I have long been a fan of the Harvard History of Imperial China collection, but series editor Timothy Brook has presented a star turn in awarding himself the Yuan and Ming dynasties. With deliberate and playful provocation, he lumps these two later periods together, instead of following in the footsteps of most other researchers, who usually cover the Mongol century of the Yuan as an addendum to the fore-running Song dynasty.
His reason for this is climatic – Brook identifies nine distinct periods of drought, flood, pestilence and famine, each of which constitutes a “slough” in fortune that sorely tests the imperial regime’s ability to manage its state. In fact, he collates the Yuan and Ming because, between them, they span the period that we now know to have constituted the Little Ice Age.
But Brook also displays winning originality in his choice of sources. He begins and ends with gripping accounts of sightings of “dragons”, triangulating this catch-all term for water-spouts, comets, tornadoes and earthquakes with his new-found data on climate change and natural disaster. He also maintains this thread throughout the book, returning to insightful new views of big data, such as the fluctuating number of Ming-era paintings that depicted snowy scenes.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the Yuan and Ming dynasties had been well and truly picked over. With strong grounding in untranslated sources, and intriguing new uses for old materials (do you know the 16th-century Chinese word for a sailor’s gay husband? “Rice-paddy” over “woman” if you ever need it.), Brook excellently demonstrates that history remains an ongoing and evolving practice, and that there is always something new to say.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, and biographies of Marco Polo and Khubilai Khan.