20100430-Qinhai earthquake daily mail.jpg
In April 2010, an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale struck Yushu County in southern Qinghai Province near the Tibet border. At least 3,000 people were killed, and 12,000 were injured, 1,000 of them severely. The quake and a series of aftershocks collapsed houses, schools and offices and left entire villages of mud-brick buildings — and sections of Yushu city — in ruins. Photos showed large concrete building were largely intact but some collapsed, with witness saying they could hear voices inside. More than 100,000 people were left. homeless.Nearly all the victims were Tibetans. [Source: Reuters]

The quake struck at 7:49 am. The epicenter of the earthquake was in the mountains that separate Tibet and Qinhai. The town of Jiegu (Gyegu), where most of the region’s 100,000 people live, was badly damaged, with the town’s main Buddhist monastery in ruins in a hillside. A local spokesman told Xinhua soon after the quake struck, “I see injured people everywhere. The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, we lack medical equipment, medicine and medical workers.” The area that was truck is fairly remote and hard to reach and the weather at the time of the disaster was still very cold with temperatures often dropping below the freezing mark.

Reuters reported that part of an office building and some schools collapsed. Some vocational school and primary school students were trapped in the rubble but residents said most were able to escape to playgrounds. A volunteer worker for the Chinese charity Gesangua told Reuters, “Most of the schools in Yushu were built fairly recently and should have been able to withstand the earthquake,” though, he added, “many homes have been damaged.” A resident said, “A lot of one one-story houses have collapsed. Taller buildings have held up, but there are big cracks in them.”

Yushu County is a remote and mountainous area sparsely populated by farmers and herdsmen. The region, pocked with copper, tin and coal mines, is also rich in natural gas. More than 90,000 people live in the county, which borders Tibet and is about a 12-hour drive from the provincial capital, Xining. The population is more than 96 percent Tibetan and overwhelmingly poor, with rural residents earning an average of $342 a year, largely from agriculture. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 14, 2010]

The prefecture that includes Yushu is located on the Tibetan plateau, and many villages sit well above 16,000 feet, with freezing temperatures not uncommon in mid-April. After the quake temperatures in area drops to 27 degrees F at night. China National Radio, citing an official with the local Red Cross Society of China, said that 70 percent of the school buildings had collapsed in the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, an area the size of South Korea that has a population of 350,000.

At least 18 aftershocks measuring more than 6.0 followed the quake throughout the day, government officials said, according to Xinhua. The affected area is part of a seismically active zone. Last August, Golmud, a city to the northwest of Yushu, was hit by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that destroyed dozens of homes but caused no deaths.

The earthquake comes almost two years after a devastating quake killed at last 87,000 people in Sichuan Province, which is adjacent to Qinghai. The epicenters of the two quakes were separated by about 630 miles and were both related to the northward thrust of the Indian Plate against the Eurasian Plate.

Victims of the Qinghai Earthquake in 2010

Most the houses in Yushu county were made of mud bricks and were crumbled easily by the quake. Many victims were crushed or choked to death by debris. The earthquake brought attention to how poverty-stricken the region is. Most of the residents were poor farmers who could not afford anything better than mud brick houses. The predominance of these houses was the main reason the death toll was so high.

The earthquake struck in early morning as people were waking up, preparing for the day, eating breakfast or heading to work. Forty-five of the 103 students in a collapsed dormitory at the Minorities Vocational School in Jiegu (Gyegu) died. Many were crushed under collapsing walls as they rushed out of their rooms. One girl — known as “lazy pig — because of her habit of sleeping in rather than going to class’survived because she stayed in bed. The girl, Song Yuhuan, was initially trapped by a collapsed wall that pinned her arm and leg. While others around screamed and cried she stayed calm, saying, “stop screaming and I’ll get out first and then I’ll help you.” She was able to do just that after shocks a few minute later allowed her to slip free. [Source: AP]

But for many of Song’s friends she was too late. Her best friend — who placed a glass of water on a windowsill for her as the quake struck — was crushed by a door frame. Another friend was crushed by a wall that fell on him as he rode his motorcycle to school. The collapse of the dormitory raised the issue of shoddy construction in China’s schools again. The quake destroyed more than a third of the school buildings in Jiegu and the most of the rest were deemed too dangerous to occupy. According to one early report 73 students and teachers were killed or missing and 684 were injured.[Source: AP]

