At 2:28 pm on May 12, 2008, a catastrophic earthquake measuring 7.9 or 8 on the Richter scale struck Sichuan Province, just north of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Dujiangyan, killing around 87,000 people (with 69,000 accounted for and another 18,000 unaccounted for) and injuring more than 374,000. The quake destroyed or damaged more than 15 million homes, left 5 million to 10 million homeless. displaced 1.5 million and caused more than $20 billion in damage. It was the worst earthquake and disaster to strike China since the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. It occurred about three months before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and came just 10 days after the a devastating cyclone hit Myanmar that killed tens of thousands of people there.

Chinese and the scientific community refer the quake as the Wenchuan earthquake, named of the county where the epicenter was located. Thirty times more powerful than the earthquake that devastated Kobe, Japan in 1995, the Sichuan earthquake lasted for about 80 seconds and caused the ground surface to shift about seven meters near the epicenter of the quake. Mountains broke part. Villages were wiped of hillsides. Rivers changed course. Bridges collapsed and pavement buckled. Entire mountainsides were sheered off. Whole towns were wiped out. Highways were ripped apart. Rows of buildings were destroyed. Landslides blocked roads and buried entire villages and towns. Forests were reduced swaths of mud and rock. A powerful aftershock on May 27, toppled 420,000 more houses,

The force of the earthquake was felt over a large area. People felt string shaking in Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan which are over 1,500 kilometers away. In Xian, about 750 kilometers away. seven terra cotta soldiers were damaged. At first the earthquake was rated as 7.8 on the Richter scale and then up graded to 8 by Chinese geologist and 7.9 by Japanese and American geologists. After seeing the destruction first hand, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said. “The damage is greater than that caused by the Tangshan Earthquake. This is the most destructive earthquake since the People’s Republic of China was found [in 1949] and has affected the widest areas.”

The official July 2008 toll of casualties was 69,181 dead and 18,498 missing and 374,171 injured. The number of missing continued to rise as more families of migrant workers reported the disappearance of loved ones. As of November 2008, 18,000 people were still listed as missing. At that time the first of the thousands of people listed as missing was declared legally dead. Family members of the missing were anxious to have them declared dead so they could collect on insurance, compensation and inheritance claims. More than 5 million people were left homeless by the quake. Many spent two years or more living in temporary housing. The Chinese government estimated that the total direct financial loss from the earthquake was $123 billion.

Websites on the Sichuan Earthquake: Images of the Sichuan Earthquake ; CNN Reports ; BBC Reports / ; New York Times Articles ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; School Investigator Jailed ; Films: “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province”. Du Haibin’s “1428" is a stringently unsentimental record of the Sichuan earthquake’s aftermath;

Schools Hit by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

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.

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.

Heros and Survivors of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

Jiang Yuhang was rescued 124 hours after he was buried alive under the rubble of a collapsed dormitory in Yingxiu. He realized quickly that conserving energy was key to survival. He only shouted for help when he was sure someone was searching for him, and tried to sleep the rest of the time. A month later he was picked to carry the Olympic torch.

A third year middle school student at a school in Dujiangyuan in which of about 100 of the 420 students died, was honored for bravery. Even though he suffered a head injury he rescued four classmates trapped in the ruble and carried his class teacher on his back to an ambulance.

One of the most famous survivors was a pig later nicknamed “Strong-Willed Pig” who survived for 36 days in the rubble of his owner’s collapsed home. His image adorned T-shirts and property development advertising and dozens of websites sprang up to honor him. Many of T-shirts sold had an image of the pig with the words: “I am strong-willed.”

“Strong-Willed Pig” was found by an army rescue team seaching for valuables of earthquake victims. He lost two thirds of his weight and survived by drinking rainwater and eating charcoal in the storeroom he was trapped in. After he was rescued he continued eating charcoal as the vets that took care of him said it would take some time for his system to be weaned off of it. His notoriety helped earn him a pardon from the butcher’s knife. A pen set up for him at a museum became a tourist attraction.

Of the survivors, around 4,000 were orphans.

People Rescued After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

An 80-year-old bedridden man was rescued after 11 days from his collapsed house in Mianzhu, north of Chengdu. He was able to survive such long because his wife was able to get him food and water through the rubble, An elderly couple, 92 and 84, trapped in cottage near the top of the holy Taoist mountain Mt. Qingcheng, were rescued after 12 days. They were carried by foot from the mountaintop in stretchers.

