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


The Ming dynasty is one of the most recognized periods of the Chinese economy for various reasons. Past literature has demonstrated some of the changes that occurred in the economy of China over the Ming dynasty, resulting in the perception that the dynasty was probably one of the greatest periods of economic advancement in China, and borrowing from that period can result in consistently good outcomes in Chinese economic growth. Timothy Brook provides a cultural and economic perspective to the Ming dynasty changes in China that gives a different outlook from what has been given by many authors in the sense that the book is not only historical but also perfectly aligned to provide a descriptive, as well as future looking interpretation, of the Chinese economy during the Ming dynasty.

Economic Changes during the Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty is considered one of the key periods of Chinese economic growth of all seasons. Compared to other countries, China could be the leader in the world economy over the period due to the extent of trade that occurred. In Timothy Brook’s book “The confusions of pleasure: Commerce and culture in Ming China,” the author describes the Ming dynasty through concepts of culture-driven economic change. From his perspective, during this period, Chinese trade heightened exponentially, resulting in a high valuation of silver as a mode of payment (Brook 208). The preference of silver in trade led to difficulty in tax payment across many provinces. Nonetheless, most parts of China were capable of undergoing very dynamic changes in economic culture through the period, which leads to the dispelling of the British regime as the center of economic development over the same period.

Over the Ming dynasty, China moved from the public ownership of the production industry to privatization. The change from state-owned enterprise ownership to privatization was driven by the rise of a powerful group of merchants, who took ownership of the tea and salt industries. During the same period, the Ming reverted to the previously used laissez-faire policies through staff privatization. The implications of this kind of reform were varied based on the perspective of consideration. According to Brook, changes were such that the private individuals drove the Chinese industry towards success (202). Other changes also occurred in the period, for instance, the increase in wage labor. Some industries were driven entirely by wage laborers. For instance, the pottery industry in Jingde, was operated entirely through laborers.

One of the most affected aspects of the Chinese economy during the Ming dynasty was the change in currency. Considering the currency as the center of all trade in any economy, any changes in the currency result in significant change in the entire economic system. During the Ming dynasty, paper currency was introduced to replace some silver coins for trade and this led to restricted outflows (Brook 206). The key challenge that resulted from the introduction of this currency was massive counterfeiting and the subsequent hyperinflation, which led to the reduction of the currency value to almost 0.014% of its original value. The notes, however, were left in circulation through late 1573 although printing of the currency had stopped in 1450 (Brook 208). These changes had great impacts on people’s decision-making processes, especially in business and tax compliance.

Reactions of the Moral Scholar Elite to the Economic Transformations

One of the commonly cited impacts of the Ming dynasty changes was on the interpersonal relationships, especially among leaders and the literati. According to Zhang, the roles and duties of the literati were clearly defined in the Chinese context based on a moral platform (5-6). Moral persecution was thus an essential outcome in the Ming dynasty among both the leaders and the literati. Personal tragedies and socio-political opportunities came about as a result of tensions and contradictions across the roles and responsibility differences among the elite. The Ming dynasty imposed conflicting moral responsibilities on men in the categories requiring moral balance between their roles and responsibilities as individuals and those accorded to people in leadership. The competing moral obligations led to tension between the duties of loyalty and filial piety, which were considered the most important duties of the literati. The impacts were profound, with an increase in the martyrdom stories. Gendered concerns also became part of the norm.

Brook diverts from the conventional descriptions of the literati’s moral obligation based on emperor stories as depicted by many of the past literature. For instance, he uses stories of bandits, women, and workers to explain the context of moral change within the Chinese society of the Ming dynasty (Brook 169). Such stories help in explaining the reactions of the morally aligned literati to the economic changes not only from the perspective of leadership and politics but also from the viewpoint of day-to-day life. Another example given is the response of the moralists to the merchant privatization activities in trade. The moralists considered the period leading to consumerism as a period of decay. In particular, they felt that the economic register had replaced the moral register status that had been previously the measure of rightness and wrongness in the society (Brook 201). Inevitably, such perception changes resulted in a laxity to serve the moral obligations associated with the literati as more conspicuous consumption became prevalent.

The Four Seasons

The concept of the four seasons used by Brook (1-320) was borrowed from Zhang Tao, who used this framework to depict the Ming dynasty as a transition from self-sufficient rural communities to commercial decadence, through a cyclic pattern (Yee par. 2). Brook’s argument was that the periods described, “A coherent arc of change from ordered rural self-sufficiency in the early Ming to the decadence of urban-based commerce in the late” (p. xvii). The four seasons’ metaphor, therefore, perfectly explains the cultural and economic changes in the Ming dynasty, clearly bringing out this transition from rural self-sufficiency. However, it is important to note that the transition itself is by no means the denominator for season discontinuation. The ‘winter’ season can be considered the rawest form of Chinese economy adapted from the period prior to the Ming dynasty. The period of self-sufficiency was characterized by state ownership of resources, the state obligations in commercial regulation and link between the merchants, the markets, and luxury goods in the markets.

The other periods are similarly characterized by specific aspects of economic progression, which highlight the transformation from the previous economic status to the next. In autumn, there was an unfreezing process whereby the textile industry boomed. This could have been through the realization that the economic systems were shifting to privatization through the dynasty. Brook posits that in the ‘spring period,’ “claims about a rapacious and anti-commercial Ming state thwarting the growth of the commercial economy” seemed forced (p. 107). This is an indication that while there could be arguments that the Ming dynasty government pushed for the changes in economic relations, they neither openly prohibited trade relations nor encouraged them. Other seasons also have similar descriptions that bring the reader from the raw economic periods to that of success that is more conspicuous. Through this metaphor, the author, therefore, used a good strategy to put his points across.

Author Perspective on the Commercialization Process

From the book, Brook’s view of the commercialization and consumer culture development can be said to be ambivalent in the sense that he recognizes both the strengths and the processes of commercialization as necessary yet potentially culturally changing. The author considers some aspects such as the labor structure positive, and others that he considers negative such as the loss of moral inclination. The book provides a multifaceted outlook on the Ming dynasty, particularly on the impacts of the economic changes on the lives of the gentry, and can be a gold mine for those who desire to understand the concepts of cultural change within the context of the Ming dynasty and the leadership of China at the time. Yee (par. 8) describes the feelings of ambivalence through the assertion that Brook (1-320) used independent sections and prose narrations to make the Ming dynasty changes clear enough in terms of its impacts on the people more than his negative aspects.


Works Cited

Brook, Timothy. The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. University of California Press, 1999.

Dardess, John W. “The confusions of pleasure: commerce and culture in Ming China (review).” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 30, no. 3, 1999, pp. 562-563. muse.jhu.edu/article/15852

Yee, Danny. The Confusions of pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China – A Book Review. 2005. Retrieved fromdannyreviews.com/h/Confusions_Pleasure.html. Accessed 31 October 2018.

Zhang, Ying. “Politics and Morality during the Ming-Qing Dynastic Transition (1570-1670).” PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2010. Retrieved from deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/77736/yingaa_1.pdf