How China’s Northern Song Dynasty Contained Plague Outbreaks

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By Vibrant Dot Staff

Plagues have often wrecked havoc since ancient times. While some nations perished during these calamities, others survived. Here are some historic accounts from China’s Northern Song Dynasty detailing how people back then dealt with the outbreaks.

According to the History of Song, one of the official Chinese historical works, a major plague occurred during the Emperor Renzong’s time, causing many to suffer. The emperor did not blame his officials for failing to contain the outbreak but instead focused on self-reflection and examined whether his governance had oppressed his people or failed to conform to the way of heaven.

He also temporarily suspended the daily ceremony in which court officials would visit and greet him.

When the major plague struck the capital area, Emperor Renzong first thought of the poor and sick. He ordered his palace physicians to gather experienced medical practitioners to attend to the poor in every county.

Emperor Renzong told palace physicians to prescribe medicines and use precious medicinal herbs and ingredients, such as rhinoceros horns, to treat people infected with plague. Concerned about the rarity of these ingredients, a palace staff asked the emperor if he would like to reserve it for the palace.

Emperor Renzong, unhappy hearing what the staff said, responded, “Am I a person who places a higher value in rare ingredients than the lives of my people?” He then smashed the horn and ordered his staff to use it for the people.

Inspired by the emperor’s generosity, many loyal and virtuous officials followed suit. The plague gradually receded, and the capital was saved from harm.

Another inspiring figure in fighting the plague is Zhao Bian, a high-ranking government official in the Northern Song Dynasty who was well-respected by the people.

According to the History of Song, Zhao respectfully reported to heaven every night of things he did during the day. Zhao was also very sympathetic to the people and did not burden them with overly complicated policies.

When Zhao was governing Yuezhou, which is in today’s Zhejiang province, a plague broke out in the area.

During this period, he never slacked even slightly and presided over providing relief to his people. At that time, due to drought and outbreak of the plague, half the people in other counties died. However, the area under the governance of Zhao Bian suffered less severe damages.

In this regard, renowned writer, Zeng Gong praised Zhao in a book: “Although his charitable acts are for the people of Yue Zhou, his benevolence should be shown to the world.”

One with Enough Virtue May Be Spared from Plague

During the reign of Emperor Renzong, a governor named Guan Shiren met some tall, fierce-looking ghosts on the first day of the Chinese New Year while he was reading some texts. He asked where they came from and why they were there. They said, “We are the ghosts of plague. We will spread the plague on earth on the first day of New Year.” Guan Shiren asked, “Will my family be affected?” The plague ghosts replied, “No.”

Guan was puzzled and asked why his family would be spared. The ghosts said, “If three generations of ancestors of a family have accumulated virtue, we cannot enter the house and there will be no plague.”

Sure enough, the plague erupted that year and Guan’s family was safe and sound.

If one reflects upon oneself during natural disasters and does good deeds — whether the person is a king, a minister or a commoner — the area under his or her auspices will experience fewer calamities and stronger righteousness.

History has offered us precious wisdom. Since ancient times, when society declined in morality, plagues soon followed. In the face of plague eruptions, only by returning to morality and awakening the goodness within can we obtain protection from the divine beings, thereby escaping disasters and continuing to have a future.

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