How a cataclysmic plague marked the end of Ming China

Society & Culture

Any event as monumental as the fall of the Ming dynasty has many causes. Yet in the winter of 1643, it may have been bubonic plague that knocked the last supports out from under the dynasty, leaving it open to attack from within and without.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

This Week in China’s History: December 1643

It was a time of political uncertainty. Those at the top were vulnerable, instability-emboldened challengers, and long-overdue reckonings were coming due. Problems that had been ignored for generations were bursting forth, violently. Into this already complex moment came disease, sowing chaos that called into question not only who would hold power, but also the very system of government.

Of course, I’m talking here about China in the 1640s, when a plague outbreak helped hasten the fall of one of China’s great dynasties.

(Another epidemic that fits this description was the Manchurian Plague of 1910–11. Read about that here, in Paul French’s recent piece.)

The connection of disease and disorder has been brought home by the events of 2020. It was exactly a year ago that the first public information came to light of the outbreak of a mysterious disease in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The ensuing epidemic and then global spread of what was later named COVID-19 defined 2020, but as the pandemic is still far from over, the “rough draft” of this history is still being written. So instead of COVID-19, let’s instead look to earlier history and see an earlier example of how plagues and politics have shaped China’s past.

The word unprecedented flies around easily these days, but should it? We don’t have to look hard to find a time when pandemics were commonplace, even expected, reinforcing the awareness many of us now have that we ought to have been better prepared because we had been warned.

One of these warnings was the plague outbreak of 1643–4. Pinpointing the start of the epidemic is difficult, partly because plagues were commonplace. Timothy Brook, in his volume on the Yuan and Ming that comprises part of Harvard University Press’s series of histories (which Brook also edited) on imperial China, points to disease outbreaks across the realm in the 1630s and 1640s. And although the epidemic would play a role in the Ming’s fall, it may also have delayed it: An outbreak of smallpox in northern China in 1629 convinced Manchu leaders to cut short their incursion.

One of the factors in the Manchus’ withdrawal was their vulnerability to the disease. Smallpox, one of the deadliest of diseases, has been around a long time. It is first mentioned in Egypt in the 4th century B.C.E., and first appeared in Chinese sources as long ago as the Han dynasty. Brook notes that in the 1620s, the Chinese were inoculating themselves, using the method of “variolation”: taking infectious material from a patient — pus from a scab, or mucous, usually — and introducing it to a healthy individual in the hopes of preventing serious illness. Typically, once inoculated, the patient will get a mild form of the disease from which they would recover quickly, after which they would be immune for some time, perhaps for the rest of their life.

According to legend, this practice had been developed in China in the 11th century, though there is not much evidence to support this assertion. By the mid-Ming, variolation was common. Dried scabs would be ground into a powder, which was then blown into a patient’s nose (“nasal sufflation”) or else a patient’s arm could be pricked with a needle that had been dipped in infected material.

This information is far from secret — most medical museums and textbooks note the inoculation practices in China, as well as in India during the same time. Edward Jenner is commonly associated with inoculation for his work with smallpox in the 18th century, but British observers may first have recorded the practice in China around 1700, though it doesn’t appear that they acted on their observations. Confounding assertions about colonialism and progress, variolation made its way to Europe from India, through the Middle East to Africa and the Ottoman Empire, in the early 18th century. In North America, at the same time, the first inoculators were enslaved Africans who had observed the technique before transportation to the Americas.

Back in northern China in the 1630s, the method was very effective, but it was not used by the Manchus. Vulnerable and rightly afraid, the Manchu emperor Hong Taiji retreated back north of the Great Wall and waited. Another smallpox epidemic, this time in 1639, similarly warded the Manchus off. (This would change: the Kangxi Emperor, himself disfigured by smallpox, ensured that his children were inoculated against the scourge.)

It was not smallpox but something even more virulent that undermined the last years of the Ming: bubonic plague. In 1640, Brook writes, provincial officials in Shaanxi reported that 80-90% of their population died. While this number is likely exaggerated, it was part of a series of suspected, though not confirmed, plague outbreaks around this time. Severe rates of infection and death were recorded throughout Shandong, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Henan.

As ever, transportation networks were vectors for disease. The Grand Canal, linking the capital with Jiangnan, carried not only the harvests it was designed for, but infection as well. Illness and fear choked the canal, and soon crops were neither planted, harvested, nor taken to market. By midwinter 1643–44, famine, pestilence, and death stalked China from the Yangtze northward.

Its people weakened by plague and famine, the Ming state itself began to starve. Taxes could not be collected from corpses, and even the survivors had little they could remit to Beijing. Amid all this, the Fourth Horseman, War, joined the other three and sealed the Ming’s fate. Manchu raids on the northern frontier pushed steadily southward, yet the Ming had no money to pay soldiers to fight them. Internal rebellions broke out during the 1630s, as rural areas strained under a lack of food, security, and leadership. Rebels advanced on the Ming capital from the south and west, while the Manchus loomed to the north. Faced with the direst of circumstances, the government was left unable even to administer its government. Brook records that in 1644, 80% of all the counties in Ming China had stopped paying any taxes at all: “The central treasury was empty.”

Any event as cataclysmic as the fall of the Ming dynasty has many causes. Yet in the winter of 1643, it may have been disease that knocked the last supports out from under the dynasty, leaving it open to attack from within and without.

It appears that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight, without the fate of the Ming dynasty befalling us. Let us hope for a happier and healthier year ahead.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.