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The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties.

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, by Timothy Brook. History of Imperial China series. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. 329 pp. US $35.00 (cloth)

In accounts of Chinese history, the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) of the Mongols is seldom paired with its successor, the Ming (1368-1644). The Mongols usually are seen as brief episode between two powerful Chinese dynasties. Timothy Brook is an historian who enjoys in upsetting settled notions and in this book he finds two strong reasons to pair the Yuan and the Ming. First in line with some other authors, Brook argues that Mongol autocratic rule established a pattern that the Ming continued under the Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368-1398) the forceful first Ming emperor. Ming autocracy survived, undercutting the power of the Confucian elite even though several Ming emperors lacked the character to fulfill the requirements of a true autocrat. Second, and more originally, Brook finds that the more than three and a half centuries of Yuan and Ming rule coincide the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling temperatures beginning in the late-thirteenth century. The existence of the Little Ice Age is well established in European history, but has not been extensively applied to interpret China. Brook pinpoints the periods of cold and warmth from the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries to define periods he calls sloughs in which droughts or floods, famines, and epidemics brought about widespread suffering. Three of occurred in the final sixty years of Ming rule and Brooks argues triggered the weaknesses underlying the Ming collapse.

Brook finds multiple sources of troubles in the Yuan and Ming eras, starting with the effects of the Little Ice Age and including the growing isolation of the throne and the inner court from the Confucian degree holders who responded to their declining importance by becoming increasingly factionalized. He notes that succession to the imperial throne during the Yuan followed Inner Asian practices of competition among uncles and brothers. In the Ming, the eldest surviving son commonly ascended the throne regardless of other considerations. The Mongol method produced several strong rulers; the Ming practice proved much less successful. Other sources of trouble in the centuries concerned the changing nature of families and the growth of commerce and economic specialization. Brook emphasizes how aristocratic and strong court families disappeared to be replaced new families whose status derived from landholding, examination success or commercial prowess, but whose fortunes could change dramatically over three generations. Brook also argues that the Ming emperors and their central government officials remained fearful of foreigners along their eastern and southern coasts in spite of ever increasing commercial wealth produced by foreign trade and the new military technology from Europe that could have bolstered the Ming military.

As readers familiar with Brook's best selling Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York: Macmillan, 2008) his greatest strength as a writer comes in his discussion of. general economic issues, the patterns of exchange, and the goods involved. In this book, Brook offers two strong chapters the expanding commercialization of the Ming economy especially in realm of commerce that involved China, Southeast Asia and reached all the way to Persia. This was a world economy in the sense the term was used by Fernand Braudel in The Perspective of the World, volume three of Capitalism and Civilization 15th to 18th Centuries (London: Collins, 1984), meaning an economic region that exceeds the bounds of a single state or large geographic region. Brook's discussion of the trade in porcelain and silver is particularly good. Further he emphasizes what we today understand as objects made in a Chinese taste reflect the styles of the artisans, artists and connoisseurs of the Yuan and Ming.

The Troubled Empire is part of a six-volume series, the History of Imperial China for which Brook serves as general editor. Each of the presents short survey of around 300 pages by a single author. Brook begins his account with a most original chapter entitled "Dragons" in which he traces the appearance in Ming records of cyclones and other meteorological phenomena that were interpreted as dragons by contemporary observers. This is an unusual topic to discuss in general history and adds an exotic flavor to the book. To round out his survey, Brook also has chapters on religious and philosophical beliefs and a short, but well-written account of the Ming dynasty's collapse. Brook has given a readers a fast-paced, intriguing account of the Yuan and Ming dynasties that will be read and enjoyed for many years to come.

David D. Buck

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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Author:Buck, David D.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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