The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China is an influential work in the field of sinology by Canadian scholar Timothy Brook. The book examines the changing social landscapes of China during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and explores how these changes are fuelled by the interaction between economy and culture. Perhaps more importantly, the book contributes to our understanding of the puzzle of the Great Divergence between China and Europe. It asks, what is the reason that China failed to develop a modern capitalism like its European peers? Why, for China, the dawn of modernity had been so slow in coming?
The book opens by describing what Ming’s founding emperor Hongwu saw as ideals for his empire. At the start of his reign, Hongwu’s goal was to immobilise the realm. The Ming Code, the compendium of the core laws of the dynasty, sought to block social as well as physical mobility. Severe punishment awaited anyone who travels beyond 100 li (58 kilometres) from his home without permission. Undocumented travel abroad entailed execution upon return. Switching occupation could result in similar penalties (“the son of an artisan was an artisan, a soldier’s son a soldier.”) To intervene with the circulation of ideas, Hongwu also made books documenting his own thoughts and reflections mandatory reading, and printed in massive volumes books that he wanted people to read — mostly Confucian classics, administrative handbooks and moral primers. To regulate the economy, the emperor tried to control prices, as well as to limit marketplaces to within cities. All of these efforts, in Hongwu’s imagination, were to preserve the agrarian society of his ideal — families were self-sufficient, people valued benevolence and deference, “between elder and younger, respected and mean, there was gradation; between close and distant, honoured and base, there was moral distinction.”
It is thus hardly surprising that the “moral decline” in late Ming was deemed unacceptable by many. In classic Confucian ideology, the gentry is placed at the top of the hierarchy, while merchants were at the bottom. However, in late Ming, merchants have made fortunes that could match the most established gentry households; the escalating fashion in luxurious clothes has erased the apparent distinctions between social classes; commercial sex, even buying sexual services of boys, was commonplace among the rich. Commerce was held as the culprit of these radical changes. Commerce, according to scholars at the time, flourished with a force that reduced all social relationships to their financial cores. In particular, its social effects — class polarisation, exploitation, impoverishment — were deemed as corrosive of the moderate Confucian vision of class hierarchy, paternalism, and subsistence.
Is this view necessarily true? Is commerce what ultimately led the Ming dynasty to its downfall in 1644? Brook holds an opinion different from the Ming scholars. He argues that, to survive the dynastic transition, the gentry class often had to rely on their ties to the commercial world. Between the commercial and cultural elites, therefore, the event of 1644 is not a manifestation of one group’s triumph over another; on the contrary, it is the knitting together of these two groups that preserved the fundamental social structure, as well as the conservative values of patriarchy, hierarchy and ruling class justice of traditional Chinese society beyond the fallen Ming empire. As such, a teetering commercial sector was never allowed to operate independent of political power. This is certainly detrimental to — if not altogether prohibits — the emergence of modern capitalism.