Think Beijing’s Air is Bad Now? You Should’ve Seen It in the Qing Dynasty

Think Beijing’s pollution is bad now? You shoulda seen it in the Qing Dynasty.

According to a Chinese report in the Reference News, a Macau-based cardiologist and amateur historian is reporting that most of the emperors of the Qing — Kangxi and Qianlong included — likely died from pollution-related diseases.

Cardiologist Tan Jianqiu of Macau’s Kiang Wu Hospital recently published a book called Things You Never Heard in History Class: Unofficial Medical Histories in which he presents his case of how Beijing’s air pollution — notorious for centuries — became the killer of emperors.

Tan spends his spare time trying to crack ancient medical mysteries, and in this case has used the extensive government records kept by each dynasty to reach his conclusions.

And while pollution is top-of-mind for most modern-day Beijingers, truth be told the city’s air hasn’t been great for centuries.

Tan’s research indicates that 10 of the 12 emperors of the Qing Dynasty all died in winter, which is the most likely time for cardiopulmonary diseases to strike.

Causes of death were hard to determine back in the day due to limitations on medical knowledge and technology. but one history has Qianlong dying of a “severe cold” (pneumonia?), and another says Kangxi died of the same (perhaps several years after suffering an apparent stroke).

Qianlong enjoying a typical AQI 200+ afternoon in ancient Beijing

Respiratory diseases and stroke are certainly on the World Health Organization’s list of diseases that can be exacerbated by bad air. The WHO states “some 80 percent of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes, while 14 percent of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections.”

“Premature” may be pushing it here as Kangxi lived to be 68, and Qianlong made it to 88. However the median age of death for all of the Qing emperors was a relatively spritely 58.

As early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), written records indicate that Beijing’s air has been a mess. “Fog (雾) has the captial locked in, no sun for several days, all doors are hidden behind the wind and the haze (霾),” said one record Tan references.

Beijing circa 1906: Not exactly sunshine city

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the airpocalypses (霾灾) were even worse, Tan suggests. In 1721, the records from the day the results of the Imperial Exam were posted, the air pollution was terrible. “Yellow fog surrounds us in four directions, a sandy haze has blocked out the sun (黄雾四塞,霾沙蔽日). If it gets windy, the exam results banner will be damaged.”

And another, from 1856, “Since winter started there has been little snow and much fog, the tempoary capital in Changping and Wanping has strong muddy rain and hazy wind.”

Tan said that Beijing’s pollution intensified with each successive dynasty.

Due to Beijing’s position as the nation’s capital as well as its center of culture, the number of buildings has steadily increased over time, as has the population density. And because the primary mode of heating for centuries in Beijing has been coal burning, air pollution has risen with the population.

One thing that hasn’t changed through the ages is Beijing’s geography, specifically its tendency towards inversion, where smoke and other man-made pollutants can be held in place by surrounding mountains.

Add to this the occasional dust storm from the Gobi desert upwind, unpaved roads, and the distinct lack of IQ Airs (or even DIY air cannons) in the past, and you’ve got yourself a major lungful.

Image: China Daily,Takungpao

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