The Confusions of Pleasure:
Commerce and Culture in Ming China

Timothy Brook

University of California Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
The founder of the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu emperor, came from a peasant background and idealised autonomous, self-sufficient agrarian communities; the dynasty he founded, however, was to oversee the economic transformation of China. Timothy Brook's study of this in The Confusions of Pleasure is more a cultural than an economic history, focusing on changing attitudes to trade and commerce and their effects on everyday life. It is an engaging exploration of the nooks and crannies of Ming society.

Brook takes his framework from Zhang Tao, a minor official and moralist who wrote around 1600. Zhang saw the Ming dynasty as a progression from an ideal of self-sufficient rural communities to commercial decadence, which he fitted into a cyclic seasonal pattern. This is used for the chronological division of The Confusions of Pleasure: Winter, Spring, and Summer each cover roughly a century and Fall the final years of the Ming. Zhang Tao's is obviously a literary view, but Brook tries to present non-elite stories and perspectives as well, not just those of emperors and scholars: women, bandits, workers and many others feature.

From the inscriptions on a brick in Nanjing Brook teases out something of the life of kilnmaster Lu Li and the workings of the lijia registration system. To illustrate the workings of the post and courier systems, he describes the conveyance of a Persian embassy in 1420-22 and of shipwrecked Korean sailors in 1488. "Winter" (1368-1450) goes on to look at literacy (using personal journals and land contracts) and printing, at the role of the state in the regulation of commerce and the food supply, and at merchants, markets and luxury goods. It concludes with the gap between rich and poor and the rebellion of Deng Maoqi in Fujian in 1448-49, suggesting that "the nature of the landlord-tenant relationship was changing as commerce and the need for silver grew".

"Spring" (1450-1550) saw a "retreat of the center"; here Brook looks at prefect Xu Jie and the administration of Wuhu, the problem of vagrants and the mass avoidance of registration, especially by women, and the failure of the state to respond to famines. The new ideas of Qiu Jin illustrate an increasingly positive view of markets and merchants — and this was a period when both textile industries and maritime trade boomed. Though commerce was never systematically encouraged, neither was it actively hindered for the most part, bans on foreign trade notwithstanding: claims about "a rapacious and anticommercial Ming state thwarting the growth of the commercial economy seem forced".

The lives of Huizhou merchants illustrate the gentrification of merchants and the increasing role of commerce in the lives of the gentry, underpinning connoisseurship of antiquities and fine living and, through printing, scholarship and the dissemination of knowledge. Many moralists saw the Zhengde reign as a period of decay, idealising the past, and indeed "the moral register of status had been replaced by an economic register as conspicuous consumption removed the patina of polite elegance from wealth".

"Summer" (1550-1644) saw conspicuous consumption in the dedication of massive metal buddhas — and their theft or confiscation for their copper, which was used for coins. Communications and mobility improved, with the spread of printing, news, and letters and an increase in private travel for pilgrimages, business and pleasure. Brook touches on debates over the textile industry's role in the development of capitalism and differences between China and Europe. He covers trade, merchants, and merchant values. And he describes fashions in clothing, collectibles, and sex (courtesans and pederasty) and the "floating world" of Hangzhou. The sources used in this section include the "Family Instructions" of a Miao lineage, an astrological almanac, and travel writings and route books.

In a short "Fall" (1642-1644) Brook describes the careers of two gentry during the Ming-Qing transition, whose survival was assisted by commercial skills and networks. Characters from four stories in Li Le's commonplace book offer additional perspectives on the late Ming. And The Confusions of Pleasure ends with Zhang Tao's final years and the limitations of his analysis of the Ming dynasty.

The Confusions of Pleasure tackles a broad canvas using a fascinating variety of sources. The result is in some ways scattered, but individual sections cohere and the overall effect is that of a mosaic, a multi-faceted picture of Ming China. The independence of individual sections also makes for easy reading and with Brook's lively prose (and a small but helpful selection of woodcuts from the period) the result is a book that may appeal even to those with no knowledge of the period. The Confusions of Pleasure will be a gold-mine for those curious about the historical underpinnings of Chinese commercial traditions — and the gap between the ideology and the reality of economic life under the Ming is reminiscent of modern China — but is recommended to anyone curious about other ways of viewing the world.

May 2005

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%T The Confusions of Pleasure
%S Commerce and Culture in Ming China
%A Brook, Timothy
%I University of California Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0520221540
%P xxi,320pp