China’s First 20th-century Epidemic: Brief Excerpts from Reportage and Fiction

For those of you who would like to learn a bit about China’s pre-21st century experience in dealing with epidemics, I’ve woven together three topical items, all of which center around an epidemic that took place in early 1900s China. They include news about the upcoming launch of a French translation of a “plague” novel — 《白雪乌鸦》by a Chinese author — and an English excerpt (in case your French isn’t quite up to par). 


According to Iain Meiklejohn at, the Manchurian Plague of 1910-11 was a deadly pneumonic plague that likely originated among tarbagan marmot hunted for their fur in Manchuria (modern-day Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and northeastern Inner Mongolia). He writes (italics are mine): 

The spread of the plague was exacerbated by the bitter cold of the northern winter, which caused the hunters to huddle together in huts, quickly spreading the airborne pneumonic plague. Manchuria’s extensive railway network [the Beijing-Hankou railway line] further aided the rapid transmission of the disease by facilitating the movement of large numbers of migrant workers returning home for the New Year Festival.

Note that Hankou is one of the three cities that merged to create today’s Wuhan. 

Just a few days ago, What History Teaches about the Coronavirus Emergency in The Diplomat also looked back at the Manchurian epidemic, and reminds us that some current anti-coronavirus measures  — labeled “authoritarian” by some observers — were also employed then (again, italics are mine): 

Accounts about the disease started sporadically. Somewhere in China people were getting sick in unusual numbers. Then press reports started appearing. Large numbers of people were getting seriously ill along main transport axes. News of deaths soon followed. In a few months 60,000 people would die before the disease came under control. This was not Wuhan in December 2019 and January 2020; it was northeastern China from late 1910 to early 1911. The Manchurian Plague, as the incident came to be known, was the first instance of modern techniques being applied to a public health crisis in China. Lessons of transparency and transnational cooperation from that event more than a century ago are still relevant to China and the world today.
In 1910 and 1911, Manchuria was nominally under Chinese control, but years of foreign incursion saw Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and others jostling for power in the region. These foreign actors blamed the Qing government, then running China, for not doing enough to stem the spread of plague. The disease was allegedly transmitted from marmots to humans and later evolved to rapid human-to-human transmission. In response, the Qing court-appointed Wu Lien-teh (伍連德), an ethnically Chinese, Cambridge-trained doctor and public health expert who was born and raised in the British colony of Penang, to fight the plague.
Wu, together with his colleagues in China and abroad, implemented several familiar measures. They came to an early consensus that quarantine and isolation were the best ways to solve the problems and developed a a variety of methods,some highly authoritarian, to stem the plague. They insisted on mask-wearing among medical personnel, demanded the cremation of infected bodies, imposed travel restrictions on affected regions, built up quarantine facilities, and imposed strict home-quarantine. Officials rounded up locals using wagons, holding them until they were no longer symptomatic, disinfected houses that held suspected patients (against their owner’s wills), and forcibly quarantined people in hospitals.


Meanwhile, it just so happens that in early March France’s Éditions Philippe Picquier will be launching a novel, Neige et Courbeaux, in which the Manchurian plague has the starring role. Penned by Chi Zijian (迟子建) and translated from the Chinese by François Sastourné, it is set in 1910 Harbin. The city incorporated the “Chinese Eastern Railway Zone,” a concession from which the Russians operated their portion of the Trans-Manchurian Railway. The Japanese, who inherited the South Manchuria Railway as a result of the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5), were also there in force. The novel dramatically juxtaposes the different anti-plague measures taken by their respective leaders, and the resulting fates of the three peoples.


Here is a disturbing vignette set in the early days of 1910, excerpted from Chapter 3 of Chi Zijian’s timely novel, 《白雪乌鸦》, literally “white snow, black crow(s).” 

Fujiadian is a district within Harbin, populated by Chinese, and distinct from the Wharf District, and “New Town,” the latter being administered by the Russians. Xi Sui, now a newspaper hawker, once studied Peking Opera and loves the role of the chou or buffoon, so he is familiar with the lantern titles (riddles, actually) that feature in the opera traditionally performed on the last day of the lunar new year, the Lantern Festival. 

The following translation is by me, Bruce Humes

After the Frost’s Descent in late October, the weather grew colder. Everyone donned their cotton-padded mian’ao and pants. Besides the doctors in their clinics, it was Xi Sui who discovered that people with a bad cough in Fujiadian were becoming more numerous. He also noticed that unlike in years past, they didn’t just clear their throat and continue on their way.  This year, the coughers often had to stop, lean against a nearby shop door or elm tree and gasp frantically for breath, as if they could hardly withstand the virulence of the attack.
Xi Sui, who didn’t know the first thing about epidemics, said to his mother: “There’ll be people dying this winter!”
“Don’t say unlucky things!” his mother reproached him.
Xi Sui unwittingly rubbed his lips with his hand, and at the same time looked at his mother’s slightly protruding belly. “Has the child inside grown a mouth yet?”
Yu Qing-Xiu smiled. “Yes, a sly one. It can already announce the lantern titles.”
Xi Sui realized his mother was poking fun at him. He had a good chortle.

*  *  * * *

That day the clouds hung low over the city. Xi Sui was returning to Fujiadian in the afternoon.  As he walked past the Grand Chinese Opera Theater, he saw a bunch of people forming a circle. Their heads bowed, hands inside their sleeves, they were observing something. He made his way inside for a look: lying there on the ground, spread open-eagle, was Ba Yin, a frequent visitor to Three-Kang Inn. 
Ba Yin was outfitted in a black ankle-length loose coat, a buckskin vest, and a new pair of cotton trousers. His face was deep purple, and there were hints of blood around his mouth and nose. Although his eyes were half closed, his eyeballs weren’t moving at all. He was dead as a doornail!
At the beginning, the onlookers didn’t dare touch him, but when someone took a hankering for his buckskin vest and began to remove it, another man rushed to strip off Ba Yin’s pants, exclaiming that this pair was one of those Wu Fen made for Ba Yin each winter. Neither too light nor heavy, comfortable and warm, and the wadding was all fresh cotton. Since Ba Yin was already stiff, undressing him was a painstaking affair. 
As Xi Sui looked on, Ba Yin’s shoes, ankle-length coat, vest and cotton trousers might as well have been pawned. In a blink of the eye, they were no longer his.
But those who had not got anything were not to be outdone. Quick of eye and deft of hand, they thrust their paws inside the pockets of Ba Yin’s vest and pants that were already in the hands of others. Someone extracted a wad of money from the vest pocket. There was a hubbub, and then some of the crowd dispersed. A few handfuls of melon seeds emerged from Ba Yin’s pant pockets, with the same result.
Seeing Xi Sui standing to the side, someone shared a few melon seeds with him. Xi Sui held them in his palm, but noticing that there was nothing left on Ba Yin’s body except a white tee shirt and brightly colored underpants, he felt nauseous. He let fall the melon seeds, and left, crying. The fallen seeds looked like a troupe of black ants marching along Ba Yin’s corpse. [终]

(Foreign language rights to the novel, including English, are held by the author Chi Zijian. If you are interested in them, write me here and I will pass your inquiry onto her.)

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