Assistant Professor of History
Britton-Perry Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Economic History
Meng Zhang is a historian of late imperial and modern China, with particular interests in economic and environmental transformation, finance and empire, and transnational connections in the rise of global capitalism.
Her first book, Timber and Forestry in Qing China: Sustaining the Market (University of Washington Press, 2021), reveals the complex reality of timber trade and resource management during the flurry of commercial development in Qing China (1644-1911). It has won the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award (2022) of the Forest History Society for the best book published on forest and conservation history and the honorable mention for the Biennial Book Prize (2021-2022) of the International Society for Chinese Law and History. Pushing against the standard depiction of this era as one of reckless deforestation, this book demonstrates how contractual innovations and market institutions emerged to develop renewable timber resources as old-growth forests were cut down.
Her current project, tentatively titled All the Debt Under Heaven, examines the dynamics between commercial credit and the Qing imperial formation by investigating cross-cultural/inter-ethnic loans at multiple frontiers of the Qing empire, bridging the divides in the scholarship among the Sino-Western, maritime Asian, and Central Asian focuses. It centers on Qing conceptions of sovereignty and liability in the long eighteenth century that undergirded a different logic of imperial construction than that of European empires.
She is also writing about the social life of edible bird’s nests, which are made from the hardened saliva of a rare species of cave-nesting swiftlets in Southeast Asia and extolled by elite Chinese consumers as a delicacy and medical elixir. By examining the knowledge-making, circulation, and consumption of edible birds’ nests during the 16th to the 19th centuries, this project engages with transnational dynamics of value creation and accumulation as well as long-term interactions between human institutions and the environment.
Zhang’s research has been supported by several grants and fellowships, including those from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Association of Asian Studies, and the International Economic History Association. Her work also appears in Late Imperial China, the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, the International Journal of Asian Studies, and the Journal of Interdisciplinary History.
She teaches courses on the economic and environmental history of China, law and society in Chinese history, the global history of debt and capitalism, and the early connections between China, America, and the Pacific.