Climate and China’s Dynastic Cycles


Climate and China’s Dynastic Cycles


  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside




With climate change very much in the news, historians have sought correlations between climate change and the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties.

This contrasts with traditional explanations by Chinese historians of those eras, who explain rise and fall as the result of human decisions and actions.  Resolving these two reasonable, but inevitably partial, explanations requires looking at the ways people respond to large-scale stressors.  Climate change is indeed one source of problems that rulers and masses must consider—along with wars, diseases, population changes, and other large-scale phenomena.  Climate change does not “cause” dynastic change, but it does force people to respond in ways that may produce dynastic change.


Climate change is much in the news these days.  Given the exaggeration and polarization of debate, it is no surprise to find that the role of climate change in Chinese history has come in for its share of debate (on environment in imperial times, management, see Anderson 2014a; Elvin 2004, but Elvin considerably too harsh on the traditional system; Marks 1998, 2009, 2012; Menzies 1994).

Climate change significant enough to make major differences in human affairs is now well understood.  Climate after the last Ice Age quickly became warmer than today, up to a very few degrees C, and stayed very warm from about 7000 BCE to about 3000.  For instance, in the loess plateau around 4200-3600 BCE, conditions were more than 1 degree C warmer than now, and precipitation comparable to current conditions in nearby mountains (Sun et al. 2016).  Warm climates make China wetter, because they not only make the monsoon more powerful, but they shift northward the intertropical convergence zone, meaning that the monsoon starts closer to China.  The same move takes it farther from tropical Asia, and thus is associated with droughts in southeast Asia.  China derives almost all its rain from the summer monsoon, though the cold, dry winter monsoon can pick up enough moisture over China to bring drizzling, chilling rain to the south.  Warmer weather dries up central Asia and brings warmer and thus more drying conditions to Tibet, but only western Xinjiang and the highlands of Tibet are much affected by this.

Following the cooling after 3000 BCE, conditions were rather like today, until a very sharp drying trend hit central Asia in 1500-500 BCE.  It does not seem to have affected China greatly.  (What follows is synthesized from Brooke 2014; Kidder et al. 2016; Lin et al. 2016; Wei et al. 2015; Yin et al. 2016; D. Zhang et al. 2007; P. Zhang et al. 2008; Y. Zhang et al. 2016; Zhao et al. 2016)  Then a pleasant, warm, moist period, known in the west as the Roman optimum, helped both the Roman Republic and Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  This gave way to cooler conditions, and then a sharp cold and dry period from 550 to 650.  This modified to conditions much like today’s, or a bit more warm and wet, in Tang.  A weak monsoon 910-930 seems to have occurred (P. Zhang et al. 2008).  In 950 to 1300 came the Medieval Warm Period, also known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly.  It brought warmer and wetter conditions to China, but with sharp fluctuations, especially in the 11th and 12th centuries, when sudden returns to more average (i.e. colder) conditions hit China hard.  The early 12th century seems to have been especially cool.  After 1300, the Little Ice Age slowly came on, producing extremely cold, dry conditions, especially at certain times in the 1400s, 1600s, and 1700s.  This was followed by a slow warming after 1800 or 1850, which gave way after 1900 to more steady warming as human-released greenhouse gases added themselves to natural warming and eventually took over the major warming role.  (Human-caused global warming appears clearly only about 1850.  Alleged human-caused warming by rice agriculture in dynastic times is not credible.  Among other things, the allegers forgot that the rice largely replaced marshes and wetlands that already released methane.)

Otherwise, minor to substantial fluctuations in the record appear, but are largely in the category of “weather” rather than “climate.”  Also, the magnitude of these climate changes should not be overestimated; a few degrees C was the greatest amplitude.

