September 21, 1997
A 13th-Century Traveler to China Comes to Light
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
On an August day in 1271, if the story is to be believed, a four-masted sailing ship sailed into the crowded harbor of Zaitun in southeast China, carrying a gray-bearded Italian Jewish trader named Jacob.
An account of Jacob's voyage, placing him in China four years before Marco Polo arrived, has surfaced in Italy. It provides extraordinary images of a civilization that was the most dazzling in the world, describing everything from mass-circulation pornography to an early flamethrower. It recounts how he spent six months in Zaitun and became embroiled in Chinese political debates so fierce he had to flee for his life.
Scholars say that if the manuscript is authentic, it is an immensely important find, a major new source of information about life in medieval Asia.
Little, Brown and Co. is publishing an English translation of the manuscript in November, and a reading of an advance copy suggests that while it lacks the scope of Marco Polo's epic tale, it has similar historical significance and perhaps greater drama.
Zaitun, from which the English word "satin" is derived, was then one of the busiest ports in the world, and Jacob describes "a city of measureless trade" whose "streets are crowded with a vast ebb and flow of men and carriages." He is awed by its fabulous wealth but deeply troubled by what he sees as its moral depravity, particularly among the city's women.
"Thus these give no value to being chaste, just as others think adultery no shame, nor even to bear children without concern, whom often they secretly kill," writes Jacob, who identifies himself as the son of Salomone of Ancona, a city in northern Italy. "All these go about the streets wearing stuff so thin that a man may see their bodies, so immodest is their dress, may God spare me for what my eyes have seen."
He describes a city riven by debates that echo those of today, with elderly scholars condemning young people for promiscuity, for homosexuality, for feminism, for coddling criminals, and above all for being obsessed with making money.
"They bow down and worship the ancestors no more," one leading scholar complains of young people to Jacob. "It is for money and possessions alone that their foreheads touch the earth.
"Now, both young men and young women are in a state of desire, not being satisfied with those things which life brings to them, and being driven to wander in search of pleasures and of other things which are acceptable to them."
A major problem for contemporary scholars is that the translator of Jacob's manuscript, David Selbourne, a 60-year-old British scholar who taught the history of political philosophy for many years at Oxford, says that he cannot make the original text available to anyone else. Selbourne says he was allowed to see the manuscript and publish it only on condition that he not show the original to others or reveal anything about the identity of the owner.
Inevitably this will raise questions about authenticity.
"I wrestled with my own doubts about translating a manuscript to which others would not have access," Selbourne said. "I decided, as I became aware of the gift that I had in my hand, that I had a responsibility to make its contents known."
Frances Wood, a leading British scholar of medieval China and author of a book casting doubt on whether Marco Polo ever went to China, said that she had not read Jacob's manuscript and so could not judge its authenticity. She added that the refusal to show the original to other scholars is "a major problem" and "a great pity."
But Dr. Wood said that Jacob's journey would have been entirely possible, given what is known about the period, and she added that she found the idea of a sea journey as Jacob describes more plausible than the land route claimed by Marco Polo. She emphasized that an account of such a journey would be of enormous historical significance.
"It's fantastically important, because we know terribly little about that period," she said. "It would be of fantastic interest."
Jacob's intent differs from that of Marco Polo, whose manuscript is more of a guidebook about China than a first-person account of a journey. Marco Polo's work is far more comprehensive, for he claimed to have spent 17 years in China and to have been a trusted figure in the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, whereas Jacob's manuscript is more of a first-person adventure story about his visit to a single city.
Yet some experts have long doubted whether Marco Polo ever really went to China, suspecting that instead he cribbed from Persian guidebooks about China to write a book that would win him fame and honor. Marco Polo uses Persian names for Chinese cities, rather than Chinese names, and he surprisingly makes no references to such ubiquitous features of Chinese life as drinking tea and foot-binding.
In contrast, there is no possibility that Jacob was seeking fame with his manuscript, for his account includes constant disparaging remarks about Christians. If the manuscript had become public in his lifetime, he would have risked severe punishment, and Selbourne speculates that the manuscript was kept secret for so many centuries precisely because it is so profoundly anti-Christian.
It is known that many European traders visited China and perhaps lived there, for there are tantalizing remnants in China such as a tombstone in the city of Yangzhou of an Italian girl named Katerina who died in 1342. But because of the turbulence in China over the centuries, little is known of these foreigners or of the daily life of the cities where they lived.
China was in the 13th century probably the wealthiest and most advanced country in the world, with the biggest cities, the greatest shipping, the best doctors and the most sophisticated technology.
Jacob describes with awe the process of printing with movable wooden type, along with such wonders as paper money, free daily newspapers and mass-circulation booklets -- although he laments that many of these are "wicked and base, having images of the act of love and cruel misdeeds."
He offers one of the first descriptions of the use of gunpowder, when he describes a Chinese cannon and what sounds like a primitive flamethrower: "Using a magical powder that bursts and which they place in a tube of iron or copper, they can throw a swift and flying fire to a great distance, and to the great harm of a foe."
Unlike Marco Polo, he mentions that the women "compress their feet, even to the breaking of the bones, so that they should remain small." In an apparent reference to tea, he also describes "a beverage made of small leaves of a bush which is much prized among them but which is bitter to the taste."
Jacob's manuscript describes the foreign community in Zaitun as even larger than one might have expected, with 2,000 Jews and a great number of Muslims along with Africans and Europeans. He is able to find Italian interpreters, a Chinese brother and sister, but dismisses the woman when she turns out to be an outspoken feminist who believes in free love.
"You wish us to be mild and gentle, while you are proud and cruel," the woman tells him angrily, dismissing men as "leeches." "Now, just as a man takes a concubine for his delight, so may a woman take a lover to herself for her own pleasure, according to her choice and will, and in order to satisfy her desires."
Zaitun and Hangzhou were then enjoying their last days of Song dynasty rule, for the Mongols under Kublai Khan had already seized northern China and were working their way south. Jacob records debates among residents of Zaitun about whether to organize an army to fight the Mongols -- and risk a vengeful slaughter if they lost -- or to give up immediately and hope for mercy.
Jacob writes that as a distinguished foreigner, he was invited to join the debates, but they became so furious that they collapsed into mob attacks and his patron was stabbed. Jacob recounts that he rushed from the scene, gathered his notes and set sail immediately, on the night of Feb. 24, 1272.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company