Painting the World: How a hunger for tea and tobacco created global trade.

Michael Dirda – The Washington Post

Copyright The Washington Post
From a review of VERMEER’S HAT: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
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.”
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