In an intriguing hypothesis sketched out in Plagues and Peoples (1976), William McNeill speculates that Europe’s 14th century Black Death plague may have had its origins in the Eurasian Steppes, where the virus may have been endemic among the region’s burrowing rodents for centuries before finally being transmitted to China, then the middle East and Europe by horse-riding Mongols as they established the Mongol Empire (1206-1368).
Although many scholars (including Graham Twigg, Susan Scott, and Christopher Duncan) now question whether the Black Death was actually a case of bubonic plague, or any bacterial disease, or was even necessarily any single disease at all, it is nevertheless acknowledged that the last world-wide pandemic of bubonic plague (known as the “third pandemic”) did in fact have its origins in central China before eventually spreading to Hong Kong in 1894, and then (like the SARS outbreak threatened to do a century later) on to trading ports around the world. While the worst of the 1894 Hong Kong epidemic was controlled relatively quickly, the global pandemic which it precipitated dragged on for decades, and was not officially conquered (according to the WHO) until 1959.
It is this outbreak of the plague in 1894 Hong Kong which provides the backdrop for Shih Shuqing’s (施叔青) 1993 novel, Her Name is Butterfly (她名叫蝴蝶), the first volume of her acclaimed “Hong Kong trilogy” (a very abridged translation of the trilogy, by Sylvia Lin and Howard Goldblatt, has just been published by Columbia University Press under the title City of the Queen). Her Name is Butterfly centers around the figure of Huang Deyun (黄得云), a young woman from rural China who was sold into a Hong Kong brothel in 1892 at the age of 13, and her subsequent lover Adam Smith, a young British colonial administrator who makes his reputation helping to suppress the 1894 epidemic.