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The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

by Timothy Brook

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The Ming dynasty was the last great Chinese dynasty before the Manchu conquest in 1644. 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 three


The Ming dynasty was the last great Chinese dynasty before the Manchu conquest in 1644. 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 three centuries of the Ming (1368-1644), when China was transformed from a closely administered agrarian realm into a place of commercial profits and intense competition for status.

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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The Confusions of Pleasure

Commerce and Culture in Ming China

By Timothy Brook


Copyright © 1998 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92407-9



The First Century (1368–1450)

Every family was self-sufficient, with a house to live in, land to cultivate, hills from which to cut firewood, and gardens in which to grow vegetables. Taxes were collected without harassment and bandits did not appear. Marriages were arranged at the proper times and the villages were secure. Women spun and wove and men tended the crops. Servants were obedient and hardworking, neighbors cordial and friendly.

Zhang Tao

The first Spring Festival of the Ming dynasty ushered in a year of the monkey. By Western reckoning, the festival was celebrated on 20 January 1368. Then as today, the first day of spring was the most joyful and noisiest annual holiday. Accounts having been settled the day before, people went out to greet relatives, meet friends, and launch each other into the bustle of the coming planting and business year. In Zhang Tao's home county of Huangpi, the highlight of the day was a procession of musicians who fluted and clanged their way out to the eastern suburb, led by members of the local gentry. There they paraded the ceremonial clay ox and the figurine of Strawgod who drove it into the new growing season. Absolutely everyone went. The clamor and crowds made it the liveliest day of the year.

Zhang Tao may not have cared much for Spring Festival. At least, he certainly disliked spring. To him, the three quiet months of winter that preceded Spring Festival were best. Winter was the season he chose in his gazetteer of Sheh county as the metaphor for the spirit of settled village life in the early Ming, a spirit of self-sufficiency, diligence, and mutual accord. The dream of order was indeed strong in 1368, for China in the decades leading up to 1368 had been anything but orderly. The fourteenth century was one of the most calamitous of the last millennium, not only in China but all over the globe: one of every three winters exceptionally cold; plague flowing east and west from High Asia; famine, depopulation, and agricultural decline. In keeping with the times, the Yangzi and Yellow River floodplains had been awash in armed struggle for seventeen years before 1368 as Chinese rebels contended among themselves for the right to drive the Mongols from China after their century-long occupation. Among them was Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–98). In 1367, all rivals defeated, Zhu declared that the next Spring Festival would mark the beginning of his new dynasty. On that day in 1368 he ascended the throne in Nanjing as the Hongwu ("Vast Martial") emperor. (He would be canonized after his death as Taizu ["Ultimate Ancestor"], a name by which he is also known.) In September 1368, the last forlorn Mongol emperor had been chased in disarray from the throne in Beijing. Hongwu ruled the realm.

The evil times had taken a terrible toll. The emperor knew that he ruled over a realm where "households had disappeared and the land was uncultivated." His first appointees as county magistrates made their way to their offices, or yamens, to find devastation, dearth, and desertion. "All the people have fled and disappeared," one magistrate observed when he arrived at his county on the other side of the Yangzi River from Nanjing in 1369. He set about "calling the people back, returning them to agriculture, setting up schools, and rebuilding the yamen." Gradually former residents were induced to return and reclaim the war-torn landscape. Magistrates were judged on the basis of how many came back.

Once reimposed, stability had to be protected. Emperors of the earlier Song dynasty had sought stability by securing the loyalty of elites and giving them a stake in the new regime. Hongwu, a former Buddhist novice and himself a victim of midcentury famines, had a poor man's distrust of elites. He turned for his allies to the common people and spent the three decades of his reign devising regulations more interventionist than anything a Chinese state had ever imposed, and exceeded only by the Communist Party six centuries later. The emperor's vision of an agrarian order was the Daoist model of a little elite of virtuous elders supervising self-sufficient villages and forwarding modest taxes to a minimalist state. Cultivators were tied to their villages, artisans bound to state service, merchants charged with moving only such necessities as were lacking, and soldiers posted to the frontier. Administration would be placed in the hands of a small educated class on whom the people themselves would keep vigilant watch.

Hongwu's goal was to immobilize the realm. People were to stay put and could move only with the permission of the state. The emperor imagined 20 li (12 kilometers) to be the farthest distance anyone should go (exactly the distance that a thirteenth-century English legal treatise used to define "neighboring," as this was the maximum distance a short-hauler could be expected to cover to get to market and back in a single day4). Hongwu wrote into law an outer limit of 100 li (58 kilometers); one needed a route certificate to go any farther, and to do so without one cost a person a flogging of eighty strokes. Undocumented travel abroad entailed execution upon return. The Ming Code, the compendium of the core laws of the dynasty, sought to block social as well as physical mobility. The son of an artisan was an artisan, a soldier's son a soldier, and the penalties for switching occupations just as severe as those for jumping physical barriers. This was Zhang Tao's winter of content.



