restricted access The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910–1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease by William C. Summers (review)
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Reviewed by
William C. Summers. The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910–1911: The Geopolitics of an Epidemic Disease. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012. xiii + 202 pp. Ill. $40.00 (978-0-300-18319-1).

In this slim volume, William C. Summers aims to provide a comprehensive and detailed history of the plague outbreaks in northeastern China that caused possibly as many as sixty thousand deaths between 1910 and 1911. Historians of China have previously examined the great Manchurian plague from many angles: as a grave threat to the Qing dynasty’s already shaky sovereignty, as a watershed event in the establishment of Chinese public health institutions, as the beginning of China’s participation in scientific internationalism, and as the critical moment when the new concept of chuanranbing—notifiable infectious diseases recognized and controlled by the state—began to take hold in China. Given that the outbreak occurred in a region of international competition and diplomatic intrigue, Russian and Japanese historians have also focused attention on this exceedingly well-documented epidemic. While Summers seeks to expand upon this earlier scholarship, in the end his account closely parallels what is already known about this historic outbreak of pneumonic plague.

As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Summers concentrates primarily on the interplay between geopolitics and the plague. In six brief chapters and an epilogue, he surveys the political, medical, and cultural aspects of the epidemic in order to understand its differential impact on three cities in the northeast (Harbin, Shenyang, and Dalian) and the diverse responses of the Russian, Japanese, and Chinese officials in charge of plague control in their respective areas of administrative authority. He argues that beyond its influence on public health, the crisis provided three major foreign powers (Japan, Russia, and the United States) with new opportunities to test and refine their evolving geopolitical strategies [End Page 701] in northeastern Asia during a time when the Qing dynasty was teetering on the verge of collapse. Likening the plague outbreak to a “bomb detonator” (p. 27), Summers contends that the plague and its aftermath played a pivotal role in the events leading up to the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and ultimately to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

Summers touches briefly upon ongoing debates over the nature of Japanese colonial medicine in Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria, aligning with those who view Japan’s appropriation of “Western” medicine as a critical “tool of empire.” He argues that the Southern Manchurian Railway authorities, working in conjunction with the Japanese Army, pursued policies that harnessed medical science and public health to Japan’s imperial ambitions. Yet, he also notes that the situation in Manchuria was complicated not only by the involvement of other foreign powers in the region but also by the fact that in 1910–11 the Qing dynasty retained authority over much of its northeastern territory. Management of the crisis required international cooperation and collaboration (as evidenced by the International Plague Conference held in Shenyang in April 1911), a reality that may have slowed Japanese imperial expansion somewhat but could not derail what Summers sees as Japan’s “inevitable” invasion of Manchuria (p. 143).

Despite his ambition to build upon the work of earlier scholars (p. 12), Summers does little to revise our current understanding of the Manchurian plague. To be sure, he utilizes an abundance of new source material from the U.S. National Archives and the Public Records Office of the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom. However, his heavy reliance on English-language materials can take him only so far. It is difficult to provide a fresh take on this well-studied event without reference to the Russian, Japanese, and Chinese sources that other historians have recently tapped to excellent effect. The book nonetheless provides a succinct overview of the Manchurian plague, its epidemiological and ecological history, the varied political and social responses to it by different national governments, and its geopolitical impact within the complicated diplomatic context of northeastern Asia.

Written for those unfamiliar with the history of modern China or twentieth-century diplomatic relations in northeastern Asia, this volume will be of greatest use as an...