The Confusions of Pleasure

The Ming dynasty, the last great imperial house before the Manchu conquest in 1644, ruled China for nearly three centuries. 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 whole of the Ming dynasty, during which China was transformed from a closely administered agrarian realm into a place of commercial profits and intense competition for status.

The central theme of this beautifully told social and cultural history is commercialization. Using the cranky jottings of a Ming official named Zhang Tao as signposts, Brook draws on his extensive readings in Ming sources to demonstrate how commerce transformed Chinese society. Commerce did more than simply circulate goods, as contemporary commentators such as Zhang Tao knew. It remade society and refashioned ideas by tying producers and consumers together into relationships that bypassed Confucian values. It turned knowledge into a commodity. And it bound artisans full-time to weaving, potting, and fashioning the objects that urban populations in China and abroad were eager to consume and that museums today are eager to collect. The new commercial wealth, Brook finds, was thinly distributed among the rapidly growing poor at the margins of society. Concentrated in the hands of the fashionable urban elite, however, this wealth constituted and important new social basis of power. Throughout, Brook interweaves the musings of Zhang Tao with tales of bricklayers, merchants, officials, prostitutes, silk weavers, publishers, and bandits.

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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