- Suzhou: Where the Goods of All the Provinces Converge
There is something for everybody in this provocative and challenging book. Suzhou wowed the Frenchman Idisore Hedde as much in 1845 as it did Marco Polo almost six centuries before. And what student of Chinese urbanism can forget the powerful juxtaposition, in G. William Skinner's landmark The City in Late Imperial China, of two images of the city-one of a 1229 city map, the other a 1945 aerial photo-the walls and compounds virtually unchanged from one to the next? But in contrast to such suggestions of continuity in Suzhou history, Marmé's Ming-focused Suzhou: Where the Goods of All the Provinces Converge presents a history of contingency and paradox. In so doing, it brings into view a previously obscured and woefully misunderstood century and a half of urban change.
Suzhou is organized thematically and roughly chronologically. Chapters 1 and 2 provide an overview of Ming Suzhou and of the city's pre-Ming history, respectively; chapters 3 through 5 address the evolution of tax policy toward the city, which was one of the most important sources of revenue for the Ming coffers; and chapters 6 through 8 consider shifts in local elite strategies and priorities. The study is unified by Marmé's key finding-not only was Ming Suzhou not devastated, as long assumed, by heavy taxation, but paradoxically, its elites emerged from the first half of Ming rule stronger than ever.
Marmé scratches deep below the surface of the stale stereotype of early Ming Suzhou: that a punitive Ming founder, enraged by the support Suzhou elites gave [End Page 482] to his rival Zhang Shicheng, taxed the city into the ground and disrupted the region's economy until the intensive and extensive commercialization of the Jiang-nan region during the sixteenth century. As it turns out, the city actually fared better under Ming Taizu than some of his successors, such as the Yongle Emperor. The former formulated strict policies for the city that nonetheless provided for a degree of commercial flexibility, whereas the latter raised the tax burden so high that Suzhou faced near collapse by the end of his reign.
The city did not collapse, however, and according to Marmé soon sat atop a "Suzhou-centered world system. For the first time in Chinese history, that system was centered on a commercial and manufacturing center, not a political capital" (p. 5). The history of Ming Suzhou thus challenges "one of the most robust axioms about the preindustrial city . . . that cities that were not immediate and direct beneficiaries of the political system were severely limited in size" (p. 6). The riddle of Suzhou's success is solved by Marmé's scrupulous examination of the twists and turns in tax policy that ultimately yielded favorable conditions for economic growth. Over the long run, Marmé argues, local elites made up for what the state took in land taxes (much of which, in any event, state elites carefully reinvested in local public works projects) by investing in trade and handicrafts, which the state taxed at lower rate. The interaction of state and local elites thus transformed the city from the one that Marco Polo saw, which for centuries got by on the "marketing of [agricultural] surpluses," to the one famous by Hedde's time, which prospered from a multiregional trade in commodities (p. 2).
Marmé thus provides a compelling revision of the image of early Ming Suzhou. His findings confirm those of Timothy Brook's The Confusions of Pleasure about the dynamism of the early Ming economy and the pitfalls of relying on representations of the Ming founder to characterize the social and economic life of the realm. Suzhou's significance for the economic development of Jiangnan and regions beyond is now also much clearer. Less clear is what Marmé means by calling Suzhou-centered trade networks a "world system." He suggests that "such a system can be equated with Braudel's 'world cities' or Wallerstein...