More than 9,000 schoolchildren and teachers were killed by the Sichuan earthquake. They accounted for 12 percent of the total number of victims. The quake struck in the early afternoon when most students were at their desks, and young students were taking a nap. More than 1,000 students were killed at the Beichuan Middle School in the city of Mianyang. A total of 6,900 school rooms collapsed.

Yang Juan, who was studying math with her 34 classmates at Jiyuan Middle School, about 50 kilometers from the epicenter, told AFP, “My math teacher reacted very fast. She told us to rush down the stairs and out into the open. No one was hurt,” Moments after Yang got out a large part of the five-story school building collapsed on itself. “I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I felt Ike I was in a dream.” Many didn’t make it out. Hundred of bodies were pulled form the rubble.

In Chongqing, hundreds of kilometers from the epicenter, two school buildings collapsed. A teacher told the Yomirui Simbun that at one the schools “a building for the first- and second-graders — was hit. “The right and left sides of the building collapsed and students who failed to escape died.” Fortunately the building took three of four minutes to collapse and most students made it out alive,

For weeks after the quake anxious parents gather around collapsed school buildings waiting to find out the fate of their children. Those that were told their children were killed wailed loudly and burned incense.

Websites on the Sichuan Earthquake: Images of the Sichuan Earthquake ; CNN Reports ; BBC Reports / ; New York Times Articles ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; School Investigator Jailed

Poorly Built Schools and the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008

The news services estimated that about 9,000 to 10,000 of the 88,000 dead were schoolchildren. In mid 2009, the Chinese government finally provided its tally of the number of schoolchildren that died in the earthquake. It said 5,335 students were killed, a number much lower than what news services were reporting. The earthquake destroyed 7,000 classrooms. Some schools were completely flattened, in many cases while buildings that surrounded them were hardly damaged. Other government buildings and schools that served the elite and children of Communist officials were damaged but remained standing and few people were killed or badly hurt in them.

Parents complained the schools were made of shoddy materials and an investigation was launched into why so many schools collapsed when other buildings remained standing. One parent told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I can see only dry sand on the surface [of the bricks and blocks]. Something is wrong with the concrete components and that might have been why the building was so weak.” Others blamed school policy. Two hundred died in the town of Wufu at Fuxin No. 2 Primary School, where teachers had locked all the but one of school’s doors during break time, allowing only a single escape route.

In Beichuan, a middle school collapsed, killing about 1,000 students and faculty members. When asked how she felt about allegations of shoddy construction a parent of a dead student at the school told AP, “Of course, I’m angry. The school was badly built, Nothing else around here collapsed.” Photos of the “tofu dregs” schools that collapsed shows reinforcement rods barely as thick as a pencil and concrete that crumbled like charcoal. The use of low-grade cement and inadequate steel reinforcements was at best a dubious way to save money and at worst an irresponsible way to line the pockets of corrupt officials.

Film: “Unnatural Disaster: the Tears of Sichuan” is a documentary by City University of New York Prof. Peter Kwong that examines the school building damage and the suffering of parents who lost children.

Official Student Death Toll in the Sichuan Earthquake

In May 2009, provincial officials released the first official tally of student deaths — almost 14 months after the quake occurred — saying that 5,335 children had been either killed or remain missing. Another 546 were left disabled, they said. Previous estimates placed the number of students who died in the collapse of school buildings as high as 10,000. Overall, government officials say that 70,000 people died during the May 12 Sichuan quake, and another 18,000 are listed as missing but are presumed to be dead.[Source: Andrew Jacobs and Edward Wong, New York Times, May 7, 2009]

According to the official media, 7,000 classrooms collapsed during the quake and another 14,000 were damaged. Although the central government initially promised to investigate why so many schools fell while surrounding buildings remained intact, they have yet to release any results. In the past, provincial officials have blamed the high death toll on the quake’s intensity, not flimsily built schools. During a news conference in the city of Chengdu, Tu Wentao, head of the provincial education department, insisted that the student death figures were accurate. These numbers were reached through legal methods, he said. We have wide agreement on these numbers.

