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Seven Paintings, One World

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Seven Paintings, One World
----- Review Essay on Vermeer’s Hat

Name: Ding Yiran (Elba) UID: 2010801799 Curriculum: LLB Final Word Count: 1,781 words

Seven Paintings, One World
Introduction: an interesting historical book Thrilled and wistful, I closed the book of Vermeer’s Hat, wondering how Timothy Brook, the author, can depict the 17th-century 1 world trade history in such an unexpected manner! Seven

artworks are carefully selected, including five paintings from Johannes Vermeer2. Details in each of them open up a door for us to seek the path of widely transported commodities, furthermore, to generate a complete view of the globalized trade during that period of time. In this article, I will start with identifying two major arguments the author raises, with explanation from book contents: globalization takes form early in 17th century and China plays a major role in such trend. What follows is an analysis on the writing method. Then I will focus on the evaluation of the two arguments, talking about the favorable related theories as well as objections or complements. Central arguments: emergence of globalization in 17th century & China’s role in it The first argument conveyed in the book is, early as 17th century, the world was already closely connected together and the effect of connection penetrated into daily life. Using the metaphor of Indra’s net3, Timothy introduces multiple pearls, which weave and string the entire world together. One shining pearl is the objects he finds in the paintings. In officer and laughing girl, an extravagant beaver hat discloses its route from Native American tribes to European household in exchange for firearms. A china dish in Woman reading a letter let out the fanatic china mania around Europe and its ensuing massive trading with China. Several coins in Woman holding a balance provides clue of the world-wide circulation of silver as well as the impact it brings to the capital accumulation and world political order 4. Another pearl is the people who left home and sailed to an unknown future, e.g. Jesuit missionaries, sailors, and businessmen. These people had acquaintances, cooperation or competition, each doing his own contribution to the global mobility and information transfer5. But almost all faced an evil fate: either lost life to disease and storm, or scattered to a completely strange place and started a new life in second homeland. The third pearl would be the transnational corporations like VOC (Dutch East Indian Company),

which expanded to every inch of fresh land they could, to cheat, seize or exploit local resources for profits. According to Timothy, as a result of the early emergence of this net and development that follows, the social heritage we own now is largely shared by the globe, regardless of race, space, or time. Anything we see, even as trivial as a tobacco leaf6, has its interaction and integration in the global scene along the history. The second argument is somehow more implicit. In a trading era seemingly dominated by western nations, China actually played a fateful role. It was the wealth and prosperity of China that stimulated European nations to set their sails, thus led to the rudiment of economic globalization. Timothy seeks evidence in three directions. First, in the circulation of commodities, no matter silver, tobacco or porcelain, China was either the largest destination or the exclusive supplier7. Secondly, Jesuit missionaries all around Europe spared no efforts to come to China, wishing to convert this most conservative nation, Italian Matteo Ricci being the famous example. Thirdly, Timothy believes the ultimate goal for European countries vigorously expanding territory into America, Southeast Asia and plundering huge profit was to finance their economic invasion into China. And reversely, it was the profits they made from dealing business with China that supported them for further expansion. Thanks to Marco Polo, from a European perspective, China was an immeasurable market and a “place of power and wealth beyond any known scale”8. Analysis of the writing method: from details to greatness Argumentation aside, there is little to be critical about in terms of writing techniques. The author adopts an innovative angle to enter, which are unnoticeable objects in Vermeer’s painting. And from that, he draws a comprehensive picture of the world trade. In my opinion, by doing so at

