From the 1950s until quite recently, one of the major projects of Chinese and Japanese Marxist historians has been the search for the so-called "sprouts of capitalism". These elusive pieces of vegetation are supposed to be the economic and social phenomena that would prove that China developed according to the universally valid "iron laws of history", on a journey through primitive, slave-owning, feudal and capitalist society, to its inevitable accession to socialism and communism.
Many of these sprouts were located in the China of the Ming dynasty, which ruled from 1368 to 1644, and is widely accepted to have presided over a period of unequalled economic development. Rightly discredited today for its naive teleology, and largely abandoned in China itself now the Communist Party is less directive of historical enquiry, the sprouts-of-capitalism episode was nevertheless valuable in permitting close scholarly attention to Ming culture and society.
Building on that foundation and on his own impressively extensive reading in the primary sources of the period, Timothy Brook has produced a highly readable and important volume that needs to be engaged with by historians of "early modern" Europe as much as it will be welcomed by China specialists.
The best available introduction we have in English to Ming China, the book's broadly chronological narrative structure means it can be read by those with no previous orientation in Chinese history. The text is thickly studded with telling details in the new historicist manner, and it is imaginatively illustrated. Brook divides the Ming into three "seasons": winter, spring and summer, with an autumnal coda examining the years in which the social and political fabric came apart with shocking swiftness. Through it all run the twin discourses of commerce and culture, the book's major theme being how the latter came to terms with, naturalised and even came to delight in the former.
From a starting point in which merchants occupied the lowest rung of the idealised (and never realised) structure favoured by the anti-commercial ethos of the Ming dynasty's founding emperor and its land-owning elites, by the 17th century the "Lord of Silver" was a less threatening, even a welcome presence in the lives of that same elite's descendants. By 1600, commerce was a cultural practice in its own right and all aspects of culture, from artworks, books and fashionable clothes to education and leisure services, were commercial commodities. One of the book's strengths is this sense of change, and no one reading it will again feel comfortable with the "ageless China" stereotypes of Hegel-derived western historiography, or with the Chinese nationalist discourses of innate and unchanging "Chinese values".
If Marxist historiography was obsessed with the "forces of production", it is consumption that now interests much enquiry into Europe in the equivalent centuries to the Ming. Put in its crudest form, much of this work can sometimes seem like an argument that the West was somehow set on the path to modernity by its higher degree of materialism. Alternative explanations for a perceived European exceptionalism can feature anything from the spread of printing to the invention of pornography. What these explanations usually share is an unwillingness to look elsewhere on the globe before pronouncing on what is distinctive about Europe. Brook's volume ought to be read by all historians before they make such pronouncements. Not that he is attempting to prove that China is the same as early modern Europe: "China was not generating capitalism in the late Ming. This is not to say that China 'failed' to generate capitalism. Rather it created something else: an extensive market economy that used state communication networks to open links to local economies, organised rural and urban labour into consecutive production processes in certain regions without disrupting the rural household as the basic unit of production, reorganised patterns of consumption without entirely severing consumption from production, and knit itself slowly but surely to gentry society in ways that would erode the Confucian disdain for commerce and result in a powerful condominium of elite interests in the Qing. But this was not capitalism in the European sense."
Brook delivers an alternative "early modernity", which implies the possibility of an alternative "modernity" - a decentring of the single narrative of history in favour of something less secure but infinitely more engaging.
Craig Clunas is professor of the history of art, University of Sussex.
The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China
Author - Timothy Brook
ISBN - 0 520 21091 3
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £ 35.00
Pages - 320