Timothy Brook on Vermeer's Hat and the Dawn of Global Trade
Feb 19 2008

Timothy Brook, professor of history at the University of British Columbia and author of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the expansion of global trade between Europe and the rest of the world, and in particular, North American and China. He discusses the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western attitudes toward trade and exploration and the implications for innovation and knowledge.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Feb 20 2008 at 10:50pm

Great episode! I’d love to take a class with Professor Brook; alas, I’ll have to settle for buying the book.

Feb 23 2008 at 9:30pm

I thought this podcast was outstanding, integrating economics, art and history. I usually enjoy Econtalk, but this was really rare and wonderful, which is why I had to visit the site and leave a comment.

Feb 23 2008 at 10:20pm

I strongly recommend listening to the podcast while looking at the paintings at essentialvermeer.com (by the way, some of the paintings have an interactive feature whereby moving the mouse over parts of the image pulls up explanatory paragraphs).

Just one thought: I find it incredible that Columbus had such an atrophied view of geography (did he really?), when in 200BC Eratosthenes had estimated the size of the earth to within 5% of the actual value.

Hennie van Kuijeren
Feb 24 2008 at 4:52pm

Greetings from Holland. I very much enjoyed this episode of Econ Talk and although the work of Vermeer and the Dutch trade history, including O.I.C. is part of everybody’s school education, Timothy Brook had a few new and fresh insides for me. It may interest you to know that the old city of Delft is still more or less intact and is really worth a visit in case you plan a trip to Europe or Netherlands. The old view on the city is no longer as in the painting (see video in URL), but much of its ancient history has been superbly preserved (I don’t live there, but I visit the city quite regularly). Just wanted you to know this, and if any Econ-listeners plan a visit to Holland this summer, give me a buzz and I’ll try to be of assistance.

ice man
Feb 26 2008 at 11:36am

great interview

here is another with the author


at a delightful site


Feb 28 2008 at 3:05pm

It would have been interesting if the interview also touched on the ways that Chinese porcelain styles were incorporated into European artistic techniques. Europeans would eventually start to copy the Chinese and displace them from trade.

Some links:


Georgi Atanasov
Mar 14 2008 at 2:43pm

I’m listening to the podcast right now.
If you’re fans of the historical period that is being discussed, and into computer games, I recommend the 1999 masterpiece Imperialism II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperialism_II:_Age_of_Exploration)
And, of course, the 1994 release by Sid Meyer – Colonization – although it is more US-centered, in my opinion.

Comments are closed.


About this week's guest:

About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:Articles:

Web Pages:

      • Essential Vermeer. Vermeer's paintings and much, much more about Vermeer. Includes extra-large views in the catalog section.

Podcasts and Blogs:



Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. [Recording date: February 2008.] Book looks at globalization in the 1600s, growing ties between Europe and the rest of the world, and particularly the impact of China on the rest of the world. Sounds like a modern story. Wrote it to surprise the reader, get the reader to realize that the globalization of the world goes all the way back, at least to the 17th century. We're not at a unique time with regard to globalization. In the 1600s you start to see people, ideas, and goods moving around the world in ways that their ancestors had no idea possible. Part of the reason for that was the advances in shipbuilding and navigation. One of the great challenges in sailing on the ocean is not getting lost as soon as you go outside of land. You hug the coast, you are fine; beyond that you have to establish latitude and longitude. Longitude was notoriously difficult until the end of the 18th century. Better navigation techniques, larger ships that could withstand ocean storms all factors that enabled mostly the Europeans, and some others, to lose sight of land and not be lost. Staying close to land had its own perils. Shipwrecks. Great writers took this up: Shakespeare writes The Tempest, Defoe writes Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Island. Part also competition among the great sea-faring nations vying for influence. Competition in part drove some of the dynamism. The competition in maritime trade had started with the Spanish and the Portuguese in competition with each other at the beginning of the 16th century. By the end of that century the Spanish and Portuguese crowns had been united. What really gets the trade moving in the 17th century get involved--when England, the Netherlands, France. When these countries start to fight their way into the trade, it seems to lend a particular emphasis.
4:17In book, use paintings of the great Dutch painter Vermeer as a jumping off point for understanding the pace of change. A few paintings displayed and discussed in book: A View of Delft: Vermeer's one significant landscape painting. Western corner of the city at the mote that surrounded the city of Delft. At first glance it's just a bucolic landscape. Got intrigued: why did he paint this particular part of Delft? Delft really grew up in the 16th century as a major city. There were standard artistic vistas that painters took. The water we are looking at is actually the city's harbor, the harbor that connects it to Rotterdam and eventually out to the North Sea and out to the world. The boats in the harbor; the buildings; skyline, church steeples, recognizably the old and new churches in Delft. Large set of buildings filling the left-hand side: the offices and warehouses of the Dutch East India Company. Novel institution that the Dutch state created in 1602. Through the 1590s and the turn of the century, Dutch merchants were starting to set up their own little trading companies competing with each other, and the competition, rather than driving business up, was driving business down. Not enough goods in circulation for all these merchants to be competing with each other. Dutch government stepped in and forced them to form a corporation to trade with China; it took off and was the beginning of the joint stock corporation that we know today. This painting was a portrait of the Dutch East India Company and its trading with the world. The Dutch government also took a little piece of that. The formation of the Dutch East India Company the formation of capital, shipbuilding; the state was very much involved. Once the corporation was running, the state didn't interest itself other than taking taxes. Helps to finance the rise of the Netherlands in the 17th century: important trading nation and the first real republic. Old order overthrown; new merchant interests took control of the government. Golden age for the Dutch. Perhaps the government's interest had other motives besides helping them be more successful.
8:48The herring buss--example of economic change stimulated by climate change, leading to economic changes that were rather helpful to the Dutch. If you look at the painting, there are two large heavily-built boats moored on the right-hand side of the harbor. Masts have been struck; they are at the shipyard being refitted. The painting hangs in the Hague; very large relative to most of Vermeer's paintings which are often only about a foot or so wide. View of Delft is about 4 or 5 feet wide. These boats are called herring busses and were used for fishing herring in the North Sea. One of the factors which economic historians cite for the rise of the Netherlands is climate change. The late 16th and 17th centuries were a much colder period, a period of global cooling. Forced the herring stocks, which were normally up the Norwegian coast, south, so the herring come down much closer to the Netherlands. Huge herring harvest, windfall that gives them wealth they would otherwise not be able to control. These herring busses are a sign in this painting of the change that was happening. What has the artist included and why? Would have been perfect if he had painted a winter scene. But he only seems to paint spring, summer, and fall seasons. We do know that the winters were cold. Some scraps: an iceboat, a Dutch boat used to get around in winter. Boat with a sail, you could sail along the frozen canals. Can't do it today--the canals don't freeze. We think of winter as a time when the economy would slow down. But cold does other things: it moves people around, forces them into other activities. In other podcasts, talked about the sometimes negative impact of natural resources on an economy--called a resource curse. In this case a windfall. This one was decentralized, not controlled by an autocratic government; natural resources often become a prize for the government to control. The Dutch were very conscious of not being an autocratic state. In the 16th century they were under control of the Spanish monarchy, a source of frustration for them. The Dutch state emerges in the late 16th century in a struggle against Spain. Spain had managed to weave a great empire. Fisherman notoriously independent; merchants were fiercely independent and were scattered in several ports along the Dutch coast. These people that the Dutch government said "Let's start working together and compete against the great states of Europe."
