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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


What Life was Like in the Land of the Dragon: Imperial China Ad 960-1368 - Time-Life Books

Although the title is somewhat misleading, this works very well as a comprehensive overview of the Song and Yuan Dynasties. It starts with the formation of the Song following the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, the conquest of northern China by the Jurchens which led to the diminished Southern Song, the conquest of all of China by the Mongols, and the end of the Yuan Dynasty.

One interesting tidbit I learned was the story of former empress Meng, who contributed to the survival of the Song in southern China by serving as an effective regent to two emperors, then stepping down when they were ready to rule.

Along with the lively accessibility of the writing, this book is full of dozens of colorful asides which do address "what life was like," including descriptions of city life, food and drink, progressions on technology, pottery, writing, and philosophy. Almost every page has a detailed picture, whether it's a painting or a photograph of artifacts, providing a vivid visual element to the book's overall political chronicle.

The main focus of the Song section seems to be on the timeline of economic reforms, of China's struggle to maintain its empire without overtaxing its peasants. This was made difficult by the aristocracy's exemption from said taxes, combined with their owning the majority of the most productive land. In addition, peasants were subjected to conscripted labor and suffered the hardest in times of failed harvests. One specifically influential official, Wang Anshi, led the way in implementing reforms, which met with mixed successes with the populace and mixed responses by the court. He was strongly opposed by another official Su Shi, and the conflict between the two men, their individual lives, and the fluctuating political climate is described in extensive detail for almost a third of the 144 pages.

The fall of the Yuan Dynasty is explained by the Mongols' failure to fully legitimize their rule, as native Chinese were second-class citizens and foreign officials were given the most important civic posts. Over time, the favoritism shown to these foreigners and others at the top of the social ladder began to bleed China dry. The further the Mongols assimilated into a culture that nevertheless refused to accept them, the more they lost their ancestral legitimacy, leading to a set of vulnerable conditions that made it easy for the eventual Ming founder to overthrow the dynasty.

I came to this knowing next to nothing about this time period in Chinese history and it turned out to be very accommodating. I would suggest it as an introduction, while readers with a more serious interest might give it a look, then go on to read more rigorously detailed works to fill in the holes inevitably left by such a broad overview.