(Review) James Waterson, Defending Heaven: China’s Mongol Wars 1209-1370, (Frontline Books, 2013)

I have decided to add a ‘book review’ section to my blog because, well, I get asked to write a lot of book reviews! So here’s one to start it off which I particularly enjoyed reading:

(Review) James Waterson, Defending Heaven: China’s Mongol Wars 1209-1370, (Frontline Books, 2013)

Pages: 236           ISBN: 9781848326606

Asian medieval history is a very alien world when compared to European medieval history; especially when it concerns military history. At the drop of a hat, the Song dynasty could muster an army of 2-300,000 men; they could have a state-funded, standing army of over 1,000,000 men; they could throw explosives around a battlefield; and they could fire projectiles with the aid of gunpowder – this just wasn’t imaginable in Europe at that time. What they could not do was stop the Mongol tide from washing over their lands, and a major cause of this will sound very familiar to European historians – they could never unite and face the Mongols as a single force.

Waterson’s book delves into a large abyss within European history books. Many of us know the history, or at least the stories, of the Mongolian invasions of the Holy Land, the Golden Horde sweeping into Eastern Europe, the two attempted invasions of Japan that were defeated by Kamikaze (Divine Wind). What is much less known is how the Mongols took over the largest kingdoms in their Empire, the area which bankrolled much of their Empire, and where millions of people lost their lives in opposition to the indomitable force from the Mongolian Steppes – modern day China.

This large gap in our knowledge is, perhaps, strong justification for Defending Heaven’s ‘shortcomings’. This book is pure narrative with very little analysis. Waterson has made this book to tell the story and he does it masterfully. He can be frustrating in his lack of references, such as chapter 5 which has only three footnotes and yet he gives a very clear and colourful account of the dual sieges of Xiangyang and Fancheng – where did he get this from? When Waterson does give a reference for a primary source it is often no more than the name of the writer. Maybe it could be argued that his bibliography, combined with the added ‘recommended reading’ section, has all the answers, thus pushing us to read more. If this is the case then Waterson’s book certainly achieves this desire to read more.

The book’s Foreword and Introduction are definitely worth a close reading. John Man puts into context just how important this book is for the medieval history lover, and Waterson’s introduction sets out his method and, more interestingly, his bias toward the Chinese in his narrative.

The chapters are based within the chronological narrative, so the first chapter deals with the situation in China before the Mongol invasion. Centering on the clashes between the Jin and the Song, this chapter neatly presents the flaws which were to be exploited by the Mongols. This included the Song’s lack of cavalry, and the animosity between the two states which later caused them to try and side with Mongols at various points, rather than with each other.

Chapters 2-8 deal with the Mongol invasions, starting with their first appearance in 1209 under Chinggis Khan. Waterson presents the picture, not of how the Mongols took China, but of how the Song tried to resist and why they failed.  On the one hand he shows the technological supremacy that the Song held over the Mongols, how their supreme navy was used in the rivers to stop the advance, and how the Song could hold the Mongols back for as long as they did. On the other hand he shows the impotency that grew around the Song court, the constant backstabbing that undermined any success met by a Song general, and the underlying animosity felt between the various Chinese groups which allowed the Mongols to form such a large army for such a long period of time.

Chapter 9 shows the Yuan (Mongolian) state in all its ‘glory’; although, if we are to believe Waterson, then this Mongolian dynasty was never actually stable and even after the fall of the Song dynasty, had to deal with constant rebellion. Waterson quickly moves into the growth of Chinese revolts, the pocketing of power by various groups until a strong individual, Zhu Yuanzhang, came through to take command and grow his authority incrementally until he was able to remove the Mongols for good, and set up his new dynasty – the Ming dynasty.

The book is filled with helpful maps which aid the narrative by allowing you to visualise the areas that Waterson is discussing. At the front of the book he has also included many useful dynasty rosters and a Mongolian family tree. This is especially helpful if you are not used to reading Chinese-style names. The centre of the book is taken up by a collection of black and white images which, although interesting to look at, add nothing to the book as a whole. This is because they are removed from the narrative, they lack any context; as an example, the picture of an Arabic trebuchet would have more impact, and complement the writing, if it was next to Waterson’s explanation of siege technology. As it stands you can very easily skip over the images and the book is unaffected.

This book is a must have for anybody interested in Mongolian warfare, medieval Asia, medieval war technology – this list may go on too long. So, even with its limitations as a scholarly work, this is vital reading for anyone who reads medieval history books or magazines. Whether you are a student, a teacher or an enthusiast, you should read this book.

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