China Beat Archive



David Porter

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February 26, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright February 26, 2008 David Porter. Used by permission.


Have you ever suspected that all this recent talk about China and globalization might be just a little belated? China historian Timothy Brook, author of the award-winning Confusions of Pleasure, reminds us in a new book that global commercial and cultural exchanges were already profoundly shaping the lives and world views of Europeans 350 years ago.

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Bloomsbury, 2007) offers an eye-opening and eminently readable account of how the ever-expanding circulation of goods and people from several continents began flattening the world several centuries before NAFTA and Wal-mart.

The story begins in Delft, where Brook happened to fall off his bike on a youthful cycling journey across the Low Countries. The discovery of Vermeer’s gravestone in the city’s Old Church led to an enduring fascination with the painter’s works, five of which serve in this book as the starting points for adventurous journeys of a different kind.

Brook begins each of his main chapters with a close reading of a well-known Vermeer masterpiece. As we peer with him ever more deeply into the frame, we find ourselves transported well beyond Delft’s Schie Canal and the North Sea to Spain, Acapulco, Lake Champlain, Manila, Korea, Japan, and of course China. Details in the paintings—a river barge, a porcelain dish, a felt hat—lead us to the gripping tales of pitched battles and piracy, captivity and conversion, riots and massacres concealed beneath the cozy bourgeois scenes depicted on the canvas.