The City of Light 
by Jacob d’Ancona, translated and edited by David Selbourne.
Little, Brown, 392 pp., £22.50, October 1997, 0 316 63968 0
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In the middle of this century, a family tracing its descent from a friend of Marco Polo revealed in the journal Imago Mundi that it possessed ancient maps of Asia bearing annotation in Chinese which purported to derive from the great explorer himself. Unfortunately, that annotation, in a crabbed European imitation of a Chinese hand, includes a phrase corresponding exactly to our ‘terra incognita’, a label unknown to Chinese cartography. David Selbourne was probably unaware of these fakes when he embarked on his translation of the text he now entitles The City of Light, but it is worth pointing them out, just to make clear that the notion that Italian manuscripts concerning medieval Asian travel might be forged is not unthinkable. And there is no question that we shall have to class The City of Light as historical fiction, because it does not derive from a genuine source.

Selbourne brings to us, he believes, the narrative of one Jacob d’Ancona, a Jewish merchant who, towards the end of the 13th century, travels through many dangers via the Middle East and Indian Ocean to Zaitun, ‘City of Light’, now known as Quanzhou, a port on the South China coast opposite Taiwan. This he finds full of foreign traders, including many Europeans, and with the aid of an interpreter who is the half-Chinese son of an Italian merchant, he is given ample opportunity to find out about life in this bustling metropolis. A search for his helmsman, gone missing in the bars and brothels of the pleasure quarters, eventually leads to the discovery that he has been murdered; extensive debates on morality with the scholars and leading citizens of the city become so heated that his patron is attacked, and he decides to flee; it seems, moreover, that Mongol armies are about to invade at any time. Though he has stayed for less than a year during 1271-72, his retrospective account (evidently based on extensive note-taking) is packed with details that Marco Polo missed: printing, tea, gunpowder, bound feet; everything of interest in China, except curiously enough chopsticks.

Selbourne describes the manuscript (unfortunately in private possession and not available for inspection) from which he derives his translation as being of a piece – the product of a single hand – which seems to rule out the possibility of interpolated falsehoods in an otherwise true account. The level of detailed knowledge of China in 1271 that the manuscript includes (the name of the Chief Minister, and of the maritime customs service, for instance) would have been beyond any forger before this century, so foul play in the distant past can also be discounted. Some minor inaccuracies might be explained away as the result of garbled translation from Chinese, even though there is no hint that Jacob’s interpreter is anything other than perfectly bilingual. Minor anachronisms, on the other hand (as Selbourne points out in the case of the word arguni), may indicate the addition of new information reaching Jacob in Italy, to which he returned in 1273 to write up his adventures. In Jacob’s case, one would have to include here, swallowing hard, the startling ‘Manci’, an opprobrious Mongol-period term which Jacob uses for the very China he is alleged to have visited. At least one puzzle Selbourne should be able to explain himself: the rebel ‘Baiciu’, who devastated Canton, is identified by an editorial note: ‘This is accurate; the rebel Bae-Choo carried out a massacre of settlers and those of minority religions in Guangzhou in AD 877.’ Arabic and Chinese materials in fact disagree as to whether this event occurred in 878 (which in the Muslim calendar would include the end of our 877) or 879, but all agree that the city was sacked by the rebel Huang Chao – and I cannot find a ‘Bae-Choo’ in any source at all.

Other details, however, defy explanation. 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. Later, a personage known as ‘Lolichuan’ is identified as the holder of a classics degree. Going through the records of degree-holders for Zaitun maintained over the centuries by proud local historians, I was disconcerted to find one such degree awarded as late as 1196, but I am sure that no one would have carried this extinct tide as much as a lifetime later, and neither ‘Lolichuan’ nor any of the other notables referred to by Jacob matches any contemporary name in any local record. This is particularly vexing in the case of Jacob’s hero and patron ‘Pitaco’, described as a former prefect, but evidently not of Zaitun: the lists of holders of this office stretches back over the generation before Jacob’s arrival and contains 16 names, not one of them remotely similar.

Again, when a Chinese scholar suggests to Jacob an outward similarity between Jews and Muslims, he describes the latter as ‘Hui’, a word which is still in use today. But the Chinese historian Chen Yuan (1880-1971), who devoted a meticulous study to the derivation of this term, found that at first it was applied only to one specific Muslim ethnic group, and was not used as a general designation for Muslims until some time after 1348. I could go on. Jacob decides against a trip from Zaitun to the capital for fear of ‘lions’ on the way: we recall that Marco Polo makes the same mistake in referring to tigers. But Marco made that mistake because he used Persian as his main language in China – it had official status under the Mongols – and in the Persian of that time there was no distinction between the two. Jacob is not presented as knowing Persian at all; his interpreter translates everything said in Chinese directly into Italian. And, to judge by the names and terms that are quoted, even the low-life characters speak a surprisingly modern form of Northern Mandarin, rather than the local dialect.

