The Princess and the Plague Explaining Epidemics in Imperial Tibet, Khotan, and Central Asia

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William A. McGrath



Recent bioarchaeological and phylogenetic studies have identified Central Asia as an early reservoir for Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague in humans and animals. Lacking documentary evidence, however, historians have heretofore been unable to find a place for South, East, and Central Asia in the premodern history of the plague. This article uses Tibetan-, Chinese-, and Khotanese-language sources to tell a history of the bubonic plague in Central Asia between the seventh and ninth centuries. From official Tibetan histories, we learn of human and animal plagues at the turn of the eighth century. From the prophetic narratives of Khotan, we learn of an unnamed Chinese princess who died in Tibet with a black pox on her chest. Finally, interpreting Tibetan and Khotanese translations of an Āyurvedic medical text in light of bioarchaeological data, we can begin to retrospectively diagnose the plagues of Central Asia. More than just the documentary history of a specific plague outbreak, these sources demonstrate the variegated responses to centuries of plague in Central Asia, including narrative description, scapegoating, ritual protection, humoral diagnosis, and pharmacological and surgical therapies. The end result is an integrated account of the bubonic plague in Central Asia based on Tibetan and Khotanese explanations of epidemics.

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