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Timothy Brook


The François-Xavier Garneau Medal


Timothy BrookThe Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998)
Timothy Brooks book offers a wonderfully vivid and complex picture of the economic and social life of Ming China, both as seen by contemporaries and as understood by historians today. Brook takes as his organizing principle a narrative of Ming society given by a provincial magistrate, Zhang Tao, in 1609, some thirty-five years before the dynasty fell to the Manchu. The movement is from a good winter of origin, with an agricultural, hierarchical society, guided by moral principles and containing policies instituted by the emperor in the spirit of order and Confucian teaching to an excessively fertile spring of movement, in which silver, merchants, and commerce disrupt the rightful order and undermine agriculture, to an overheated summer of a society disturbed by greed, money and commerce, the old values destroyed, agriculture weakened, the roads full of vagrants, and the world turned upside down. Brook takes this Chinese perception of time and change, and works within it to explore the character of agriculture, trade, communication systems, and government policy. His sources are myriad: memoirs, letter, moral treatises, treatises on taste and connoisseurship, government reports, and especially the gazetteers produced in numerous Chinese provinces under the editorship of provincial magistrates. He shows the varied ways in which commerce was carried on and expanded, the relations between rice-growing and cotton-growing as textile production increased, the shift from bonded or forced labour service to wage service, and much more – and always through interesting case studies, anecdotes, or contemporary observation.

Especially interesting is his treatment of communication systems, which he would add to Zhang Taos silver and commerce as agents of change; Brook describes the movement of person and troops and other forms of transport, the movement of government documents and of the letters of subjects, and the growth and increased dissemination of block-printed books, all of this with much impact on the social, economic, and cultural life of the Chinese. Finally, Brook adds his own autumn to Zhang Taos seasons, where along with the social fluidity between merchants and gentry and with the upward mobility and quest for elite cultural markers, which allows fake art-objects to flourish, Chinese society is still marked by distinction, master/servant relations (now held together primarily by salary), and by fine intellectual and cultural discrimination. There is continuity as well as change. The transition from Ming to Qing is a beginning as well as an end. Brook has provided a splendid synthesis of the major entwined economic, social, and cultural developments of the Ming period; his way of documenting the story – through fresh sources like the gazetteers – and his imaginative choice of example – adds new depth to our understanding; the style is clear, direct, and easy; the book is a model of the historians craft.