PROFILE £18.99 (282PP) £17.09 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam