The impact of the Black Death on 1300s China: No plague = no Ming

19th-century woodcut with a talisman for warding off the plague. (4/19/2020 Twitter post by Medieval Asia researcher Jeffrey Kotyk)

If not for the plague, China wouldn’t have a Ming Dynasty.

This startling thought has been on my mind as I sit at home in quarantine, enduring the epidemic of my era: COVID19.

Of course, if the Ming had not been founded in 1368, some other dynasty would have followed Kublai Khan’s Mongol Yuan. Perhaps the salt smuggler Zhang Shicheng would have prevailed with his Great Zhou Dynasty based in the city of Hangzhou (which the Ming founder squashed in 1367). My point is that the plague is what propelled the Ming founder onto the path that led to the founding. It is the single incident that pushed him off his expected trajectory of farming alongside his brothers in the fields along the Huai River. Zhu Yuanzhang was the youngest of four sons. If not for the plague, he would never have left his large family, which needed him in the fields. He death would have been unremarkable and we would know nothing about him.

But the plague did strike. It wiped out Zhu Yuanzhang’s family. It left him alone surrounded by nothing but corpses.

As he put it: “俄爾天災流行,眷屬罹殃. All at once, calamities gripped the land and my family met with disaster.” In a matter of days, his father, then his elder brother, then his nephew, then his mother all died. His elder brother’s wife snatched up her two young children and left. His second brother was overwhelmed with grief and wandered away, never to be seen again.

It was the worst moment in Zhu Yuanzhang’s long life.

This was in 1344, when Zhu was 16 years old. It took another 24 years for the Ming to get founded, any many things happened in between – Zhu became a Buddhist monk, then joined the Red Turban rebellion, then became one of its leaders. And in the end he defeated all contenders. But the event that launched Zhu Yuanzhang toward fame and glory was the decimation of a plague strike. He would not have been dispatched to the local Buddhist temple if he had not lost his entire family. Maybe the Red Turban movement would have tempted him and his brothers, but the cost of leaving his family would have been a barrier. He wrote about this after becoming emperor:

“I personally saw rich people, middle people, and destitute people happily joining the rebellion…they cast away their fields, gardens and houses…Many families were totally annihilated. This is the bitter disaster faced by those who love rebellion.” (excerpts from translation by the late John W. Dardess, Confucianism and Autocracy, page 189)

Zhu Yuanzhang despised those who deserted their families to join the rebellions, maybe all the more so because he landed in the midst of a rebellion after having lost his own family. To the plague.

Knowing this history has caused me no small amount of exasperation when I read accounts of the Black Death that act like this pandemic had no impact on China and is only relevant to Europe.

A 2011 article titled “Was the Black Death in India and China?” cites “the absence of any firsthand description of plague or its symptoms in Mongol sources or in the writings of merchants and travelers on the Silk Road anywhere to the east of the Caucasus and the northern shore of the Black Sea in the years leading up to the Crimean outbreak of 1346.”

This is typical.

My April 20, 2020, issue of the New Yorker has a nice feature on Anthony Fauci that says, “And, in the fourteenth century, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing more than half the population.” And what else did this pandemic do?

I remember once standing in the Boston Public Library going through a whole shelf of plague books and suddenly realizing they all assumed the Black Death only had an impact on Europe. I started to get mad and may have treated a book or two rather roughly and even snorted aloud as I started paging through indexes and not finding “China.” Or even “Asia.”

And yet, a 19th-century Russian scholar (D.A. Chwolson) deciphered tombstones written in Syriac from a Nestorian Christian community along Lake Issyk Kol, located in today’s Kyrgystan, a few miles from China’s border.  The grave stones say things like, “This is the grave of Kutlik. He died of plague with his wife Mangu-Kelka,” and give the year as 1339. The graveyard reveals a high death rate that year. It was located on Mongol trade routes linking Central Asia with China.

Xia Yurun, a historian based in Fengyang, Anhui Province, the birthplace of the Ming founder, has studied the local accounts of the epidemic that struck that region in 1344, and notes that some think the disease that wiped out the Ming founder’s family may have been cholera, or some general disease. Though the historical record is “brief and sketchy,” he said north of the Huai River and east to Shandong chronicles described a deadly pestilence during the late Yuan Dynasty that was attributed to flies or thick fog. Mr. Xia concludes, “it bears out that the origin of this ‘heavenly disaster’ is the earthshaking historical event known as the Black Death.” (Zhu Yuanzhang and Fengyang, page 91.)

I agree. And to those who think the Black Death had no impact on China, I would suggest that this epidemic shook loose a young peasant in a rural area of northern Anhui Province. It hardened and tempered this young farmer, imbued him with a fear and awe of the great impermanence of our existence, and propelled him onto the world stage.

“予亦何有,心驚若狂. As for myself, what did I have but fear to the point of madness?” said Zhu Yuanzhang, in his description of the aftermath of the plague.

But he prevailed. He became known as “a sage, a hero, and a bandit – all at once.” His dynasty ruled China for 268 years.

No plague, no Ming. You never know what kind of change a pandemic will bring.


One thought on “The impact of the Black Death on 1300s China: No plague = no Ming

  1. It is definitely cool to find the little coincidences or obscure connection that are scattered throughout history. Like for example, the Battle of Stalingrad was actually not intended to be as big of a success as it was. In fact, it was intended to keep German forces in the south occupied while in the North the Soviets launched Operation Mars. The Soviets didn’t want the world to know that after Operation Mars failed though so Stalingrad is in all the history books while Operation Mars has languished in obscurity with the Soviets claiming that it was in fact the diversion rather than the main effort.

    That being said, while I do agree that it should not be forgotten that the Black Death affected most of Eurasia and not just Europe, I do think there is a good reason why Europe gets the focus. For one thing, as far as we can tell, the Black Death was far more deadly in Europe than anywhere else in no small part due to the famines that plagued Europe in the years before the outbreak. For another thing, it has been argued that the Black Death did something to Europe that it seemingly didnt do anywhere else: help spark the industrial revolution. Granted, its not a direct line of events but as the theory goes, the Black Death killed so many people in Europe that it undermined the social structures of the continent and lead to the gradual breakdown of serfdom, which in turn lead to the beginnings of a more capitalist oriented economy and thence to the development of industrial technologies. If this theory is correct then the Black Death effectively made Europe what it was while the fact that it seemingly did not affect everywhere else to quite the same degree allowed older modes of socio-politcal organization to continue and prevented the kind of series of events that happened in Europe.


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