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Vermeer's Hat, by Timothy Brook

The fine art of global trade

Tmothy Brook is a Canadian historian of China who has taken up the Shaw Chair of Chinese Studies at Oxford. His many publications range widely across the last half dozen centuries in China: the history of Buddhists, book collectors, Christian converts, and collaborators with the Japanese, just to name a few. His approach is not merely eclectic, but shows a consistent ability to depict the lives of individuals against a background of impersonal forces. In this book about the 17th-century "dawn of the global world", he reveals that his curiosity about the past has always been inclusive, and that since a mishap many years ago obliged him to stay longer than intended in Delft, he has had an interest in Vermeer.

He is too good a scholar to treat Vermeer's paintings as straightforward windows into the past, but he does show us how pictorial sources can open "doors" into "corridors" linking up diverse regions of the globe. The metaphors are apt: this was not a world as aware of its teeming possibilities as ours, but there were routes whereby, for example, French explorers pushing through Canada for a route to China provided beaver fur for a Dutch painter's hat, while a fruit dish arrived straight from China itself.

However much light appears to flood into Vermeer's interiors, the corridors explored by Brook are shadowed by the risk of instant death. By the time we are half way through, we have encountered decapitations, deaths by drowning, and human sacrifice. Yet still the lure of riches spurred on a motley collection of merchants and explorers to leave their homes in Shanghai or Seville to sail across scarcely charted oceans. Against these sometimes terrifying odds, the New World transformed the Old through its supplies of silver and tobacco, accelerating not simply economic but cultural change.

Brook is ready to look beyond the greed and terror to notice faith, even a commonsense humanity. His last chapter, fittingly, draws back from detailing the trade-flows that dragged people to and fro into surprising new relationships, and marriages, to depict the human flotsam and jetsam of the age, stranded sometimes so far from home: the Chinese servant last seen abandoned with his obese and corrupt Portuguese master beside an African river; the Scotsman whose adoption of a Dutch identity brought him involuntary exile in faraway Korea.

Brook's epilogue turns from pictures to poetry, and John Donne: his vision of the great continuous continent that has no islands, and his tolling bell. We have come a long way from the opening paragraph about how a 20-year-old Canadian, avoiding the homicidal tendencies of some unknown trucker, fell off his bicycle in Delft.

We have come a long way, too, from the sort of book that might be expected from a professor of Chinese. Plenty here derives from the historical records of late Ming China, but these too are treated as doors that lead elsewhere. And that is surely Brook's point, more appreciable now that the voracious demand of the Chinese economy for raw materials is stripping metal from the church roofs of rural Britain and commentators debate whether a China crippled by oil-price rises will prove to be our salvation or our nemesis. Though it is now possible to come and go from China without risking sudden death, it has never been a world apart. The Great Wall (itself a Ming innovation) may be long, but the Chinese coastline is much, much longer.

It may be easy these days to pick up a smattering of Mandarin, but to dig down to the roots of current concerns requires a mastery of more demanding (and far less often taught) older styles of literary Chinese. Oxford is one of the handful of places that still provides an in-depth education about China; it is reassuring to find that its professors maintain such a breadth of vision as well.

TH Barrett's latest book is 'The Woman Who Discovered Printing' (Yale)

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