The major confounder in studying the effect of climate change on dynastic cycling is the well-known fact that China exacerbated or even created its own problems.  Walter Mallory’s classic study China: Land of Famine (1926) stressed the role of deforestation, erosion, badly managed river dykes, wetlands drainage, and other environmental ills on China’s horrific history of droughts and floods.  Recent studies have gone on to confirm this (Elvin 2004; Marks 2012).  Shiba Yoshinobu has made this point, most recently for the Song Dynasty (McDermott and Yoshinobu 2015), which engaged in massive deforestation for iron smelting, ceramics making, and printing (pines were burned for ink), with the result that enormous and uncontrollable floods devastated the country and threatened the dynasty.  Like so many modern disasters in China and elsewhere (Muir-Wood 2016), these were not acts of God but acts of man; they do not show that dynasties fell because of climate change, they show that the environment was stressed and dynasties fell because of human mismanagement.


The dynasties in question are as follows:

Xia Dynasty (assumed equivalent to the Erlitou culture on the middle Yellow River): ca. 2000-ca. 1500 BCE.

Shang Dynasty: ca. 1500-ca. 1050 BCE.

Zhou Dynasty:  ca. 1050-250 BCE, the last 500 years being a time of disunion when the Zhou had control over only a tiny area; the rest of China was divided into “warring states.”

Qin Dynasty:  221-207 BCE.

Han Dynasty:  206 BCE-220 CE, with a break 9-23 CE when an affine of the royal family briefly took over after a series of child-emperors, to be overthrown in a countercoup by the Han dynasts; major rebellion ca. 180.

Time of disunion: 220-581.

Sui Dynasty: 581-618.

Tang Dynasty: 620-907.  Once again, the fall of Tang saw several weak or child emperors.  Very important rebellions in 754 and 880 almost brought down the dynasty, forcing major changes in government.

Time of disunion: 907-960.

Song Dynasty: 960-1279, interrupted by loss of the entire north, including the capital, in 1127, with capture of the Emperor; the dynasty had to re-form in the south.  It collapsed, again under very young boys, and after savage factional fighting and corrupt ministers, in the 1270s.

Liao Dynasty:  Began ca. 960 in far north, took over most of north China after 1000, fell 1126.

Jin Dynasty:  Conquered Liao in 1126, took the rest of north China from Song in 1127, fell to Mongols in 1234.

Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire): 1279-1368.  Last few emperors accused of alcoholism.

Ming Dynasty: 1368-1644.  Major corruption and imperial failure at the end.

Qing Dynasty: 1644-1911, with major near-fatal rebellion 1844; once again with child-emperors at the helm toward the end.


All the longer dynasties suffered from coups, countercoups, major rebellions, and the like, as well as constant palace intrigues and jockeying between candidates for royal succession.

This brings us to other destabilizing factors besides climate.  A dynasty is subject to several well-known problems.  First is foreign invasion.  China was so much the biggest power in the east that it rarely had to worry about that, but the medieval period saw the rise of powers—Liao, Jin, and above all the Mongols—that overwhelmed China.  This was partly due to climate, as will appear.  Second is bad luck in imperial demography.  Often an emperor died childless, or left a young child as the only heir.  Child emperors had to have regents—often mothers or grandmothers, sometimes an uncle or high court official.  The results were usually poor and often disastrous.  Other problems with palace politics included extremely powerful but corrupt officials, irresponsible or downright deranged emperors, and overly powerful generals who thought they could do a better job of running the empire.  A weak emperor following an unpopular one was a particularly fatal combination, directly responsible for the falls of Qin and Sui.

Over all this play the great cycles of resilience theory, Ibn Khaldun’s theory, and Peter Turchin’s work.  These all postulate a rising phase when a population or system grows and increases its power (the r phase of resilience theory), a high (K) phase when it consolidates control and may have a golden age, a downward (omega) phase when it loses coherence and falls apart, and a down (alpha) phase when it is depopulated, ruinous, but regrouping for the next rise.  Resilience theory does not suggest a time frame, since it is meant to apply to everything from bacteria to whales.  Ibn Khaldun (1958) saw the cycle in human dynasties playing over three or four generations, about 100 years.  Turchin (Turchin and Zefedov 2006) saw longer cycles of up[ to 200-300 years: the time frame of Chinese dynasties.  Ibn Khaldun’s theory predicts major crises; coups or rebellions that shook the dynasty profoundly happened about every 60 years within the great dynasties (Han through Qing).