Among those missing were 20 children buried in the wreckage of a primary school, and as many as 50 people were trapped beneath a collapsed office building that houses the Departments of Commerce and Industry, according to news reports. Xinhua quoted a teacher surnamed Chang who said 5 of the 1,000 students at Yushu Primary School had died. Buildings in our school were all toppled, Chang said. Morning sessions had not begun when the quake happened. Some pupils ran out of the dorm alive, and those who had not escaped in time were buried. [New York Times]

Survivors of the Qinghai Earthquake

But not all the news was bad. Two survivors were rescued after being trapped for 123 hours under the rubble. After that a four-year-old girl and 68-year-old woman were pulled from collapsed buildings a week after the quake. They were able to survive as long as they did because relatives used bamboo poles to push water and rice to them. Their rescue was shown over and over on Chinese television. Subfreezing temperatures decreased the survival chances of people trapped in the rubble and made things difficult for people who lost their homes.

Karsum Nyima, an employee of a local television station in Yushu, told CCTV, that Tuesday’s quake had sent people running into the streets not long after daybreak. “All of a sudden, the houses collapsed, he said. It was a terrible earthquake. In the park, a Buddhist pagoda fell down. Everyone is in the street in front of their houses. They are trying to find family members. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 14, 2010]

Sonam Dandron, a stonecutter living near Taklung monastery, told The Guardian that as the walls shook around him, he snatched up his grandson and fled their home. Without a thought for his son, daughter and other relatives, he ran to check on a revered Buddhist lama living nearby on the hillside. “I cried out when I saw he was trapped in the rubble and his leg was covered in blood. But he said 'go back and save your children',” the stonecutter recalled. Three of his young grandchildren died in the the quake. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, April 16, 2010]

Genqiu Renqin, a teacher who lives in Sichuan Province, about 60 miles from Yushu, said he felt the earth shake on Wednesday morning and immediately drove to see if relatives who live near the epicenter were safe. Almost all of their homes were badly damaged, but luckily no one was seriously injured, he said, speaking by phone from a town about 25 miles from the county seat. All the people in the area are camping out for now.

Rescues After the Qinghai Earthquake

Wu Yong, an officer in the Chinese Army, said that the road to the airport was impassable and that soldiers were digging people out from collapsed homes by hand.

State news media reported that 700 paramilitary officers were already working in the quake zone and that more than 4,000 others would be sent to assist in search and rescue efforts. The civil affairs ministry said it would also send 5,000 tents and 100,000 coats and blankets. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 14, 2010]

Workers also were rushing to release water from a reservoir after cracks were discovered in a dam, according to the China Earthquake Administration.

By the third day scores of army trucks and other rescue vehicles were arriving into the area during both day and night. Some teams had come from as far away as Southern Hainan Province. But

While residents of the tent city that has sprung up on the town's racetrack were grateful for voluntary rescue efforts, there was widespread grumbling at what many perceived as the slow response of authorities. A woman at the racetrack said: “This is not like the TV reports. They said a lot of donations are coming in, but go and have a look — people don't have any supplies.” In another sign of underlying tensions, many Tibetans insisted the earthquake had been set off by mining in the area, despite no evidence to suggest extraction can cause such tremors. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, April 16, 2010]

Many of Yushu's inhabitants left the town as quickly as they could. On the road out of Jiegu, vans and cars — some without windscreens due to quake damage — were stuffed with families and their belongings.

Taklung Monastery Destroyed in Yushu Earthquake

The earthquake in Yushu destroyed the Taklung monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist sanctuary just east of Jiegu town, and its surrounding community. At Taklung,, at least 88 of the 1,000 residents died. Most of the monastery collapsed; what remained was too dangerous teams to enter. Amid the wreckage Buddhas sat unscathed; stupas toppled over on the hillsides; and all that remained of many homes were jumble of bricks and wood that had tumbled down the slopes. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, April 16, 2010]

One survivor told The Guardian, “Of course I care about losing my grandchildren, but it's not so bad. The worst thing is the monastery. It's 800 years old, has so many treasures the monks and ordinary people all respect and protect. It is the most important thing for our lives.” Another said, “Having no monastery is like having no home.”

In an acknowledgement of Buddhism's importance to the region, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, chose Taklung for his second surprise visit to the quake zone; clambering up the rubble, before addressing the crowd gathering in its courtyard. “In these rescue efforts, monks have shown a great performance; on many occasions I have seen them saving people,” He said: “Please be assured we will not only save people and restore houses, but will do a good job of restoring your monastery.”

Burning the Bodies of Victims of the Qinghai Earthquake in 2010

Hundreds were cremated on a hillside ceremony in Jeigu attended by about 1,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks. According to AP, three days after the quake in Jiegu, “Monks in face mask set ablaze piles of blanket-wrapped bodies sin a mass cremation, as necessity forced them to break with the tradition of sky burials — leaving their dead for vultures...Hundreds of villagers sat watching on the hillside...as the flames leapt skywards... while monks chanted and prayed for the dead.”

