Zhao Qiguang, shown instructing his students, says for people from the West The Travels of Marco Polo fulfils their imagination of a mysterious, exotic and romantic country. Provided to China Daily
A childhood fascination with the Italian explorer became a lifelong passion for Zhao Qiguang that put him on the route to becoming a teacher of Chinese culture and now to making a documentary
Since he was a boy, Zhao Qiguang has been obsessed with the life of one man - Marco Polo.
As a youngster he was fascinated by tales of the explorer's adventures in China in the 13th century travelogue The Travels of Marco Polo and today his life has become intertwined with that of his idol.
Zhao is a teacher of Chinese culture and sees himself as a kind of cultural ambassador, much like Marco Polo, and is also working as a consultant on a documentary about the Italian explorer's travels.
Zhao was born the son of academics who taught at Nankai University in Tianjin, a city in the north of China, close to Beijing. His parents read Chinese poems and traditional literature, and their love of culture rubbed off on Zhao as he grew up.
As an adult he moved to the US, where he has taught Chinese culture classes at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, since the 1980s, looking at China's philosophical religious practices such as Taoism and talking about the health benefits of tai chi, among other things. He regularly takes his students to China to experience the country's culture first hand and asks them to wear a T-shirt with a Chinese proverb written on it that says they come from abroad but are looking to make friends in China.
Zhao's classes have received growing attention, with numbers rising from a handful to begin with to about 70 today.
Zhao believes the classes offer not only an insight into Chinese culture, but also ancient wisdom that in some cases still holds true today. Taoism, for example, fits well with the growing awareness globally of environmental issues by emphasizing "the relationship between nature and human beings" and stressing "the importance of protecting nature", he says.
It is a philosophy that applies well today in both the West and China. "China needs to think carefully about whether it is worthwhile developing the economy at the expense of the environment," Zhao says.
He also teaches his students about Marco Polo's travels in China. The Venetian's book had and still has a great influence on the West's vision of China.
According to Zhao, when Marco Polo first went to China during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the country presented such a prosperous scene to the Venetian that he felt compelled to talk about it. His tales of adventure, across Asia and Persia between 1276 and 1291, were written down by Rustichello da Pisa, his cellmate in Genoa for two years after a war between Venice and that city-state.
He described bamboo growing beside the Yellow River, wild animals, red lanterns and ornate bridges over flowing streams. These remain common images of China in the West, he says. "For people from the West The Travels of Marco Polo fulfils their imagination of a mysterious, exotic and romantic country."
The Travels of Marco Polo is also an important text for China, Zhao says.
"For China, The Travels of Marco Polo is valuable as a rare and meticulous account of life in China during the 13th century."
"China has ancient books, but nothing like this, a book written by a foreigner talking about what he saw in the country and describing it in detail, even down to the price of a chicken at a market in Hangzhou.
Zhao's fascination with Marco Polo has now taken him down a new road as consultant for a documentary on the Italian adventurer's travels in China.
"There is doubt among some people that Marco Polo actually came here, and accusations that the stories in the book are made up, so I would like to test whether they are true," he says.
To do this Zhao will go on location to the places that Marco Polo wrote about to explore for himself whether the Italian's accounts of Chinese life hold water.
There will be two versions of the documentary: one shown in China by Phoenix Chinese Channel and an English version to be shown in Europe by the BBC and International in Italy, among others.
The documentary will cover the route of Marco Polo's travels, including Xinjiang, the Inner Mongolia, Hangzhou, Beijing, and Yunnan, as well as places outside China.
"You have to admit that Marco Polo was a brave man as on his way to China there were many dangers that caused some of his fellow travelers to turn back to Venice," Zhao says.