“The 23 seconds of the earthquake were probably the most concentrated instant of destruction humanity has ever known,” writes author James Palmer. “In Tangshan alone it did more damage than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, more damage than the firebombings of Dresden or Hamburg or Tokyo, more damage than the explosion at Krakatoa.”
For most non-Chinese, little is known about the Tangshan disaster. In his new book, The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China, Palmer seeks to change that. The quake that occurred at 3.42am on July 28 1976 was a truly devastating event. The best estimates put the death toll at 650,000, with a wide swathe of surrounding countryside literally flattened.
“Across Tangshan there were nearly 11 million square metres of living space; 10.5 million square metres of it collapsed,” writes Palmer. “In the centre of the city, less than 3% of the buildings survived.”
In fact, the quake was so powerful that in Tianjin – 100km away – 10% of buildings collapsed and tens of thousands also died.
At 7.8 on the Richter scale, Tangshang was not the biggest ever but the speed, timing and placing of the quake made it devastating, says Palmer. The epicentre struck at the heart of a poorly-constructed industrial city, in the middle of the night. And the energy released by the seismic wave was comparable to 400 times that of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan, say the author.
In fact, many Tangshan residents initially thought the impact was the result of a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, with whom tensions were fraught. The first question of one survivor, pulled out of the rubble in the early morning was “Did we win the war?”
Palmer – who lives in Beijing – offers a plethora of survivor tales. “You wouldn’t believe how fast it was,” recalls one. “There wasn’t even enough time to get from your bed to the doorway.”
Li Hongyi, a nurse in the No. 255 Hospital, was working the nightshift when the earthquake struck. She heard a sound that was “like a knife cutting through the sky”. Having experienced a quake a decade earlier, she had the presence of mind to run outside, grabbing hold of the trunk of a tree. The entire hospital collapsed behind her. Li and her tree fell into an open pit.
Other survivors commandeered a vehicle to drive to Beijing and let the government know what had happened. The mayor of Beijing, Wu De was among those who listened aghast. He had previously been Party secretary of Tangshan and, trying to assess the extent of the damage, used a building built by the British as his point of reference. When he heard that it was gone too, Wu immediately knew the destruction was complete: “Tangshan is gone, just gone…”
Incredibly, the carnage might have been even worse. That’s because dam walls at the nearby Douhe reservoir were threatened with rupture soon after the quake hit. Had they broke, the city’s surviving residents would have faced a torrent of water. To prevent this, the local army regiment spent eight hours opening a 50-tonne gate to let water out into an adjoining spillway, an exercise which Palmer calls “an astonishing feat of physical endurance and communal spirit”.
Of course, the rescue effort wasn’t just about saving lives. It was also about the economy. Tangshan was home to one of China’s biggest coal mines. Ensuring that it didn’t flood was a government priority – and getting the mine working again was a top priority for local officials.
The book describes many incidents of heroism, as people helped each other to survive. Few at the time got to hear these stories, with the newspapers offering a diet of propaganda instead. Two days after the earthquake, the People’s Daily told the story of Che Zhengming, a senior cadre in Tangshan whose son and daughter were buried as their house collapsed. The girl cried out “Dad, save me!” but the newspaper pointed out that Che knew his priority was to retrieve the local Party chairman from the ruins of a nearby apartment.
Palmer’s acid comment: “While he was digging him out, his own children died. The article praised his political commitment.”
Indeed, the book makes clear in its title that the disaster was also a politically-charged event. In the past the deaths of great emperors and the passing of dynasties were thought to have been signalled by earthquakes. In the summer of 1976 Mao Zedong was dying; his number two Zhou Enlai had died earlier that year.
The book also uses the Tangshan tragedy to tell the story of Mao’s final years and the subsequent jockeying to replace him. For those who don’t know much about this period of history The Death of Mao is a pacy, well-written primer covering the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the cult of Mao, and the rise and fall of the Gang of Four.
Even for those who know more about the era, there are still stories that stun. A couple of examples bear mention. Palmer describes how an incident of public farting in Niulang in early 1976 led to the responsible man being charged as a counter-revolutionary. His family were then investigated and a phantom rightist conspiracy was concocted. By now the remote village was caught up in an advanced state of Maoist paranoia. What started as a passing of wind led to a purge that saw 1,300 arrests, 263 people tortured and 32 executions.
A second example: the bursting of the Banqiao Dam in 1975, which illustrates just how much China has changed. Today, news of a disaster (like last year’s bullet train crash) quickly spreads, primarily via weibo, China’s powerful Twitter-equivalent. The Banqiao disaster resulted in 26,000 deaths (almost all fairly instantly, by drowning) while 150,000 more fatalities followed in subsequent famine and epidemics. But Mao was intensely proud of his dam construction programmes. So the disaster was swiftly hushed up, says Palmer, receiving no news coverage. “Even now, most Chinese have never heard of it,” Palmer goes on. “To get a sense of how strange this is, imagine that a natural disaster had killed, adjusting for population, 12,000 people in the UK in 1975 – and almost nobody knew about it today.”
Today Tangshan has been rebuilt, but is no longer as economically-important as it once was. Awareness of its tragedy has, of course, been reawakened by Feng Xiaogeng’s blockbuster film about the quake, Aftershock (see WiC70). The city has also erected a memorial – a wall – to commemorate those that perished in the tragedy. Palmer went to visit it: “Like everything in China, it was big, far more overwhelming and much less intimate than its original model, the Vietnam Wall in Washington… But the wall is, as far as I know, unique; it’s the only memorial of a major disaster in China which lists the names of every known victim.”
It is 300 metres long.
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