Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Lesson 5: On the Road with Marco Polo: Marco Polo in China


The Lesson


A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

A map of Marco Polo's route to and from China.

In the 13th century, a young Venetian named Marco Polo set out with his father and uncle on a great adventure. Following a series of trade routes, they traveled across the vast continent of Asia and became the first Europeans to visit the Chinese capital (modern Beijing). Marco so impressed the reigning emperor of China, Kublai Khan, that he was appointed to the imperial court. For the next 17 years, Marco was sent on missions to many parts of Kublai's sprawling empire. The Polos finally returned to Venice via the sea route. Marco later wrote a book about his experiences, which inspired new generations of explorers to travel to the exotic lands of the East.

Guiding Questions

  • What routes did Marco Polo follow to China?
  • What sorts of natural environments did he travel through?
  • What were the major products China when Marco Polo was there?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will have

  • A basic knowledge of the Mongol Empire and China at the time of Mongol domination
  • A basic knowledge of Marco Polo's role as an offical of Kublai Khan

Preparation Instructions

Read through the entire lesson plan and become familiar with the content and resources. Bookmark relevant websites for later reference.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Marco Polo in China

After a long trek across the Gobi Desert, Marco Polo, his father, and his uncle finally arrived at the Shangdu, the summer palace of Kublai Khan. At last they stood face to face with the Emperor of China (painting available through Asia Source)

At this time, most of Asia was under control of the Mongols, a nomadic people whose homeland was in the Gobi. In the 12th century, Mongol leader Genghis Khan had unified the many tribes of the Mongols and then led armies across Asia.

  • Access The Silk Road available through Asia Source. Scroll down to maps, select empires, then Mongol Empire. As you can see, the Mongol Empire was huge! In fact, it was the largest empire in the history of mankind.
  • Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, now ruled the eastern part of the empire, known as the Great Khanate. Go to Mongol Empire available through Asia Source. Kublai's realm is shown on the map in bright green—it included almost all of the land that makes up modern China.
Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • Who were the Mongols?
  • What was the Mongol Empire?
  • Who was Kublai Khan, and what region did he rule?

Kublai Khan was very impressed with Marco's powers of observation and his skill with language (he had picked up several local languages as he traveled through Central Asia). So he appointed him to his court. For the next 17 years, Marco was sent on many missions throughout Kublai Khan's realm.

Kublai's capital was built on the site of modern Beijing. It was known as Khanbalik (a Mongol term meaning “City of the Khan” [note the alternate spelling: Cambaluc]) and was located about 160 miles south of Shangdu. Kublai's vast empire was made up of mountains, deserts, high plains, rivers, and fertile valleys.

  • Access the Small map of China available through SARAI Find Beijing. The two main rivers in China are the Huang He (Yellow River) and the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River). Find them on the map. Notice that they both flow from west to east.
  • Go to the Elevation map of China available through Ask Asia. Find the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Now find Beijing. Look at the map key. Notice that the part of China colored green has the lowest elevation. This is very fertile farmland watered by the rivers. It is where most of the Chinese people have lived since very early times. Where are the highest mountains in China located?
  • Access Marco Polo: The Glories of Kinsay available through Labyrinth. This description of a Chinese city (Hangzhou) later appeared in Marco Polo's book about his Asian adventures.
Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • What does China look like on a map?
  • What are China's major rivers?
  • Where do most of the Chinese live and why do they live there?
  • What was life like in 13th century Hangzhou?

The Chinese city of Chang'an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. As you would expect, it was a bustling center of trade, where merchants brought products from Central Asia and even as far away as Europe to trade for Chinese products.

  • Access The Silk Road. On the left margin scroll down to Maps, click Trade Routes, then China 2. Point out the locations of Chang'an, Khanbalik, and Shangdu.

The major Chinese products of the 13th century were silk, ceramics, carved jade, lacquerware, and tea.

View images and descriptions of these five Chinese products by accessing the following resources available through Asia Source:

Guiding Questions for Discussion:
  • What were the major products of 13th century China?
  • Where does silk come from, and how is silk cloth produced?
  • What are the origins of Chinese pottery and porcelain?
  • What is jade and why is it difficult to carve?
  • What are the special properties of lacquerware?
  • How is tea produced, and why did drinking tea become such a popular pastime?


Distribute copies of the blank map of China, which you downloaded while preparing this lesson. Instruct the students to label the approximate locations of Beijing (Khanbalik), Shangdu, and Chang'an, referring to the maps previously viewed. You might also wish to have them sketch in the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers as well as the Taklimakan and Gobi Deserts.

After completing the map, have the students choose one of the five products described in this lesson (silk, porcelain, jade, lacquerware, and tea) as the topic of a short report. Additional information can be found through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library.

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Journal writing
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)