Ming China in 1642 had suffered a series of disasters. Floods, and then drought had destroyed successive rice crops, sending the price of grain to astronomical levels. As one schoolteacher wrote:
“There was no rice in the market to buy. Even if a dealer had grain, people passed by without asking the price. The rich were reduced to scrounging for beans or wheat, the poor for chaff or rotting garbage. Being able to buy a few pecks of chaff or bark was ecstasy.”
The Ming Dynasty collapsed two years later.
Timothy Brook, in his latest book The Price of Collapse: The Little Ice Age and the Fall of Ming China (Princeton University Press: 2023), points to environmental disaster as the spark that helped cause the Ming Dynasty’s fall, relying on a history of surging prices to show how the over-275 year dynasty eventually fell to the Qing.
In this interview, Timothy and I talk about inflation in Ming China, how it connects to climate change, and how short-term environmental shocks can cause a market to break down.
Timothy Brook is professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia and a fellow of the British Academy. His many books include Great State: China and the World (Harper: 2020), Mr. Selden's Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer (Bloomsbury Press: 2013), and Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2009).
You can find more reviews, excerpts, interviews, and essays at The Asian Review of Books, including its review of The Price of Collapse. Follow on Twitter at @BookReviewsAsia.
Nicholas Gordon is an editor for a global magazine, and a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.