Smallpox in 19th c. China

I am currently reading The Talented Women of the Zhang Family by Susan Mann, an imaginative retelling of the biographies of the Changzhou 常州 writer Tang Yaoqing (1763-1831), her four daughters and the daughters of her youngest children, daughter Zhang Wanying 張紈英 (1800-1881) and son Zhang Yuesun 張曜孫 (1807-1863). Here I stumbled upon a poem lamenting the death of several young children because of smallpox, which was particularly striking in light of recent resurgences of childhood diseases due to the anti-vax movement. I thought I might share it here, to give a little insight into the devastating effects outbreaks of smallpox had as recently as the 19th c.

In her book, Mann was able to reconstruct a situation in which female education was passed on within the family, since – except for second daughter Zhang Guanying 張𥿑英 (1795 – 1824) – all daughters remained with their natal family 娘家 for most of their live even after marriage. The books focus on the younger siblings’ children makes it seem like the elder sisters Zhang Qieying 張䌌英 (1792- after 1863) and Zhang Lunying 張綸英 (1798-1859) never had children of their own. In fact, Qieying had given birth to three children, Lunying to two. But in 1827, while the family was in Jinan 濟南 en route to their father Zhang Qi’s 張琦 (1764-1833) new post as governor in western Shandong, a son and daughter of Qieying and the two daughters of Lunying died in a smallpox epidemic. Lunying would (as far as we know) never give birth again and insted adopt a son from her husband’s family and a daughter from her sister Wanying’s children. Qieying gave birth to another son who also died of smallpox. This was in 1831 in Beijing, whence she had moved to be with her husband and his son from his first wife who had passed away.

Around 1839 Zhang Qieying wrote a poem about the smallpox deaths of those five children, which clearly shows her pain and loss:





From the “Ming Qing Women’s Writings” Database at McGill University

Moved on Reading Master Sun Zixiao’s “The Death of Apricots,” I Composed This Poem in the Same Genre

Striking my eye, stopping my heart, a scene exactly as I knew it,
Tears course down my face, soak through my jacket.
Grievous aching of the heart, its cause the same pain.
Fraught images so vivid, the poem seems like a painting.
Twice in six years have I seen souls die,
Note: In the spring of 1827, I lost a son and a daughter; in the winter of 1832, another son.
For months at a time my whole family’s had no more tears to shed.
Early in my live I was to learn the reality of “each in its own time.”
Note: The saying goes that in smallpox, it is timely for the elder to go before the younger; the reverse is untimely.
Elder sister, then younger sister, each lost precious “pearls in the palm.”
Note: At the time I was accompanying our late mother, lodging in Jinan; Lunying in that same month lost her own two daughters to smallpox.
The little souls had no symptoms, so a cure was not carefully considered,
How I regret that we used needles and herbs as if we were treating an ordinary illness.
The children gave no hint of dying, then suddenly they were gone,
Everyone had wished them long live, but their lives were not long at all.
As the illness worsened, we administered powerful drugs,
The doctors all insisted they had good remedies.
Hardest hit was the loving mother, her hurt cut to the quick,
From sunset til dawn burning incense, praying for unseen help.
The moment when the crisis came, I now can bear to recall,
They seemed about to depart and yet unable to bear to leave.
Calling their mother in low tones, their spirits ebbing away,
Looking at their father, eyes still ahead, tears still welling.
Their share of this life over, with no days left to live,
While for half my own life I’ve made empty talk about rearing children.
After twelve years with a heart near breaking,
I am ready to reread “The Death of Apricots.”

Translation by Susan Mann, in The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, p. 94


While this poems is very powerful on its own, I would still like to add some context: death of young children was common enough that poets developed a dedicated image to talk about it: “death of apricots” 杏殤, which goes back to a poem by Meng Jiao 孟郊 (751-814), lamenting the death of his son. The poem that inspired Zhang Qieying was written by Sun Yuanxiang 孫原湘 (1760-1829, courtesy name Zixiao 子瀟) as a lament for his own young children.

It is also important to note that the Zhang family were among the elite of their time and had access to good doctors and medicine and Qieying was staying in the capital Beijing  with all its resources during the death of her third child. Even though, they were unable to shield their children from the virus or find medicine that could heal them. It can only be imagined how much worse this type of childhood diseases ravaged normal families.

It seems that since the development of vaccines against common childhood diseases we have lost sight of the devastating effects that smallpox, measles etc. have had on previous generations. For the five dead children of the Zhang family, we only know their year of death because of this lament. Because they died so young, neither their names nor their years of birth have been recorded. They might as well not have existed, except for their parents’ grief about their deaths.

Please vaccinate your children.

Ming Qing Women’s Writing Database at McGill University

Susan Mann: The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, 2007, on