We are pleased to announce our next event: a talk entitled The Political Ecology of Settlement Geography on the Ordos Plateau: An Environmental and Spatial History of Borderland Infrastructure in Imperial China by our visiting scholar, Prof. Ruth Mostern. Join us at 2pm on Tuesday 14 May 2024 in MSI 01.20 or online by clicking here.

Information on the reading seminar with Prof. Mostern (May 15) is available here.

The Political Ecology of Settlement Geography on the Ordos Plateau: An Environmental and Spatial History of Borderland Infrastructure in Imperial China

The Ordos Plateau, the semiarid loess-soil region of northern Shaanxi at the periphery of the East Asian summer monsoon, is a historically multiethnic domain that is sensitive to small shifts in climate.  During imperial times, Ordos residents generally subsisted as herders, farmers, and salt miners.  The Ordos was also a strategic zone of transit, transition and contention between the steppes and the imperial core. For that reason, it was often heavily fortified despite its unpredictable climate, its highly erodible soil, and its delicate ethnic geography.  This talk presents research based on the spatial analysis of 564 data points representing the locations of cities and forts from pre-imperial times through the Qing dynasty, proxies for the intensiveness of human activity in any time and place, as recorded in The Atlas of Chinese Material Culture (Zhongguo Wenwu dituji 中国文物地图集). Each of those sites was also associated with land degradation, which in turn shaped subsequent possibilities in the region.  Adopting the time scale of the entire imperial era, this research traces changes to imperial boundaries, political ecology, and state power in the context of both geopolitical and environmental histories. It also tracks the long history of conflict, coexistence, and settler colonialism in an originally multiethnic region.  The paper narrates the southerly retreat of the state after the Han era as the region became more arid; the emergence of what eventually became the great wall line starting in the Tang; the militarization of that line in the Song followed by the formation of ethnically Han space along it during the in Ming; and the emergence of an even more southerly commercial and ethnically Chinese space in the Qing.

Ruth Mostern is Professor of History and Director of the World History Center at the University of Pittsburgh and Vice President of the World History Association.  She is the author of two single-authored books: Dividing the Realm in Order to Govern: The Spatial Organization of the Song State, 960-1276 CE (Harvard Asia Center, 2011), and The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press, 2021), winner of the Joseph Levenson Prize from the Association for Asian Studies in 2022.  She is also co-editor of Placing Names: Enriching and Integrating Gazetteers (Indiana University Press, 2016), and of a special issue of Open Rivers Journal (2017).  She is the author or co-author of over thirty articles published in books and peer reviewed journals.  Ruth is Principal Investigator and Project Director of the World Historical Gazetteer, a prize-winning digital infrastructure platform for integrating databases of historical place name information.  Her research has been funded by entities that include the US National Endowment for the Humanities, the US National Science Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and others.