The Black Death affected Europe and China alike.

In Europe, the Black Death resulted in increased social mobility for the peasants and, as a result, labor-saving innovations were introduced. All these laid the foundation for the European Renaissance later (see the above Wiki page).

Why didn't the Black Death have the same social and economic effects in China?

  • 1st, social mobility didn't go up all that much. Peasants didn't magically become nobles because people were dying. 2nd, even if it existed, increased social mobility wouldn't've cause labor-saving innovations. Lots of dead peasants increased the price of labor, which made labor-saving machines worth making and using. 3rd, labor-saving machines were more of an industrial revolution thing and didn't really follow the Black Death at all. The poor stayed poor, farming continued to suck, but the poor could charge more money for their work, when they weren't being killed by nobles over it.
    – lly
    Mar 6, 2020 at 11:15
  • @lly I am quoting from Wikipedia, where are you quoting from?
    – Graviton
    Mar 6, 2020 at 11:51
  • Oh, just better reading of Wikipedia and knowledge of the subject matter. E.g., the heavy plow helped boost Europe's productivity but it was an improved design requiring more labor (eventually derived from the horse harness) and had to do with its spread west from its invention in China. There were no important labor-saving improvements to farming in this era.
    – lly
    Mar 6, 2020 at 18:42
  • Your linked article's source for 'labor-saving inventions' is a cursory Economist overview of research that includes an off-hand mention of a single Oxford fellow's belief (not definitive proof or scholarly consensus) that the higher wages from the plague eventually produced labor-saving inventions, the only example given being the printing press, which had nothing to do with the peasants at all.
    – lly
    Mar 6, 2020 at 18:43
  • Fair enough that it's not your fault, but it's obviously a badly done page with overdone/misleading claims. Too bad the admins at Wikipedia have become such lazy putzes that you can't edit from a VPN (necessary for even reaching the site from China) or I'd fix it for you.
    – lly
    Mar 6, 2020 at 18:44

2 Answers 2


Firstly, there's no reason to think it didn't. In fact, it's fairly routine for afflicted regions to receive government subsidies in Imperial China. As early as AD 218, the Book of the Later Han records that Cao Cao issued an edict ordering welfare measures for survivors of a plague in the preceding winter. The next year, the Record of the Three Kingdoms mentions Cao's contemporary and rival Sun Quan abolished all land rents in the province of Jin, also in response to an epidemic.

Closer to the Black Death period, in 1408, the Ming court ordered rice stipends for survivors in Fujian, and exempted stricken families from their corvée obligations. So in a very literal sense, surviving peasants often directly benefited in the aftermaths of plagues in China as well.

Secondly, labour scarcity is an inherently temporary effect unless population ceases growing altogether. As the Wikipedia article you cited says,

For English peasants, the 15th century was a golden age of prosperity and new opportunities . . . A century later, as population growth resumed, the peasants again faced deprivation and famine.

Moreover, population recovery can be greatly hastened by immigration. This did not really happen in Medieval Europe for a variety of reasons including political fragmentation and feudal interests. In China, however, a tradition of unified central authority allows labour redistribution to happen efficiently and over great distances. For example, in 1410, the county of Shaowu in Fujian reported that 12,000 families had been killed off by the plagues of the preceding years. Whereas English peasants would've moved into vacated houses or be paid to till abandoned farmlands, the Chinese imperial government simply responded by settling convicts on the vacant farms.

Thirdly, for whatever reason, the plague in China was not, for lack of a better word, as concentrated as the Black Death was in Europe. The reason for the socioeconomic upheaval in Europe is because there was so many deaths happening in so short a time when the plague first struck in 1348. In England, for instance,

That demographic crisis was the death of upwards of a third of the population in the first outbreak of the Black Death in 1348–50. Beneficed clergy seem to have lost 40 percent of their numbers; tenants in chief, 27 percent . . . The 1348-50 epidemic seems to have been quite as severe as has been thought: it quite plausibly killed a third to a half of the population.

Palmer, Robert C. English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348-1381: A Transformation of Governance and Law. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000.

As many as 170 epidemics might have hit Ming China, but they were all localised to usually no more than one or two provinces at a time, and the death toll was spread out over many years. Imperial population records reveal no serious gaps of the sort experienced by Europe as a result of these plagues. In other words, an outbreak may create a local shortage of labour, but nationally there always remained a huge surplus of labour relative to the available land.


  1. 陈旭《明代瘟疫与明代社会》西南財經大學出版社 (Chen, Xu. Ming Dynasty Epidemics and Society. Southwestern University of Finance and Economics Press, 2016.)
  2. 林富士《中國中古時期的宗教與醫療》聯經出版公司 (Lin, Fushi. Religion and Medicine in Ancient China. Linking Books, 2008.)

All these laid foundation for the European Renaissance

It's important to remember that there have been plenty of deadly plagues in Europe but only one Renaissance. The Plagues of Justinian or Antonine both caused a level of depopulation similar to the late medieval Black Death. So while the latter may have been a contributory factor to Renaissance, it is not a direct or causal relationship.

  • 1
    Just thinking that the lack of mobility of the population in Europe - which you say led to slower recovery - might also be to blame for the severity of the plague epidemics, i.e. more vulnerable immune systems in the population due to lessened exposure.
    – Mike Wise
    May 26, 2018 at 9:03
  • This is a very good answer but should be expanded/amended a bit to incorporate data like those in axsvl's answer. There are some records that the Black Death in China depopulated some areas very quickly as well.
    – lly
    Mar 6, 2020 at 11:23

To a certain extent, the plague brought about the downfall of the Yuan Dynasty[1] and allowed the founding of the Ming Empire.

You might want to read a bit about the Ming Dynasty. It was one of the most innovative empires in worldwide history. However, instead of innovating science and technology, they innovated governmental administration via meritocratic exams, and arts and literature.

Information about Ming Innovations in statecraft and painting and other stuff was transmitted to Europe and the rest of the world starting with Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits towards the end of the Ming. It can be said - I need a solid source for this, will update soon - that centralized European states were loosely based on the Ming administrative methods, as reported by Ricci.

[1] Wikipedia says that

outbreak of plague in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334 claimed up to eighty percent of the population. China had several epidemics and famines from 1200 to the 1350s and its population decreased from an estimated 125 million to 65 million in the late 14th century.

The Yuan dynasty went from ~1270-~1370, so this huge population loss is during this same time. All these deaths are not entirely attributable to the plague, hence the disclaimer phrase "to a certain extent". Note that its a 50% population loss, and a population loss of this extent leads to huge social instability.

  • The plague brought about the downfall of Yuan dynasty , where is the evidence ?
    – Graviton
    May 25, 2018 at 13:12
  • @Graviton Added info about downfall of Yuan May 25, 2018 at 13:24
  • When you get time, curious about the rest of this. It's certainly true that tales of the Ming helped lead to the Enlightenment, with Voltaire and others able to read and write about how the Chinese were broadly moral, decent, and powerful without Christianity. I've never seen anything that thought European states wouldn't've kept centralizing power in their monarchs where possible, all much more influenced by their image of Rome and/or G-d than anything else.
    – lly
    Mar 6, 2020 at 11:29
  • @lly: Edits that convert readable content into unreadable content really aren't \acceptable. Mar 6, 2020 at 20:05
  • @PieterGeerkens It was far clearer before and I have my browser set to 75%. Footnotes should look like footnotes, and this form of [1] makes it look like axsvl just mistyped a URL format. The rollback also undid grammar corrections.
    – lly
    Mar 6, 2020 at 20:17

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