A manuscript that is supposed to be an Italian trader’s account of visiting China four years before Marco Polo is being published later this year, The New York Times reported Sunday.
The manuscript details a six-month visit in the years 1271-72 by an Italian Jewish trader named Jacob. He went to the southeast Chinese port of Zaitun, from which the English word “satin” was derived, the Times said.
The first-person account describes a busy, wealthy harbor city; streets filled with carriages; a populace that included Jews, Muslims, Africans and other Europeans; presses with movable type that printed free newspapers; and a somewhat sexually permissive society where women dressed immodestly and argued for free love.
Jacob ends up fleeing Zaitun for his life when a political debate he had been invited to participate in turns violent.
Jacob describes foot-binding, tea-drinking, gunpowder and paper money, and he seems particularly disturbed by the sexual codes of Zaitun, quoting a Chinese woman who tells him that “just as a man takes a concubine for his delight, so may a woman take a lover to herself for her own pleasure.” Jacob also writes that women dress in clothes “so thin that a man may see their bodies” and that they “give no value to being chaste, just as others think adultery no shame, nor even to bear children without concern.”
Little, Brown and Co. is publishing an English translation of the manuscript in November, the Times said. The translator, David Selbourne, a British scholar who taught political philosophy at Oxford, said he cannot make the original text public.
He told the paper 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 owner’s identity. He further speculated that anti-Christian remarks in the manuscript may have been a reason it was kept secret.
The secrecy surrounding the source of the manuscript raises questions about its authenticity. But if it is for real, scholars consider it an immensely important discovery.
A message left Sunday at Little, Brown’s office for publicity in New York City was not returned.
Selbourne’s claim about the document was reported in the Feb. 18, 1996, edition of The Sunday Telegraph in London. He told the newspaper he was shown the document about 1990.
“I pledged not to disclose the owner’s identity and where he is. He’s elderly, and the provenance of the manuscript is doubtful. He may not have any legal entitlement to it,” Selbourne said at the time.