Ian M. Miller’s book Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China (University of Washington Press, 2020) offers a transformation of our understanding of China’s early modern environmental history. Using a wide range of archival materials, including tax, deed, and timber market records, Miller presents a picture of China’s forestry regime, something that, while not centralized—as in European states—was highly effective. Though China never adopted a forest bureau system, Miller shows how China managed, through fiscal policies alone, to engender a remarkably productive commerce in timber and other forest products. Revising the narrative of deforestation, this history of China’s distinct form of forest oversight is sure to be a must-read for anyone interested in the history of China, or environmental history more broadly.
Though this is a sweeping book—beginning in China’s early empires and stretching through the Song, Yuan, and Ming to end in the nineteenth century—it is also filled with a number of much more local case studies. With chapters on forest deeds, fleet construction, and the logging of the last old-growth forests for palace construction, this book not only tells a story that will have wide impacts for the field, but manages to create an intimate look at what China’s forest management system looked like to those trying to operate and profit from it.
Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. She works on Manchu language books and is interested in anything with a kesike.