It is unusual for a work about Ming Dynasty (1368–1643) history to be anchored deeply in sources and yet able to move nimbly through multiple stories of ordinary people. Even more surprising is a carefully argued research monograph about the early modern era that has little connection to events or people in Europe but manages to make a compelling argument for why historians who do not work on China should be drawn to reading it. Szonyi’s subject is specific—efforts to achieve material success and minimize vulnerability to the military-service obligation assigned to one ancestor within a household that later any of his male descendants could fulfill.

The Art of Being Governed is composed of three parts discussing villages, guards, and military colonies, respectively. Each part has two chapters, the six chapters being followed by a seventh chapter in a final part about the legacy of this Ming system for subsequent...

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