The dynasties, even the short-lived ones, conform to Ibn Khaldun’s classic scenario.  A charismatic military leader, not only bold and intrepid but charismatic and generous enough to inspire genuine loyalty and affection (‘asabiyah in Ibn Khaldun’s Arabic), becomes what the Chinese call the High or Great Emperor, founding the dynasty.  He is followed by a brilliant age—often started or marked by coup and coutercoup—when the dynasty is powerful, expanding, and rich.  The economy grows through conquest, settlement of abandoned or thinly populated lands, rising production, and positive feedback loops—the more economic activity, the more production, the more crafts and trade, the more innovation and intensification.  Then follows a period in which the land is filled up and heavily populated but innovation is stalling, leading to Malthusian squeeze.  Often, previous economic activity is now demanding that costs be paid.  Deforestation and erosion lead to devastating floods.  Levees and dykes have confined the rivers too much, so they aggrade their beds with silt.  The floods make them burst their beds and drown the area, inevitably densely populated because of the ease of river access.  Overcultivation makes every dry summer a drought.  Taxes keep rising, or at best stay steady, but there is now no economic growth, so the taxes bite hard.  Discontent leads to banditry.  Neighbor states start raiding.  All this forces more and more military buildup, but there is now no conquest to provide more land and loot.  The resulting feedback loops of increasing environmental damage, increasing military spending, and increasing tax bite lead to, or at least are associated with, corruption, factional fighting, and paralysis in the high levels of government.  Collapse is by now inevitable.  What Tristram Kidder et al. say of the Han Dynasty is perfectly typical of all: the collapse of a dynasty occurs when “the disjunction between rules and resources reaches a threshold so stark that agents at all social levels stood to gain more by challenging the status quo than they did by conforming to it” (Kidder et al. 2016:86).

It is astonishing to see how perfectly the Chinese dynasties recapitulate this formula.  The Chinese knew it, too.  By the Han Dynasty they already recognized the cyclic nature of dynasties, the necessary charisma of the founder, and the inevitable degeneration of governance at the end.  Not having a worldwide perspective, they naturally saw it in terms of the morality of the individual actors, but they recognized that floods, droughts, invasions, and other catastrophes exacerbated the problems.

Our next step is to correlate climate change with dynastic events.  The prediction (mine and that of Yin et al. 2016) is that better times—warmer and wetter, with stronger monsoons—will predate or accompany the rise of dynasties, while worse times—colder and drier—will predate their fall.

The Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties are too poorly known and dated for meaningful correlations.

The rise of Qin and Han accompanies the Roman Republic/Empire Optimum.  The interregnum of 9-23 CE followed some bad years that may partially explain it (Kidder et al. 2016).  The fall of Han tracks the beginning of the end of the Roman Optimum.  This fits our prediction well.  But then the spectacular rise and Sui and Tang, and the beginning of Tang’s glory days, coincide with a sharp deterioration in climate.  Yet, not only did China rise, but the conquest by the founders of Sui and Tang came from the hardest-hit area, the northwest edge of China where it fringes into Central Asia.  The fall of Tang accompanies drought and heat associated with the very uneven beginning of the Medieval Warm Period.

The rise of Song is somewhat associated with a more strong and reliable monsoon.  The Liao, Jin, and Yuan (Mongol) Dynasties rose during the Medieval Warm Period, which made it far easier for these originally nomadic, horse-riding peoples to increase their herds and manpower, increase their food supply, and conquer outward.  There is now no question that this took place in the Mongol case (Anderson 2014b).  But the reduction of Song and its eventual fall took place in relatively cool times, which should have weakened the northern regimes in relation to Song.

However, Song was facing another problem: the devastation caused by centuries of deforestation and overgrazing.  This is a classic point, often made, and more recently extended and elaborated by Ling Zhang (2016) in a brilliant recent study drawing on earlier work by George Cressey (1955), Robert Hartwell, and others.  She focuses on the Yellow River and its steadily rising ability to produce devastating floods.  The rise of iron smelting, printing, and other industries created a huge demand for fuel, thus causing massive deforestation, even on slopes too steep to farm and therefore very susceptible to erosion.

