May 11, 2022

Baihui Duan receives PhD with honours

Aftermath project member Baihui Duan has completed her studies and passed her PhD tribunal. Her dissertation, “Managing Epidemics in Post-Imjin Korea: War, Environment, Infectious Diseases, and Medicine, 1576-1720” received the highest possible grade of “excellence,” followed by the award of cum laude. In the Spanish system cum laude honours are awarded after a secret vote of the PhD panel members, requiring unanimity.

Dissertation abstract

Among the after effects of the Imjin War (1592-1598), famines and infectious diseases caused huge problems for the Chosŏn Korean population, and presented challenges for the central government and local administrators. In this dissertation, I examine the national and local calamities caused by epidemics, how the government managed epidemics, and how local forces shared health and relief responsibilities. The dissertation opens with a quantitative study of epidemics in the late Chosŏn dynasty, from the mid-sixteenth century until the 1730s, in order to provide an overview of the frequency and severity of outbreaks over the course of this period. Records relating to epidemics in official documents and private diaries were made into a dataset, and subjected to a spatial-temporal analysis.

Then the dissertation moves into qualitative analysis, considering five detailed case studies (Chapters 2-6) and depicting the history of epidemics from the perspective of environmental history, the history of medicine, social history, and foreign relations. The first two case studies (Chapters 2 and 3) explain the environmental causes of epidemics and show the routine measures adopted by the Chosŏn government against outbreaks such as medicine distribution, the construction of central medical institutes, and the compilation of medical texts. Chapter 2 argues that the differing medical development of the three combatant states Korea, Japan, and China, determined the measures that they took against the epidemic outbreaks that struck armies in the first few months of 1593. These outbreaks, and the responses to them, I argue, affected the course of the Imjin War, contributing to the stalemate and negotiations of 1593. Chapter 3 shows that post-Imjin environmental degradation and extreme climate induced people in the northern provinces to take flight and they transmitted infectious diseases nationwide in the 1610s. The government’s response to this crisis – the reconstruction of medical institutes, the assembling of physicians, and the compiling of medical booklets formed the primary content of medical administrative measures against epidemics for centuries.

Since basic medical treatment was not particularly effective against epidemics, the Chosŏn government tried new approaches, such as the temporary release of infected prisoners and isolating infected and displaced people. Chapter 4 therefore examines the impacts of epidemics on prisons, arguing that the experiences of medical administration, quick sentencing, and temporary release during outbreaks at prions continued to function in the subsequent centuries, thus helping to improve prisoner relief and supplement the relevant laws. In Chapter 5, I examine an early form of quarantine in which local administrators also participated and shared the medical care and relief responsibilities from the second half of the seventeenth century onwards.

Lastly, Chapter 6 considers the impact of epidemics beyond Korea’s borders, specifically smallpox that struck seventeenth-century East Asia. I argue that smallpox outbreaks impacted not only domestic society but also foreign relations with the Qing empire. The Chosŏn government carefully treated the infected Qing envoy and asked for permission to change the rituals that were used to greet the Qing envoys, in order to minimize the impacts of smallpox on Sino-Chosŏn relations.

Placing pre-modern Korean epidemics within environmental history exposes the interactive connections among wars, the natural environment, living conditions, and infectious diseases, shedding new light on the environmental upheaval in the seventeenth-century world. Moreover, narratives of epidemic management provide a meeting point among social justice, governmentality, diplomacy, and medicine, opening up questions of power and its political meaning in the global discourses of health.

Keywords: the late Chosŏn dynasty, infectious diseases, Imjin War, East Asian War of 1592-1598, medicine, displacement, prisoners, prison, release, quarantine, isolation, smallpox, typhoid fever, Sino-Chosŏn relations, biopolitics, government, Little Ice Age.