Sun, Nov 11, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: ‘Island of the demon realm’

Taiwan was long seen as a land of pestilence in part due to its frequent cholera outbreaks, with a total of five major epidemics taking place in the 20th century, the last one in 1962

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

An illustration from a French journal, dated from 1912, depicts a cholera outbreak.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nov. 12 to Nov. 18

The town of Budai (布袋) in Chiayi County was under lockdown in April 1946. Residents had to bribe the quarantine officials to exit the town to buy goods, but when those without money tried to rush the blockade, the police mowed them down with light machine guns.

Chiayi journalist Chung Yi-jen (鍾逸人) retells the scene in his memoir: “Facing starvation, these people risked everything to break through the defenses. Next, the air was filled with gunshot sounds and anguished screams.”

Chung launched an investigation and published several exposes, but nothing happened to the perpetrators. The blockade was lifted, but it took three months to bring the cholera epidemic under control, with 86 residents dead.

It had been 27 years since the previous cholera outbreak, but the disease made a comeback due to destruction of hospitals during World War II, disintegration of public health infrastructure after the Japanese departed and increased interaction with China after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) took over Taiwan at the end of World War II. Budai was the earliest to be hit as one of the main ports used by Chinese ships to transport goods to the Chinese Civil War frontlines.

Newspaper reports show that the disease entered Taiwan via a ship from Wenzhou, ravaging southern Taiwan and killing hundreds, including 64 in an Aboriginal village in Taitung County. The outbreak spread north, infecting Yilan by July and emerging in Taipei on Nov. 13, 1946. A total of 2,210 people died nationwide.

Four other epidemics took place in the 20th century — 1902, 1912, 1919 and 1962. The death rate was extremely high at 82.2 percent for the 1902 bout, surpassing the plague and dysentery, two common diseases. This number dropped to about 61.8 percent over the next three outbreaks, and was down to 6 percent by 1962 due to medical advances. There have only been a handful of cases in recent years — mostly due to consuming tainted foods — with zero deaths.


Cholera is believed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, with the first mass pandemic taking place in 1817 when it spread as far as China and the Mediterranean Sea. Taiwan was highly susceptible to the disease due to its importance in maritime trade, but records are unclear because Qing Dynasty annals often fail to specify the disease that caused an epidemic, according to A Study of Asiatic Cholera in Taiwan During the Japanese Colonial Period by Wei Chia-hung (魏嘉弘).

However, one can deduce that the 1820 “epidemic” in Taiwan was cholera due to the disease ravaging Xiamen, just across the Taiwan Strait, at the exact same time. Using this method, scholars estimate that nine major epidemics took place in Taiwan up to Japanese rule in 1895. Other sources include missionary George Leslie Mackay, who wrote about local treatment of cholera in 1872.

When Japan launched an expedition to Taiwan in 1874 to punish Aborigines, who had killed 54 shipwrecked Japanese sailors, only 12 people died in battle while 550 died due to “disease.” The Qing troops sent from China to deal with the situation didn’t fare any better, with eight or nine people dying per day at the peak of the epidemic. The same thing happened with the French invaders in 1884 — with 34.1 percent of the soldiers succumbing to cholera. Qing reports during this time describe Taiwan as a “land of pestilence.”

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