This reminds us of the obvious fact—notably stressed by Jared Diamond in Collapse (2011)—that people create their fates and landscapes.  Climate does not act on a blank, empty world.  It acts on a world people have built, for better or worse.

Yuan took power when the Medieval Warm Period was still in its favor, but it declined as that good age gave way.  The succeeding Ming Dynasty had a horrible situation to face: running the empire during a period of unprecedented cold and dry conditions.  It succeeded astonishingly well, not losing power for centuries.  Even worse cold and drought probably hastened its fall (Brooke 2014; Parker 2013), but we are left needing to explain the long run of Ming.

Then comes the strangest thing of all.  Ming was conquered not by a powerful regime, not by internal unrest, but by the tiny Manchu state—a state that was based in China’s frigid and snowy northeast, an area that sufferend inconceivable miseries from the exacerbation of the Little Ice Age in the early 1600s.  Outside of traditional ascriptions of success to the personalities of the early Qing emperors, there is no way to explain this.  In fact, we have many writings by the Kangxi Emperor, the real architect of Qing power, and he was exactly the type of leader calculated to maximize ‘asabiyah—a brilliant, driving, single-minded man, able to be generous to allies and utterly ruthless to enemies (Spence 1974).

Similarly, the decline and fall of Qing took place during a period of steadily ameliorating climate, though it must be admitted that this warming trend both produced more floods (the monsoon strengthened) and more droughts (heat exacerbated dry weather when that occurred).

Several recent groups have attempted to synthesize these data.  Recent books by John Brooke (2014) and Geoffrey Parker (2013) marginally discuss China, largely its hard times.  These authors write as if climate directly caused events—people were mere machines, programmed to do what climate told them.  This greatly underestimates human agency.

Yin et al (2016) looked at imperial China from Qin on through Qing.  They find that social rise was associated with warming (which normally meant wetting too) 57% of the time, and decline with cooling and drying 66.6%.  (The very few warm-dry and cool-wet periods did not correlate with anything in particular, but they were exceedingly rare and short.)  This is not compelling; the first is not statistically much better than chance.  We shall have to look for other explanations here.  They gathered 1586 data points from the standard histories of China (saving me a lot of work), and parceled out even such things as particularly dynamic reign periods when China expanded its power, e.g. under Han Wu Di (140-87 BCE), who conquered neighboring areas during a relatively warm period.  They miss the fact that the warm period should have, and in fact did, benefit his enemies as much as it benefited him, forcing him to fight hard and spend the empire’s wealth.  (They also find that records of good and bad times are particularly good for Han, bad for the Tang-Song interregnum and the Song Dynasty—fitting the history of war and conquest in the latter cases.)  They find that China was peaceful 68.4% of the time, turbulent otherwise.

Chen Qiang, on the other hand, thinks drought and cold did it.  Cold was associated with more wars—a claim that does not explain the violent Medieval Warm Period or the long, peaceful Ming Dynasty.  He finds that the main correlates were age of dynasty (older ones were weaker; that is true of nomad regimes too) and drought.  This does not check with the warlike but pleasantly warm period from 220 to 581, though it does coincide with the rise of Sui and Tang.  It does not work for the Mongols.  It works for the Manchus, in that they came in during a cold dry period, but the people of the Manchu state were largely settled agriculturalists and not nomadic (in spite of frequent mistaken claims).  Warfare shows correlation with cold periods (Zhang et al. 2007).  Shortly after the start of cold periods came the falls of Northern Song, Southern Song, Yuan, and Ming, as well as the Taiping rebellions.  Early Ming was still warm—the Little Ice Age became serious in the 1400s and then made the 1600s one of the worst periods in China’s history, with (resulting?) war and chaos.

Wei et al (2015) find that climate events are related to dynastic cycles.  They provide a careful, methodologically interesting assessment of troubles, with a very full bibliography.  They use Holling’s resilience cycle.  They find a fair correlation of moist warm periods with good times, and vice versa, but note the obvious Ming exception.  They do find a major crash in post-1420 Ming, though with a fairly quick recovery.  They, like Kidder et al, focus on the Xin Dynasty interregnum in the Han Dynasty, this attaching more importance to it than do most historians.