Lu Li made bricks in central China in the first decade of the Hongwu reign. Lu Li is a simple name for a simple man who had no education other than having mastered the technique of firing clay bricks. Brick making was one of the lowliest jobs an artisan could do. Lu was a step above the ordinary laborer, however, for he operated the kiln. This could be delicate work, since the kilnmaster had to make sure that the temperature inside the kiln stayed at a level that caused the clay to shimmer with the color of molten gold or silver. He also had to know when to quench the kiln with water so as to produce the surface glaze. (See figure 4.)

To anonymous laborers fell the less skilled stages of brick production: mixing clay and water, driving oxen over the mixture to trample it into a thick paste, scooping the paste into standardized wooden frames (to produce a brick roughly 42 centimeters long, 20 centimeters wide, and 10 centimeters thick), smoothing the surfaces with a wire-strung bow, removing them from the frames, printing the fronts and backs with stamps that indicated where the bricks came from and who made them, loading the kilns with fuel (likelier wood than coal), stacking the bricks in the kiln, removing them to cool while the kilns were still hot, and bundling them onto pallets for transportation. It was hot, filthy work. (See figure 5.)

Really, we know nothing about Lu Li. We know only his name. You can find it on one of the bricks cemented vertically in the upper wall of what used to be called the Gate of Assembled Treasures, which was the gate in the south wall of the inner city of Nanjing. Nanjing had been Zhu Yuanzhang's headquarters since 1356, and it became the capital of the dynasty in 1368. Zhu had begun the work of building the massive wall around Nanjing in 1366, though little of it still stands today. The Gate of Assembled Treasures is the only full gate still intact. Allegedly it got the name from a great porcelain dish (a "basin of assembled treasures" or jubao pen) buried in its foundations. This dish had been in the possession of the fabulously wealthy Shen Wansan. Zhu Yuanzhang had acquired it in a fit of jealous desire—or as a gesture of righteous leveling, depending on your perspective. He forced Shen to pay for roughly a third of the cost of building the city walls, took over the man's private garden as an internment camp for the Ministry of Justice, and confiscated his household goods to furnish the palace. He completed his expropriations by exiling Shen's entire family to virtual extinction on the frontier as border guards.

Walk around the terrace on top of the Gate of Assembled Treasures and you soon discover that many of the long gray bricks have inscriptions stamped into their surfaces. Among them is at least one of Lu Li's bricks (see figure 6). Its reverse side reads like this:

Ten-Tithing Xi Junweng Tithing Head Fang Chaozhang
Kilnmaster Lu Li
Brick makers
Guangfu Monastery

Lu Li's name does not appear out of pride in his work. It was legally required, following a practice that goes back almost two millennia before the Ming, when the state of Qin required weapon makers to inscribe their names on the weapons they made. Signing meant that each individual piece could be traced to its maker should the weapon prove substandard. The same logic of responsibility was what put Lu Li's name on the brick.

The two other names on the brick are the threads by which we can begin to unravel how Zhu Yuanzhang got the Nanjing city wall built. The men named are neither officials nor brick makers but officers of the dynasty's comprehensive system for registering the population and assessing each household for corvée and other services. Known as the lijia or hundreds-and-tithings system, it was instituted throughout the Yangzi Valley region in 1371. The lijia system grouped ten households together into a jia or "tithing"; ten adjacent tithings were combined into a li or "hundred" (tithing and hundred are rough equivalents used in medieval England). Each tithing had a "tithing head" (jiashou), a duty that rotated annually among the member households. The ten wealthiest households in the community were set apart, however, to serve as "hundred captains" (lizhang) again on a ten-year rotational basis. Over them were appointed up to half a dozen regional "tax captains" (liangzhang).

Fang Chaozhang was a tithing head. His name appears on Lu Li's brick because he was responsible for seeing that anything levied from his tithing (whether grain or bricks) be passed up to his hundred captain, in this case Xi Junweng. Xi's title of "ten-tithing" captain suggests that he was one of the nine captains on an off-duty year, appointed specially to handle the brick levy so as to leave the on-duty hundred captain free for his tax duties. Xi would have been a figure of greater wealth and prestige than Fang, particularly at this early stage in the dynasty before village elites fully realized the scale of the burden that the lijia system placed on the rich and did their best to evade service.

Exactly where and when did Lu Li live? We could find out by prying the brick out of the wall, for a stamp on the obverse side records the names of the assistant county magistrate to whom Xi Junweng reported and the assistant prefect to whom the assistant magistrate reported. Before it was cemented into place, the two sides of each brick revealed what prefecture and county it had come from and who held office at the time it was made, and therefore roughly when it was made. Short of removing the brick, however, there is no sure way to determine where it was made and how far it had to travel. There is only one clue, the Buddhist monastery named on Lu Li's side of the brick.

