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The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

Author(s):Brook, Timothy
Reviewer(s):Lufrano, Richard

Published by and EH.Net (August, 1998)

Timothy Brook. The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming

China. Berkeley: University of California, 1998. xxv + 320 pp.

Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, glossary, and index. $40.00 (cloth),

ISBN 0-520-21091-3.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Richard Lufrano

, College of Staten Island

Timothy Brook’s The Confusions of Pleasure began as a chapter for the

Cambridge History of China surveying communication and commerce in Ming

China (1368-1644). As the author writes, this straight-forward task appears

to have expanded to examine the influence of economic change on social and

cultural life.

Instead of a chapter, the project became an independent book that now serves

two related purposes. It provides an eloquently written and comprehensive

account of commerce and communication in Ming China especially valuable for

scholars working on related questions in other geographical areas. For the

specialist, as well as others, the book makes a fundamental contribution by

offering a more balanced view of how money and the market economy affected

social hierarchy, elite status, and social mobility. Brook is careful to

inform the reader at the beginning that he is not writing an economic history

of the Ming, something he believes

impossible at this stage of research. (The reader will nevertheless find much

here that he/she would expect in an economic history.) Instead, he supplies an

overview of the development of communications systems and commerce (thereby

fulfilling his original assignment for the Cambridge History of China,

although the publisher here is different) and its influence over the course of

the dynasty. Many previous chapters in the Cambridge volumes emphasized facts

and statistics over style; Brook provides the kind of comprehensive coverage

that characterizes the Cambridge histories but also brings the period to life


viewing it through the eyes of contemporaries–visiting envoys from Persia,

ship-wrecked travelers from Korea, and particularly members of the

Chinese elite.

Brook, with the help of a gentry guide, divides the book into four parts–the

first century, the middle century, the last century, and the dynasty’s

fall–while tracing “a coherent arc of change from ordered rural

self-sufficiency in the

early Ming to the decadence of urban-based commerce in the late” (pp.

xvii). The account relies on an abundance of primary sources,

the author’s previous work, and the prominent work of scholars such as Craig

Clunas, Valerie Hansen, Tanaka Masatoshi, Wei Qingyuan and Wu Chengming. The

survey however is far from a cut and paste job. Brook, for example, challenges

convention by showing that despite the efforts of the founding emperor early

Ming China was not the agrarian paradise the emperor sought.

State polices themselves, by providing for stability (leading to increased

agricultural production) and ignoring commerce in the countryside, actually

stimulated and encouraged the growth of commerce. The author periodically

throughout the survey indicates

areas where the development of commerce in China, so similar in many ways to

that of Europe, also differed. His overall position is that European-style

capitalism did not develop in China by the end of the Ming and he defines what

did develop.

This is

not to say that China ‘failed’ to generate capitalism. Rather, it created

something else: an extensive market economy that used state communication

networks to open links to local economies, organized rural and urban labor into

consecutive production processes in certain regions without disrupting the

rural household as the basic unit of production,

reorganized patterns of consumption without entirely severing consumption from

production, and knit itself slowly but surely to gentry society in ways that

would erode the Confucian disdain for commerce and result in a powerful

condominium of elite interests in the Qing (p. 201).

On a more micro-level, the survey supplies the nuts and bolts of communication

and commerce—state communication networks, modes

of transport, merchant routes, mail delivery, markets,

monopolies and so on. The only surprise for the non-specialist is the lack of

any discussion of banking during the Ming. The specialist will know that

significant developments in Chinese banking came during the next dynasty but

there should be some indication here that the banking system was relatively


Beyond the survey, Brook shows how these economic, commercial,

and structural developments affected the cultural and social world. The

accepted belief is that the increasing influence of commerce facilitated

social mobility, weakened social ties based on deference and paternalism,

blurred distinctions between the elite and others, and challenged gentry

efforts to maintain social dominance. Indeed, our gentry guide, Zhang Tao,

who lived near the end of the dynasty, lamented commerce’s influence and its

effect on social hierarchy. Brook, while not necessarily rejecting this

understanding, suggests we are only looking at part of the picture; by the end

of the dynasty, elite attitudes toward commerce had changed, an accommodation

was reached between gentry and merchants, and social hierarchy and elite status

after the mid-seventeenth chaos not only survived but was actually

reconstructed and strengthened in the new dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912).

Rather than reading the history of the Ming in the way Zhang Tao did–as

commerce bringing on irreversible decline and dynastic collapse–the author

urges us to examine how the burgeoning commercial economy provided material

that was then incorporated into a more complex construction of elite status.

