect was the court dialect in the 13th century; I don’t think it was Mandarin, because I thought Mandarin’s prominence doesn’t happen until later, but whatever) is a complicated language, full of homonyms. Every Chinese word sounds almost exactly like at least ten other words, and you can imagine how intricate that makes the meaning of even simple Chinese sentences.

How exactly did Marco Polo not just learn Chinese in three years, but also learn it so well that he immediately becomes famous for being able to describe things in it? I mean, Polo is famous in the West for being able to describe China and Central Asia in these really compelling and interesting ways, but he did that in Italian, a language that he grew up speaking. It doesn’t really stand to reason that his sense of poetry is going to transfer over to a language that is different from Italian in literally every possible aspect. (I mean, everything; grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, practically every feature a language can have is different between Italian and Chinese, except for the fact that both consist of sounds.)

Speaking of Marco Polo

This fucking guy.

First of all, Kublai Khan has told him, like, five times that the only way he isn’t going to get dragged out back and have his mouth filled with horse shit is if he evocatively describes the regions that he’s visited, and it’s still like pulling teeth getting a good story out of him. I genuinely feel sympathetic to Kublai Khan here, because Marco Polo’s got a clear job, and just isn’t doing it.

Second of all, for a guy whose literal only reason for being here is how great he is at Describing (literal literal; Kublai Khan won’t let him go back to Venice because he wants Marco Polo to Describe stuff to him), this guy is terrible at Describing. You’d think that if you were making a TV show where you couldn’t actually show people what the Mongolian steppe looked like, or the Gobi desert, or wherever the hell else they’ve sent this guy, if you couldn’t show that on film because it was too expensive, and if your main character was a historical figure noted for producing first-person narrative descriptions of the places that he’d visited, you’d think you’d at least take a shot at having him actually describe something.

Third of all, he’s got basically no character to speak of. He idolizes and resents his father (because duh, he’s a male character on a TV show, what other foundational relationships could he have? Kublai Khan had a troubled relationship with HIS father, too). He wants to bone basically every Chinese or Mongolian girl he sees (including Khutulun, the famous Wrestler Princes of Mongolia – she is super into him for reasons that are hard to fathom, re: lack of character, not even being good at Describing; he’s handsome I guess, though not in a particularly Mongolian way, but maybe she’s into that, maybe she’s got Alabaster Fever or something), but actually that’s not even true, because a lusty rake trying to stay out of trouble while he boned his way across China might at least make for an interesting story. He just wants to bone one or two women that he sees, that’s all.

Fourth of all, he’s got essentially nothing to do. He’s ancillary to the main plot, which seems to be about this ongoing conflict between Kublai Khan and the remnants of the Southern Song Dynasty. He doesn’t really have anything to do with Kublai Khan’s problems with his son, or the politicking of the Mongol kings. The writers keep doing backflips to find ways to involve Marco Polo in the story. The story called Marco Polo. Which is about him, Marco Polo.

He feels like he ought to be an audience surrogate character, the way the actual Marco Polo kind of actually was – not a guy involved in Chinese politics, exactly, but a guy who saw a lot and wrote it down. Except the point of an audience surrogate character is that there’s an in-story excuse to explain a bunch of things that the people who live in the story wouldn’t otherwise have needed to explain: i.e. about the conflict between Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian priests for instance (not referenced on the show) or between the Han Chinese bureaucracy and civil service and the Mongolian imperial administration (not referenced on the show) or the advancements of Chinese medicines and technology in the 13th century (not referenced on the show) or the cultural traditions of Mongolians and Han Chinese et al (not referenced on the show).

This doesn’t happen, no one ever explains anything to Marco Polo, and he never asks any questions. And I mean, really, this is a dude from a backwater city state in Europe who has crossed a desert into the most advanced civilization at that point in history. A civilization so advanced that when the real Marco Polo wrote his memoirs about it, no one even believed him. And not one question, not one investigation, not one explanation. He just stands around with this kind of poleaxed expression on his face, clearly not Grasping the Significance. Are we supposed to identify with his confusion? He doesn’t know what’s going on, and I’m sympathetic to that, because I, too, don’t know what’s going on (in large part because every corner of Kublai Khan’s palace is dark as hell so I’m never sure where we are or what’s happening).

This boring-ass, incurious doofus is the character that show hinges on, and for all the world it looks like someone said, “Hey, let’s make Game of Thrones, but about the real, historical battles of the dynasties of medieval China,” and someone else said, “Yeah! But let’s put some white guy in it!”

“Some white guy” is about the beginning and end of his character. (“What else?” “Uh, he resents his father.” “Okay.” “Also he wants to bone a Chinese princess.” “Done and done. Man, has there ever been a more fully-realized white guy on TV?”)

Be It Concluded

Be it concluded, the history of China is fascinating as hell, and you could make some pretty great movies just dramatizing the history books. And historically-set , mystical kung fu fantasias are also entertaining. Be it further concluded that it is good to try to open up entertainment to Asian markets, those guys have Netflix too, they’d probably like to see more stuff about their own culture.

But if you’re going to do a TV show about Chinese history, you’d do well to not eliminate the rad actual history with your bog-standard dramas about sad men and their bad dads, and if you want to do a mystical kung fu fantasia you can probably take out all of this junk about trade routes and silkworms* and you might consider actually finding out a little bit about the history of martial arts in medieval China.   And if you want to appeal to Asian markets, it might be a good idea to have even the smallest fraction of an interest in Asian culture, and not rely on just a thousand topless Asian women to carry your story.

Also, if you’re going to make an epic about historical China, and you, for whatever reason, absolutely MUST put a white guy in it, at least don’t make him the boringest white guy whoever boringed, for fuck’s sake.


* Actually the bit about the silkworms – a subplot about how jealously China guarded silk production – would be a really great plotline if they bothered to focus on it, instead of tossing it in as a half-assed excuse for Marco Polo’s dad to get executed.

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