Disasters

Why commemorate the Tangshan earthquake?

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An editorial in today's China Daily trumpets the indomitable spirit of the people of Tangshan and the rest of the country:

Tangshan, an industrial city in northeast Hebei Province, has not faded like Pompeii as some Western media predicted.

People in Tangshan did not go to pieces in the disaster. Supported by the rest of the country, they showed their strength and determination.

To some extent, it is this determination, and not the tragedy itself, that is being commemorated today.

The Economic Observer, which ran several features on the Tangshan earthquake in May, noted that while a memorial to the earthquake rescue effort was set up by the city government on anniversary in 1986, there is as yet no memorial to the victims of the catastrophe apart from a brief note on the pillar to the effect that 240,000 people were crushed in the debris. A local college, Hebei Polytechnic University, has a memorial, but the town itself doesn't.

The only serviceable commemoration available now is run by a private company, the Huaying Group, which charges 800 to 1000 yuan as a "labor fee" to etch names of the deceased into a granite wall. Says the company:

"This is a project authorized by the government and operated by business; it's not purely a commercial action. This kind of thing — commemorating the Tangshan earthquake — who would dare to do anything without the government's permission?"

And speaking prior to the anniversary, the mayor of Tangshan said, "The bitterness of the earthquake catastrophe can be forgotten, but the spirit of fighting the earthquake will pass from generation to generation."

It is this willingness to let the tragedy recede into the mists of history that has some people concerned. Han Song writes on his blog about a possible Tangshan Earthquake Conspiracy:

Did the Tangshan Earthquake Really Happen?

by Han Song

Did the Tangshan earthquake really happen? For 30 years I've been wondering about that event. During the past 30 years, I have seen many memoirs written about the Tangshan Earthquake, but none has me completely convinced.

There is no live footage of the earthquake from Western media

From today's perspective, the entire course of the Tangshan earthquake lacks one essential record that disasters of this type must have: detailed, objective news reports. Circulating today are mostly reminiscences of so-called Tangshan earthquake survivors. You might ask, didn't the People's Daily and the Xinhua News Agency have reporters on the scene? But who is going to believe the Cultural Revolution-era People's Daily and Xinhua News Agency? The reports at that time cannot withstand analysis from a strict journalistic standpoint. At the time of the Tangshan earthquake, there was probably not a single news reporter on site who had undergone rigorous training and who had international impartial recognition; no professional western news organization was on the scene. Considering from a journalistic perspective all of the news reports about the Tangshan earthquake, none holds up today.

To date, what has impressed me most among what has been written about the Tangshan earthquake is Mr. Qian Gang's The Great Tangshan Earthquake (唐山大地震). But this is just reportage literature, not a piece of news, and it was written ten years after the Tangshan earthquake. In 1976, Qian Gang was only 23 years old, and he had not received any sort of training in journalism. He was simply an educated youth who went to Tangshan as part of an epidemic prevention brigade.

As adults, however, we have learned from thirty years of real experience (perhaps not merely these few years) that what we see is not necessarily the truth of the matter, and memories are not necessarily true stories — in China, there has been too much of this! As a people, lying has become too habitual!

Large quantities of Chairman Mao statues unharmed

Because they unavoidably carry too much post-earthquake subjective color, the memories of those who supposedly personally experienced the Tangshan earthquake seem too exaggerated, too lacking in detail; narrative outweighs description, and emotional expression outweighs factual reporting, so that Tangshan becomes a fog, growing more and more distant.

For example, one classic narrative says that after rescue workers arrived at Tangshan, they found corpses hanging from ruined buildings wherever they looked. But few people have written in detail where this happened, in what buildings, and what the corpses were like, and there have been no such photos released. Someone else who arrived in Tangshan after the disaster wrote that among the ruined buildings stretching off to the horizon were multitudes of white objects glittering in the fierce summer sun. The white objects were all at the highest points. It turned out that they were various kinds of Chairman Mao statues that had been unearthed from the rubble. Some were standing and saluting, others were busts, some were dressed in military uniforms and wore hats, while others had no hat and wore traditional Zhongshan suits....truly a wonder the world had never seen before. Then, if Tangshan was completely razed but all of these Chairman Mao statues were preserved unblemished, isn't this like something out of science fiction?

I have also read the following account in many places: rescuers saved every note, every receipt, and every bit of cash from the ruined banks until a complete audit could be made, and it turned out that when the books were compared, not a single cent was missing! Even the coins that fell to the ground or were buried in the earth were accounted for. This is an unbelievable outcome. It's like that famous fake national news story: an old man had a stack of money blown out of his hand by the wind; everyone on the street helped him look for it, and when it was returned to him, no only was there none missing, but he had one note more.

Armed police in 1976!

Looking back, people say that before the Tangshan earthquake, there were all those animals and other natural things that made an early escape. However, not only was there no warning of the earthquake, but Hebei Province even had six earthquake experts in Tangshan conducting an inspection. It was said that in the end not a single one escaped — they all died in the earthquake. Did they really die in the earthquake? What secrets did they take with them? In addition, with high temperatures in the 30s, and with all of those corpses in advanced states of decay, there was no epidemic. In Tangshan, which had undergone the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and which was the site of repeated military clashes and disasters, there was no looting or rioting post-earthquake. Even prisoners in the jails observed the rules — this is difficult to imagine. If you do not give a good summation for all of this on the thirtieth anniversary, if you do not give a complete accounting, then how can you expect people born in the 1980s and afterward to believe that there was such a great earthquake?

There is another classic episode that turns up in many memoirs: Four hours and eighteen minutes after the Tangshan earthquake occurred, Li Yulin and three other miners crawled out from under a ruined building, and after overcoming many difficulties, drove to Beijing to report on disaster conditions. They drove straight to Zhongnanhai and were stopped by armed police at the Xinhua Gate (see A Personal Record of the Great Tangshan Earthquake by Feng Jicai and Chen Jiangong). But as we all know, it was only in 1982 that the central government decided to turn over responsibility for internal security from the People's Liberation Army to the police departments, which joined uniformed armed police, frontier guards, and fire brigades to make up Chinese People's Armed Police Force.

Rescuers' death list missing

In all of the reports about the Tangshan earthquake, not one mentions how many soldiers died in the earthquake. The memorial to the effort against the Tangshan earthquake reads, "...240,000 villagers perished in the rubble..." Isn't this an interesting omission? Given the position of the PLA at the time, if any soldiers died during rescue, not only would this not have fallen through the cracks, but there would have been whole volumes written about it. But lots of people say that in the People's Government, and in other departments and brigades, they have not been able to find records of soldiers who sacrificed their lives.

Why was the death total of the Tangshan earthquake not disclosed until three years later? Was this, like one Xinhua reporter said, obtained through efforts made during a work meeting on the earthquake? At the time, such an important piece of data was perhaps still considered a state secret, but the paperwork was not even sent to the censors. Was China's news sector so open such a short time after the Cultural Revolution? Was the director of the research department at the State Earthquake Bureau who authorized the disclosure of the information so ignorant of politics?

Southern People Weekly reported that today we can see many photos of the great Tangshan earthquake, with nearly all of them "buildings destroyed in the earthquake" — but the people? The people who died, or who were injured? They can hardly be found.

What is it that can cause people to no longer believe in anything?

The Tangshan earthquake actually resembles a sort of "Preface Paradox." That is, if a major work contains at least one mistaken proposition, then you cannot reasonably believe that any proposition in the work is true.

However, what has me confused is not whether the Tangshan earthquake truly happened or not; what worries me is after these 30 years, what is it that is more powerful than an earthquake, that can change a person from believing everything without question, to never believing in anything at all? Can you convince a Chinese person who does not even believe in the Tangshan earthquake to believe in anything at all? And what reason does this Chinese person have to continue to work at living in this world?

I sometimes wonder: what if the earthquake truly occurred on 28 July, 1976, but not at Tangshan. At that time, what if it was Beijing that met with complete destruction? And Mao Zedong did not pass away on 9 September, but earlier, on 28 July, in the earthquake. But to avoid plunging the country into chaos, the central government kept the death a secret, and the earthquake, in external announcements, was changed to Tangshan.

Then, where did this Beijing that now is preparing for the Olympic Games come from? Simple. It is a copy in silicon. Those of us who are still living are merely the memories of one corpse after another, extracted and stored in a computer, raving back and forth as electrons. Time stopped on 28 July, 1976. The world has already been destroyed. But the capitalist corporations of the world desire the existence of such a large market as China to help them sell their products and make money, so they have given the Chinese people rebirth in virtual space. This is just what Frederick Pohl predicted in The Tunnel Under the World.