By telling the stories of two gentry members during the Ming/Qing transition,

he also shows that practical skills related to the commercial economy

helped individual members of the gentry survive and shore up their own

positions and as well as that of the elite itself. There is an implicit

contrast here with the Yuan/Ming transition of the fourteenth century when few

elite families were able to make

the transition.

We already knew that gentry families in the late Ming turned to commercial

activities to maintain their economic position.

Brook, relying in part on Clunas as well as his own earlier work, shows us the

range of more subtle ways gentry families used social capital related to the

commercial economy to re-configure elite status and maintain their social


In so doing he connects the two parts of the book. Commercial networks and

printing, for example, made knowledge of varieties of rare plants and

vegetables more widely available, and this knowledge was subsequently

incorporated into the social capital needed to join the ranks of the elite: “To

know which plants to appreciate was not neutral knowledge but part of what

someone needed to command in order to share in the cultural world of elite

life, where such things mattered. To discriminate between plums as better or

worse was also a way of discriminating between social betters and everyone

else” (p. 136). In another example, knowledge of commercial networks changed

attitudes toward travel, previously thought morally dubious, into another

“gentry project of cultural refinement” where a “craving for travel set the

gentry traveler apart from the laboring merchant and the common sightseer”

(pp. 181,182) In another case, Zhang Tao may have regretted the restless

changing of sartorial fashion induced by the market economy but members of the

elite used it to maintain social dominance. As soon as the lower orders

mastered one style

of dress the elite were on to the next.

Thus, at the same time most gentry were bemoaning the effects of the market

economy, the bulk of them were eagerly accommodating themselves to the new

situation, (hence the confusions of pleasure). This reconfigured elite status

was more variegated and elusive than the elite status of the early Ming.

If the market economy provided so many beneficial and pleasurable

opportunities, why did the gentry continue to decry it? Brook explains that

the mid-Ming gentry in

particular used this as a rhetorical strategy to escape from a predicament.

They were [the emperor’s] obedient servants whose conduct conformed to

Confucian principles. But with reference to the local context, they held no

formal franchise. Their social mobility gave them an informal power, but that

was hard to justify in terms of Confucian ideals of deference and obligation to

the imperial order that the magistrate represented. At the same, the social

forces that had propelled them into prominence we re throwing up more

competitors from below (p. 140).

The rhetorical strategy was to “bewail the decay of the age and portray

themselves as civilization’s last great hope”(p. 140).

These laments also signaled “a desire to identify and control anxieties a

rising from a social nexus in which they have the most to gain, if perhaps

potentially the most to lose” (p. 151).

Timothy Brook’s argument about changing elite status is convincing and provides

us with a more fine-tuned picture of late imperial culture

and society. The establishment benefited from the market economy in complex

ways; social capital and practical skills derived from the market economy

allowed for greater continuity during the Ming/Qing transition than during the

Yuan/Ming transition and

helped reconstruct elite status and strengthen social hierarchy and the

position of individual elite families. The author reinforces our long-held

view of the great continuity between the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The older view of the influence of the market economy however must not be

forgotten. Despite the greater complexity and elusiveness of elite status

during the Qing, people below the elite still used wealth to struggle mightily

to achieve that status; they did not give up hope of social mobility and

tensions did not dissolve. Brook suggests that the gentry became more

accepting of commerce from the middle century to the end of the Ming, indeed

that the social personality of the gentry had changed. In many respects this

acceptance of the realities of the commercial world is true of the Qing as


even some anti-commerce conservatives accepted the premises of a market

economy. Yet we can still hear laments on the ill effects of commerce every

bit as severe as Zhang Tao’s,

especially during

times of economic downturn in the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth

centuries, and some elite writings still show “anxiety about the moral

degeneracy of trade” throughout the dynasty. The causes that created the

rhetorical strategy in the Ming after all had not disappeared, despite the

gentry/merchant fusion and Gu Yanwu’s and Feng Guifen’s calls for

constitutional changes in the role of the elite in local government.

Furthermore, we can wonder if the reconstruction of elite status continued

under the

peace and prosperity of the “long”

eighteenth century, when commercial practices evolved, new commercial

institutions appeared, the population exploded, and respectable careers outside

the bureaucracy proliferated. In a related way, we can also ask how

representative the two gentry members who managed successfully the Ming/Qing

transition were.

The author here is suggestive albeit perceptive and persuasive.

Will broader studies show that other families survived in the same way? Or

were more traditional

strategies still central to survival?

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval