Friday, March 28, 2014

'The City of Light' Jacob D'Ancona

Naturally, a manuscript

Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose

In 1990, renowned Jewish scholar David Selbourne is shown a manuscript that has lain hidden for seven centuries in a private collection. The manuscript is in medieval Italian and purports to be the first-hand account of a journey made by a Jewish merchant from the town of Ancona in Northern Italy to the city of Zaitun in China in the years 1270  to 1273.

The manuscript details the perilous journey made by Jacob and his fellow merchants by ship to the eastern end of the Mediterranean, then by camel caravan across the Syrian desert, then by ship again down the coast of Asia Minor, across the Indian Ocean, through the Java Straits and up the coast of Vietnam to the coastal city of Zaitun, modern day Quanzhou, in Fujian province. The travellers are beset by tempests, pirates, plague, boredom; they are feasted by relatives and business associates among the Jewish diaspora in every major port they call at; they conduct their business, selling and buying and exchanging goods for specie or gemstones that they sew into their clothes and keep secret. All through the voyage, Jacob maintains his Jewish observances, celebrating the Sabbath – which means not drinking water or disembarking on that day – studying his Torah and keeping to a kosher diet. 

Once arrived in Zaitun, the City of Light, Jacob becomes involved in the dispute currently raging in the city between two parties. The first is the party of merchants – the new and very rich middle class who are clamoring for a greater say in the city’s affairs and for a higher status generally; the second is the party of the traditional scholar elite, led by the elderly former prefect Pitaco, who decry the loss of traditional Confucian values and who are determined to put a stop to the encroachment of modernity and internationalism represented by the merchant party. During the debates, various themes are aired; including the role of education, the differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity (Jacob indulges in some rather juicy rants against that man as he calls Christ and his followers), the best way to deal with the poor, the nature of duty, the best form of government and so on. One of the most interesting aspect of these central sections is the emphasis on a Jewish response to Chinese culture. Most medieval or pre-modern accounts of China are by Christian and usually Jesuit sources, and they interpret China through the lens of Christianity. It’s refreshing and important to have another light shed from a different direction. Jacob is a follower of Maimonides, and his speeches to the Chinese reflect that.

The debate between the two parties is given focus and urgency by the fact that the Mongols are every day coming nearer to the city to conquer it, as they have already conquered Northern China, and to bring Zaitun within the fold of their newly established Yuan Dynasty. We are in the last days of the Southern Sung, and there is a mood of impending doom and change. The argument between the two parties develops into full blown civil riot, and Jacob is compelled to flee the city precipitously in fear of his life.

Jacob gives us a detailed description of the city, its inhabitants and their way of life, especially the seedy underbelly of the city with its prostitutes, singsong boys and thieves. He describes the quality and enormous variety of the goods he buys and trades there, and although he is rather vague about the full extent and details of his profits, we understand that they are considerable. He is full of information about the Jewish trading diaspora, about the economics of long distance trade, about his travelling companions, about the perils of sea travel and trading patterns between Asia and Europe. The manuscript gives a fascinating account of a voyage not unsimilar to that made by Marco Polo at around the same time to Northern China, and reinforces many of the observations Polo makes about his sojourn in China. It adds considerably to our knowledge of Jewish trading practices in the thirteenth century, rounds out our knowledge of the Southern Sung, confirms many of the details given by Polo in his narrative, and is generally a fascinating and intriguing read.


Is it genuine? No one else except David Selbourne (and its mysterious owner) has seen the manuscript, for reasons Selbourne outlines in his first chapter, and its veracity has been called into question by several specialists on China, not least among them Jonathan Spence, who pointed out in a review in the New York Times in 1997 that Jacob’s manuscript could easily have been pieced together from various contemporary sources by someone who knows those sources intimately. Spence argues that the appearance of novelistic elements undermines the realism of the work as pure reportage. Other reviewers have suggested that the whole thing might be a very ingenuous post-modern novel, in the manner of say, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which also purports to be based on a newly discovered manuscript in medieval Italian. While Western sinologists, economic historians and historians of Jewish culture have pointed out inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the text, Chinese commentators, on the other hand, have been much more positive, praising the accuracy of the description contained within it of daily life in the Southern Sung.

Selbourne has responded to all these criticisms in detail in an afterword to the paperback edition. He has pointed out that the original document of Marco Polo’s travels has never been found (we only have copies of copies of copies) but very few doubt the authenticity of that account, so why doubt the authenticity of this manuscript, which has also not been seen by scholars? Selbourne refutes in detail many of the accusations of inaccuracy or anachronicity pointed out by reviewers and scholars, and wittily deflects the suggestion that it is a novel. But the question remains: if it’s not genuine, is Selbourne himself the author of the text, or is he the victim of a forger? The answer will never be known until an independent eye can also see Jacobo’s manuscript, and as Selbourne has repeatedly asserted that this will never happen due to circumstances beyond his control, the status of the text remains undecided.

There are times when the text reads as an authentic document, when it confirms or adds to what we know about European trade with China in the thirteenth century, specifically those sections of the text that describe the voyage out and home, and the descriptions of trading practices, and of the city of Zaitun. But there are others - especially the long central section in the debates between the two parties contending for control of the city - when it reads more as a novel, a Philippic, a Jeremiad, a satire in the style of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes.

In this debate, the long speeches given by the Confucian scholar Pitaco can be read in two ways: as an example of the standard kind of criticism Confucian scholars leveled against merchants – who throughout Chinese history have traditionally been regarded as scum- and also at the same time as an example of a cranky old man lamenting the sorry state of the modern world, you know, ‘the youth of today have no respect for their elders’, kind of thing. The speeches given by the merchants, on the other hand, sound like the typical justification for naked greed given by today’s neocon libertarians.

Here is Pitaco:

The world under heaven falls; princes grow feeble and the Tartars approach, but sage leaders do not appear. In the past, a man of noble feelings and wise counsel but poor in possessions was admired, but now others look upon him with contempt as if he had lost his way. For men and women now do as they please, thinking that even marriage is a curb upon their desires. Moreover, those without learning now feel no shame to make known their foolish judgments as though they were wise.

Isn’t this the kind of thing elitists and conservatives say nowadays, about the decline of values and the growth of stupidity?

Here is Ociuscien, a prominent merchant:

By his trading, the merchant creates riches for others as well as for himself. From these riches spring many benefits for the poor, while, from his getting, carrying and selling, like an ant, he sets an example to others of constant labour and gain. In addition, through his powers and those of his brother merchants, a means is gained not for the pillage of the city or for the destroying of its ways, but for the protection of the city from the tyrant who would seek to oppress its citizens with unjust tithes and dues….

Isn’t this a typical Randian, small government, tickledown view of economics?

There is the sense in reading these debates that Jacob is not just speaking of his own times, but also to ours; and indeed one perceptive critic noted that By coincidence, much of what Jacob d'Ancona dislikes in thirteenth century China is what David Selbourne dislikes in late-20th century Britain. However, if it is a novel, why would Selbourne persist in claiming that it is not, given that, if it is, it’s an astounding work of great complexity, profundity and originality. If it’s a forgery, on the other hand, what would motivate such a complex hoax, and who would hope to gain from it?

Either way, the City of Light is not only Zaitun, but more generally is the blazing commercial center of a London, a New York, or a Shanghai, all glitter and pleasure, but with a heart of darkness and barbarians mustering at the passes. Considered as genuine historical pronouncements, the debates exemplify the circularity of history, that there is nothing new under the sun; considered as fiction, the text articulate some of the tensions of our present moment of late stage global capitalism.


Crowds of men day and night run through the streets in the search of prey, while each fears the next, so great is the suspicion that one man has for the other. For this is the City of Light, which you, sires, have created, in which although the lanterns glitter in every place, there is only darkness inside men’s souls.


Flighty said...

I agree with your argument. Long before deciding to probe the internet I was feeling that the book is a mirror to 2017, Trump, Putin and Brexit. But how can that be since Selbourne starts in 1990...the Fall of the Wall and all that. Some things ring true..even today...I have been to Cambray (Khambaht) and lived with the pearl and diamond cutters. He describes the tulou in the mountains of Fujian, but does not name them; surprisingly not referenced since they are so spectacular. So it leaves you pondering. My own feeling...that maybe there was an original account but by earlier rewriting it has been embelished ...and then some by Selbourne. The manuscript needs to be carbon dated..... I think Jacob was a bit of a prig!

Tiberiu Weisz said...

I just published my book "A History of the Kaifeng Israelites: Encounters of Israelites in Chinese Literature" (2018) and I devoted an entire chapter to the story of d'Ancona's "City of Light". I am puzzled by the ferocity of the criticism on the translator, David Selbourne, and the expectation of Western scholars of such a manuscripts. I am fluent in Classical Chinese and equally fluent in Hebrew and biblical Hebrew, and very aware of the changes occurring in meaning of the Chinese characters in different dynasties and regions. Actually, to identify the Israelites in Chinese Literature, I had to acquaint myself with local Kaifeng and Quanzhou (Zaitun) vernaculars of the 13th century. Often I had to consult with Classical Chinese scholars in Tunghai University to help me with with the local idioms. To my surprise I found that d'Ancona's description of the Jews of Zaitun matched narratives in Chinese literature, and his discourses with the Chinese sages were not strange to the Chinese. Chinese literature mentioned similar discourses between Israelites and Mozi (4th century BCE) about burial, and Mencius (3rd Century BCE) about burial and cleaness/kosher, and a segment of the Mishna (Jewish interpretations of the Law) found its way in an imperial decree the Wei Dynasty (4 century CE).
I think that people should read the book "City of Light" in the context of local Chinese history, and with little leeway for exaggerations , the book is a narrative of an eyewitness account at the dawn of the Song Dynasty.