Another approach is to look at local regions, which often had quite different climate histories from the rest of China.  Harry Lee and his colleagues looked at dry and drought-prone northwest China (Lee and Zhang 2010; Lee et al. 2015, 2016).  They found that wild fluctuations in rainfall characterized the Little Ice Age, with many droughts, but that the famously peaceful period of the middle Qing Dynasty from 1700 to 1820 saw a lack of famines and a rise in population, because of successful land management and the coming of New World crops (Lee et al. 2016).  In far northwestern China, westerlies and north winds dominated, totally decoupling that region from the rest of China and making its climate countercyclic (Y. Zhang et al. 2016).

In northeastern China, it was the Medieval Warm Period that was problematic, causing many floods, often alternating with horrific droughts in wild swings (Lee et al. 2015; L. Zhang 2016).  Ling Zhang (2016) has written a brilliant, major work about the consequences:  progressive breakdown in management of the Yellow River and other water sources and wetlands.  Her work interestingly fits with Peter Turchin’s findings on cycles; during the disintegration cycle of Northern Song, politics got more and more polarized and acerbic, and one result was failure to come up with coherent, consistent policies for the Yellow River. As Turchin says, “During the disintegrative phases…it is very difficult to generate the cooperative action needed to win a major war” (Turchin 2016:106).  That was true of Song’s war with the conquest dynasties, and it was also true of Song’s war with the Yellow River.

One could, of course, come up with contrived post-hoc explanations for the perverse rises of Sui, Tang, and Qing, and the perverse weakness of Song, but I fear there is no way to save climatic change as a really necessary or always-important driving variable.  Warming certainly helped the Mongols, at first, and cooling hurt them later.  Warming almost certainly helped Qin and Han initially and cooling hurt Han later.  Cooling days contributed to the woes of Song and Ming.  On the other hand, the rise of Sui and Tang, the rise and long continuance of Ming, and the whole course of Qing go directly contrary to predictions.  Thus we can conclude with Kidder et al. (2016) and Wei et al. (2015) that climate can help or harm, but does not make or break.  Charismatic leaders, well-trained armies, and plain luck are the direct incident causes of dynastic rises.  Weak leaders, child-emperors, rampant corruption, unstoppable invasions, and factional fighting are direct incident causes of dynastic fall.

So here we have several theories of dynastic rise and fall.  The Chinese saw the Mandate of Heaven—either actual heavenly decisions, or their incarnations in floods and droughts, or the result of factional fighting, dynastic politics, bad luck (childless emperors or child emperors or mad emperors), and the like.  Cycle theorists see a general trend toward rise and fall, or a more specific one driven by shifting loyalties—from the dynastic head to one’s own group or faction or to one’s own self.  Marxian and other economic and political-economic structural determinists had their own theories (not considered here for reasons of space).  Now climate change has added itself to the mix.  No doubt all these theories have their value.

In fact, climate acts indirectly.  It is one cause—along with human idiocy and incompetence, among other things—of floods, droughts, and other catastrophes.  These catastrophes put major stresses on the dynastic government.  A strong, upwardly moving government can directly address these matters with relief measures and remedies.  Also, it commands the loyalty and support of the people.  The weaker and more incompetent the government, the less it can directly address problems, and the less it can get the broad masses to help.  Weakness and incompetence of government, in turn, depends on the emperor personally, his family, his ministers, and the rest of the high elites.  If the emperor is a boy in the care of a corrupt chief minister, the empire is in trouble.  If the appalling infant mortality rates of the time leave the emperor childless, as often happened, intra-elite feuding over the succession is sure to occur, and sure to weaken the dynasty. China grew steadily more autocratic over time, which meant the emperor’s person was more a factor as time went on.

