Disease, People, and Environment: The Plague in China

Many of the biological organisms and processes linked to the spread of infectious diseases are especially influenced by fluctuations in climate variables, notably temperature, precipitation and humidity. Evidently, in its passage from one individual to another, a pathogen is dependent on a specific mode of transmission and a particular configuration of various external factors. Temperature and humidity are crucial with respect to its reproduction, survival and infectiousness. Micro-climatic factors in urban areas also affect the contagiousness of infectious disease by mutually influencing human and social behavior. Black Death or epidemic plague which appeared in the 14th century in both Europe and China, and cost almost half their populations, is a good case to prove the hypotheses above.

Taking China as a case study, the author indicates that the human assisted migration and subsequent successful colonization of new habitats in inland China after the 18th century and the rapid spread to the coastal regions as well as the rest of global by business routes in the 19th century to early 20th century, is proof that at least some rodent species can establish themselves in distant new environments within decades. One of the natural features in monsoon China is regular rainy season. However, man-made environment such as routes of frequent migration and crowed market-towns played much important role in spreading plague in China since the 18th century.

Numerical data from local gazettes, modern observation of tree-rings, and merchants' diaries between the 16th and 19th century are collected while GIS (Geographic Information System) technology is applied to analysis. The author intends to identify the trading hub and environmental changes to spreading plague in 18th century China. In general, the author wants to illuminate that epidemic plague in China since 18th century is the result of interaction between human exploitation and natural response.

Presented by Liu Shiyung (Taiwan University, CHR Senior Fellow)
at the Center for Historical Research, Dept. of History
The Ohio State University on May 4, 2012
Comment: Phillip Brown, Department of History, Ohio State

The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research in the Department of History provides a stimulating intellectual environment for studying important historical issues around the world. Each year the Center brings together scholars from various disciplines to examine issues of broad contemporary relevance in historical perspective.