In November 2008, a government official said the final student death toll was 19,065 — more than double previous estimates and one that would suggest that a quarter of earthquake victims were schoolchildren. What initially seemed like a stunningly frank admission that the earthquake’s toll on children had been even more horrific than anyone imagined later was retracted with the government saying the 19,065 applied to the number of positively identified victims not the number of dead students. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, November 21, 2008]

Investigations of Poorly Built Schools after the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008

Official investigations were launched into the collapse of 10 schools in the city of Shifang Investigators checked blueprints and inspection documents and took samples of steel and concrete. In other places apparent cover ups were the order of the day with the rubble of schools quickly being bulldozed away after the quake, implying case closed, before investigators had a chance to take a careful look.

In September 2008, The Chinese government said that a rush to build schools may have led to construction flaws that caused the buildings to collapse and said the main reason for the high number of collapsed schools was a lack of reinforcements in columns that supported classrooms. Engineers blamed poor urban planning and a lack of enforcement of building codes. One engineer told AP that in devastated Pingwu County schools were constructed near a river bend on unstable beds of sinking and shifting sands that shake particularly hard in earthquakes.

The middle school in Juyuan where nearly 300 students died was built with prefabricated slabs of concrete and the main classroom building was built parallel to fault lines, causing it to shake violently during the quake. The building parallel to the fault collapsed while an adjacent one perpendicular to the fault remained standing.

Many other schools across China were deemed unsafe and in need of repairs and shoring up. In December 2008, the Chinese government imposed stricter building standards for schools to make them more resistant to earthquakes.

In the end not much came of the investigations. No one was prosecuted or held accountable for the collapsed schools. A report issued four months after the earthquake stated the obvious about the schools: shoddy construction and the nearness of the schools to faults contributed to their collapse. Officials insisted they had found no evidence of negligence or corruption. The general message of the investigations and whole reconstruction effort seemed to “don’t look back” and focus instead on rebuilding and the future.


Reporters, Films, Activists and Investigations of Poorly Built Schools

Human rights groups condemned the Chinese government for putting its energy into silencing criticism rather than carrying out thorough investigations and punishing those responsible for the shoddy construction. Huang Qi, a human rights advocate who helped parents of children killed in the quake and published articles about structural problems in the schools, was arrested on charges of “illegal possessing if state secrets” in June 2008 and sent to prison.

Tan Zuoren, an author and environmentalist, investigated the deaths of thousands of children who died in the Sichuan Earthquake. He was detained in March 2009 after he spoke with foreign journalists about the quake and the shoddy construction of schools and was put on trial for subversion related to these investigations and his essays on the Tiananmen Square crackdown. All his defense witnesses were barred from entering the court during his trial on August 12, and one, In February 2010, Tan was sentenced to five years in prison on unrelated charges that many suspect were politically motivated.

Liu Shaokun, a school employee who took photographs of collapsed schools and posted them on the Internet, was sentenced to a year in a labor camp. Zeng Hongling, a retired teacher, who wrote essays criticizing the government’s earthquake response and blamed corruption for the shoddy school construction, was detained on charges of inciting subversion.

Some Chinese news organizations took a relatively aggressive approach to the issue of the school collapses, even though the central government ordered the news media to stop any such reporting. Foreign journalists trying to interview parents were detained and had equipment broken by security officers. A reporter for the Financial Times was punched on by a thug, possibly a security officer in plain clothes, while conducting interviews around Mianzhu. After he and his colleagues retreated to their car, they were surrounded by a dozen hostile men, one of whom tried to punch a Chinese news assistant. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Edward Wong, New York Times, May 7, 2009]

Huang Qi, an activist in Sichuan, was detained for speaking to foreign journalists about the protests by the families of schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan Earthquake. He was tried behind closed doors beginning in August 2009. In November 2009, he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of illegally possessing state secrets. Huang’s wife said the decision was an act of “revenge.”

