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The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (1998)

by Timothy Brook

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872231,850 (3.28)2
The Ming dynasty was the last great Chinese dynasty before the Manchu conquest in 1644. During that time, China, not Europe, was the center of the world: the European voyages of exploration were searching not just for new lands but also for new trade routes to the Far East. In this book, Timothy Brook eloquently narrates the changing landscape of life over the three centuries of the Ming (1368-1644), when China was transformed from a closely administered agrarian realm into a place of commercial profits and intense competition for status. The Confusions of Pleasure marks a significant departure from the conventional ways in which Chinese history has been written. Rather than recounting the Ming dynasty in a series of political events and philosophical achievements, it narrates this longue durée in terms of the habits and strains of everyday life. Peppered with stories of real people and their negotiations of a rapidly changing world, this book provides a new way of seeing the Ming dynasty that not only contributes to the scholarly understanding of the period but also provides an entertaining and accessible introduction to Chinese history for anyone.… (more)

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  sasameyuki | May 12, 2020 |
The rise of commerce during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) brought with it the rise of private wealth and the status of merchants. This was quite alarming to many; Confucius had taught that the four classes of society were (from top to bottom): literati, peasants (who earned their high status by farming the land), military, and way down at the bottom, merchants. During the Ming, however, elitist scholars could turn into rich merchants, and land-owning peasants could take on the lifestyle and accessories of members of the court

Author Brook traces this evolution, its sources, repercussions and outcomes, but in the end concludes: "However thoroughly commerce had replaced paternalism and deference with a wage relationship, or however well some individuals managed to step over social barriers and move up the social ladder, or however deeply the successful were troubled as standards and distinctions seemed to dissolve beneath them, the class system of overlordship and deference that held the Chinese world together at the beginning of the Ming was still there at the end" (p. 260).

The stories of who, what, when and how are to be found in the preceding pages, and explain many aspects of Chinese society that one may have wondered about elsewise--for example, why certain luxury goods were considered 'collectibles' by some and 'unworthy' by others, why fashions changed in clothing, in art, etc., and the dynastic transition to "the gentry-merchant fusion of the Qing" (p. 262).

Readers will be introduced to Zhang Tao, a minor official in 1609 (near the end of the Ming) who fretted: "Those who enriched themselves through trade became the majority, and those who enriched themselves through agriculture were few. The rich became richer and the poor, poorer."

Brook's writing and stories are always enjoyable and colourful ("...as he sat at his desk putting his papers in order to the whine of summer cicadas...") and the woodcuts at the beginning of each chapter and throughout, delightful additions, but I found myself wondering over the book's potential readership. It is neither academic, nor entirely general reader-friendly. It assumes a fair amount of background concerning China (dynasties, philosophy, political structure) yet has enough anecdotes to move readers along through the slower bits. But for anyone wondering how scholar and merchant would find themselves sitting at the same banquet table one day, this is a good place to start. ( )
  pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
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The Ming dynasty was the last great Chinese dynasty before the Manchu conquest in 1644. During that time, China, not Europe, was the center of the world: the European voyages of exploration were searching not just for new lands but also for new trade routes to the Far East. In this book, Timothy Brook eloquently narrates the changing landscape of life over the three centuries of the Ming (1368-1644), when China was transformed from a closely administered agrarian realm into a place of commercial profits and intense competition for status. The Confusions of Pleasure marks a significant departure from the conventional ways in which Chinese history has been written. Rather than recounting the Ming dynasty in a series of political events and philosophical achievements, it narrates this longue durée in terms of the habits and strains of everyday life. Peppered with stories of real people and their negotiations of a rapidly changing world, this book provides a new way of seeing the Ming dynasty that not only contributes to the scholarly understanding of the period but also provides an entertaining and accessible introduction to Chinese history for anyone.

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