The Price of Collapse: The Little Ice Age and the Fall of Ming China

How climate change ushered in the collapse of one of history’s mighty empires


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Nov 21, 2023
4 b/w illus. 15 tables.
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In 1644, after close to three centuries of relative stability and prosperity, the Ming dynasty collapsed. Many historians attribute its demise to the Manchu invasion of China, but the truth is far more profound. The Price of Collapse provides an entirely new approach to the economic and social history of China, exploring how global climate crisis spelled the end of Ming rule.

The mid-seventeenth century witnessed the deadliest phase of the Little Ice Age, when temperatures and rainfall plunged and world economies buckled. Timothy Brook draws on the history of grain prices to paint a gripping portrait of the final tumultuous years of a once-great dynasty. He explores how global trade networks that increasingly moved silver into China may have affected prices and describes the daily struggle to survive amid grain shortages and famine. By the early 1640s, as the subjects of the Ming found themselves caught in a deadly combination of cold and drought that defied all attempts to stave off disaster, the Ming price regime collapsed, and with it the Ming political regime.

A masterful work of scholarship, The Price of Collapse reconstructs the experience of ordinary people under the immense pressure of unaffordable prices as their country slid from prosperity to calamity and shows how the market mediated the relationship between an empire and the climate that turned against it.