Art and Consumption in Late Ming China, 1550-1644


Gnliz Ger (1999) ,"Art and Consumption in Late Ming China, 1550-1644", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 640.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Page 640


Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University

This paper explores what we can learn about the nature of a consumer culture through art. It is based on two premises: that art expresses its historical and cultural context (Geertz 1976), and that interpretation of art requires an understanding of its context, the "art world" (Becker 1982). The study examines late Ming (1550-1644) Chinese consumer culture through the visual record of the art in the context of its production, marketing, consumption, and patronage, compared with those of the preceding eras. It is based on interviews with art historians and curators, historical and art historical sources, and the artworks themselves. The focus is mostly on paintings, the plastic art form considered to be typical of "fine arts" in Late Ming China.

The late Ming period saw the rise of a merchant class and a shift from rural to market-centered occupations (Brewer and Porter 1993; Huang 1988). Consumption expanded rapidly and large numbers of consumers enjoyed novel, fashionable, and luxurious goods. In this socially fluid society, art (as well as other luxury and decorative goods) became status markers. Status mobility depended not just on wealth, but on education, connoisseurship, and acceptance into the right art circles.

As consumption escalated, more Chinese had access to and purchased art (Cahill 1994; Clunas 1991; Fong and Watt 1996; Li and Watt 1987). The middle classes bought art in a broad range of prices, forms, and styles to suit their pockets and tastes. As art consumption broadened, a wider variety of painting styles emerged and were accompanied by a growing concern with taste and style. Yet, despite this artistic diversity, one particular style, that of the literati (scholar-officials and scholar-painters), was the most influential. The literati considered skillful, effortful, detailed depiction to be a craft, carried on the by artisans and professionals who made a living from middle class buyers. In contrast, literati painting was abstract, philosophical, and involved emotional expression, simplicity, and extrem elegance. The literati style of consumptionCrefined, sophisticated, and cultivatedCwas a powerful determinant of social taste and the newly wealthy emulated the literati way of consuming art, antiques, and other goods.

In their painting and consumption, the late Ming Chinese softened Confucian morality with Taoist natural spontaneity. Painting expressed the essential character and animated spirit of things and reflected a blend of matter-spirit, secular-religious, ideal-natural, and traditional-progressive. Consumption harmonized spirituality, aesthetics, and virtue with pleasureCin foods, dress, decoration, entertainment, gardens, and travel. And, both the old and the new were valuable, both in painting in the style of the old masters and in the consumption of both traditional and novel art and other goods.

Thus, Late Ming art reflects consumption in several ways: arts flourished and art markets and consumption broadened as consumption expanded; literati tastes and styles dominated both consumption and art; and both art and consumption expressed the fusion of matter-spirit and old-new. Art in its context is very revealing about social dynamics, including daily consumption experiences, and can add a deeper and a more nuanced understanding of a consumer culture.


Becker, Howard S. (1982), Art Worlds, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brewer, John and Roy Porter, eds. (1993), Consumption and the World of Goods, London: Routledge.

Cahill, James (1994), The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China, New York: Columbia University Press.

Clunas, Craig (1991), Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Fong, Wen C. and James C.Y. Watt (1996), Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Geertz, Clifford (1976), "Art as a Cultural System," Modern Language Notes, 6 (December), 1473-1499.

Huang, Ray (1988), China: A Macro History, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

Li, Chu-Tsing and James C.Y. Watt, eds. (1987), The Chinese Scholar’s StudioCArtistic Life in the Late Ming Period: An Exhibition from the Shanghai Museum, New York: Asia Society Galleries.



Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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