least three effects are achieved. First, since Vermeer is often perceived as “isolated and focused on domestic tranquility”9, it is exactly the exotic products in his painting which perceived by him as commonly-seen, daily-used objects that convinces us of the depth, width, profound influence of ancient globalization. Secondly, using artwork and narrating to tell history creates fascination and sweeps away the boredom of simply piling up facts. Thirdly, as Dutch was the major player in marine trade during 1600-1650, and Delft being a typical port city, it is interesting yet representative to invite the local painter Vermeer as a spokesperson of this inspiring book. Evaluation of arguments: Narrative more than argumentative When it comes to the arguments, consensus cannot be so easily reached. Firstly, has globalization already become a major trend in early 17th century? Throughout the book, we witness complicated interrelations among continents and the depth it has gone into people’s life. The author also uses the headline of “No man is an island” in the last chapter to illustrate the seemingly influential and irreversible trend. However, there are several scholars standing on different pages with the author. Scholte, holding the definition of globalization as “spread of transplanetary and supraterritorial relations between people”10, suggests it be divided into three periods: primitive presence, fast growth and great acceleration. Not until mid19th century did the latter two phases come into being. Roland Robertson, who also sets a 5-phase model11, indicates that early 15th to mid18th century was only the germinal phase of globalization featuring the beginning of modern geography. What is more, according to Dani Rodrik, even speaking of economy which is the main aspect discussed in Vermeer’s Hat, an integrated global economic system still stays far away from us12, for the existence of political borders and cultural estrangement.

Personally, I think Vermeer’s Hat does involve a little exaggeration as rhetoric. The entire book is focused on what has happened, but fails to look at what has not been achieved. There are at least three great barriers as I see it. Considerable political restrictions were imposed on world trade and production like silver. Cross-cultural encounters were not successful since people took negative attitude toward foreign comers. These two were especially obvious in Asia, like China or Japan. Also, players involved in the trade game were still not many, constricted to European powers plus several in Asia and America. The trade system mainly took form of single lines connecting two ends, instead of a multilateral flow of goods, labor or information, as what it is today. Therefore, 17th century sees only the dawn or immature prototype of globalization. It neither reached sufficient scale, nor did countries in that period own clear ambition of globalize trading13. Secondly, about the important role of China. In the book, China occupies most pages and attention. It is a perfect business partner, for the arbitrage between China and Europe is beyond resistance; it is a rich-cultured giant, for the artworks and crafts are so delicate that Europe can never match; it is the birthplace of firearms, compass and paper, which were indispensable tools in “the Great Discovery”. As a sinologist, it is understandable for Timothy Brook to place China and Europe on two sides of the scale of world trade in 17th century. But the question is, does the scale really balance? The book of China and the Birth of Globalization in the 16th Century 14 has provided with many insights on the matter. It also holds a stronger stand that China’s role in 16th-17th century is remarkably crucial and it has been understated for a long time. The importance of silver as a monetary medium is analyzed---together with tobacco and slaves, the three made up the iron triangle of 17th-century world trade. Then, being the largest recipient country of silver, as well as

supplier of silk and porcelain, China exerted powerful influence on the mobility and scale of international commerce. It was even involved in the 16th century European price revolution15. Last but not least, Europe was pointed out to be mainly “intermediary among silver suppliers (South America, Japan) and consumer (China)”16, thus put more chips on the eastern side of the trading scale. However, Strong and powerful it might be, flawless China was surely not. One the one hand, as is mentioned by J. Galtung: before the Enlightenment age, China approached the outer world “with much aloofness”17. Being a continental country, China did not welcome and embrace exotic cultures or technologies like those maritime states did. Therefore, it forfeited great opportunities to be nurtured by modern sciences and technologies while Europe was desperately absorbing the essentials from both East and West. One the other hand, what is further indicated by H. Kawakatsu18 is that economic growth brought by over consumption of silver did not ensure a healthy development in China. Too many resources were tied up to silver or related industry (e.g. porcelain and silk in exchange for silver); therefore, certain impediment was inevitably imposed on other industries. Growth can be seen, largely due to overheated silver business. But in domestic market, propelling force of a sustainable and diversified economy is lacking, resulting in lopsided, imbalanced prosperity. Admittedly, Timothy Brook does not provide any systematic or precise definition of what he means by “globalization” in this book. Nor does he try to impress readers by explanatory and rigorous arguments proving China’s status in world trade. What he basically does, is to be an informative story-teller and state the facts of global trade in a way as interesting as possible. Therefore, it might be of more meaning if we appreciate the dynamic picture of world trade he shows than go too far down the bottom of his arguments. After all, as Timothy states in an

