Translation describes China before Marco Polo Original document isn't made available

September 21, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

On an August day in 1271, if the story is to be believed, a four-masted 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 Jacob 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.

Zaitun, from which the English word "satin" is derived, was then one of the busiest ports in the world.

Jacob, who identifies himself as the son of Salomone of Ancona, a city in northern Italy, 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.

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. Selbourne says he was allowed to publish the text on condition that he not show the original to others.

Inevitably this raises questions about authenticity.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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