Class, Identity, and Gender Conflicts: Worlds Colliding in Netflix’s Marco Polo

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

Khutulun (left) and Byamba (right) rallying men to fight | Episode 7: "The Scholar's Pen"
Khutulun (left) and Byamba (right) rallying men to fight | Episode 7: "The Scholar's Pen"

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This post will contain spoilers if you haven’t watched past episode six (“White Moon”).

Part one of this two-part segment on Marco Polo, which premiered on December 12, 2014 on Netflix, was about the cultural clashes shown in Prince Jingim, Marco Polo, and Ling Ling. Another trio of the cast—Byamba, a man who occupies spaces he probably shouldn’t; Kokachin, a girl who put on a headdress and became royalty; and Khutulun, a warrior princess who is also historically fabulous—also stray from normative and traditional roles. They confront conflicts in ideas of class, identity, and gender. 

Byamba (left) and Khutulun (right) | Episode 7: "The Scholar's Pen"

Byamba (left) and Khutulun (right) | Episode 7: “The Scholar’s Pen”

Strange how it seems to be the illegitimate child’s fault for being illegitimate. Uli Latukefu plays Byamba, Kublai Khan’s royal bastard. Despite his illegitimacy, Byamba breaks through class boundaries; he is quite fortunate to enjoy the comforts of having an upper-class, highborn father, much like Jon Snow from A Game of Thrones (both the books and the TV show). Byamba receives respect from his father and his half-brother, Prince Jingim. He is also a general of the imperial army and the Mongol horde—he will never be Crown Prince like Jingim, but he still holds an important position within the palace.

Byamba occupies an in-between identity as Kublai’s son. He is the Khan’s son, but not quite—not legitimate enough to enjoy luxuries that Jingim enjoys, not quite significant enough to one day ascend to the throne. Yet, Kaidu, Kublai’s cousin, considers him to be a “truer Mongol” than Jingim.

Let’s return to this quote from episode three: “Feast”

“I prefer a 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.”


He is a high-ranking bastard, yet he breaks through class boundaries to become a general and leader of warriors, and the men listen to him when he rallies them to war.

Kokachin | Episode 6: "White Moon"

Kokachin eying her headdress | Episode 6: “White Moon”

Another example of class and identity conflict is Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), the Blue Princess of the Bayaut tribe. Spoiler: she’s not really the Blue Princess. She is a peasant girl named Nergüi who took the place of the real Blue Princess. The real Kokachin decided to kill herself before the Mongols could capture her, and to avoid death herself, Nergüi took on Kokachin’s clothes, name, and identity. It is a large leap for her, transcending from peasant to princess, and she must learn how to conduct herself within the court.

Her relationship with another survivor of the Bayaut tribe, Tulga, is unclear upon further interactions with Marco, but it is implied that they were once romantically involved. Marco catches on and points out that there is no way a princess can marry a peasant. Kokachin crosses these class boundaries, all the while struggling with her identity, in terms of love interests, especially since her role in the show is practically solely as an object of affection for Marco.

Khutulun | Episode 7: "The Scholar's Pen"

Khutulun | Episode 7: “The Scholar’s Pen”

I saved the best for last. Finally, while cultures do collide in Marco Polo, and characters dance along fine lines of class and identity, there are also some incredible women who wrestle with gender expectations—quite literally for Khutulun (Claudia Kim), daughter to Kaidu. She is the warrior princess whose virginity is promised to whoever can defeat her at wrestling.

Historically, Khutulun declared that any man could marry her, but only if he defeated her in wrestling. If not, he owed her 100 horses. She had 10,000 horses and no husband. (She did marry eventually, to avoid rumours that she was having an incestuous affair with her father. It’s unclear who she married and whether she wrestled him or not.)

If only Marco Polo‘s Khutulun had more screen time, because she is fantastic. After an assassination attempt on Kublai, she comes to Cambulac to protect the Khan. “Is she dressed as a warrior or a woman?” Kublai asks Empress Chabi. The empress says it’s the former, and the Khan laughs and says, “I love that girl.” Don’t we all?

Khutulun in no way feels that she is overstepping her boundaries as a woman. She walks and talks with confidence, knowing fully well how in control and how powerful she is.

“Why should we follow the princess?” a soldier demands as Byamba and Khutulun rally the men to prepare to wage war against Xiangyang in episode seven (“The Scholar’s Pen”).

“I understand your apprehension. What does a girl know of battle? What of your great-grandmothers who rode into war with Genghis Khan? To erase your doubts and ease your fears, I will wrestle the best of you.”

They accept this without question and without pause. Of course, they still want her to wrestle the best of them, and they choose Byamba. She uses this to her advantage, and loses on purpose. Byamba knows this, later telling her that he has seen her wrestle better men.

Her union with Byamba will bring her closer to the court in Cambulac, though her real intentions are yet unknown. It is also an interesting situation for Byamba; a bastard will be marrying a princess, thus allowing him to cross class boundaries once again.

Marco Polo stumbles with long scenes of dialogue at times, and its next season could do with better pacing and management of the multiple story-lines, but after ten episodes the show illustrates characters that step beyond normative boundaries. More often than not, these characters prove to be fleshed-out and interesting.

Watch the first season of Marco Polo on Netflix.

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