The Black Plague is famous in the Medieval period in Europe for having wiped out one-third of Europe’s population. But the plague was even more devastating in Asia. The Bubonic Plague also has much less artwork of how it affected Asia as opposed to Europe and Asia’s history with the Bubonic Plague isn’t as documented so it isn’t exactly clear how much it influenced culture, though it did influence history.
It is theorized that the Black Plague originated in Eurasia in the 13th and 14th centuries. Because the Mongol forces took over a large part of Asia, including China (the Yuan Dynasty), Korea (then Goryeo), Mongolia parts of India, parts of Siberia and into Tibet, Vietnam and far into the Middle East, there was a large mix of culture at one time.
It started in force when the Mongol horde was fighting against European forces in Caffa, present day Crimea, which was a seaport for Italian merchants. The Mongols besieged Caffa but started to die off from disease rather than fighting. The Mongols were forced to retreat thanks to the encroaching disease but not before hurling the bodies of their dead over the walls to spread the disease to them. From Caffa it reached Italy and spread into Europe.
The Mongolian Empire coincides with a great influx of trade from the Silk Road which only facilitated the spread of the virus into Asia. The Silk Road connected Italy to Persia, to the Middle East, to India and into China and Mongolia. While a normal virus might not have been able to spread so fast, the new opened trade routes made it very easy to spread to Asia.
The Bubonic Plague hit Asia hard, especially the Middle East in Persia, Iraq, Iran, into Africa with Egypt, and as far east as China and India. Big cities or trade cities like Baghdad, Chang’an and Alexandria were hit very hard.
China and India had some of the most populated cities in the world; Chang’an (modern day Xi’An) had the highest population of any city worldwide during the Tang Dynasty. Much of what made the Black Plague so effective in Asia were the living conditions. The Tang Dynasty for instance loved horses, especially Arabian ones and the Mongolians of the Yuan Dynasty loved them just as much. Arabian horses were brought in from Persia along the Silk Road and because of the straw needed to care for them and the dung left behind, rats were a common pest in India and China. Adding to that, much of Asia didn’t have sewer systems or proper drainage or frequent bathing. It didn’t help that Chinese and Indian families in particular were very large on average and the people tended to live almost on top of each other.
While Europe whipped itself into a frenzy, Chinese, Indian and Korean people died off in droves. Although it’s debated how far down the Korean Peninsula it went, it’s clear that it hit Korea at least near the border between Yuan and Goryeo. It got so bad that the Yuan Dynasty was hastened in its fall, soldiers catching the disease from the rats by their horses and dying off to such an extent that many places remained undermanned and vulnerable to attack and opportunistic warlords in the khan-ruled states tried to seize power in the vacuum.
The Chinese economy began to tank because there was a labor shortage as more and more people died. Trade from East to West continued, infecting other regions under Mongol rule. Ironically, trade was more stable than labor was only pumping in infected cargo, and leading to some convicts and criminals to be used for mandatory labor.
The notable exception was Japan who never experienced such any real outbreak, most likely due to it not being conquered by the Mongols and having more of an isolationist policy as well as having an unfriendly relationship with missionaries and travelers.
As the Yuan Dynasty fell and collapsed in on itself, thousands died in India and Korea, spreading into Vietnam and Thailand. Some places were so bad, they left their dead in the streets.
Although the Bubonic Plague officially ended in Europe in 1720, the rest of the world suffered intermittent epidemics up until the present day. Africa and underdeveloped or crowded parts of Asia were most at risk. It wasn’t until the development of the sewers and plumbing as well as sanitation that the Plague was eventually curbed in Asia. That isn’t to say it still doesn’t show up, but most of the time it happened in the underdeveloped parts of Asia on the fringes of China or India or in the dirty inner cities.
The Third Epidemic occurred in China during the Opium Wars era and the Spheres of Influence from 1855-1959, particularly the areas near Manchuria and Mongolia It is believed that the reason China was hit so hard by it was because China didn’t industrialize en masse until the late 20th century. But even as late as 2009, some outbreaks have been observed.
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