interview, this book is to give students and general public a second thought, on the connection between basic history knowledge they learned and the daily-used objects they observed. Conclusion: think beyond the facts As a popular historical novel, Vermeer’s Hat has perfectly fulfilled its role. Starting with seven paintings, it carefully guides us to explore a vivid world in 17th century behind the visual objects. Nonetheless, it is still one step away from an educational academic book, for the lack of strong arguments and comprehensive analysis to convince its audience of the two points it tries to make: emergence of globalization in 17th century and China’s overlooked cruciality. Seven paintings have drawn out a world map, what is left awaits us to go beyond.

References & Notes
1. “in my chosen period from 1600 to 1650…”, interview with Timothy Brook, The 2. The other two artworks are one painting from a contemporary artist with Vermeer and

one faux-Chinese plate exhibited in a Dutch museum 3. “Buddhism uses a similar image…It is called the Indra’s net”, Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s

Hat, P22


“During 17th century, on average, the VOC sent roughly 10 metric tons of silver to Asia

every year and in the first half of the seventeenth century, China imported five thousand tons of silver.” Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat, P161-172: 5. On a wrecked ship Guia, crew were found to come from nearly all major countries you

can think of: Portugal, Spain, Britain, Dutch, Japan, Chinese and the Philippines. 6. In the book Vermeer’s Hat, other important issues mentioned include tobacco, the goods

European used to open up the trade border of China, and later changed into opium---the drug initiating China’s half-century ordeal; 7. Vermeer’s Hat, P63-64, a single Dutch vessel the Santa Catarina was carrying 100,000

pieces of orcelain weighing a total of over fifty tons. It also held twelve hundred ales of Chinese silk, which sold well because Italy’s silk production had failed that year 8. 9. The view from Delft, Vermeer’s Hat, p19 Interview with Timothy Brook, The a

According to Timothy Brook, Vermeer never drew any person or objects that were” 500 miles away from Delft” . 10. 11. Jan Aart Scholte, Globalization: a critical introduction, Palgrave macmillan Roland Robertson’s Minimal Phase Model of Globalization, edited by Gabriela Tejada

<> The 5 phases include Germinal Phase(early 15th –mid 18th century), Incipient Phase (mid 18th century – 1870s), Take-off Phase( 1870s-1920s), Struggle-for-Hegemony Phase (mid-1920s – late-1960s), Uncertainty Phase(late-1960s – early-1990s) 12. Dani Rodrik, One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and

Economic Growth, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, P17


AG Hopkins, ed. Globalization in World History, New York: WW Norton,2002

According to Profession Hopkins, “universal” could either lead to “global”, or have unfulfilled Universalist ambitions. 14. Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hgemony: The World System, Oxford

University Press, 1989 15. Dennis O. Flynn & Arturo Giraldz, China and the Brith of Globalization in the 16th

Century, Ashgate Variorum 16. Born with a “silver spoon”: the origin of world trade in 1571, Journal of World History

6.2. Honolulu, HI,1995, pp203 17. Arbitrage, China, and world trade in the earl modern period, Journal of the Economic

and Social History of the Orient 38.4. Leiden, 1995, pp.429-448 18. Kenneth Pomeranz, The great divergence: Europe, China, and the making of the

modern world economy, Princeton Universtiy Press, 2001. 19. J. Galtung, Erik Rudeng & Tore Heiestad, “On the Last 2,500 Years in Western

History and Some Remarks on the Coming 500” pp. 318-361 in Peter Burke, ed., New Cambridge Modern History, companion Volume, Vol. XIII, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979 20. Money and growth without development: the case of Ming China, Asia Pacific Dynamism,

1550-2000, eds A.J.H.Latham and H. Kawakatsu. London: Routledge Press, 2000

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