In response to comments, Han adds:

In fact, you only have to compare the commemorative books published at the tenth anniversary to those published at the 30th, and you'll find that the writing gets more hazy the further out it goes. The facts are less and less clear, more and more hazy. The Tangshan earthquake increasingly seems like a shared phantom of everyone's imagination. And this is also what some people hope.

Copy-edited 2010.07.29 --JM

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There are currently 12 Comments for Why commemorate the Tangshan earthquake?.

Comments on Why commemorate the Tangshan earthquake?

Amazing, but there is already a conspiracy theory about the Tangshan earthquake...that is was man made! Google "Tangshan" and "Tesla" for relevant links.

Not being lazy I just don't know how to link out of Danwei posts.

Now I can understand why there are Holocaust deniers.

BTW, there WERE Western reporters on the scene. A Danish television journalist described how she and her fellow delegates escaped in a China Daily article. (Of course, since it was carried in China Daily, it must be fake.)

Raymond is spot on. This piece by Han Song is utter piffle, I'm surprised an intelligent site like Danwei is giving it the time of day. The earthquake happened, fact, and China Daily published some beautifully and sympathetically written pieces, which lacked the trumpeting of that rather crass editorial.

The problem was that the pieces failed to tell the whole story: how thousands more died than needed to due to poor rescue equipment and medical supplies, and the refusal of international aid. I'm sure the writers wanted to include this, but sadly even 30 years on certain people are unable to disconnect themselves from events so obviously out of their control.

This negativity must end soon.

We all have our reasons, PS - I make no apologies for enjoying Han Song's writing. You are correct about other CD articles - Mr. Zhou's piece in the China Daily (http://chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006-07/28/content_651566.htm ) was nicely done, and there have been other good pieces circulating this month, too.

Thanks for the info about the Danish crew, RZhou - we can add that to a TangshanTruth.org site to combat the crackpots.

It seems that once again people forget that Chinese people do actually have a sense of humor.

I too was surprised that you chose to reprint this. I love good satire and envy those who can do it well enough to provoke laughter or reconsideration of a view on any subject. Han Song seems to have provoked only hostility.

It is suspicious that they have an "anti-earthquake memorial": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:AntiEarthquakeMemorial.jpg

Indeed, it's rather good satire. And to be fair to the usually wretched Chinese media, Shanghai Daily, which is getting rather bold and has earned my respect, said:-

"The death toll was kept secret for three years and then was revealed in 1979 by Xinhua reporter Xu Xuejiang."

They then run a related story about how hard it was for this enterprising reporter to do so. China Daily is still too pusillanimous and boastful for even this measure of honesty.

Surprised that so many are missing the point of the article. The author is not saying there was no earthquake.

See 'The Gulf War did not take place' by Baudrillard to get a clearer fix on the point that is being made

I think the earthquake did happen and I think it is very bogus that you think it didn't because there were seismic graphs picking up the signals. Just because they didn't have some dumb reporters there doesn't mean it didn't happen. Seeing is not always believing, believing is seeing.

I am absolutiely disgusted by your attitude towards this whole tragedy Mr Han Song! The TangShan Earthquake really did happen do you think that thousands of people would die for no reason, well think again. Get out from under the rock that you live in and open your eyes!!!

Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, had a field day with intellectuals who concocted theories out of thin air. Holocaust deniers of the same thing. They don't seek truth weight of the weight of the evidence and opinion, they just find a to stack the deck in favor of their ideology.
For anyone who wants a real story and opinion, try: Chen, Beatrice. (2005). “Resist the earthquake and rescue ourselves:” The reconstruction of Tangshan after the 1976 earthquake. In L. Vale & T. Campanella (Eds.), The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster (pp. 235-254). London. Chen is fan of the Chinese government and displays remarkable sympathy for the victims. And by the way, she visited Tangshan as part of her investigation. Another excellent source is: link. The Caltech group are geologists. I've read the literature, I'm in the field of disaster management. Tangshan was one of the most horrible disasters in human history. Equally remarkable, and more importantly, the response of the Chinese people (and government) was one of the great disaster responses in history, an amazing preview of the response to the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008. I look forward to 2058, when some one sitting in a rocking chair will flout some nonsense that the Wenchuan earthquake never happened.

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