I decided a few months back that Marco Polo was the ultimate source of all the mental suffering of all future China writers. But an editor working with me on that article disagreed: surely there must have been someone before Polo, he said.
After a furious bout of research, I still can’t find a Western writer in China before Polo. But I did discover a couple of non-Western China writers before Polo.
A few decades BP, a Mongol monk named Rabban Sauma (拉宾扫务玛) wrote about his pilgrimage that wound through the Middle East and even Western Europe—a sort of reverse Marco Polo. However, most of his writing is made up of bland religious platitudes:
And Abhgha replied, “This purity (or sincerity) of thoughts and conscience is worthy of admiration. And God is with those who seek Him and do His will. This man and his companion have come from the East to go to JERUSALEM; this hath happened to them through the wish of God. We also will minister to the Divine Will and the entreaty of the Christians; he shall stand for them as their head and shall sit upon the Throne.”
But a full 4 centuries before the both of them, a Japanese monk named Ennin (圆仁) traveled to China to study Buddhism. His travels took him to Shandong Province’s holy Mount Taishan, where tourists still hike today. He then meandered over to the imperial capital in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), leading future researchers to conclude he was being led by the state-run CTS. The government-run monopoly then sailed Ennin down the massive Grand Canal, the ancient water-works wonder-cum-tourist-attraction whose role is now fulfilled by the Three Gorges Dam.
Ennin’s touring must have included ample waiting time (perhaps for the CTS agents), because he wrote over 100 books, including the diary of his travels to China.
However, Marco Polo’s status as the first Western writer in China remains unchallenged. That also means he’s still wearing the title of source of all China writers’ future mental suffering past and present.