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Manchurian Plague: The Deadliest Epidemic in the Chinese History that Killed 60,000 People

In the autumn of 1910, the Chinese press reported that a rare and deadly plague had reached Harbin, then known as Manchuria, in China’s extreme northeast. China’s Northeastern provinces were the main focus of the epidemic, but cases were reported sporadically in Tianjin, Beijing, and along the Beijing-Hankou railway line that stretched into central China, indicating the extent of the disease. Reports estimate 50,000 to 60,000 people died due to the Plague, with a mortality rate of 100 percent.

How the Plague Spread

The Plague probably originated from Marmots hunted for their fur in Manchuria. The German chemical industry developed dyes that allowed cheap marmot fur to be made into imitation sable, mink, and otter fur. As a result, marmot fur’s value increased from a few kopecks to a rouble, causing hunters to flock to Manchuria. The migrants, however, were inexperienced. The local hunters, many of whom were Buryat, knew how to identify and avoid diseased marmots, but the migrant hunters collected unhealthy marmots, which carried the plague bacteria.

The cold winter of the northern hemisphere caused hunters to huddle together in huts, causing the airborne pneumonic Plague to spread quickly. The extensive railway network of Manchuria contributed to rapid transmission. Over 200 deaths were reported per day in Kuancheng, near Jilin, and similar cities throughout Manchuria. Most of the plague cases were attributed to poor, middle-aged Chinese who lived in crowded conditions with poor sanitation; if any foreigners contracted the Plague, it was medical personnel.

How the Plague was cured

Russia and Japan were both major railway powers in Manchuria. They both cooperated with the Chinese government to respond effectively to the Plague. In November 1910, Chinese and Russian doctors visited Harbin, or Fujiadian, to assess the situation. Since there was no cure for the Plague, quarantining ‘plague patients, suspected cases, and persons who had come into contact with plague cases’ in train carriages was the only way to prevent its spread. After five days of noticing no symptoms, those quarantined were released.

The Chinese doctor in charge of the response, Wu Lien-Teh (Wu Liande), received imperial permission to burn the dead bodies of victims, thus safely disposing of thousands of bodies. The Russian C.E.R. authorities created sanitary zones, monitored the population, and destroyed plague-infected homes. The epidemic was over by the end of April 1911 due to these preventative measures and the end of the cold winter.

The aftermath of the Plague

The Plague greatly affected trade and commerce in Manchuria, especially the fur and food trades. One newspaper stated that ‘the plague has cost the Chinese silver dollars approximately $7,000,000’ concerning the soybean trade. There were also additional economic consequences of the Plague. The Plague impacted Chinese stock prices and government bonds. Moreover, the Plague led to a Presidential mandate legalizing human dissection, which exceeded the earlier Imperial mandate permitting cremation. The Plague also facilitated Chinese science and disease control by removing a great deal of the superstitions surrounding ancestor worship. The Mukden Conference was the first international scientific conference held in the People’s Republic of China, firmly establishing Chinese scientists as international scientific community members.

Here are some historical photos offer a glimpse into the China during the Manchurian Plague.

#1 Manchurian plague victims, 1910

Manchurian plague victims, 1910

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#2 Doctors’ quarters and dispensary, plague hospital, Peking

Doctors' quarters and dispensary, plague hospital, Peking

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#3 Doctors’ quarters, Peking plague hospital

Doctors' quarters, Peking plague hospital

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#4 Entrance to plague hospital, Peking

Entrance to plague hospital, Peking

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#5 Isolation huts of suspects, Peking

Isolation huts of suspects, Peking

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#6 Bringing coffins to cremation grounds, Changchun

Bringing coffins to cremation grounds, Changchun

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#7 Collecting place for coffins outside city gate, Changchun

Collecting place for coffins outside city gate, Changchun

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#8 Encoffining body, Changchun

Encoffining body, Changchun

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#9 Hauling coffins to cremation, Changchun

Hauling coffins to cremation, Changchun

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#10 Taotai He superintending the first cremation, Changchun

Taotai He superintending the first cremation, Changchun

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#11 Bodies and coffins, first ‘clean-up’, Changchun

Bodies and coffins, first 'clean-up', Changchun

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#12 Coffins, preparatory to stacking for cremation, Changchun

Coffins, preparatory to stacking for cremation, Changchun

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#13 Cremation of seventy-one bodies, Changchun

Cremation of seventy-one bodies, Changchun

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#14 First cremation, Changchun. 1400+ bodies. Taotai He and staff

First cremation, Changchun. 1400+ bodies. Taotai He and staff

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#15 First large cremation, Changchun. Eleven stacks, 1400+ bodies

First large cremation, Changchun. Eleven stacks, 1400+ bodies

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#16 Plague hospital for women and staff, Changchun

Plague hospital for women and staff, Changchun

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#17 Scattering kerosene on stack of coffins, preparatory to cremation, Changchun

Scattering kerosene on stack of coffins, preparatory to cremation, Changchun

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#18 Stacking coffins, Changchun

Stacking coffins, Changchun

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#19 Stacking coffins, Changchun

Stacking coffins, Changchun

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#20 Stacks of coffins, showing arrangements of fuel, Changchun

Stacks of coffins, showing arrangements of fuel, Changchun

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#21 Stacks of unburned coffins and pile of ashes covered with lime, Changchun

Stacks of unburned coffins and pile of ashes covered with lime, Changchun

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#22 Taotai He superintending second cremation, Changchun

Taotai He superintending second cremation, Changchun

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#23 Coffins outside ‘old style’ hospital, Changchun

