Timothy Brook’s book, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China is a detailed account of the three centuries of the Ming Dynasty in China. The book allows an opportunity to view this prominent time period of Chinese history. Confusions of Pleasure not only chronicles the economic development during the Ming dynasty, but also the resulting cultural and social changes that transform the gentry and merchant class. Brook’s insights highlight the divide between the Ming dynasty’s idealized beliefs, and the realities of its economic expansion and its effects. Brook describes this gap through the use of several first hand accounts of individuals with various social statuses.
Traditionally, the Confucian model of society was organized with the gentry at the very top, and the merchant as a class on the bottom (Brook, p. 134).
Examination system. This exact system is what allowed one man named Zhang Tao to gain a position within the gentry.
Zhang Tao would become a mid-level bureaucrat during the later-Ming period. Written about only once, Zhang Tao is considered to be a minor figure in Ming Dynasty history (Brook, p. 6). Nevertheless, Brook uses Zhang Tao as the hindsight for the nearly three centuries of dynasty before him. However, as a moralist, Zhang Tao romanticized the early Ming period. His commentary is gathered from his writings in the Sheh county gazetteer (Brook, p. 87). Borrowing this format from Zhang Tao, Brook uses the seasons to divide various periods of the Ming Dynasty.
The first segment, Winter, archives the earliest years of the Ming dynasty between 1368 and 1450. The social hierarchy of early Ming was based upon the ownership of land (Brook, p. 79). One way to describe the increasing power of the gentry is to examine the attempts made to suppress their position. Through various structures within the lijia taxation system, the first Ming dynasty emperor, Hongwu, attempted to equalize balance of landholding power. To combat landlordism, he employed various strategies such as heavy taxation on the largest landowners of Jiang-nan (Brook, p. 79). However, these attempts were not enough to undermine the gentry’s landholding power (Brook, p. 79). With his late-Ming perspective, Zhang Tao would later write, “the rich get richer and the poor, poorer” (Brook, p. 79). This reflection would further gain relevance and legitimacy as the Ming dynasty advanced.
There was also resistance from the lower classes. Led by Deng Maoqi, in Fujian during 1448-1449.
Early Ming representations of merchants include the view, “…people too up trade because they couldn’t service by staying at home and tilling the fields as they were supposed to. Faced with starvation, they took to the roads as peddlers (Brook, p. 71). However, the allure of a mercantilist life instead of the typical agrarian existence would soon fall into favor.
Spring details the century between 1450 and 1550. Brook opens the chapter with Zheng Tao’s statement,...