On the background of widespread portrayals of China as a monolithic geographical and political entity moving through time, insights into the endlessly contingent, local and contested events which have occurred in this part of East Asia over time are always valuable. This arguably applies all the more the further back in history we look, and so Jinping Wang
's In the Wake of the Mongols: The Making of a New Social Order in North China, 1200-1600
(Harvard University Asia Center, 2018) offers a welcome trove of detail concerning an especially crucial period.
Beginning at the conjuncture of two 'foreign' Chinese dynasties – the Jurchen-Jin and Mongol-Yuan – Wang carries us all the way forward into the Ming era, discussing throughout the complex ways in which local people responded to the Mongol invasion of northern China from the 13th century. Radical transformations in local lives emerge through Wang's focus on Shanxi province and a host of evocative characters from wandering nuns to dispossessed literati, canal managers and warlords’ wives. Based on not-previously-studied stele inscriptions and on-the-ground fieldwork, the book charts political, social and religious changes some of which, the author shows, had a long afterlife. It is these sorts of historical continuities which, whilst perhaps not permitting us to talk about ‘China’ in an entirely uncritical and broad-brushed way, certainly make studying the country’s long history a compelling and important pursuit in the present.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.