“Who Killed Our Children?” by director Pan Jianlin is a documentary that asks tough questions about a school collapse in the rural town of Muyu, in northern Sichuan. It was shown at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea in late October 2009 and has attracted intense scrutiny from the central government. Pan told Reuters, people contacted his relatives and friends to urge that they press him to stop his work.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog on the Sichuan Earthquake

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So sorry exhibition poster
The artist Ai Weiwei has used his blog on to criticize the government for its handling of the Sichuan earthquake and assembled a list of the names of children that died in poorly-built schools. After the quake, Ai used the Internet to assemble scores of volunteers who combed the disaster area, compiling a list of dead children, organized by age and school. All of them belonged to about 20 schools, whose buildings collapsed. Within a month after the earthquake he had gathered 5,010 names and drew enough attention to goad the government into compiling its own list and launch an investigation into shoddy school construction.

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “As China’s official news channels broadcast upbeat videos of earthquake rescue operations, Mr. Ai was in Sichuan making his own films of the destruction, talking with distraught parents of dead or missing children and using his widely read daily blog to accuse the Sichuan officials of financial corruption that resulted in structurally faulty schools. His accusations of a cover-up extended to the highest levels in Beijing.

Wei Wei’s blog with the Sichuan earthquake victim list was closed down on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square’s anniversary. In Chengdu, Ai was blocked from testifying on behalf of another activist Sichuan Tan Zuoren in August 2009. He was beaten about the head by police who raided his hotel and suffered a hemorrhage a month later as a result of the blows. At the time Ai exhibited an "installation" in Sichuan: a public list of more than 5,000 children killed by a 2008 earthquake.

Ai Weiwei, was punched by police and put on trial for a number of reported crimes. His a court case in the southwestern city of Chengdu was reportedly conducted so badly that his lawyer burst into tears.

China Admits Flaws in School Construction

In December 2008, government officials acknowledged in the most definitive report at that time since the Sichuan earthquake that many school buildings across the country are poorly constructed and that 20 percent of primary schools in one southwestern province may be unsafe. [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times, December 26, 2008]

In a rare government admission of substandard school construction, the Ministry of Education report called on the central government to finance the reconstruction of vulnerable schools quickly, especially those in rural areas and western parts of China that are seismically unstable. Speaking about the report, Lu Yongxiang, vice chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said in an interview with the China News Service that Beijing would increase construction subsidies by 25 percent to 150 percent, depending on the region.

Lu was quoted as saying that nearly 2.5 percent of all primary and middle schools in China have structural problems and 90 percent of these schools were in rural areas and the earthquake-prone west of the country. The China News Service report singled out Yunnan Province, just south of Sichuan, as having some of the most structurally unsound schools. It said 20 percent of the province’s primary schools and 11 percent of its middle schools were structurally unsound.

In September 2008, a Chinese government committee that a rush to build schools during the country’s recent economic boom might have led to shoddy construction. The statement by Ma Zongjin, the chairman of an official committee of experts assessing damage from the May 12 earthquake, is the first time that a representative of the Chinese government has acknowledged that poor construction may have led to school collapses. [Source: Edward Wong New York Times, September 4, 2008]

At a news conference in Beijing , Ma said more than 1,000 schools suffered from at least one of two major problems: they were built on the fault line and collapsed like many other buildings around them, or they were poorly built. “This second problem is the construction quality of the building itself — its structure is not completely sound or its materials are not very strong, which is possible,” Ma said. Recently, we’ve built school buildings relatively fast, so some construction problems might exist. When the teams from the central government showed up in the quake zone, some local officials wanted to exaggerate to them the intensity of the earthquake so that poor construction or corruption would not be blamed for building collapses, Ma said. Some officials also wanted to report greater financial losses in their areas than what had actually occurred to get more aid money, he added.

