“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”

The Circassian sounds like the name of a film; there’s more than enough material here for one. Eşref Bey, or Eşref Kuşçubaşı or any of the other names by which he went, played many roles in his life: brigand, family man, military leader, spy, rebel. He crossed paths if not quite swords with TE Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—with whom he is sometimes compared. But in spite of Eşref’s fame—or notoriety—information on him seems hard to come by in English; he does not even seem (at this writing) to have a Wikipedia page.

It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.

History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.

The recurring themes of Manchuria’s history—and Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, edited by Norman Smith—are colonization and the environment.

Over centuries, Manchuria—the region covering the remote northeast of modern-day China—has been fought over by competing imperial powers. Its geographic location at the intersection of three of the 20th century’s most powerful empires—Russia, China and Japan—has seen Manchuria play host to a series of conflicts (both hot and cold) from the 1600s until the end of the Chinese civil war in the mid-20th century.