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Red Turban Army

The Terrible Disease in China – 1330 to 1350

Most Americans and Europeans have heard of the Black Death which swept across Europe starting in 1347. However, most people have not heard that something very similar struck down millions in China during the same time period.

The first half of the 1300s were a terrible time in China’s history. The Mongol conquest of China (finalized with the conquest of capital of the Song Dynasty in 1276) resulted in decades of mis-rule, brutal repression of popular discontent, famines, and civil unrest which ultimately resulted in a civil war that last for more than a decade. This terrible time finally ended with the victory of the Ming government over all its rivals and the establishment of a unified, and highly functional national government.

Part of the reason for the popular unrest in the first half of the 1300s was the disease which killed millions of people in China. This disease was simply one more calamity which was added to all the others. The Mongol government, which was never good, became steadily worse as the decades passed; their records were poor, and a great deal was lost when they fled north in 1368. Consequently, we have difficulty in separating out the factors which resulted in the civil war that ended the Mongol rule over China. Nevertheless, disease was a huge killer, based on anecdotal evidence.

For many people living in China at the time, the combination of famine, deadly disease, floods, and the vicious brutality of the Mongol rule must have seemed like the end of the world. We know that millions of ordinary Chinese people joined the White Lotus society as a response to the turmoil. The White Lotus society (AKA the Red Turbans) preached a Buddhist eschatology, saying that the world would soon be consumed in a devastating fire (“at this time, Kalki will return riding on a white horse to battle with Kali and his dark forces. The world will suffer a fiery cataclysm that will destroy all evil” – from the Kali Yuga). Only those who followed the White Lotus would be saved, all others on the planet would die.

The White Lotus followers organized and fought with the Mongol government all over China. For the first decade they were consistently beaten. But the times were bad, and they did not get better. Thus, despite the massive losses of life, the White Lotus society kept reforming and creating large armies. By 1360 the Red Turbans had taken over most of central and southern China. In the north-east, they conquered Liaodong and launched two full-scale invasions of Korea (perhaps because of military pressure from the Mongol army, or perhaps in an attempt to bring their religion to the people of Korea).

At this remove (nearly 700 years have passed) we cannot say exactly what role the disease played in setting the stage for the revolts which eventually toppled the Mongol rule in China. What we do know, is that the founder of the Ming Dynasty (the Hongwu Emperor, AKA Zhu Yuanzhang – lost all of his family to a disease. He said that everyone died within a week and after that he left his home town, a penniless orphan. Some eight years later, he joined the White Lotus, then left the religion after a four years and founded his own state, which eventually became the Ming Empire.

My novels, The Burning Tower, The Fire Sword, and The Flame Iris Temple are all set in this time and place.

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