15:02Digression about Johannes Vermeer. Book gives wonderful way to look at paintings: what the artist includes is not what the artist stumbles on but what the artist has chosen to put in the foreground, background. How hard life was until fairly recently. Mrs. Vermeer had 16 pregnancies that we know of and buried 5 children; Vermeer himself died young and when they went to bury him, they found the last child they had buried there still mostly intact. We think of Vermeer as a stunningly successful artist; paintings are inexpressibly beautiful. We might see a perfect golden world; but it was a very hard world. He spent a lot of his time trying to make money--unsuccessfully. He was largely supported by his mother-in-law who was a successful businesswoman. When Netherlands at war, that tended to kill the art market. He was also an art dealer. Also having trouble in his forties finding the same artistic inspiration as when he was young. When he dies, he is not a pauper--his mother-in-law had bought a grave in the old church so there was a place for him to be buried. But the family was bankrupt. Wife, Catharina Bolnes, had to declare bankruptcy three months after he died; for a historian, great, because when he died, Catharina had to draw up a list of his possessions. Can reconstruct some of his life from this list. Not a tragic life, but a difficult life. The man himself is very elusive. Many attempts to capture him. We suspect we know what he looks like because he painted himself into an early picture. After that, we know nothing about the man. Almost have to be in the Netherlands to catch this sense of the light that comes in. Quite extraordinary, maybe because of the sea air--constant wind coming in off the North Sea; fluffy white clouds often dumping rain at the same time. Dappled light effect--no one captures this like Vermeer.
19:38Russ: Let's talk now about some of the trade issues that are in the rest of the book. You start off--it's on the cover of the book and it's a key chapter early on, "The Officer and the Laughing Girl." You see an officer, mostly from behind; you see a little bit of his face. The main focus is the light on the face of the laughing girl. The man is wearing an enormous hat, and you use that for the title of the book, obviously--Vermeer's Hat; and you also use it to talk about trade between Europe and North America. So, talk about what that hat is probably made of and why it was so important. Guest: Well, let me step back a bit from your question. I'll take a detour to get to it. This picture, the reason why it ended up on the front of the book, is happenstance. It has to do with lecturing. I was putting together a course for first-year students in world history. Now, world history is an awfully difficult thing to give first-year students because there's so much of the world there. And so, I wanted to focus on certain places and times. But I started out the course by showing them a series of Dutch paintings from the 17th century that had maps hanging on the wall. And, if you were to pick up a volume of 17th century Dutch art and look at the interiors, many of them have maps hanging there. And, I started the course by saying: Let's look at what interested 17th century artists, not from an artistic point of view, but see what they put in the rooms. And they put maps in the room. And so then I asked the students, 'Well, why are maps there?' And the maps are there because people are interested in the world. They want to know something about the place beyond themselves. Now, there's a map on the wall of "Officer and Laughing Girl.' It's a map of the Netherlands. That map was a patriotic production designed to give Dutch people a sense of, a view of this newly-emerged country that has come out of Spanish occupation. They're very proud of this. But many of the other maps on the wall show Europe; there are maps of the world. We see this, what seems to be great interest on the part of Dutch households is the hanging maps on the wall. Well, I had this up on the screen showing my students; and then--I remember the lecture this was happening--the slide was up on the wall, and I suddenly noticed the hat. Now, the hat is an odd thing in this painting. It's very dark. You basically just see an outline. There's a little, some decoration in the man's hatband, but you don't really see the hat. But it really looms: it's this large black object sitting in the middle of the painting. Now, as a Canadian, I was brought up on tales of the fur trade--this is part of the Canadian school curriculum. The growth of Canada has to do with the spread of the fur trade up the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. And so, I thought, 'Ah. That hat is made of beaver fur. And I suddenly saw this link that could take me from northern Europe--from the Netherlands--over to North America. So, I started to pursue this. Now, these huge hats that Dutch gentlemen wore are made from beaver fur, but they are not made from the fur itself. The fur--the main hairs, the long hairs of the fur--are actually stripped off, and what are wanted is the underfur, which is barbed. And, once you cook this and beat it into felt, you have the best felt in the world. It's marvelous for keeping off the rain. It can be blocked into shapes. It has a dark, lustrous color. This was what Europeans in the 16th century were lusting after. They wanted beaver fur to make these hats. So, hats, throughout the early 17th century get larger and larger and larger. You can see this in European paintings of the period: people love these hats. So, this then got me interested in the trade between North America and Northern Europe. The fur trade is largely controlled by the French because the French have gone up the St. Lawrence. They are the ones who are trading for the beaver furs. But then that led me to a