If we look at the bigger picture, the problems simply get bigger. Jacob finds Zaitun split between elderly sages and young, decadent pleasure-seekers – a convenient picture of moral collapse foreshadowing the political collapse of the Song dynasty. It was a stereotype that went back much earlier than Confucius, and one on which historians who were inclined to moralise could do so at length whenever they suspected a recurrence of the pattern. But in fact the fall of China to the Mongols always rather baffled Chinese scholars accustomed to this mode of thinking, and the grounds for their perplexity have recently been explored by Richard Davis, Jennifer Jay and other experts in the United States. They have found that, far from having sunk into amoral pleasure-seeking, surprisingly large numbers of Chinese of all ages continued to resist the Mongols, often in quite pathological ways, including mass suicide.

Could it be that Zaitun was a special case? To judge from a painstaking study of its rise to prominence, published in 1991 by Hugh Clark, it may have been. In 1271 Zaitun was still a vibrant society, but its glory days were already in the past; it had indeed been plagued for more than a century by a deep split between idle luxury and stern industriousness. But this was not a generational split: rather, it was between the cosmopolitan citizens of the town itself and members of a branch of the Imperial court, billeted there after the fall of North China to invaders in the 12th century. Clark’s study shows clearly that these parasites (evidently invisible to Jacob) inflicted substantial (and demonstrable) damage on the local economy. Even so, that economy was still strong enough in the mid-13th century to support many pious works. The two great granite pagodas that distinguish the city even today were finished in 1250, and we read of one Buddhist monk spending the subsequent decade building and repairing more than 200 bridges – a picture of practical religious devotion that makes Jacob’s account of temples deserted by all but a handful of elderly clerics utterly unlikely.

By about 1250 a successful campaign against piracy had brought the head of the customs service to such prominence that he went on to run the city singlehanded for at least thirty years, and most probably died of old age some time after 1284. If only a Jacob d’Ancona had really travelled to Zaitun in 1271 and returned to tell his tale, we would know more about this local potentate, Pu Shougeng, one of the most remarkable figures of his age. Long ago the Japanese scholar J. Kuwabara established that Pu Shougeng’s family was not even Chinese, but of Arabic descent, and yet, after recovering from a series of commercial setbacks, this Muslim trader turned admiral turned administrator came to dominate Zaitun through his wealth, power and position. Such was his grip on the customs revenues that we can be sure he would not have countenanced the free port which Jacob allegedly discovers Zaitun to have been in 1271.

If Jacob had really wanted something to write home about from Zaitun, he would have had to stick around to see matters out. When the resistance against the Mongols reached its endgame, and the main Imperial family were driven from their capital, it was to Zaitun that they retreated, to beg a reluctant Pu for his fleets in order to keep their cause alive. In desperation they tried to take his ships by force; he went over to the Mongols, massacred all the Imperial family’s relatives within the city, withstood their last-ditch attacks on his stronghold by buying the defection of their allies – who were recruited from non-Chinese tribes people – and lived on to win yet higher honours from Khubilai Khan, after the surviving Imperial princes and their entourage had sailed off to their ultimate doom.

That came in 1279. Blockaded in atrocious weather in the naval stronghold of Yaishan, not far west of what is now Hong Kong, with the remaining loyalist troops exhausted by constant Mongol attacks, the Chief Councillor heading the vestigial civil administration announced to the seven-year-old child emperor, last of a line stretching back over 300 years, that the time had come to die for his dynasty. Then, taking his lord in his arms, he jumped into the sea. According to the Chinese chronicler, tens of thousands upon tens of thousands followed. It was not until a week later that Mongol soldiers, looting among the floating bodies, came upon the corpse of a boy dressed in Imperial yellow. After despoiling it of all valuables, they informed their commander, who hurried to the scene, but the mortal remains of the last ruler of the Song dynasty were never seen again, as the tide of history closed over him and his kin for ever. Had a real Jacob d’Ancona stayed on in Zaitun only a few years longer, he could have told a tale of almost operatic dimensions, even fuller of enmity, betrayal and violence – though probably with much less sex – than the one David Selbourne has set before the public.

The impact of this book will be dispiriting for anyone interested in Chinese history. It is hard enough nowadays to get our children and students to do their homework, so when even our forgers turn out to be unacceptably indolent, there can be little hope for education. Whoever cooked up this essay on Zaitun deserves very few marks as a student of Chinese history, since they miss all the major points of interest. Plainly, he or she does know a fair amount about medieval Italy and about Judaica, has a better than average knowledge of India and China and shows an intelligent interest in medieval ideas on politics, religion and morality.

Some may feel that Selbourne should have been able to spot the forgery, but I think he can be forgiven. The tale of Jacob d’Ancona must have offered an unexpected challenge, and his critical faculties may have become somewhat dulled. It is much harder to understand why, when a glance at this lavishly produced book with its many illustrations and ample margins suggests that large sums of money have been devoted to its design and promotion, his publishers appear not to have checked with a recognised expert about the time and the place allegedly described in a manuscript which they were obliged to accept sight unseen. The City of Light has a great deal to teach us about the perils of pursuing profit at the expense of respect for learning. In that sense, it is a very contemporary document indeed.

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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.

T.H. Barrett
School of Oriental and African Studies
London WC1

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.

David Selbourne

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?

Melanie Phillips
London W12

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