This work is wittily woven together with the four seasons as four chapters, resonating with the rise and fall of the Ming dynasty. It is meant to be a cultural history of the dynasty. To this purpose, it adopts some historical people’s perspective(Dramatis Personae), in particular Zhang Tao, and tries to “understand his history of the dynasty and why it made sense to him.”(8) More specifically, it tries to address Zhang Tao’s confusion about the proliferation of commerce and pleasures within the decades of his lifetime.
Such a story-telling approach allows the “vision’s fictionality” and limitedness, as the author state in the beginning(9). Throughout the book, the author frequently resorts to illustration in novels and dramas to depict the world in Ming people’s eyes.
Such an approach as focuses on Ming people’s conception and perception of their life world also goes with the major concern of this book: confusions of pleasure. The majority of the work focuses on commerce, exchanges, trade, money, consumption, fashion, etc., among which communication, commerce and culture are three major topics (see endnote for page 11). These aspects together depict a picture of Chinese people’s life, especially the breaking down of rural styles in late imperial China and the merging of the scholar and the merchant groups.(125) In particular, it examines people’s attitude toward business and the values of commercialization.
Within 300 pages, the author tries to present the life of a dynasty of 300 years, covering many aspects of the social life. Thus lies the difficulty: how do all these materials hold together, i.e. how to organize the narration. Although the author uses several characters as threadlines, yet the repeated appearance of print, commerce, merchants and other topics does require some efforts to have a sense of “change”.