Vol. 20 No. 24 · 10 December 1998
David Selbourne’s City of Light, which purports to publish a Jewish account of China in the 13th century and which my review last year (LRB, 30 October 1997) described as a forgery, has reappeared in paperback. It was strongly championed by Melanie Phillips in the Sunday Times of 18 October. In this piece Phillips takes issue with my review on grounds that I believe to be dubious, although she states correctly that I make three concessions: that my point of view is narrow (I am only concerned with the reliability of City of Light as an account of China – a mere seven chapters out of ten), that a genuine travel account may have been extended by inauthentic material (I cannot tell if the non-Chinese remainder is genuine or not) and that I have not read the whole book (I find insoluble problems every time I try).
But she is wrong to say that I suggested ‘degrees were unavailable in the 13th century.’ What I said was that some of the degrees mentioned in the text were probably extinct. She quotes me as saying: ‘Jews couldn’t have been living in Zaitun because the port was too obscure to attract foreigners’ – my very words. Now look at them in context: ‘Obviously some errors in the text may be accounted for by perfectly simple hypotheses: when Jacob avers that Jews have lived in the port he visits for “more than one thousand years”, one can easily imagine that this is mere exaggeration – as it has to be, since the port concerned was probably too obscure to attract foreigners even five hundred years earlier, and too insignificant to enter Chinese records at all much earlier than that.’ Brilliant journalism, but utterly pointless.
In support of her own views, Phillips cites Wang Lianmao of Quanzhou Maritime Museum. The Chinese text of an interview with Wang makes it clear that he would like to believe the account genuine, but he too finds errors in it and avoids a definitive verdict. I am more convinced than ever by the paperback edition of the unreliability of City of Light: not one of the dozen or so substantive charges against it made in my review has been answered in the Afterword, while an expanded note on the puzzling ‘Baiciu’, evidently included by Selbourne to allay my suspicions, proves that this garbled name of a famous rebel was only known to the narrator of the account in a form which derived from an 18th-century misreading of an Arabic manuscript – as good a proof as any that something is badly amiss.
I am no expert on Sino-Jewish contacts, nor on the 13th century, so I consider myself open to correction, though certain in my overall conclusions. Next year an academic review of Selbourne’s work by experts in the appropriate fields will appear in the Journal of Asian History, and they will assert that City of Light ‘was written in English by Dr Selbourne and Dr Selbourne alone’. I mention this because I doubt that it will merit half a page in the Sunday Times.
School of Oriental and African Studies
Vol. 21 No. 1 · 7 January 1999
Professor Barrett (LRB, 30 October 1997 and Letters, 10 December 1998) has been conducting a campaign, unsuccessful thus far, to discredit my translation of the Ancona MS, to which I gave the title The City of Light. Last autumn, he went so far as to call a public meeting at SOAS, entitled ‘The Faking of The City of Light’, to which he did not have the courtesy, or courage, to invite me.
At this meeting I gather that it was alleged by a member of his audience that, inter alia, ‘the Jews’ had a penchant for using Chinese themes and settings for profit, from the writing of Suzie Wong musicals to the confecting, in my case, of bogus, long, detailed, medieval Italo-Hebraic manuscripts of travels to the Orient. (Would that I were so skilful and scholarly, for then I, too, might have become a Sinologist, rather than a benighted – or, in some versions, duped – hoaxer.)
Despite this libellous activity, over which he should begin to take a little more care, Professor Barrett admits that he still has not read my translation in its entirety – an extraordinary admission for a serious scholar – because of undisclosed ‘insoluble problems every time I try’. Perhaps if he could tell us what these ‘insoluble problems’ are, we might all better understand the source of his animus.
Whenever one ground of his objections has been refuted, or found wanting, he has responded by changing tack, retreating on large issues – as over his foolish assertion that there could not have been any Jewish merchants at all in the southern Chinese port of Zaitun, when Jacob of Ancona categorically declares that there were – and advancing on smaller ones. Now Professor Barrett has identified a single word, the name ‘Baiciu’, as the supposed Achilles heel of Jacob’s splendid work.
Barrett claims that ‘Baiciu’ – a transliterated approximation to the name of a medieval rebel who beset southern China and which appears in my translation of Jacob’s text – comes from ‘an 18th-century misreading of an Arabic manuscript’ and is therefore an anachronism. I cannot follow Professor Barrett far down the foxhole into which he has currently retreated. But it is a fact that the Ancona manuscript contains many proper names of Chinese personages transliterated as Jacob of Ancona heard them. Some of them I could neither decipher nor identify, as I admitted in the first edition. Others I identified clearly. Others again I believed I had identified, but sometimes only by imposing a reading on unclear orthography. (That is how translation of an ancient manuscript goes.)
