Epidemics in a Chinese county

Yizhan deng

Hymn A Lantern (Yizhan deng), a meditation on the impermanence of life,
sung before the coffin: see my film, from 27.07, and book, pp.264–6. Cf. the Shunzhi emperor’s poem, also part of the Li family Daoists’ repertoire.

When documenting a local ritual tradition, we need not only to home in on the detail of changing performance practice, but to spread our net quite widely—viewing our particular object of study as part of a system of other nearby ritual groups, as well as considering it within all kinds of social contexts. Changing material conditions tend to feature little in field reports on Daoist ritual (cf. Social issues in rural Hunan.).

In my work on the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, I have found useful background on local history and culture in the accounts of the 1993 Yanggao county gazetteer (Yanggao xianzhi)—whose details on the Maoist era are far from the bland official depictions of many works of the period (see e.g. here, under “Famine in China”).


Having described the Li family Daoists’ continuing activity during the Coronavirus lockdown, I’m prompted to consult the gazetteer’s section on epidemic control in its chapter on Hygiene.

These villages are the catchment area of household Daoists groups like the Li family. Until the 1950s they performed for temple fairs and domestic rituals of blessing as well as providing all kinds of mortuary services; now they almost exclusively perform the latter. But all three types were responses to the fragility of human life, and it’s worth homing in on the painful progress of disease control through the 20th century. As I read, I think of Li Qing and his colleagues, catering to the ritual needs of their vulnerable village clients.

As we can see from the gazetteer’s chronology of “Major events”, epidemics—along with natural disasters and droughts—are a constant theme throughout imperial history, with high rates of mortality and low life expectancy. From 1884 rapacious wolves and rats caused a plague in the county. (For an ongoing bibliography on epidemics in late imperial China, click here; see also Vincent Goossaert, “Épidémies et religions chinoises”, Éphéméride, July 2020.)

Stores selling Chinese medicine were common in the county-town and rural townships from the Republican era, as folk healers did the rounds of the villages; attempts were made to register them from 1935. On 4th moon 28th household Daoists and opera troupes performed for the temple fairs of the Medicine King deity (for Hebei, see under Bazhou, Xiongxian, and Baiyangdian). Before modern healthcare—and still now, where it still remains unaffordable or unavailable, or is considered only a partial remedy—curing illness has long been a major domain of spirit mediums.

Under Maoism
The story of disease control accompanies that of political campaigns. In chronically poor rural counties like Yanggao, given the extreme poverty inherited by the PRC, progress under Maoism was significant (see e.g. Mobo Gao on his home village in Jiangxi, and, by contrast, Erik Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts—both cited here). Still, rural dwellers remained terribly vulnerable even after the collapse of the commune system, as illustrated in Liu Hongqing’s harrowing book on blind singers in another Shanxi county.

After Liberation, a system of state-supervised clinics expanded from 1952. But despite their best efforts, the county medical authorities were still desperately short of supplies. Most diseases were identified by the late 1950s, with attempts to bring them under control continuing through the Cultural Revolution (when the system of barefoot doctors pervaded the countryside); but as long as the commune system locked the population into poverty, it was only by the 1980s that such measures became more effective.

Smallpox was attacked after Liberation, but an outbreak occurred in 1963 in Anjiazao village. In 1965, amidst the Four Cleanups campaign, smallpox was reported in the village of Yang Pagoda, whither household Daoist Li Peisen had prudently retreated in the late 1940s in order to avoid political scrutiny. The village was sealed off and houses disinfected.

Measles, a common cause of child mortality, was gradually eradicated. Typhoid had also disappeared by the 1960s, though outbreaks occurred in 1980 and 1983. Hepatitis, tuberculosis, and meningitis, long major causes of mortality, were targets of the medical authorities after Liberation, with campaigns still being waged in the 1980s.

Brucellosis, also affecting livestock, was first identified in a village west of the county-town in 1957. By 1958 over 60 people were afflicted, and by 1959 it had spread to other nearby villages. As it continued to spread, attempts to control it continued from the early 1960s into the Cultural Revolution.

Graves’ disease was also identified in Yanggao in 1958, only declining in the 1980s. The county authorities only began seriously addressing the widespread dental ailment fluorosis in the 1980s. There was a deadly outbreak of cholera in Anjiazao in 1932. A county-wide vaccination programe was initiated in 1952; though it had basically disappeared by the 1970s, it resurfaced in 1983 in Baideng district, home of the Li family Daoists.

* * *

Turning to my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo village south of Beijing, I also consulted the briefer account of epidemic control in the Laishui county gazetteer (2000).

Again, before Liberation, diseases such as smallpox, measles, cholera, malaria, and typhoid were common. In August 1946 an outbreak of cholera struck; among 273 deaths in the county, 99 people died in the village of Kongcun alone—home of a ritual association that we visited in 1993 (see here, under “Other local ritual groups”). Smallpox was eradicated by the 1960s. After an outbreak of measles in 1954, there were further cases in 1962, 1963 (just as village ritual associations were reviving briefly after the famine), 1965, and 1970. Even during our fieldwork in Hebei through the 1990s both I and my colleagues from Beijing were frequently distressed by the vulnerability of peasants to illness.

While the county gazetteers vary in quality, there’s much more to explore in these sections. Such accounts are based on official depictions, and village-by-village fieldwork might still elicit more detailed stories; but all this provides useful background on cultural life before and since Liberation.

For me, incidentally, it makes good practice to expand my Chinese vocabulary; and just as I noted the importance of learning local folk terms for ritual and music, we find a similar popular lexicon for diseases—such as measles (standard mazhen 麻疹), locally known as hongbu 红布 or chai 差.


4 thoughts on “Epidemics in a Chinese county

  1. Pingback: Women of Yanggao 1/3: Daoist families | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Famine: Ukraine and China | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Coronavirus 4: household Daoists in Shanxi | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Social issues in rural Hunan | Stephen Jones: a blog

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