One monk told AP, “This is very special as there are too many bodies... and we can’t have sky burials for all of them at the same time...There are not enough vultures for all these bodies, so bodies will become very dirty and that isn’t good for souls resting in peace. Therefore we think the mass cremation is the best funeral for all these earthquake victims.”

A day after the quake one monk standing before a pile of hundreds of bodies placed on a platform told Reuters, “Many of the bodies you see here don’t have families or their families haven’t come looking for them, so it’s our job to take good care of them. I’d say we’ve collected a thousand or more bodies here, Some we found ourselves, some were sent to us.”

Relief Efforts Qinghai Earthquake in 2010

The Chinese government immediately dispatched troops to the area and aid shipments from private organizations were sent from the provincial capital of Xining Buses carrying rescue workers and trucks filled with food and medicine rumbled on the 1,000-kilometer-long highway for the 12 hour journey from Xining to Yushu through sleet, sandstorms and icy winds. In the first three days after the quake only 22 planes of supplies landed at Yushu’s small airport. Many rescuers were slowed and even incapacitated by altitude sickness, at elevation of over 3,750 meters, after arrive from lower elevations.

In Jiegu, tents were set up around the statue of a warrior on a horse in the center of town and a sports stadium was made into a makeshift hospital. Inadequate medical care meant that people with broken bones had to hours and even days for attention. Tibetan Buddhist monks from al over Tibetan parts of China showed up in force to help in relief efforts, help people locate survivors, and pray for the dead. One monk told Reuters, “We were the first to help when the earthquake came. We monks are here to help the people just as much a the government.”

In Jeigu a large refugee camp sprung up next to the town’s horse track. Many survivors lived for the first few days on water and instant noodles. Over time vendors began selling eggs, soft drinks and other things in the towns. Police vowed to crack down hard on looting. Even so there were a few reports of looting and unruliness in crowds waiting for supplies and tents.

There were also reports of people with political connections and even outsiders getting their hands on relief supplies before those who needed them most. A 67-year-old woman who was on hand when police had to break up an angry crowd waiting for tents, told Reuters, “We need food, fuel, tents and water and there not enough yet. When people are so desperate, they feel especially angry if things aren’t shared fairly.” A 32-year-old survivor told Reuters., “The thing is that some people who were not affected by the quake are taking away and stealing our tents. Those people that came, later today were not able to get any tents...They are experiencing hardships in their family, some their kin died, they have no kitchen to cook, they have no tents and they have no homes.”

Premier Wen Jiabao showed up in Yushu a day after the quake and was shown on television comforting survivors and cradling a child in his arms. Four days after the quake, Chinese President Hu Jintao, who cut short a trip to South America to deal with the disaster, showed up and appeared to earthquake survivors amid heavy security and talked with rescue workers. After his appearance the pace of relief work picked up. The Dalai Lama said he wanted to visit the quake-stricken area but he wasn’t allowed.

A week after the quake AP reported: “In Jiegu, thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks picked at rubble with shovels, performed funeral rites and threw food to survivors from the backs of trucks...Relief and reconstruction work accelerated, with power and telecommunications largely restored and aid convoys arriving in droves...Convoys of military supply trucks were at a standstill, backed up for kilometers on the main road heading into town. At a supply depot set up on the town’s edge, huge stacks of bottle water were piled up outside a warehouse. More relief goods rumbled past mountainside hamlets where residents pitched government-provided tents along a two-lane highway.

The Chinese government promised to build homes and schools, Some said they thought the region might eventually emerge in better shape than it was before the quake. One ethnic Tibetan survivor told Reuters, “We hope they [the government ] can provide us with food and clothes, If the government can take care of us, then we can live a little better than before.” Others were no so optimistic. A Han Chinese who was married to a Tibetan and made $150 a month collecting herbs, said, “Life would be very difficult. All the houses here have collapsed and we don’t have any economic means to support ourselves. We have nothing. It is going to be very difficult for us.”