further question, which is: Why were they there in the first place? Why were they trading for furs? Now, you could simplify this story and say, 'Well, there is this fashion that led Europeans to want to trade for beaver fur.' But, the fashion really is the outcome of the trade. It's not the cause of the trade. The French were going up the St. Lawrence looking for something. They weren't actually looking for beaver fur. Beaver fur, in a sense, fell into their hands. It's what native communities were willing to sell them. It was a very popular commodity. The French were buying it up; the Dutch and the English as well. But the French were there for another purpose. And so, I wanted to think about what that purpose was. And to sort that out, I went back to the original commission that Champlain, Samuel Champlain, the head of the French expedition: What was his original commission from Henry IV, his King? And the original commission was to find a route to China. The entire French enterprise in the Great Lakes was to find this route. Well, we call it the Northwest Passage--going up around the northern part of North America. But, in the early 17th century, people were hoping there was a water route across North America. So, the French go up the St. Lawrence; they go up the Great Lakes. They are looking for a route to China. And, the beaver fur is simply there to help them cover their costs on their way to China.
25:45Russ: That's such an incredible story. And, one of the things I like about it is the unawareness people had of the size of the earth. They started to realize it was round, but they didn't realize quite how far around it was. Guest: Yes. And--the Americas were a bit of a surprise to everyone. One of the sort of high school--not high school--public school truths about Columbus is that he sailed off and he was afraid he was going to sail off the edge of the world. I don't know where that came from, but it's utter nonsense. Columbus had a very clear idea that the world was round. And he had a very clear idea that if he sailed west long enough, he would get to Asia. What he didn't know is that the Americas would suddenly loom in his way. So, when Columbus gets to the Caribbean, he thought he's got to Japan. And he's sure that, well, from Japan, all he has to do is go around Cuba; and on the other side of Cuba he will find China. But, it wasn't Japan, and, of course, that wasn't China. It was the Americas. So, initially there's this puzzle about how far you have to go, heading west. And then the puzzle is: How wide is the continent? When the Spanish are in Central America, they are in the narrowest part of the continent. They get across the Isthmus of Panama without too much difficulty. Russ: But they've still got a long way to go. Guest: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. A long way to go. Because, in some ways, land--water is worse than land, because out on the water, when the storm comes you've got no place to hide. But in other ways, the land is worse than the water. Because, water, you can get across without expending too much energy. Russ: Too much friction on land. Guest: Yes. Russ: In those days. Guest: And, the other thing is: There are people. And the people are not always going to be terribly keen about having you tromping across their territory. So, when Champlain comes into the Eastern Woodlands of North America, he's dealing with--well, he's not simply an explorer coming into [?Tierras Nuevas?]. He's coming a region that is populated, that has established sovereignty arrangements, that has trade arrangements. And Champlain's challenge is to figure out, 'How can I insert myself into the trading patterns that are going on?' It wasn't, 'How can I bring my goods and set up trade?' It was 'How can I become part of the trading patterns that are there?' So, he finds allies--as you have to have to when you are coming into a new zone--first with the Montagnais, then with the Algonquins and with the Huron. And, to some extent is playing these tribal groups off against each other in order to try to advance his own cause. And his own cause--well, he's happy to trade. He brings trade goods from Europe; he exchanges them for beaver pelts. Russ: What is he exchanging for those pelts? I've forgotten. What is he mainly--what are the Indians getting in return? Guest: Well, the natives want metal goods. Because, they don't have the technology for--they don't have metallurgy. So, they are interested in axe heads; they are interested in pots. And then, by the second decade of the 17th century, what they really want is guns. Because--this is the--this is the thing that the Europeans bring. The Europeans bring a weapon that is more lethal than anything that the natives have. They have bow and arrows and use them very well. But, a gun is a whole other order of magnitude of violence. And this becomes the thing that natives want. Initially, the French are very careful of selling arms to their native allies. Initially they refuse to do it. But, then, as the competition with trade heats up, they realize they are going to have to start selling arms. The Dutch--the Dutch are up the Hudson River. They are in New York State at this point. The Dutch are quite indiscriminate: They'll sell arms to anyone in order to get the furs that they want. But this has--this has a terrible effect, in several ways. First of all, the arms they trade are then sold on to other groups. These arms are then used not just against Europeans. They are used against each other. And so the native groups in the Eastern Woodlands were engaged in a kind of a--a sort of balancing act with each other. Violence determined where the borders of their territories lay. And there was a kind of constant recalibrating of these borders. But, once you introduced guns, the violence that could erupt among tribes became vicious. It became deadly. And so, we have the Europeans to thank for many unfortunate things that happened to First Nations people in North America. One is the introduction of guns. The other that comes with the guns is epidemic diseases. And so the tribes in the Eastern Woodlands are decimated by measles and smallpox, as well as by guns. Now, this certainly wasn't what Champlain intended when he arrived. But the understanding of epidemic diseases at that point was very rudimentary. The understanding of guns was much better.
