Nature vs. Nurture: Worlds Colliding in Netflix’s Marco Polo

Posted by Karen Ng & filed under Pop Culture, Television.

Remy Hii as Prince Jingim sitting on Kublai Khan's throne
Remy Hii as Prince Jingim sitting on Kublai Khan's throne

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The epic 10-episode series Marco Polo premiered on Netflix on December 12, 2014. Despite receiving some critical reviews, its fan-base continues to grow—partly because of the in-between (or Third Culture Kid) identities that add to the complex tensions through the series. These identities tend not to exist in other fantasy TV series, but are very prevalent today.

Netflix promotes Marco Polo with the words “worlds will collide,” and indeed they do. The show opens immediately with rivalry between Kublai Khan’s Mongol empire and the Chinese walled city of Xiangyang, at the height of the Song Dynasty. Adding to the clash of these two cultures are merchants from Venice: Niccolò Polo leaves his son, Marco, as tribute to the Khan so that the merchants may continue to trade along the Silk Road.

Three characters stand out in this clash of cultures: Prince Jingim (Remy Hii), the son and heir to Kublai Khan’s throne; Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy), the Venetian merchant traveller; and Ling Ling, the princess daughter of the imperial concubine and recently deceased emperor in the South China walled city. The three occupy liminal spaces between cultures, and it becomes evident in Cambulac, the city of Kublai Khan’s court.

Remy Hii as Prince Jingim | Episode 4 "The Fourth Step"

Remy Hii as Prince Jingim | Episode 4 “The Fourth Step”

Jingim is the Crown Prince. His father is the Great Khan of Khans, and his great-grandfather is Genghis Khan. Really, he’s got a lot to live up to. His lack of success injures his image, and at a feast originally intended to honour the Khan, Kaidu—cousin of Kublai—criticizes Jingim’s heritage and Chinese upbringing.

“I prefer a pure general. A mongol, raised Mongol, bathed in the blood spilt by Genghis, steeped in his ways. A warrior like you, Byamba. Untainted. A true Mongol. A man.”

—Kaidu, “Feast” (ep. 3)

When you realize that Kaidu is speaking with Byamba, half-brother to Jingim and bastard son to the Khan, well…ouch.

It is also interesting to note that Jingim’s name means “true gold” in Chinese. Using similar vocabulary to Kaidu, Chinese culture has tainted him. When Jingim later confronts his father about whether he really is his son, it brings up the topic of nature versus nurture. Kublai says to him (quite fiercely):

“You were taught by Chinese scholars. That does not make you less Mongol. You act it!”

Does it? It is worth examining what we mean by being true to our culture and heritage. As part of the 1.5- and 2nd-generation, are we less of what our parents are when we grow up in a different place such as Canada? And are we seen and accepted as Canadian, or of wherever we grow up?

Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo | Photo: people.com

Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo | Photo: people.com

The character Marco Polo has his allegiance tested constantly throughout the show. He spends the first few episodes insisting that this foreign place is not his home, and that he is only a guest. However, when his father and uncle return in the third episode, Marco is caught between two worlds. He does not belong with the Mongols—”Despite your dress and visage, you are not one of them; you never will be”—yet his uncle no longer accepts him as one of their own. Marco continually shows loyalty to the Khan, but perhaps this is only because Kublai is the only reason he remains alive. He wants to serve Kublai Khan and he also wants to go home. As the show closes, I think both Marco and I wonder whether he can go home.

His father, Niccolò says that “one must adapt to survive” (“The Fourth Step” ep. 4), but in doing so he becomes less of what his family wants him to be.

Chloe Luthi as Ling Ling | Episode 4 "The Fourth Step"

Chloe Luthi as Ling Ling | Episode 4 “The Fourth Step”

Another character to note is Ling Ling, daughter of Mei Lin. Eventually she is kidnapped (or rescued, depending on whose side you’re on) and brought to Cambulac. Empress Chabi tells Mei Lin, who is also held captive, that she will care for Ling Ling as though the girl were her own. Mei Lin will never see her daughter again.

If Ling Ling plays a larger role in Season Two, she will echo Jingim and Marco. The Mongols will not see her as one of them, but she will grow up with them and learn their ways, just like Marco. If she returns home, is she any less Chinese even if she will have been brought up by Mongols? When she grows up, will she still be considered Mei Lin’s daughter? Is Marco still Niccolò’s son?

Later in episode six, Jingim asks if he really is such a burden. It’s a question that children might ask when their parents or elders express disappointment at how they fail to carry on their culture, heritage, or tradition in an acceptable manner. “Am I really such a burden?” Jingim asks, and his father responds, “You’re my son.” Of course, Jingim is Kublai’s legitimate son, and therefore probably the favourite, and more highly regarded than his bastard half-brother Byamba. Despite Kublai’s acceptance, Jingim recognizes that his Chinese upbringing has made him different, and as he holds such an important position as Crown Prince he must do well to uphold traditions. The people will look to him for support and leadership, especially in a time of warfare between Mongolia and China. What kind of leader will he make when he is a Mongol brought up by Chinese tutors?

Part two on this topic of worlds colliding will examine class, identity, and gender conflicts in Byamba, Kokachin, and Khutulun.

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