Tibetan Monks and the Qinghai Earthquake

Tibetan monks played a crucial role in the aftermath of the deadly quake. They were among the first rescue teams to arrive in the quake zone and distributed relief. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Throughout Jiegu, monks could be seen digging through the wreckage, sometimes in concert with the specialist rescue teams. Tenzin Yundun, the abbott of Sershul Monastery, said he had brought hundreds of monks to the area, with the support of the local government in the first 24 hours they pulled 60 survivors from collapsed buildings; soon after, they had provided 3,000 with tents and food. They had even set up a solar powered charging station, so families could use their mobile phones to reach relatives. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, April 16, 2010]

“There are some duties that only the monks can perform. Pulling their russet shawls over their heads to protect them from the grey dust sweeping across the racetrack, they chanted together in front of a truck. Its back was piled high with shrouded corpses; close by stood another dozen cars, their boots open to reveal more bodies wrapped in blankets or encased in mud...Normally the monks would prepare the bodies for a sky burial. But the vultures are glutted, they explained, and will eat no more. Instead, the lamas said they would cut the corpses into pieces and feed them to the fish in a big river.”

Tserang Woeser,a Beijing-based Tibetan activist and blogger, said “A lot of Tibetans in Yushu trust the monks more than the rescuers sent by the government. There are more people lining up for help at relief delivery spots set up by the monks than those set up by the PLA soldiers.” Woeser said the monks were a very important source of spiritual support for Tibetan victims.

The Dalai Lama said that he was eager to visit the quake zone in Qinghai, where he was born. The Foreign Ministry avoided commenting on his appeal, with spokeswoman Jiang Yu saying China now had enough rescuers. “Currently there are enough rescuers. Food and clothes are continuously arriving,” she said. “At the same time, the government has fully respected the customs and beliefs of the inhabitants.”

Tibetan Monks Ordered to Leave Yushu

Many Tibetan monks who rushed to quake-devastated Yushu prefecture in Qinghai to help with the rescue and recovery effort were ordered by the authorities to leave about a week afte rteh earthquake occurred, prompting concerns over a tightening of government control, according to the South China Morning Post. [Source: Ng Tze-wei in Jiegu, Qinghai and Kristine Kwok, South China Morning Post, April 21/2010)

The exact extent of the order was unclear last night, with only monks from monasteries in Ganzi prefecture in neighboring Sichuan confirmed to have been affected. Some said all monks not based in Yushu had been told to leave. Monks from monasteries in Yushu continued to enjoy the same degree of freedom they had before.

Yeshe Dawa, the Communist Party's United Front chief in Ganzi — a predominantly Tibetan prefecture in Sichuan — visited Yushu and told monks from Ganzi to return home because space was needed in Yushu to accommodate people made homeless by the quake. “We don't want to leave. But we do not dare to say no to the order,” said living Buddha Juechi, from the Sangzhu Monastery in Ganzi. He estimated that about 2,000 monks from Ganzi had left Yushu after the order was given.

Officials from the local religious affairs administration also visited monks to persuade them to leave. Woeser said the heads of many monasteries based outside Yushu had received orders to pull out. “Blocks have been set up on roads leading to Yushu and monks are no longer allowed to enter Yushu,” she said.

Ceremonial master Suodagu, from the Serda Wuming Buddhist Institute, said, “I feel very disappointed. Everyone should be allowed to help in a disaster like this. We are not just average volunteers. As monks, there is much that we can do here.”

The withdrawal order came after Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference chairman Jia Qinglin, fourth in the Communist Party hierarchy, said that extra efforts should be made to ensure unity and stability in the quake zone because some “overseas hostile forces” were attempting to sabotage relief efforts.

Improvements and Money Spent After the Yushu Earthquake

Reporting from Yushu, four years after the earthquake there,Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “Gazing out over the gleaming heart of this resurrected city, the young Buddhist monk marveled at how quickly the Chinese government had rebuilt his hometown. In addition to thousands of new homes, dozens of schools and handsome, granite-faced government offices, the city is graced by an exuberantly modern performing arts center and a hulking Tibetan art museum fit for the cover of Architectural Digest. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 21, 2014]

“Natural disasters can challenge even the most capable and affluent of nations, but the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that flattened this geographically isolated trading hub has tested the Chinese government’s ability to marshal labor and construction supplies in one of the world’s most inhospitable places. Perched at more than 12,000 feet on the Tibetan plateau and battered by long, punishing winters, Yushu is a 17-hour drive from the nearest city of any significance, Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai. Those not felled by altitude sickness en route are often incapacitated, albeit briefly, soon after they arrive.

“Beijing has spent $7.2 billion on the city’s reconstruction so far, according to the state news media, relying on 100,000 contract workers to clear debris, lay waterlines and build new houses and high-rise apartment blocks that have been trimmed with colorful Tibetan flourishes. Given that most of the victims were ethnic Tibetans — Yushu Prefecture is 97 percent Tibetan — the disaster provided Chinese leaders an opportunity to show its munificent side to a citizenry often at odds with its Han-dominated government.

