‘Marco Polo’ Fact Check: What Really Happened With the Child Emperor of the Song Dynasty?

The Netflix show has often played fast and loose with history, and the fate of Emperor Zhao Xian is no exception

marco polo child emperor zhao xian gong

(Spoilers for the first two episodes of season 2 of “Marco Polo” are included in this post. And a disclaimer: As a dramatization of historical events, “Marco Polo” will of course not follow historical records to the letter. This “fact check” is for fun, not criticism.)

As the second season of the Netflix original series “Marco Polo” opens, the Mongol Empire is dealing with the aftermath of its victory over the Chinese Song Dynasty at Xiangyang in the first season finale.

The victory still pretty fresh, the Mongols are an occupying force in southern China — and most of the locals aren’t too happy about it. But the Song Dynasty isn’t over yet, even if it’s been defeated and its de factor leader, Jia Sidao, is dead at Xiangyang.

The boy emperor Gong, or Zhao Xian, remains alive, and as season 2 begins, Marco Polo and Mei Lin are tasked with finding him.

They do just that, despite the best efforts of his protector, the mysterious warrior played by Michelle Yeoh. And they bring the young boy back to the court of Kublai Khan, the thought being that Zhao Xian will be held as a protected prisoner who will live out his days either in captivity or aiding the Mongols, similar to how the story of the Blue Princess Kokachin has gone since the show began.

But Ahmad, who is planning to take out Kublai and seize control of the Mongol Empire for himself, convinces the Khan that he should kill the boy, with the reasoning that while he still lives, he will be a symbol for Song holdouts. And at the end of the second episode of season 2, Kublai does kill Zhao Xian by suffocating him.

But was that how the story of Emperor Gong/Zhao Xian ended in the real world? Nope. “Marco Polo” took some major dramatic liberties with the story of Zhao Xian.

According to our histories, there are a bunch of key differences between the story of the Song as presented on “Marco Polo” and real life — such as how Xiangyang had already fallen by the time Zhao Xian came to power at only four years of age in 1274.

At that point, the Song’s war with the Mongols was essentially already lost. Two years into Zhao Xian’s reign, in 1276, the Song were forced to surrender their capital, Lin’an, to the Mongols. And the Mongols didn’t have to hunt Zhao Xian down —  Zhao Xian was purposely surrendered to the Mongols by his grandmother, the Empress Dowager Xie, at Lin’an.

From there, Zhao Xian really did become a protected prisoner of the Mongols’ Yuan Dynasty, and he was even given a title. After a few years, Zhao Xian was relocated to Tibet, where he became a monk at the Sakya monastery. In his 50s, Zhao Xian may have been ordered to commit suicide by Gegeen Khan, the then-Mongol emperor of China. (The Mongol Empire had been divided by that time).

However he died, Zhao Xian wasn’t murdered by Kublai Khan when he was a child, as depicted on “Marco Polo.”