It is remarkable that, in spite of its perception as a principal host of plague, the rat is very sparsely represented in the global photographic record of the third plague pandemic (1855-1959). In China itself photographs of rats during the outbreaks in Hong Kong and mainland China are even more rare. By contrast, sylvatic hosts of Yersinia pestis, mainly Siberian marmots, were systematically photographed in the course of the pandemic. So much so, that it is the latter rather than rats which account for the majority of visual representations of plague vectors in the photographic record of the disease not only in China but across the globe. This paper seeks to account for this disparity in medical visual representation, by examining the photographic record of animal hosts of plague in China within its global visual and epistemological context. The paper will argue that the representation of Siberian marmots was not simply quantitatively more pronounced to the one of rats, but also bore significant qualitative differences, which I will frame in terms of different biopolitical trajectories and regimes of epidemiological aesthetics.
A talk to be presented at the conference Animal Histories in Human Health: Comparative Perspectives from East Asia, 1850-1950 at the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, Hong Kong University, March 26-27 2015.
Christos Lynteris, University of Cambridge