Coffins outside 'old style' hospital, Changchun

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#24 Home for homeless, Changchun

Home for homeless, Changchun

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#25 Cartload of bodies on way to cremation grounds, Harbin

Cartload of bodies on way to cremation grounds, Harbin

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#26 Removal of bodies to cremation pit, Harbin

Removal of bodies to cremation pit, Harbin

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#27 Moving bodies to cremation pit, Harbin

Moving bodies to cremation pit, Harbin

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#28 Burial coolies, cremation grounds, Fuchiatien

Burial coolies, cremation grounds, Fuchiatien

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#29 Cremation pit, Fuchiatien

Cremation pit, Fuchiatien

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#30 First large cremation, Fuchiatien. 1400+ bodies burned

First large cremation, Fuchiatien. 1400+ bodies burned

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#31 Male inmates, home for the homeless, Fuchiatien

Male inmates, home for the homeless, Fuchiatien

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#32 Results of first attempt at cremation, Fuchiatien

Results of first attempt at cremation, Fuchiatien

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#33 Staff inspecting crematory, Fuchiatien

Staff inspecting crematory, Fuchiatien

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#34 Dr. Aspland in Bacteriological Laboratory, Fuchiatin

Dr. Aspland in Bacteriological Laboratory, Fuchiatin

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#35 Dr. Ku and assistant in front of ‘old style’ Chinese plague hospital, Fuchiatien

Dr. Ku and assistant in front of 'old style' Chinese plague hospital, Fuchiatien

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#36 Dr. P. S. Huang, Director Anti-Plague Bureau, Changchun

Dr. P. S. Huang, Director Anti-Plague Bureau, Changchun

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#37 Dr. Wu Lien Te, Chinese Director of Anti-Plague Bureau, Fuchiatien

Dr. Wu Lien Te, Chinese Director of Anti-Plague Bureau, Fuchiatien

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#38 Dr. Young in Vaccine Laboratory, Changchun

Dr. Young in Vaccine Laboratory, Changchun

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#39 Drs. Strong and Teague performing autopsy

Drs. Strong and Teague performing autopsy

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#40 Drs. Young and Chai in Vaccine Laboratory, Changchun

Drs. Young and Chai in Vaccine Laboratory, Changchun

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#41 Right to left – Taotai Weng, Taotai Huang, Prefect He, Dr. Young

Right to left - Taotai Weng, Taotai Huang, Prefect He, Dr. Young

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#42 Dr. Aspland receiving reports, Fuchiatien

Dr. Aspland receiving reports, Fuchiatien

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#43 Dr. Wu receiving reports at Headquarters, Fuchiatien

Dr. Wu receiving reports at Headquarters, Fuchiatien

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#44 Chinese staff disinfecting at close of working hours. 1:3000 mercury bichloride

Chinese staff disinfecting at close of working hours. 1:3000 mercury bichloride

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#45 Daily inspection of contacts at quarantine, Fuchiatien

Daily inspection of contacts at quarantine, Fuchiatien

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#46 Disinfecting plague infected quarantine car, Fuchiatien

Disinfecting plague infected quarantine car, Fuchiatien

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#47 Disinfection room and part of Russian staff, Harbin

Disinfection room and part of Russian staff, Harbin

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#48 Disinfection squad, Changchun (trained by Japanese)

Disinfection squad, Changchun (trained by Japanese)

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#49 Disinfection squad, Fuchiatien

Disinfection squad, Fuchiatien

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#50 Disinfection station for officers, Fuchiatien

Disinfection station for officers, Fuchiatien

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#51 Examining a suspect

Examining a suspect

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#52 Inspection of contacts, quarantine, Fuchiatien

Inspection of contacts, quarantine, Fuchiatien

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#53 Inspection squad starting on rounds

Inspection squad starting on rounds

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#54 Plague case ’rounded up’ on inspection tour, Fuchiatien

Plague case 'rounded up' on inspection tour, Fuchiatien

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#55 Plague suspected discovered on inspection tour

Plague suspected discovered on inspection tour

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#56 Receiving contacts at quarantine, Fuchiatien

Receiving contacts at quarantine, Fuchiatien

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#57 Receiving contacts at quarantine, Fuchiatien

Receiving contacts at quarantine, Fuchiatien

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#58 Removal of plague patient from quarantine, Fuchiatien

Removal of plague patient from quarantine, Fuchiatien

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#59 South Manchurian Railway quarantine sheds

South Manchurian Railway quarantine sheds

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#60 Taking blood smear from ear of suspect, Fuchiatien

Taking blood smear from ear of suspect, Fuchiatien

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#61 Taking temperature, quarantine, Fuchiatien

Taking temperature, quarantine, Fuchiatien

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#62 Transports (left to right) for [already] sick, for suspects, for contacts, for dead

Transports (left to right) for [already] sick, for suspects, for contacts, for dead

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#63 Plague hospital for women, Changchun

Plague hospital for women, Changchun

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#64 Plague hospital, Mukden

Plague hospital, Mukden

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#65 Burning material and contents of infected houses

Burning material and contents of infected houses

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#66 Burning plague infected house, Fuchiatien

Burning plague infected house, Fuchiatien

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#67 Burning the first plague hospital, Fuchiatien

Burning the first plague hospital, Fuchiatien

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#68 Plague infected house, Japanese Concession, Changchun

Plague infected house, Japanese Concession, Changchun

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Written by Benjamin Grayson

Former Bouquet seller now making a go with blogging and graphic designing. I love creating & composing history articles and lists.

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