Monday, April 26, 2010

A Chinese Earthquake

Lacking both access to blogspot (censorship) and my flashdrive (misplaced), I have failed to post. I hope this gets things started again.

Earthquakes have been in the news. A couple of weeks ago there was an earthquake in Yushu county, Qinghai. Before that, lest we forget (it has been awhile…), Haiti shook with devastating consequences. All of this seismic activity inspired my academic interest, and since I live in Xi’an, I thought I should dig through the libraries to briefly introduce the most horrific quake in world history. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present an earthquake that has kept me awake at night fearing every indication of an impending tremor, The Hua County Earthquake of 1556.

Late at night January 23, 1556, the people of the Shaanxi central plain were asleep. Some of them lived in cave houses, carved into hills and cliffs, other lived in houses made from brick and mud. It doesn’t seem to have mattered what they lived in, because the 8.5 magnitude earthquake that struck at about 2AM shook the strongest foundation.

The epicenter of the earthquake was in eastern Shaanxi, centered on the regions around Tongguan and Puban. City walls collapsed, as did mountains. Deep chasms opened up, swallowing entire households. A contemporary estimation of the number of individuals killed is around 800,000. In some cities and counties over 70% of the population died, in Xi’an, around 30% perished. Tremors were felt through over 90 counties, and extended from Gansu Province in the west to Shandong Provincein the east.

But, rather than bore you with the germane details of the event, I will, as usual, provide a translation. Below is a partial translation of an account called Dizhen Ji, or Record of the Earthquake, written by a survivor, Qin Keda. (To the right: The Little Goose Pagoda in Xi'an lost its three top stories in the quake)

“On midnight of the thirteenth day of the last month of winter during the 52nd cycle year during the Jiajing reign there was an earthquake in the central plain. It was an earthquake of the likes which has never been recorded in any histories. That night, I was startled from my dreams by a violent shaking. My body was tossed helplessly about the bed, and nearby it sounded as though someone were knocking over my furniture. Ceramic roof tiles were crashing loudly, it all sounded as though a myriad of horses were charging through.

At first I thought I was being robbed, next I though that there were demons or evil spirits. Then, in the next moment, the wall my head was against suddenly collapsed. I started to realize it: this is an earthquake. I saw the moon was obscured by dust. I urgently wrapped my robe about me and got out of bed. My body wobbled as though I were drunk, and my feet couldn’t find solid ground. There was an empty spot to the south of my house. I rushed [for it] frantically, exiting through the hole in my wall. When I reached it I saw that my mother, my brothers, and my nephews had all reached there first. Safe and sound, they said, “We were shouting for you, didn’t you hear us?” At that time all the houses were collapsing. The sound enveloped me, stuffing my ears. I couldn’t hear anything. Much less someone shouting!

Past the fourth watch the [tremors] strength still increased. It sounded like thunder everywhere. It was very fearful. By the fifth watch things settled slightly and I could begin to hear sounds of crying from all around. My family was fortunate, no one was hurt. But because we were anxious about our relatives, we had someone go seek those we were most worried about. Fortunately, they were all safe.

In the predawn light, I saw that the earth was painted with cracks running in every direction. Over half of the houses were leaning or collapsed. As for the walls surrounding houses, only one or two out of every ten was still standing straight. People came and went crying and they ran about frantically like wasps who had lost their hive. After noon no one had eaten, our ovens and utensils all having been suddenly destroyed. Even all of our grain was buried, covered by earth.

Soon after, before around 3 PM, there was an uproar and a string of shouts. People were saying that the Aerduo Hui (Chinese Muslims) to the Northeast of the city were rebelling. People were fleeing fearfully. I thought about it, and it seemed like a wild rumor. In truth, there was no Hui uprising. But alas, the hearts of the people are so easily stirred up!

In the countryside beyond the suburbs, some residents of villages that had meet with disaster were lucky enough to flee and temporarily take refuge in the provincial capital. But as for those who lived in cave houses and valleys, in most cases whole families were crushed to death. It was very rare for someone to have made it out.

With regard to the details of the earthquake’s occurrence, it spread from Tongguan and Puban, exploding outward like an angry wave dispersing in all directions. Thus it went in every which way, expanding slowly, and so, there are disparities in the damage sustained in each affected region. It is impossible to know how far it went. In the west of my province and onwards it gradually weakened, from the east of my province and onwards it gradually strengthened to reach its full force in Tongguan and Puban.

Where the earthquake was weak homes and walls merely slanted a little, but where it was severe, everything completely collapsed as soon as it began. Where it was weak people could be saved and they could flee for refuge, but where it was severe, even though there were those who were lucky enough to survive, the were mostly all dug out of the rubble. For instance, in Weinan one of the city gates into the ground, in Hua Zhou the whole city wall now leans precipitously. In places such as Tong Guan and Pu Ban their full city walls collapsed. In such places all of the people’s homes and the official residences and everything else, it can be reasoned, collapsed.

There were large numbers of people who suffered misfortune. In Tong [Guan] and Pu [Ban] around seventy percent of the population died. In Weinan, around fifty percent died. In Lintong, around forty percent died, and in Xi’an, around thirty percent died....