I might add a comparison with the Maya at this point.  Maya civilization grew and achieved greatness in the rather optimal climate between 500 BCE and 500 CE,  It survived with a hitch—a noticeable pause—the cold, dry period from 550 to 650.  It then collapsed in the Medieval Warm Period, which brought massive and long-lasting droughts to the area.  These droughts not only devastated agriculture, they even removed drinking water; much of the Yucatan Peninsula and Maya Lowlands is without surface water.  People had to store water, dig wells, or find caves with permanent sources.  These all proved inadequate in drought times (Gill 2000).  Also, hotter weather led to more plant diseases, and probably more human diseases as well.

Warfare was also a factor.  Some areas had already been devastated by war, and collapsed before the droughts (Demarest 2004).  Not all the Maya world collapsed, only the central portions; the northern Yucatan Peninsula and the southern highlands continued to be urbanized and civilized, while cities, literacy, and high culture disappeared in the central lowlands.  The claim that the Maya collapsed because of sheer ecological folly (Diamond 2005) and the counterclaim that they did not collapse at all (McAnany and Gallareta N. 2010) do not bear close investigation.

Mayaland would have recovered with the return of cooler, moister weather in the 1300s, but by then the trade routes had shifted to the coast.  This is certainly one reason, possibly the only really important reason, why the central lowlands never recovered.  Trade, contact, and communication had focused around the geographical center of the lowland world.  After that center collapsed, trade shifted to the coasts, and stayed there, carried by canoes.

In this case, we cannot see the micropolitics—we have no way of knowing what went on in the cities, or what people said and thought as agriculture became increasingly unsuccessful.

Many other New World societies collapsed or suffered sharp setbacks during the Medieval Warm Period, which seems to have been dry very widely.  It devastated the Four Corners, hit the Mississippi Valley, ruined much of the Andes, and generally caused woe.  One major reason was maize.  Maize is exceedingly susceptible to drought and heat.  This contrasts rather dramatically with China’s grains: millets and rice love heat, while millets, wheat and barley can handle very appreciable drought.  China was thus relatively buffered, and could produce higher populations.

Causation is a complex topic, but simple principles underlies much of it.  First, all events have multiple causes.  Second, these can be big, broad, and indirect, or very specific and immediate; the big, broad causes can act only through specific, immediate ones.  In human affairs, big, broad causes act through individual decisions added up into collective decisions.  The special cases of northwest China in the long 18th century and northeast China in the star-crossed decline of Northern Song show how different adaptations can be.  In the one case, horrible weather was mitigated by political-economic action, and people flourished.  In the other, good but fluctuating weather led to nothing but problems, because of political-economic chaos.

From this I extract a core principle for diachronic social studies:  large-scale forces act indirectly, through people.  Direct causes of social events are personal decisions, and the resulting actions.  These do not always play out as the actors intend.  All manner of constraints prevent people from doing what they want. Government and economic necessity restrict behavior, or, more often, discourage people from trying.  Sheer chance, faction fighting, and amoral individual actions that mess the system can all intervene.  But, in the end, it is human decisions and actions that make cultures and societies.  Individual actions play out in interpersonal space, which generates both short-term and long-term social structures or interaction dynamics that add up to systems that take on a life of their own.  (I am using—and here briefly summarizing—Anthony Giddens’ “structuration”; Giddens 1984, which is fairly Weberian; see also Bourdieu 1977, 1990; Latour 2005.  The basic insight is that people do things—climate doesn’t, culture doesn’t, society doesn’t—but people do things in response to climate, culture and society.)  Climate and weather are simply some of the things those individuals and systems have to take into account.

In terms of cultural evolution, we may say that people’s most basic needs and wants are genetically enough “given” to pass as a biological substrate.  From them grow desires and intentions, which lead to actions, variously constrained.  We often find that people react in comparable ways to comparable stimuli.  We often, however, find they do not—they may react in violently conflicting ways, as the Song officials did to the environmental problems of the Medieval Warm Period.  Just as biological evolution often takes very unexpected ways to adapt, so do human societies.



This post was delivered as a paper at the California Sociological Association, annual meeting, Riverside, CA, Nov. 5, 2016.  Thanks to Christopher Chase-Dunn and Hiroko Inoue for advice and help.



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