Everything bar the Chopsticks

T.H. Barrett

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.