31:16Russ How important does the beaver trade become? Guest: The beaver trade is extremely important through the 17th and 18th centuries. It's not-- Russ: Are we just talking hats, here? Guest: Yeah. Principally hats. Felt. Felt is used for other kinds of adornment--clothing. This is the commodity that is readily available. Now, the French are also hoping to find mineral deposits. Copper is the one mineral that natives are trading, and that the French are buying. What is not yet a significant commodity, although it becomes so by the 18th century--and this is a story for the British when they move forward into the 18th century. The British are building their Navy. And for these ships, you need a lot of wood. And so, North America is a wood-windfall-- Russ: Big forest-- Guest: for the Europeans. Yes: the forests provide the kind of wood they need, what all the European nations need in order to build their ships. The wood is also an energy windfall for the Europeans, because wood is what they were burning for energy. So, there is this energy windfall that comes to the Europeans. And, once they start colonizing, then there are certain crops that get introduced. Basically, export commodity crops, like tobacco and sugar--these are the two most important commercial crops that develop in North America in the 17th century, that become part of an exchange of goods that is going in all directions. You've got sugar coming from the Caribbean to Europe. You have tobacco coming from North America. You have--well, many other commodities are entering this trade, most notiously slaves from Africa become part of the way in which Europe becomes wealthy by trading in these goods around the Atlantic Ocean.
33:29Russ Well, let's move on to China, which is a--extremely, really fascinating, cultural and economic story that runs through the book. In Vermeer's painting, "Young Woman Reading a Letter in an Open Window," there is a plate of fruit in the foreground. And the plate--or it's actually a bowl, I think--is Chinese porcelain. What's it doing there? What's it doing in the Netherlands, in the middle of the 17th century? Guest: Well, this again is why I find Vermeer such a great artist to work from. Just like the herring busses [haringbuis--Econlib Ed.] in view of Delft that are telling us something about global cooling, we've got this porcelain dish in the foreground of "Woman Reading a Letter in an Open Window." You hardly see the plate, in fact: it's kind of tilted sideways, pushed up against the Turkish carpet. There's fruit in the bowl. But it just peeks--the rim of this bowl just peeks up behind the carpet. Very subtly done. But, as a China historian, my interest-- Russ: [?]-- Guest: Yes. This is what catches my attention. Now, it would also have caught a viewer's attention in the 17th century. Because, Chinese porcelains were just becoming widely available at the time Vermeer was painting. And, he and every other Dutch artist of that period--they were all putting Chinese porcelain into their paintings. These were lovely things. Just beautiful for an artist to paint, because they had a luster. The glaze on Chinese porcelain was far superior to anything a European potter could produce. So, artists loved to paint these things. And, I think the people who bought the paintings also liked to see them. And these were the new luxury goods. People wanted to display them. They have them around their house. They put them on sideboards. They put them on mantel pieces, on the lintels over their doors. Russ: People still do. Guest: Yes. And people still do. It's still a decorative item. It's a great point. We like to see these things. There's a sense of beauty to them that is wonderful. Well, this is also a 17th century story. The first major shipment of porcelain comes from a Portuguese ship that the Dutch captured in 1602. They capture the ship; they bring it back to Amsterdam. They unload it. And it's full of porcelain. Now, the Portugese have been bringing modest amount of porcelain into Europe in the 16th century. But, these--porcelain was largely not leaving Portugal and Spain. It was just staying there. Much of it, in fact, ended up in Mexico. But, so, Northern Europeans don't have much access to the market. They capture the ship, unload the porcelain cargo; and there is a wild sale that goes on in Amsterdam. The crown heads of Europe all send buyers to Amsterdam to buy some of this stuff, it's so wonderful. The Dutch do this again two years later--capture another Portuguese ship, bring that up. These ships are called carracks[?]. And so, the Dutch call this carrack porcelain or cracked porcelain. And the second ship, the reaction of the second ship, is just the same: huge excitement of this amazing porcelain that comes out of the ship. So, after that, by, oh, 1608, the Dutch East India Company is telling its buyers in Asia to buy porcelain: 'Bring as much as you possibly can.' And so they start doing that. Now, initially, the porcelain is very expensive. Ordinary people cannot buy it. It's really only for wealthy people. But, gradually, as we move to the middle of the 17th century, the volume of porcelain imports has gone up to such an extent that somebody like Vermeer--who is quite--I don't know how to quite characterize him, but something from a less or middle-class family--is able to own a couple of pieces. So, if you look through all of Vermeer's paintings, you see them here or there. I've spotted four so far. He's got this sort of shallow dish in the painting you mention. He uses this in another painting, a wonderful one of a woman who has fallen asleep at the table. And there's one of these dishes--it's probably the same dish--on the table in front of her. There's a couple of others: there's a beautiful dark blue ginger jar that appears in one painting. There's also a bowl with high sides that appears in another one. So, the family may have owned four or five pieces of Chinese porcelain. And, Vermeer made a point of sticking them around his paintings. They were lovely, decorative objects. But--sort of go on about this, but there's one other thing that do, and that is they convey a sense of good taste and gentility in these paintings--that: Fine families would own porcelain. Therefore the way that you communicate that to the viewer is you make sure that there's a piece of porcelain in the picture. It shows that the family is well-off and that it's a family of good taste.
38:59Russ Well, one of the things it conveys to us, almost 400 years later, is a--an openness to other cultures and other people-- Guest: Exactly. Russ: And I was mentioning earlier--it's not my taste, but people do still collect Chinese art of various kinds as a way of either expressing beauty, or style, or just the exotic. And Europe and America is always--not always, but often--is open to those cultural imports. But it didn't go very far in the other direction. And that's what I want you to talk about. Talk about what the Chinese perception was. Europeans are mad for this porcelain; and you mention that millions of pieces come in over the decades. Much of it kind of breaking on the way. Others breaking once it got there, being replaced. It's a wonderful product, but it's a bit fragile. So, you had this importing of--it affected, as you point out, it affected Dutch art. It affected Dutch porcelain, Delftware, in terms of color, the use of color, in attempts to equal the quality of the glazing. And yet, the influence of Europe--or America--on China was much smaller. In those days. Guest: Less developed. Russ: Why? What was going on in China that made that trade so one-way in terms of influence? Guest: It's difficult to give you a single 'Why?' But I think your second question, 'What was going on in China?' is the question we need to ask to try and figure this out. There is a--there has been--well, there are many stereotypes about China. One of the stereotypes is that Europeans are curious about the outside world, seek to engage with the outside world, are constantly revising their views based on their experience with the outside world. On the other side of this assumption is that China is a place that-- Russ: And Japan-- Guest: Yes, well, much of Asia--these were places that were inward-looking, that were closed to the outside world, that resisted foreign influence. This--like all stereotypes, it's got elements of truth and elements of error, I think. And I think what you have to do is you have to go back to the 17th century and see how the Europe/China relationship was beginning to build. China, to be fair--China was a large part of the world that had an adequate resource base for most of it's needs; that had an advanced technology; and was not having to, was not having to look outside of itself for things that it needed. Europe is a--Europe is a continent divided amongst a number of small countries, none of which has the resources adequate for its own success. European nations have got to trade. They've got to compete. It's a different way of thinking about how to survive as a state; it's a different way of thinking about the economy. China, in the 17th century--well, China for the last two millennia--has largely been a large, unified landmass with an adequate resource base. A great deal of trade--China is a very commercial place in the 17th century--but it was commerce that was internal to the country. It was not foreign trade. Now: That's something of a stereotype. But I think we can start to ask some questions about that. First of all: Did the Chinese travel abroad to trade? And the answer is absolutely Yes. Now, the Chinese government was rather hostile to this. Not uniformly. There are times when the Chinese border is open and Chinese merchants are allowed to trade, and they are allowed to import goods from abroad. But there are other times in the 16th and 17th centuries when the borders are closed. Now, the Chinese government tended to close its borders when it perceived a security threat. So, the issue was never trade, per se. It was whether the people involved in the trade were going to be threatening to Chinese authority, or whether they were going to be threatening to Chinese people. So, for long stretches of the 16th century, it is absolutely illegal to sail abroad. In fact, a law is put in, in 1520, saying that: No ship of two masts or more is able to put out to sea. Which is a way of saying, 'You can hug the coast, and that's it. You cannot engage in trade.' Now, this law is lifted in the 1570s. And so, by the time the Dutch arrive--well, the Dutch do most of their trading, in fact, outside China. They are in Sumatra, Java, Borneo; they are in Southeast Asia. And they trade with Chinese there. So, Chinese merchants bring their goods out to Southeast Asia--this is where the Dutch trade. The Dutch also come up along the coast. They try and get a trading post in--somewhere along the coast. The Chinese government is hostile. And, we often speak of this in terms of xenophobia, or as an unwillingness to be open to the West. The Chinese didn't see it that way. The Chinese view is--the view of the Chinese government is that China is a sovereign territory. If foreigners want to come, they have to trade according to Chinese laws. They can't simply land, build themselves a trading post, and say, 'Right. We're here to trade.' This was a bit of a shock to the Europeans, because Europeans were going to the Americas, going to Africa, and setting up bases there. Well, that's fine--well, it wasn't fine for native peoples around the world--but at the time the Europeans were able to do this because there were no states that said, 'Sorry, we have sovereignty here. You can't just come and set up a colony and start trading.' And so, this was the Chinese message to the Europeans. Now, the Portuguese managed to get a little colony on a peninsula at the south end of China--Macao. But that was the only place that Europeans were allowed to live permanently. There was a trading season: there was a fair at Canton; they could come there to trade. But they could not set up a colony. Now, I don't think this is so much that China wishes to close itself off to the outside world. But, it wants to control its terms of trade and the terms of its diplomatic relations with the outside world.
45:59Russ But the result--one of the results, which you mention in passing, which I thought was so fascinating--incredible story, really--is the evolution of European world maps and Chinese world maps. So, the European--there's a Vermeer painting that is--is it "The Geographer"?--who has got the globe at the top of his--on a shelf, on the top of a dresser, whatever it is. But this globe, you point out, in real life, the actual globe that he's reproducing there, in real life had an apology on it. That, it--it's a bit awkward when you put out a globe a few years after another edition and it's real different, because you sold the earlier one as a replica of the world, and now you are saying, 'Well, it wasn't actually a replica of the world. It was off.' That must have been happening constantly with maps and globes. But, in the case of China, that evolution was not happening. So, explain why. Guest: Yeah. You are right to point out this difference. It was a difference of effects . The effect of Europeans being out around the world, trading, going to new places, exploring new markets--the knowledge effect on this was huge. And, one of the easiest ways we can track the effect of this new knowledge is to look at the maps and globes. You're absolutely right: The globe that's in the Vermeer painting, "The Geographer," has a little note on it--the real one has a note on it saying, 'Sorry. The world keeps changing.' And it also says, 'And, anyone who comes back from someplace that we haven't managed to put on the globe right, please write to us and we'll change the map.' So, maps are constantly changing. And knowledge of the world is constantly changing. And this becomes a tremendous resource for Europeans. It improves their ability to travel around the world and to engage in the trade that is booming in the 17th century. The Chinese are in a different position. The effect of maintaining their border security and of limiting foreign trade means that they don't have this flood of new knowledge coming in to China. They don't know, really, what the shape of the world is. They don't know what's going on there. And so they find themselves at a disadvantage. Now, it's not much of a disadvantage in the 17th century. True, Chinese firearms are somewhat superior to--excuse me, inferior to--European firearms. European ships are larger and more defensible than Chinese ships. So, there are differences in the 17th century. They are not huge. Where the difference really comes in is at the end of the 18th century, the early 19th century. This is when European ship technology and munitions technology escalates to a level far beyond anything a nation like China can put out on the water to defend itself. And this is when--this is when the world order, as we knew it in the 17th, 18th century starts to collapse; and the new order, the new imperialist order coming from Europe takes control. And China is not prepared. China is not able to respond effectively.
49:27Russ You quote Francis Bacon marvelling at the compass, paper, and gunpowder, unaware--famously unaware, you point out--that all three innovations, all three technologies, came from China. And China, which had been a great innovator, quote, "falls behind." And can't even steal the innovations of others if it doesn't go out and explore. Do you think it's true that, in that, in those centuries that followed, that they paid a price--and not just in terms of munitions and ships, but in other areas that they once were so superb at? Guest: Yes, they did pay a price. Though it's--we have to be careful about looking back from the present to understand the judgments and decisions that get made in the past. I mean, the only place we can stand is in the present. We can only look back. We can't go back to stand in 1600 and look forward to what's happening. We can only stand in 2008 and look back. But, we have to be careful about the assumptions that we bring into this. It's not clear that a turning point is reached until, really, I think, quite late--until the 18th to 19th centuries. But, the price the Chinese end up paying--well, it's ignorance of the outside world. It's a delayed reception of technological advances. I should say, in terms of technology, as you point out: China was a great source of technological innovation. And that innovation, if you like, was a sort of steady upward slope of new developments. Well, Europe, after the Renaissance, starts going through a technological transformation that causes that slope to become suddenly very much steeper. And the Chinese are not able to follow. And so, when they have to learn industrialization in the 19th century--sort of at the point of a gun rather than as the kind of slow process that characterized their own technological innovation before that--so, it leaves China unprepared to deal with the outside world. It leaves Chinese without the linguistic capabilities to be able to go out into the world. And, one of the marvellous things I discovered about the 17th century is that the extent to which Europeans were picking up languages. And, it's not the captains and the commanders who are picking up these languages. It's very ordinary people. One of the things I try and do in the book is to show how all of this affected ordinary people--the sailors, soldiers, people working to handle goods. These are the people who are actually going out into the world, learning foreign languages, learning about the outside world, bringing their experiences back, and making Europe the cosmopolitan place that it certainly wasn't in the 15th and 16th centuries. Europe was a much more closed society. So, the effect of the--of people going out into the world in the 17th century is to transform Europe. And, in a way that China was not transformed.
52:56Russ And it was a marvellous time, in many dimensions. You had, on the downside, a lot of plague. And, some of the problems of economic change that, again, that you talk about. But, it was a time of great opportunity and dynamism. Guest: Yes. Well, we--the textbooks will call it 'The Age of Discovery,' I suppose. And, I prefer to think of it as the Age of Innovation. This is when people were having to come up with new ways of sorting out their lives. New ways of dealing with the world. Because, they suddenly found they were living in a much larger place. A much more complex place than they had ever understood. Where they were interacting with people of different languages, customs, religions. And they had--Europeans had constantly to improvise in order to make sense of this. And I have to say, to some extent, the Chinese did, too. It was a very [?] age for them. One element of the Chinese story--I don't really address this in the book--but, the story in China changes because China is invaded in 1644 by the Manchus, who are an inner-Asian people living up in Siberia. And they come down, enter China in 1644, and then control it till 1911. That, I think, has a dampening effect. China, had it remained under the Ming Dynasty--the Ming was not hugely welcoming to foreigners, but it was willing to develop certain accommodations with the foreigners. This sense of willingness to accommodate is lost after the Manchus invade. Now, the Manchus themselves begin to re-open the process in the 1680s. But, the transformations that may have been underway in China are dampened down by the political context.
54:48Russ Well, there's an inevitable comparison to today's world that I think some commenters and pundits use for their own axe-grinding about the turmoil of this age. But there's something equally marvelous and extraordinary about our ability to sample and taste and listen to foreign culture, now, in a way--foreign is not the--'foreign,' meaning wherever you live. The opportunity to access the way other people look and think and cook and make music and speak is just so extraordinary. And, you know--for many of us, it's the best time to be alive, because of all that. That spread-- Guest: Well, I agree with you. And I think that's why I wrote the book the way in which I did. We live in an incomparable time. We live in a time of terrible difficulties and problems. But we live in a time in which we can live all around the world and experience the world in ways that we value and see as what makes us part of who we are. And, to tell that story, I think the 17th century is the point where you have to go back--this is the beginning of the kind of openness to the world that transforms us . And so, I wanted the reader to be able to see that what we enjoy today, what is possible today, rests on many centuries. And, it's not something that we somehow have discovered in the last couple of decades. It's why I use the phrase "The Dawn of the Global World," in my subtitle. I see this as, the 17th century, as the place in which this transformation is starting to occur--in which people are starting to see the new possibilities of living differently and interacting in intercultural ways that they couldn't have conceived of in the 16th century. So, we are very much part of a world that has existed for several centuries. We are not something that has suddenly appeared today.
56:57Russ We are almost out of time. I'd like you to close with a question, answering a question, that I know you'd need four or five hours or maybe a semester. But, the book made me think about China today, and how different China today is, with it's opening of its shores and its people to incredible amounts of foreign investment that would have been unimaginable--certainly 100 years ago, but even 30 years ago. So, there's an enormous influx of Western money, Western people, Western ideas, Western culture. The Chinese government tries to limit it to some extent. They have in Internet. They cripple it in creative ways. But it's still there. And right now listeners to EconTalk in China who emailed me--and I find that to be an ever-wondrous thing. Could you speculate for a minute about what role, if any, China's past has on its attitudes today about, with respect to the influence of trade and foreign culture. Guest: The past is very much present today in China. And it's present in the sense of being--of anxiety about what opening up to the outside world is going to do. And, in part, this anxiety, though, I think has more to do with the 19th century. Which was a terrible century for China. You had the British forcing China to buy opium. You had civil war. You had border skirmishes all over the Chinese borders. The 19th century was a terrible century. And, the legacy of that managed to survive through much of the 20th century, as well. So, Chinese, in 2008, are coming out of a two-century-long crisis that makes them very cautious--on the one hand makes them very cautious about the world. On the other hand, however, has given them, I think, some impetus now to really go out in the world and re-make their relationship. So, perhaps the enthusiasm and dynamism that we see in 17th century Europe is what we're seeing now in China--that, the Chinese themselves are now embracing the world. They are traveling. They are learning foreign languages. They are learning new ideas. They are trying to think of ways to bring their own traditions into conversation with traditions around the world. It's a very dynamic time for young Chinese--it's a very exciting time to be alive in China. And, we're only seeing a bit of this, I think, in the outside. We--maybe standing in North America, we are seeing China opening up. And we see it through trade. And trade is one part of the story. But to the Chinese, it's a very exciting time for them. They are discovering the world. And perhaps in some way the story I'm telling in Vermeer's Hat is the experience that they are now having as the terms of their place in the world is now changing. Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Timothy Brook, author of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. Tim, thanks for being part of EconTalk. Guest: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.