Ruth Mostern

Jan 14, 2022

The Yellow River

A Natural and Unnatural History

Yale University Press 2021

A three-thousand-year history of the Yellow River and the legacy of interactions between humans and the natural landscape From Neolithic times to the present day, the Yellow River and its watershed have both shaped and been shaped by human society. Using the Yellow River to illustrate the long-term effects of environmentally significant human activity, Ruth Mostern unravels the long history of the human relationship with water and soil and the consequences, at times disastrous, of ecological transformations that resulted from human decisions. As Mostern follows the Yellow River through three millennia of history, she underlines how governments consistently ignored the dynamic interrelationships of the river's varied ecosystems--grasslands, riparian forests, wetlands, and deserts--and the ecological and cultural impacts of their policies. With an interdisciplinary approach informed by archival research and GIS (geographical information system) records, this groundbreaking volume provides unique insight into patterns, transformations, and devastating ruptures throughout ecological history and offers profound conclusions about the way we continue to affect the natural systems upon which we depend.

This scale, detail, and clarity of this work was inspiring. Ruth Mostern's long-term environmental history of the Yellow River, is not the story of a single channel but of a series of landscapes and entanglements between the human and natural world. Replete with detailed explanations of physical geography and water management technologies, The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale UP, 2021) succeeds not only in meticulously addressing the geographical and cultural heart of Chinese history, but also in speaking to our present moment through its recurring portrayal of the relationship between environmental awareness and political possibility. 

Lance Pursey is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. He works on the history and archaeology of the Liao dynasty, and therefore is drawn to complicated questions of identity in premodern China like a moth is drawn to flame. He can be reached at

Listen to more episodes on:

Your Host

Lance Pursey

Lance Pursey is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Aberdeen where they work on the history and archaeology of the Liao dynasty. They are interested in questions of identity, and the complexities of working with different kinds of sources textually and materially.
Learn More

Also Hosted By Lance Pursey