Parents and Protests Related to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times,"Critics say the crackdown by the government on grieving parents of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was one of the worst abuses of human rights in recent years." “But of course we’re angry,” Tian Wenyao, the mother of a 12-year-old boy who died in the collapse of Xinjian Primary School in Dujiangyan, said in June 2008. “Who wouldn’t be angry? In the morning, my child said to me, “Mama, I’m going to school.” In the evening, he turned up a corpse.” Ms. Tian was among a group of mothers who had peacefully protested in front of government offices only to have the police break up the demonstration and drag away some parents. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times August 21, 2011]

Liu Xiaoying, 34, lost her 12-year-old daughter, Bi Yuexing, when a school she was in collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. A local official fell to his knees, apologized and promised a full investigation into shoddy construction when a group of angry parents confronted him several weeks after the quake. Liu wanted the central government to do the same. In January 2009, she joined nine other sets of parents in traveling for two days and two nights on trains, buses and taxis to evade local police from Sichuan province as the group made its way to Beijing to meet with officials from the Ministries of Education and Construction. The government representatives in Beijing made a show of listening to their concerns, she said. “We have lost our child, and there's nothing left we'd be afraid of now,” she said.[Source: Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, March 28, 2009]

In the town of Wufu, where 127 students died in Fuxin No. 2 Primary School, one resident told AP, “Police from Deyang came to our town and warned us not to gather. The police met our parent leader and said if we gathered, it would be a criminal act and we’d be arrested.” Before that residents of the town traveled to Deyang, the nearest big town, and marched to government headquarters carrying pictures of their dead children.

In Dujiangyan, police dragged away more than 100 parents protesting the deaths of their children in poorly-built schools. The parents, many holding pictures of their lost children, were pulled away from a courthouse, where they had gathered, chanting, “We want to sue.” Their children attended a high school in nearby Juyuan where 270 children died. Afterwards one local official said, “This was not a riot! These people were just disrupting society...The government will solve their problems.”

In Hanwang, parents were interrogated by police for 12 hours after staging a protest. Some, including a pregnant woman, were beaten. Parents who refused to sign the compensation contract were detained. In a meeting parents were told that the school collapsed solely because of the earthquake and that was that.

Harassed Parents of Children Who Died in the Sichuan Earthquake

As parents grew more persistent in their protests, the government became more aggressive in its efforts to keep them quiet and the media at bay. News coverage was banned. Parents were told to keep quiet. Some destroyed schools were cordoned off to prevent protests by parents. Parents who tried to sue or petition local and central authorities were detained or warned about speaking out. Activist groups and lawyers that have tried to help them out were arrested. Reporters visiting the area were harassed, detained and physically threatened.

The parents of 126 children who died in Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in the town of Mianzhu have been among the most outspoken — and among the most watched by the government. Sang Jun, who lost his 11-year-old son in the disaster, told the New York Times that dozens of parents are now being watched by about 200 officials and security officers and had told that any contact with foreign journalists was considered unfavorable to China.[Source: Andrew Jacobs and Edward Wong, New York Times, May 7, 2009]

The parents from Fuxin had filed a lawsuit against government officials and a construction contractor, asking for $1.1 million in damages and a public apology. A judge at the Intermediate People’s Court in the city of Deyang rejected the lawsuit, saying the court was hamstrung by government directives. Sang told the New York Times that a half-dozen people, mostly village officials, had been watching his home. He said people are being paid 150 reminbi per day, or $22, by the local government to watch the school site and roads leading into the village.

A group of parents from Mianzhu secretly traveled to Beijing and filed a petition on at the central government’s petitioning center. It was the third time parents from Mianzhu had tried to file a complaint in Beijing. Employees at the petitioning center immediately notified officials in Mianzhu, who then had people in Beijing detain the parents and escort them back to Sichuan Province, Sang said. After he parents arrived back in Mianzhu they were immediately forced into a hospital and told they would be checked for swine flu, Sang said.

In December 2008, a lawsuit demanding an apology and compensation from the school system and local authorities filed by parents of 58 children who were crushed to death in a collapsed school was dismissed by a Sichuan court.