Monasteries were registered in the lijia as fiscal households, just like regular households, and were expected to provide the same labor services to the state. Guangfu Monastery must have been one of the ten households under Fang Chaozhang. Its fiscal burden in the brick-making levy was to feed the laborers who made the bricks under Lu Li's supervision. It is unlikely that the laborers were monks. They were probably just men of the local tithing who were levied for their labor. Since the Ming fiscal system did not provide wages for those corvéed into its service but did arrange to feed them, Guangfu Monastery's role was probably to provide them with their food while they were working. It may also have borne a portion of the transport costs. This burden was considerable, since one brick weighed about twenty kilograms and the standard barge load was no less than forty bricks. The numbers of boats and crews needed to ship millions of bricks in forty-brick consignments to Nanjing must have been enormous, but that cost was parceled out to the tithings from which the bricks originally came. Guangfu Monastery may have been assessed for some of these costs.

How far did Lu Li's brick have to travel? Short of removing his particular brick from the wall to read the obverse side, the only way to find out is to try to track down Guangfu Monastery. Unfortunately, Guangfu ("broad good fortune") was a monastic name widely used. Map 1 shows eight counties in three provinces within the watershed upriver from Nanjing for which I have been able to locate a Guangfu Monastery: two in South Zhili (the metropolitan region around Nanjing that was equivalent to a province), one in Huguang province (now divided between Hubei and Hunan), and five in Jiangxi. The closest Guangfu Monastery was in Dangtu 100 kilometers upriver from Nanjing. The farthest, in Gan county, was 1,500 kilometers from Nanjing, though at that distance it may have been excused from the brick levy. So let us suppose that Lu Li's brick came from the Guangfu Monastery next most distant from Nanjing. (See map 1.)

That monastery sat in Yongfeng county in the hills of eastern Jiangxi. The river route from Yongfeng to Nanjing, a distance of 1,060 kilometers, was regularly used to ship grain to the capital and would have handled brick barges just as well. The compiler of the Yongfeng county gazetteer of 1544 records nothing about brick making, though he makes a point of saying that he has not bothered to record ordinary local products, and bricks were hopelessly common. Nor does he reveal anything about how the lijia system operated in Yongfeng, noting only that it still survived as of 1544 as a tax registration system. It is no surprise that someone as common as Lu Li does not appear in the gazetteer. Thus we have no way of knowing whether this Guangfu Monastery was the one that fed the laborers working for Lu Li, nor when Lu Li made this brick, until such time as the Gate of Assembled Treasures is torn down.

At the time it was installed, the lijia system shaped the visible organization of the countryside. It was almost inevitable, though, that the system would eventually fall short of realizing the underlying ideal of an undivided community reproduced uniformly and obediently across the Chinese landscape. Hongwu acknowledged as much in a directive issued to the Ministry of Rites in the spring of 1395, in which he observed: "In every hundred there are poor people and there are rich people." The lijia hundreds were not the undifferentiated communities of mechanical solidarity of which he dreamed, but natural villages stratified by wealth and kinship. Making the wealthiest responsible for seeing that taxes were paid had not achieved much leveling of wealth, though some captains had indeed found these posts so burdensome as to be ruined by them. Who knows how Xi Junweng had fared? The tithings and hundreds were communities of unequal members, and their inequality worked against the equalizing logic of the system. In 1395, Hongwu could only exhort that, should someone in the community face ruin, "the rich should come to his assistance with their wealth and the poor with their labor." This, he lamely concludes, was his policy for eliminating poverty in the realm.

Hongwu's expectations of lijia communities were not entirely unrealistic for the early Ming when he ordered his officials to work to the letter of the law. The gates and walls of Nanjing are proof of the revenue extraction the lijia made possible, so long as it was closely supervised. But as closed villages opened and exchange worked its way into the spaces between rich and poor, the mechanical solidarity implicit in the lijia model could not be expected to animate daily life, or even tax collection. Hongwu's passion for an obedient social order made him want to bend the reality of villages of all shapes and sizes to his vision of a self-replicating decennial order. Under the reigns of the next four emperors down to 1449, reality slowly bent back. In the mid-Ming the lijia would be little more than a nominal tax-registration system, which it was in Yongfeng by 1544.


What the lijia system did accomplish well, at least under Hongwu, was to provide the mechanism for conducting a reasonably good census, the basis of effective taxation. The first enumeration was in 1381, the year the lijia system became fully operational. Historical demographers are confident that the lijia system captured most of the people then living in the Ming realm, with the exception of parts of the southwest. The official total was 59,873,305 "mouths" (the Chinese unit of census reckoning). (For comparison's sake, England at the time in the wake of the Black Death had declined from over 6 million to about 2.2 million.) The only problem in using the lijia to count mouths was that registration entailed direct fiscal obligations: the more mouths a household had, the higher its tax assessment; and the more households a county had, the higher its tax quota. Inducement was therefore great at all levels to underreport the number of households and the mouths within them.


Excerpted from The Confusions of Pleasure by Timothy Brook. Copyright © 1998 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Spence
This is joyful and comprehensive scholarship, full of motion and detail....The first book we have in English that shows the whole shape of Ming life in all its ebullient complexity.

Meet the Author

Timothy Brook is Professor of History at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Praying for Power: Buddhism and the Formation of Gentry Society in Late-Ming China (1993), and Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement (1992), and the coeditor of Nation Work: Asian Elites and National Identities (1999) and China and Historical Capitalism: Genealogies of Sinological Knowledge (1999).

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