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How epidemics affect world history

Author  :  ZHONG WEIMIN and LI JUNJIE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-03-28

In 1619, Charles de l’Orme, the chief physician to Louis XIII, invented a protective suit for plague doctors based on the belief that contagion spread through foul-smelling air. The costume featured an all-leather ensemble, a beak-like mask stuffed with herbs and spices, and a top hat. Photo: THEAPRICITY 

During the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2015, Bill Gates warned about a great risk to the public in a speech: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus, rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes. Now, part of the reason for this is that we’ve invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents. But we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.” This sounds a lot like what’s going on now with the COVID-19 outbreak. Historically speaking, epidemics have been one of the greatest disasters that humans have ever faced and the threat will continue as long as humanity exists.

A new outlook on history

The theories of the history of civilization that rose during the 20th century offered a radically new perspective on the past. In the Study of History, the British historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee chooses to explain history not by the successes and failures of empires, nation-states or ethnicities but by a civilization’s response to its challenges. In the wake of new approaches to history, Eurocentrism has been widely criticized while Asia, Africa and Latin America have begun to play a greater role in world histories. Although many new theories and approaches have emerged in the study of history, there is still one problem—too much attention is given to the history of civilization while too little to the environment and the effect of the environment upon civilization. Hans Zinsser, a highly regarded Harvard biologist, points out in his book, Rats, Lice and History, that humans always treat everything from their perspective; but from the perspective of lice, humans are their killers. Therefore, people may have different conclusions if they looked at history from other points of view. The American environmental historian William Cronon notes that humans are not the only actors in the creation of history; other creatures also affect history, as do important natural processes.

Epidemics’ place in history

In the past two decades, humans have experienced several outbreaks of highly infectious diseases, including SARS and Ebola. Taking a look at history, severe challenges to human health persist, evidenced by epidemics caused by plague, cholera, smallpox and other diseases. Humans had limited medical knowledge to cope with infectious diseases in the past, up until the last 100 years, when medical advances brought about many more science-based treatments, such as Alexandre Yersin’s discovery of Yersinia pestis in 1894 and Sir Alexander Fleming’s legendary discovery of penicillin in 1928.

From the earliest times to the present, epidemics have influenced human history. The Black Death that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351 caused expansive depopulation, as approximately one-third of the entire European population died from the disease. The plague continued raging through Eurasia over the next 300 years. Giovanni Boccaccio gives a vivid description of the plague’s effect in his masterpiece, The Decameron—“The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. And it even went further. To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living; and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching.”

This unprecedented catastrophe has affected Europe in myriad ways: religiously, politically, financially and socially. It also caused fundamental social changes, promoting the emergence of modern Europe. The Black Death weakened the authority of the church. The belief that “Plague is a kind of divine retribution for sins against God” was questioned with the loss of clergymen. People’s opinion of the church was reduced to a great extent. The disease also created a popular culture of carpe diem (“Seize the Day” in Latin). After a long time living under the asceticism of the middle ages, people wanted to live their lives to the fullest because the plague could kill them the next day or week. The shortage of labor stimulated more technology and inventions to meet the need. The plague also promoted medical advances and law-based governance, as more and more people turned to secular treatments rather than religious practices for help, while governments began to focus on practical legal and policy solutions to protect public health.

The 16th century saw infectious diseases strike Native American populations with considerable frequency, but its impact was far beyond the American continent. The Aztec Empire was a powerful empire born in Mesa Central. At its height, the Aztec spread across most of Mesoamerica with over 10 million people. However, such a large empire soon declined following the arrival of smallpox with Spanish conquerors in 1519. The Inca Empire suffered the same fate. During the 16th century, tens of millions of Native Americans succumbed to the disease. Many epidemic diseases that were well established in the Old World had been absent from America, and Native Americans exhibited little immunity because they had no previous exposure to those diseases.

The exploration of the New World had a great impact on the history of America, Europe and Africa: It fueled the Industrial Revolution in Europe through providing land and labor. The vast and fertile continent soon became a large supplier of raw materials for European industries.

In China, epidemics often played a role in the rise and fall of the ancient dynasties. In the year 754, the Tang Empire attacked Nanzhao (a historical kingdom in southern China) with General Li Mi leading 70,000 troops, but they lost nearly their whole army to infectious diseases and were defeated. This war was the immediate trigger for the Anlushan Rebellion, which marked the Tang’s irreversible decline after one and half centuries of good governance, economic prosperity and military success. Late in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), a plague broke out in northern China. Beijing and its neighboring regions were ravaged by the plague from 1641 to 1644, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people in Beijing, 20 to 25 percent of the entire population of the city. Devastated by the plague while the Emperor Chongzhen underestimated the country’s great crisis, a rebel leader named Li Zicheng easily took Beijing with his troops and dethroned Chongzhen. However, the plague persisted, even after Li’s troops entered Beijing. It was an important factor in Li’s failure in battle against the Manchu army.

The American historian William H. McNeill alerts people in his book Plagues and Peoples that diseases, particularly infectious diseases, have an underestimated influence on the course of history. Disease will surely remain, as it has been, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.


It is necessary to rethink the relationship between humanity and the environment. One of the reasons for frequent disease outbreaks is that the destructive exploration of nature breaks natural cycles. Humans should be aware that they are just one of many species in nature and that they rely on nature. Therefore, human development should be conducted sensibly without depleting natural resources.

Individual and social forces are crucial to combating diseases. In the past, humans were much more vulnerable to diseases, hence demanding the joint efforts of individuals, society and the nation. Take ancient China as an example. Local authorities and non-official forces played an important part in historical anti-disease efforts. During the outbreaks, local authorities often organized medical services and the publication of medical books, but their contributions to the anti-epidemic campaigns depended on the officials in charge and local medical resources. Since the middle of the Qing Dynasty, xiangxian (people in the county honored for their knowledge and virtues) have often participated in anti-epidemic efforts through local medical institutions and charities.


The article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Zhong Weimin is a history professor from Tsinghua University. Li Junjie is a postgraduate student in the Department of History at Tsinghua University.


(Edited and translated by REN GUANHONG)

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