Paying Off Parents after the Sichuan Earthquake 2008

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Free Tan Zuoren protest
The Chinese government used various methods — threats, money, police muscle — to quiet, intimidate and placate parents of children crushed by collapsing schools. Local officials felt so threatened by the parents that they ordered the riot police to break up protests — officers even dragged away crying mothers — and offered the parents compensation money in exchange for their dropping their demands.

Parents of 240 students who died at the high school in Hanwang were coaxed into signing contracts in which they received a cash payment and pension — in most cases around $8,800 in cash plus a $5,600 pension — in return for their silence. The parents were told if they didn’t sign they would get nothing and they were threatened with beatings and other punishments. The father of a dead girl and the leader of parents group told the New York Times he initially refused to sign it but “when I saw that most parents had signed it, I signed it myself.” Similar offers were made to parents of students that died in other collapsed schools.

Part of the agreement read: “From now on under the leadership of the party and the government, we will obey the law and maintain social order...We vow resolutely no to take part in activity that disturbs, post-earthquake reconstruction.” Other sections praised the Communist party. The father of a dead 17-year-old who signed it said, “Most of the parents now feel tried of this. There’s a Chinese saying: the people sue the government and the government doesn’t care.”

The government gave compensation parents who lost their childrenonly after they signed a pledge to obey the law and maintain social order — an implicit warning against ever raising the issue again. Describing how compensation worked for one victim, Brook Larmer wrote in the New York Times: “In January2009, a month after returning to the province from his aunt’s house, Yang received $8,800 in government compensation for his son’s death — and another $1,460 for his wife. When he spent the cash on a secondhand S.U.V., the trade seemed ghastly: his wife and 7-year-old boy for a Mitsubishi Pajero. He bought the car to start a new business shuttling people across the mountains to his home village, Piankou. [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

Many parents signed but said they were still furious at the local governments for not carrying out any proper investigations. Around the same time, several governments began bulldozing the remnants of collapsed schools, closing the door on any chance to collect further evidence. Huang Lianfen, the aunt of an 18-year-old boy who died in Hanwang, said parents met with local officials to demand more compensation. But the officials refused to give more money and said the collapse of Dongqi Middle School was solely because of the earthquake. [Source: Edward Wong New York Times, September 4, 2008]

Schools in Sichuan and Yunnan After the 2008 Earthquake

More than 5,000 of the 80,000-plus victims of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan were schoolchildren, crushed to death when their shoddily-built classrooms collapsed around them as the tremor struck. According to AFP: Amid the grief, furious accusations of shoddy construction, corner-cutting and possible corruption were aired against those responsible for building school structures that crumbled while those used by government officials stood firm. No-one has been prosecuted over the Sichuan casualties. [Source: AFP, August 6, 2014]

A 6.1-magnitude quake in the neighbouring Yunnan Province in August 2014 badly damged schools in Longtoushan and made it clear that despite government efforts to improve the situation the problem was no solved. "I feel afraid returning to school," Zheng Chuanchao, 17, told AFP as he plucked his class photograph from the ruins. "Another earthquake could cause the building to collapse," he went on. "I think all pupils at our school feel the same. We all remember the terrible earthquake in Sichuan." The Yunnan quake killed more than 400 people, but by sheer chance wreaked its havoc during China's school holidays and thus no students were hurt.

China rebuilt 3,340 schools after the Sichuan disaster in 2008. While new teaching rooms have been erected in many Chinese schools, some poor rural areas maintain older buildings for other purposes, and the Longquan structures were used as dormitories for students from rural areas outside the town. The quake reduced them to rubble — and had it struck during term time, many students would have been using them.

“Newly built five-storey classrooms, put up in 2011, suffered only minor damage, but Zheng said he did not trust them. "It is better that we built these new classrooms, but I am not sure if they could withstand a more powerful earthquake," he said. Schools damaged by the 2008 Sichuan quake were labelled "tofu schools", “Zheng's schoolfriend Li Guiyong pointed at the huge mound of rubble. "This is what was meant by a tofu school," he said.

Image Sources:, Xinhua

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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