Shi Daonan’s “Death of Rats”

Given that China has a rat in its zodiac and a Year of the Rat, it really isn’t surprising that they did pay attention to rat deaths associated with the plague. A young poet from Zhaoshou county in the western Yunnan province of China named Shi Daonan (1765-92) wrote this poem:

Dead rats in the east,

Dead rats in the west!

As if they were tigers,

Indeed are the people scared.

A few days following the deaths of the rats,

Men pass away like falling walls!

Deaths in one day are numberless,

The hazy sun is covered by sombre clouds.

While three men are walking together,

Two drop dead within ten steps!

People die in the night,

Nobody dares weep over the dead!

The coming of the demon of pestilence

Suddenly makes the lamp go dim,

Then it is blown out,

Leaving man, ghost, and corpse in the dark room.

The crows caw incessantly,

The dogs howl bitterly!

Man and ghost are one,

While the spirit is taken for a human being!

The land is filled with human bones,

There in the fields are crops,

To be reaped by none;

And the officials collect no tax!

I hope to ride on a firey dragon

To see the God and Goddess in heaven,

Begging them to spread heavenly milk,

And make the dead come to life again.

With the exception of the last couple stanzas, this poem could describe the plague in sixth century Byzantium as readily as eighteenth century China. Shi Daonan clearly links the deaths of rats with fast and massive human deaths so much so that crops go unharvested and taxes uncollected. Little is known of Shi Daonan, other than that he rode the firey dragon at age 27 during the 1792 outbreak in Zhaozhou along with his mother and other relatives.

From Carol Benedict, Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 23).