Among the names was one which looked in the MS like ‘Baiciu’ or ‘Banciu’. When searching for corroboration of Jacob’s references (a lengthy and arduous process) I found a ‘Bae-choo’ referred to in James Finn’s The Jews of China (1843), who fitted, closely enough, the sparse details about him in the Ancona MS. I took the view that Jacob’s ‘Baiciu’ or ‘Banciu’ and Finn’s ‘Bae-choo’ were the same person. There are justifiable doubts about the correct spelling of this name and my editorial work here may be in error, but this cannot be ground for arguing, conspiratorially, that ‘something is badly amiss.’
The situation now is this. Wang lian-mao, the secretary-general of China’s Research Association for the History of Chinese Contacts with the Outside World, and curator of the Quanzhou museum (in the former Zaitun), has declared that ‘The City of Light has aroused great interest among historians and scholars in China, particularly in Quanzhou.’ He affirms that ‘most scholars’, basing their opinions on ‘historical facts, especially the culture of Quanzhou, take positive views about its truth’. He has added that ‘somebody who was not actually there [i.e. in Zaitun] could not have recorded things in this way’ (Wan Wei Bao, Beijing, 21 August 1998), and that other information in Jacob’s text ‘cannot but be historical’. Wang has also criticised the inaccuracy of Western scholars’ observations on Sung China during this dispute, some of which are pronounced to be ‘beneath consideration’. In the meantime, Chinese translations of The City of Light are being prepared in Shanghai and Taipei.
Finally, I note that Professor Barrett concedes in his letter that he is ‘no expert on Sino-Jewish contacts, nor on the 13th century’. In which case, he has no business continuing to make ex cathedra pronouncements on both.
Professor Barrett tells us that in his review of David Selbourne’s translation of The City of Light he did not write ‘degrees were unavailable in the 13th century’ in China, as I reported in the Sunday Times on 18 October, merely that ‘some of the degrees mentioned in the text were probably extinct.’ What he actually wrote in his review was this: ‘Jacob mixes with graduates holding degrees in the Chinese classics, in law, in mathematics and calligraphy – a gross anachronism, since such a range of degrees was unavailable in the 13th century.’
My own reference to Barrett’s charge was unfortunately cut in my published article in the Sunday Times. What I wrote was this:
For example, he said that there were no 13th-century Chinese degrees in the classics, law, maths or calligraphy, although Jacob described such graduates in Zaitun. But the definitive reference on this period of Chinese history by Jacques Gernet says, on the contrary, that scholar officials had to pass exams. The most brilliant careers were promised to holders of ‘various kinds of doctorate’ (letters, law, history, rites, classical studies), and there were doctorates of philology, history, ritual, law and exams for military and medical officials. ‘The exam system reached its perfection during the Sung period,’ says Gernet.
In other words, the ‘range’ of degrees Barrett claimed did not exist feature in the account of the period by its foremost scholar. According to Barrett, I used his remark that ‘Jews couldn’t have been living in Zaitun because the port was too obscure to attract foreigners’ out of context; he had merely referred to the ‘error’ in Jacob’s claim that Jews had lived in Zaitun for ‘more than a thousand years’. Again, my article was cut at this point. What I actually wrote was this: ‘Barrett wrote that Jews couldn’t have been living in Zaitun for more than a thousand years, as Jacob suggests, because the port was too obscure to attract foreigners even 500 years earlier. Chinese speakers say the term “a thousand years” does not have a precise mathematical meaning in Chinese, but simply means “a very long time”.’
Barrett subsequently told me that according to an Arabic source, Italian Jewish merchants would have been trading with Zaitun, directly or indirectly, for about 400 years by the time Jacob was supposed to have arrived. Yet he now uses this fact to attack Jacob’s ‘staggering’ ignorance of the political environment of the area, given its long history of Jewish trade.
Barrett not only contradicted his original charge, then, but effectively stood it on its head to make a fresh one. He has also retracted the claim in his review that Jacob’s use of the word manci for Chinese people was a ‘startling’ anachronism, since it was an ‘opprobrious’ term used by the Mongols who conquered Zaitun after Jacob’s visit. He has now told me that after ‘the opportunity to reflect further’ he has concluded that manci ‘could have been used by Jewish merchants trading with South China shortly before as well as after the Mongol conquest’.
What is ‘staggering’ is that, by his own admission, Barrett did not even read the book before stating categorically that it was a forgery and that he could show exactly how it had been forged. He told me that – despite his particular area of expertise being medieval Asian religion – he hadn’t realised the book contained as much religious material as it does. This was because, he said, he hadn’t read it through but had looked instead only for its historical references, since he had gained the impression from earlier reviews that the book was a forgery. He had read these reviews, he said, consulted a history of China and an unrelated Chinese manuscript, rushed into the offices of the LRB, got hold of a copy and written his damning review within a week. Why should any of us take seriously a word he says?