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  • The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties
  • Wensheng Wang
The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. By Timothy Brook. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. 336 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Climate changes always play a pivotal role in human history. Only in the past several decades, however, have they become the subject of [End Page 170] intensive historical research. Nowadays more and more people begin to realize the "inconvenient" truth of global warming which showcases the unintended, destructive consequences of human-nature interactions. But global warming is just the latest manifestation of this strained relationship. In The Troubled Empire, Timothy Brook reminds readers that abrupt change in global temperatures and extreme weather abnormalities are nothing new, and their ecological impacts must be understood in a deeper, more complex historical context.

This work examines the human history of climate through the lens of recurrent global cooling during the Little Ice Age. It engages the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties in a new and compelling way, exploring the profound effects of such extreme weather abnormalities upon all aspects of Chinese history from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. The conventional historiography, as Brook suggests, has missed something rather important due to its narrow focus on human factors like politics, economy, and culture. We need to reconceptualize these four centuries by considering the impact of extreme climatic problems not solvable by any available choices. By using an ecological approach, this book advances our understanding of why and how to write environment into Chinese history and thus makes a significant contribution to the field.

The Troubled Empire is divided into ten chapters, which are organized topically instead of chronologically. The first chapter begins with an overview of dragon visitations throughout the Yuan-Ming dynasties that brought about ecological disasters to the local people. While indicating severe weather conditions, the unusual phenomenon of dragon spotting signifies heavenly warnings to the irresponsible rulers who failed to harmonize the patterns of heaven, earth, and human. Chapter 2 deals with the major efforts of the Yuan-Ming regimes to unify and govern the empire, ranging from developing communication networks and administrative structures to population registration, land survey, and migration management.

Chapter 3 lays out the deep structure of the book. It demarcates nine dramatic periods of ecological crises (three in the Yuan and six in the Ming) that punctuated the two troubled dynasties. The author calls them "sloughs," "periods from three to seven years of intensely bad weather and large-scale human catastrophe" (p. 2). In so doing, Brook establishes a chronology of unusual downturn in temperatures and highlights the ecological disasters they precipitated, including cold, drought, floods, locusts, earthquakes, epidemics, and famine, which tended to come in clustering waves. Some of them "exceeded the capacity of either the state or the market to respond" (p. 125), [End Page 171] combining to produce some of the worst tragedies in Chinese history.

The following seven chapters are structured around different yet interrelated issues of Yuan-Ming history. Brook's treatment is encyclopedic, ranging from emperorship and constitutional crises, economy and ecology, kinship and gender relationships, Confucian cosmology and Western ideas, to the material world of conspicuous consumption, the new world-economy centered on the South China Sea, and the closing decades of the Ming dynasty. Putting these familiar subjects in the new frame of ecological history throws new lights on the evolution of the two dynasties as a whole.

The most fascinating parts of the book, in my view, are those directly describing how state, society, and local people adapted to the abrupt meteorological fluctuations and their huge environmental repercussions. Yuan-Ming history must be understood in relation to the logic underlying the multifaceted responses to the mounting ecological crises during the four centuries. For instance, Brook emphasizes the intersection between state breakdown and environmental change by pointing out that both dynasties collapsed at the peak of the Little Ice Age. Some other scholars have even made claims that almost all dynastic changes in Chinese history occurred in relatively cold phases. By taking unpredictable, long-term climatic forces as a central causal factor in triggering historical development, this...


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