Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Confusions of Pleasure

Book Cover

Book Title

The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998


Brook, Timothy


This book is a cultural history of Ming China, more specifically about the role of commerce in remaking society during the period. Showing us how in the early period, there was self- sufficiency, and later, a culture of urban based commerce, where agriculture was made inferior to enriching oneself through trade. Whilst this led to moral decay, it also meant that power was now able to be purchased by capital. Trends such as population growth, the creation of regional and national commercial networks, and the appearance of silver from foreign lands in the Chinese market give context to our understanding of sources produced at this time.

By studying commerce through the experience of being Chinese, the book investigates records left from the period- it takes them and incorporates them into a structured account of the centuries of Ming China. By using the text of a minor official at the time, Zhang Tao, the book is structured in an arc of four seasons. Whilst acknowledging that this structure is cyclical and that of a rise and decline, has an understanding that the elite structure, whilst facing dynastic collapse at the end of the Ming era, was still in control and had a broader base of social power.

Being an expansion from the author’s work in a chapter of The Cambridge History of China (vol. 8), the work is about both the pleasures and confusions created by wealth, this being the result of commercialization as a whole.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book covers the Ming China period. The presence of a genealogy of Ming emperors at the beginning, alongside a chronology of events that the author deems important to the period, allow for a clear understanding despite the breadth of the material. By exploring the main topic of commoditization, the book relates to parallels of the past to the present, post Mao era. By neatly dividing the book into seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall) and following a chronology of centuries from 1368-1644, the book is able to address topics in each period such as the state’s involvement in the economy, the luxury trade, commerce and connoisseurship among others.

By putting forth that this period is not necessarily unique, and that the “confusions of pleasure” had been present within a broader time period due to the tenuous relationship between economic progress and social structures, the study situates itself as a presentation of the period and factors involved in shaping it, without assuming any larger centrality to Chinese history. The book examines sources in detail to reconstruct the period, and in doing so, gives a human texture to the study of the time: sources range from essays to epitaphs.

By using illustrations and even drawings of evidence of superstitious beliefs, Brook takes historical developments (such as epidemics) and gives them a cultural significance. This is further supported by stories of people at the time.

The book is overall a good account of the Ming period in Chinese history, especially as an assessment of indigenous development at the time.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book situates its study to the particular aspects of development during the Ming. However, it looks specifically at the social and cultural effects of commerce, arguing that an economic history is unable, at the time of the book’s publication, to be written due to limitations of knowledge. Brook puts forth that commerce dominated both due to and despite of the agrarian order instituted by the Hongwu Emperor at the beginning of the dynasty.

Critically, Brook submits the argument that China had a global economic significance in the period, further, that it was the lucrative economic prospects during this time in China that encouraged Atlantic trade. Thus, the study is relevant to understanding a facet of global commercial power during the period of 1368-1644, whilst also demonstrating that the past cannot be seen as simply contributing to the present, but must be understood to have developments that contradict and conflate- giving the impetus to study a historical period for its own merit.

Examining social change and the ability of social distinctions to dissipate but also be reinforced, the study reflects, thematically, the ways with which we could read change in the period. By using a diatribe against commerce as the guide for the study, it is written as a history of the period in order to understand the story of decline presented in the diatribe- this way, we see the world of the Ming from and in relation to, the characters that make up this part of Chinese history.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh