Things are not just inert objects that simply do what we make them do. They carry meanings, meanings sometimes so powerful that they over- whelm their use entirely. The double life of things is most easily spotted at the upper end of consumption. The court, for instance, had to be filled with objects of the finest quality, not because an expensive elegant stool was more useful than a cheap sturdy one, but because it was doing more work than supporting the rear end of the person sitting on it. It was what it was because it had to publicize the wealth and elegance that the court was expected to embody.
The Yuan and Ming courts were accordingly major consumers of luxury objects: paintings to be hung on walls, furniture to be sat on, place settings ordered from the porcelain kilns in Jingdezhen, silks to dress themselves and their families, elegantly bound books to read and to present to loyal subordinates. The scale of courtly consumption was vast. An entire apparatus of state workshops, some of them within the precincts of the palace itself, some in key manufacturing cities such as Suzhou and Hangzhou, came into being to manufacture the luxury objects the court commanded. Popular taste followed suit, of course. People outside the imperial family eyed these luxuries for themselves and connived to consume them, though they could only do so within some very particular rules—such as making sure that whenever you bought something with a dragon on it, that dragon′s feet sported only four claws instead of five. Recall that the discovery of bowls decorated with dragons counted against the Jesuits.
Taste was not a one-way conveyor belt extending from the court to society. Some people might wish to imitate the emperor by acquiring the objects he consumed, or more likely knock-offs of the real things, but to men of discrimination, this was a losing game. Better to set your own standards—and this is what the gentry did, developing styles that ac- corded with their own consumption preferences. These hinged not on what was costly and conspicuous (though it was always nice to be noticed, especially when you had paid a lot for the thing being consumed) but on what was elegant. Elegance was a tough criterion to master, tough enough to stump the nouveaux riches. It could even be tough enough to put emperors at a disadvantage, which was the point. What did an emperor have except Heaven′s mandate, a security apparatus, and an apparently endless supply of cash? Without his Confucian tutors, he could have no knowledge of the subjects of which men of good taste should be in full command: antiquities, painting, calligraphy, books, even comportment. Khubilai and Zhu Yuanzhang did not trouble themselves about mastering such arcana. Their descendants, many of whom came to the throne as children, did no better. They had tutors in such matters, but they listened to them half-heartedly. Compared to their Song predecessors, the thirty Yuan and Ming emperors stand out for their utter lack of cultural attainments. The exception is the Xuande emperor (r. 1426– 1435), grandson of Yongle and great-grandson of the founder—the rare case of an emperor sufficiently absorbed in the culture of elegance to achieve real skill as a painter. But he is the only one.
In an economy based as much on taste as on money, the emperor as wealthy consumer had to cede place to the gentry connoisseur as elegant consumer. Emperors merely possessed things, whereas connoisseurs used them to express the highest ideas of their culture: thoughtful contemplation, aesthetic discernment, and good taste. The two practices of consumption—the conspicuous and the elegant—influenced each other, but largely went on in separate social realms. Thus, while Zhu Yuanzhang was furnishing his palace in Nanjing, a wealthy collector by the name of Cao Zhao was in the same city compiling a guide to collecting elegant artifacts. Essential Criteria for Discriminating Antiquities (Gewu yaolun), which taught gentry readers how to identify objects worth collecting and to appreciate them without being tainted by the urge to possess them. The emperor would not have been interested. Still, whether merely acquisitive or deeply cultural, consumption had the powerful effect of stimulating the creation of an extraordinary oeuvre of art and artifacts that defines what most people think of as "Ming."
From：《THE TROUBLED EMPIRE-CHAINA IN THE YUAN AND MING DYNASTIES》Author：CANADA Timothy Brook