Book Review: Defending Heaven: China's Mongol Wars, 1209-1370


by James Waterson

London: Frontline Books / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2013. Pp. xxxiv, 236. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1848326602

The Defense of China Against the Mongols

Defending Heaven is a very readable account of the protracted and ultimately unsuccessful efforts of the Song, Xia, and Jin dynasties to defend China from the Mongols, a conflict with some episodes so heroic Waterson, a specialist in Mongol history, suggests they stand in need of a Homer. 

Recognizing that Westerners are most likely unfamiliar with the historical, cultural, social, and military background of these events, Waterson wisely prefaces the book with what would normally be appendices, such as a chronology, dynastic tables, and so on, to provide a firmer foundation for readers new to the subject.  These are followed by his opening chapter, which provides an overview of the state of the several Chinese kingdoms on the eve of rise of the Mongol threat. Waterson then covers the various phases of the protracted Mongol conquest of China, and ends with a look at the Mongol dominion (the Yuan Dynasty) and its long-term influence on Chinese history.

Waterson’s treatment is clear, a considerable achievement considering the often very complex ways in which events unfolded.  He links the events in China to contemporary developments in the rest of the world, sometimes in startling ways (e.g., the “movements” of the trebuchet).  Waterson often explains events in China by comparing them with similar developments in other parts of the world, which is a considerable help for anyone who is a novice to Chinese history.  And Waterson is not shy about criticizing Western perceptions of China (e.g., just how familiar were Chinese generals with Sun-Tzu?). 

Defending Heaven is a good read for such novices, but also will satisfy the more seasoned student of Chinese history.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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