How a hunger for tea and tobacco created global trade
Source Louis Proyect
Date 08/01/29/06:35

Washington Post, January 27, 2008

Painting the World
How a hunger for tea and tobacco created global trade.
By Michael Dirda

The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
By Timothy Brook
Bloomsbury. 272 pp. $27.95

Timothy Brook is a distinguished professor of Chinese, holding
appointments at both Oxford University and St. John's College at the
University of British Columbia. He's written a dozen scholarly volumes
about Asian social and economic history, including The Confusions of
Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China and Culture and Economy:
The Shaping of Capitalism in Eastern Asia. There doesn't seem to be any
obvious reason why such a formidable Sinologist should be bringing out a
book with a 17th-century Dutch painting on the cover and the title
Vermeer's Hat.

But the explanation turns out to be quite simple: This book isn't about
Vermeer's brushstrokes or the use of light in his paintings. Instead, it
really does focus on the fur hats -- and the old maps and the dishes of
fruit and the silver coins -- pictured in those paintings. As his
subtitle suggests, Brook hopes to use these pictorial elements to
describe "the dawn of the global world," in particular the economic
entanglements between the Netherlands and China.

Vermeer's Hat thus aims "to capture a sense of the larger whole of which
both Shanghai and Delft were parts: a world in which people were weaving
a web of connections and exchanges as never before." To do this, Brook
looks at seven works of art -- not all of them by Vermeer -- "for the
hints of broader historical forces that lurk in their details." For
instance, in the chapter titled "School for Smoking," he notices that
17th-century Dutch porcelain, representing Chinese scenes, often shows
people smoking. Where did the painter get the idea that the Chinese
smoked? This leads to an overview of tobacco commerce and consumption in
Asia, building on accounts of the shipping routes, the trade laws and
the movement of silver, as well as tobacco, to the East. But Brook also
takes time to discuss the social impact of chi yan or "eating smoke."

Such interlacing of the economic with the social and ideological Brook
labels "transculturation," a term first coined by the Cuban historian
Fernando Ortiz to describe "the process by which habits and things move
from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it
and in turn change the culture into which they have moved." Sometimes
this results in the destruction of what is already there, and usually
"the outcomes of these globalizing processes cannot be controlled."

Throughout Vermeer's Hat, Brook reminds us that "the lure of China's
wealth haunted the seventeenth-century world" and fueled the European
hunger to acquire more and more of its silks and spices, coffee, tea and
porcelain. To this end, the Netherlands created the famous Dutch East
India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie). The VOC, as it was
known, "is to corporate capitalism what Benjamin Franklin's kite is to
electronics: the beginning of something momentous that could not have
been predicted at the time. The world's first large joint-stock company,
the VOC was formed in 1602 when the Dutch Republic obliged the many
trading companies popping up to take advantage of the Asian trade boom
to merge into a single commercial organization. . . . Within a few
decades, the VOC proved itself to be the most powerful trading
corporation in the seventeenth-century world and the model for the
large-scale business enterprises that now dominate the global economy."

Throughout Vermeer's Hat, Brook keeps his economic history striking and
anecdotal. "If there is one overwhelming condition that shaped the
history of the seventeenth century more than any other, it is global
cooling." Between 1550 and 1700, according to the book, temperatures
fell all over the world. Grain prices rose; cold and plague decimated
Venice and Amsterdam. But Dutch fleets enjoyed a herring boom, giving
them money to invest in shipping. Why did Champlain push into unexplored
Canada? For beaver pelts. And why did Europeans want those pelts? For
expensive, durable hats. Profits from those hats would pay for something
important: the search for the supposed water route across North America
to China.

Brook takes pains to balance his story between Europe and Asia. He
writes about the life of Wen Zhenheng, author of the marvelously titled
guide to good taste and elegant living, A Treatise on Superfluous
Things. Such a guidebook was needed because of nouveaux riches merchants
who grew wealthy by trading with the West, yet wished to be accepted by
the social aristocracy. Wen Zhenheng was there to help. Your porcelain
should be "as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as
paper, and as resonant as a chime." You must place only certain kinds of
flowers in vases -- and do show restraint. "Any more than two stems and
your room will end up looking like a tavern."

Brook also explains that the Chinese found foreign objects problematic.
"Objects of beauty were valued to the extent that they could carry
cultural meanings; in the case of antiques, meanings having to do with
balance and decorum and a veneration of the past. Antiques were valued
because they brought their owners into physical contact with a golden
past from which the present had fallen away. Given the burden of meaning
that objects had to carry, it was difficult to discern what value to
attribute to objects coming from abroad."

Commercially, the 17th century was an age of silver, tobacco and slaves,
and Brook shows how the three interconnect to form an intricate economic
network. This new international economy is revealed in every aspect of
life, not only in the account books of the VOC and the histories of the
Jesuit missionaries in China and Latin America, but also in the items
depicted in paintings by a Delft artist who died young. All our
experience is global. As Brook writes in his final chapter, "If we can
see that the history of any one place links us to all places, and
ultimately to the history of the entire world, then there is no part of
the past -- no holocaust and no achievement -- that is not our
collective heritage." Vermeer's Hat shows how this is true of the 17th
century and by so doing provides not only valuable historical insight
but also enthralling intellectual entertainment.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho