Tianhua (天花), literally meaning “heavenly flowers”, is the Chinese term for smallpox. This term is visible in one of the very faded Chinese inscriptions in the Wharf Precinct of the North Head Quarantine Station. That a disfiguring and often fatal disease like smallpox can be likened to a flower is no accident. It is based on the discontinued Chinese practice of variolation – as distinct from the Western practice of vaccination – where smallpox was planted as a seed (“miao“) in the human body, usually that of a child, to trigger the onset of a milder form of the disease, which would then render the variolated person immune to the deadly forms of smallpox. When the pox appeared on the skin as a result of the planting of the seed, it was as if the disease had flowered (Chang, 2013, pp. 157-158). Even the Qing royalty was not exempt from this practice. However, variolation sometimes resulted in full-blown smallpox developing instead, and death came knocking on the door.
Coming back to North Head: in the best known Chinese poem inscribed on a Wharf Precinct sandstone wall on site, written by Xie Pingde in 1917 (the year of Dingsi), the first character in the first (vertical) line is tian (天) with the character immediately following it having already weathered beyond visibility; the third character in the same line is yang (洋), which can mean either “ocean” or “Western”. Can the invisible character in between be hua (花), which would mean that smallpox is the first thing that Xie referred to in his existential inscription? The second line of the poem refers to his fear of catching an unnamed infectious disease.
No author has looked at the Xie poem this way before.
Chang, Chia-feng. Variolation, in Hinrichs, T J and Linda L Barnes (ed.), Chinese medicine and healing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013, pp. 157-158.