“Before the earthquake, the city was a thriving trading hub for the region’s Tibetan pastoralists, but government planners have reimagined Yushu as a tourist attraction for Chinese seeking to experience the fetishized mystique of Tibetan culture. The new city is flecked with museums, although none have opened yet. On the edge of the city, past banners and billboards hailing the central government’s rebuilding effort, is an earthquake memorial that features a crumpled building preserved under a glass canopy, and a Socialist-style sculpture of muscled rescue workers and grief-stricken victims. “Challenge the limits,” an inscription says. “Be grateful and strive forward.”

“At the Jiegu Monastery, parts of which are thought to date from the 14th century, the monks were hesitant to criticize the government and preferred to highlight prospects for hope amid so much loss. Tenzen, one of the monastery’s chief lamas, said many city residents had become more devout and more generous to the monastery. In the hours after the quake,the crimson-robed monks were among the first to claw through the rubble looking for survivors. As hundreds of bodies were delivered to an open pavilion at the base of the monastery, the monks offered prayers for the dead and comforted the living. “People are more kind to each other now,” Tenzen said, as a group of young nuns dragged construction debris to a raging bonfire.

Problems and Injuctices After the Yushu Earthquake

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “The largess has inadvertently aggravated the animosities that have long bedeviled Han-Tibetan relations, and the reconstruction’s systemic corruption has favored the well connected over the disenfranchised.” Behind the reconstructed town, “hugging a dusky hillside, the collection of unfinished temples and dormitories of Jiegu Monastery told a different story. The monk said Chinese construction crews disappeared one day after money for the monastery’s reconstruction dried up. With the authorities largely unresponsive, hundreds of monks and nuns resigned themselves to living in the bright blue disaster relief tents that arrived in the weeks after the quake struck. “The government solved the immediate needs of sleeping and eating, but we hope they can finish the job they started,” said Jamyang, 27, who has lived at the hilltop monastery since he was a boy. “There are some people feeling neglected.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 21, 2014]

“In interviews over four days many Yushu residents were especially vocal about inequities in the distribution of new housing. Government employees and Communist Party members, many said, had ended up with several new apartments each, while ordinary households with up to a dozen family members were squeezed into cramped, three-room apartments. “The tragedy of the earthquake became an opportunity for the powerful and the greedy,” said Kunchen Norbu, 52, a trader of semiprecious gemstones, whose neck was ringed with turquoise, amber and red coral beads, a traditional form of Tibetan currency.

“An elderly Tibetan couple said the government had confiscated their plot of land, including 13 quake-damaged rental properties, and provided them with a single 850-square-foot home for their two children and a 10-year-old granddaughter orphaned by the disaster. “We relied on the income from those homes to support our family,” said Beizan, a retired government employee originally from Sichuan Province, adding that he lacked the political connections to fight back. “I guess we are out of luck.”

“Authorities bulldozed several Tibetan-owned brick factories in Yushu at the behest of Han kiln owners who were reportedly unhappy with the competition, according to Radio Free Asia. “Tibetans are not the only ones who feel shortchanged. Han business owners complain about skyrocketing rents, erratic power supplies and a dearth of customers. The tourists and businesses that residents hoped would materialize after the rebuilding have not appeared. The difficulty in luring qualified professionals to the city means that the new 400-bed Yushu Prefecture People’s Hospital is struggling to fill 600 job vacancies, according to the state-run Xinhua news service. Another common complaint, especially among downtown merchants, is the lack of public bathrooms, a planning oversight they said had turned parts of the city into open-air toilets.

“In interviews, many Han business owners did not hide their animus for the city’s Tibetan residents, who they described as lazy, unhygienic and ill mannered. Nie Yun, 34, a Han restaurant owner from Sichuan who moved here before the quake, complained that locals had little money to spend and were largely unappreciative of the government’s actions. “They get a free apartment but are never satisfied,” he said. “They think the Communist Party owes them.”

“Then there are the hundreds of laborers, plumbers and construction managers who were lured here by substantial government subsidies but were marooned after the promised money failed to materialize. The co-owner of a construction company that rebuilt 80 housing units and a Buddhist temple in Yushu said she was still waiting for more than $480,000 from the government, more than 20 percent of the cost of the construction. Local officials, she said, told her they had already distributed all the funds sent by the central government. With more than 100 of her former employees and scores of suppliers still unpaid, she lives in fear of being attacked by creditors and rarely goes outside.

Image Sources: Taken from various sources on the Internet, Qinhai earthquake from China.org and the Daily Mail

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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