A 31-year-old man was pulled from the debris of a wrecked hydroelectric plant eight days after the earthquake. The rescue took 30 hours. Two women were rescued after seven days from the rubble of a collapsed building at a coal mine,

A slightly-bruised man was pulled from a collapsed hospital in Beichuan 139 hours, almost six days, after the earthquake. Eight hours before another man had been found alive in Beichuan. A man rescued after 100 hours had to have an arm and leg amputated at the site to free him.

Some were less than impressed by the rescue effort. One man in Dujiangyan told the Yomiuri Shumbun. “For a while I could hear people [buried in the debris] crying for help, but police officers didn’t even attempt to offer assistance. Instead they just sealed off the area, The Communist party has been useless.”

Survivors of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake in Beichuan

Yang Chun was in his hometown of Piankou when the earthquake hit. His future wife Xue Ying was in Bieichuan when the quake struck. Brook Larmer wrote in the New York Times magazine, “It had taken him two days to hike the 40 miles across mountains gashed by landslides to get back to Beichuan. He searched hospitals, stadiums and refugee camps, hoping to find his wife and son alive. He lifted the covers off dozens of swollen corpses pulled out of his son’s collapsed school. It was too much to take, Yang told me. He threw himself down on the rubble and wailed, God, you are too cruel!” [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

“More than a thousand people were crawling across the wreckage the day Yang arrived, all sobbing and shouting out the names of loved ones. Xue was there, too...looking for her 35-year-old fiancé in the rubble. Now she wondered if the dead weren’t better off than the living. It was her fourth day wandering through the wasteland, clawing at the debris with bare hands. Her parents and brother were nowhere to be found (they turned up alive on the fifth day), and she knew, deep down, that her fiancé could not have survived the landslide that buried his home under a hundred feet of earth and cement. Xue stopped digging. Her lover was dead, and so, too, were their dreams of starting a family together.” Beichuan was declared a mass grave, leaving thousands of unrecovered bodies under the ruins.

Runaway Teacher Escapes from the Sichuan Earthquake

In contrast to the numerous stories of heroic deeds performed by people during the Sichuan earthquake, high school teacher Fan Meizhong has openly admitted he abandoned his students and ran away when the earthquake hit. In his blog, Fan admitted he fled his quickly without thinking of his senior high school students and found himself alone in the school's playground. Later, the rest of the class arrived and some asked him why he had left them alone. None of his students was injured in the earthquake. [Source: Candy Zeng, Asia Times, July 18, 2008]

Fan’s confession generated a lot of chatter on the Internet, much of it critical of what he did. He was disqualified by the Ministry of Education (MOE), although his action violates no existing rules. Subsequently, the MOE has reportedly revised the moral code for teachers with a demand that they put students' safety first in dangerous circumstances.

Later, Fan defended himself on the Internet: “I am a person that seeks [personal] freedom and justice, but not the kind of person that puts [other] people first and is willing to sacrifice himself. In this fleeting moment of life and death, I could only consider sacrificing myself for my daughter. I would not care about any other people even including my mother, under these type of circumstances.” This in turn set off an Internet debate about the personal freedom and community obligations and what students should be taught in school.

Fan apologized on various occasions - including the Phoenix TV live debate - to his students, but many couldn't forgive him. The spokesperson of the MOE, Wang Xuming, told him: “You can be ignoble, but you shouldn't be shameless.” Wang also denied that the new moral code for teachers was amended because of disputes over Fan's confession, saying the revision was the result of continuous effort since 2004.

Strong-Willed Pig, Sichuan Earthquake Survivor

Perhaps the biggest celebrity to emerge from the Sichuan Earthquake was a pig that survived on charcoal and rainwater for 36 days while trapped under debris after the quake. According to China Daily the pig was trapped in a collapsed farm shed and emerged weighing 110 pounds, down from its pre-quake weight of 330 pounds. State media honored the as the country’s most inspirational animal for 2008. [Source: Mark McDonald, New York Times, December 22, 2008]

The China Daily said the farmers who owned the pig sold him for the equivalent of $430 to Fan Jianchuan, the owner of a private museum in the ancient town of Anren, near the city of Chengdu. Fan put the pig into a livestock exhibit at the museum and gave him a new name — Zhu Jianqiang, meaning Strong-Willed Pig. According to some state media reports, the pig was even given a 10-year life insurance policy.

Fan, a real estate developer, started his museum in 2005 to commemorate Chinese troops who fought the Japanese in World War II. But he has since added other patriotic and inspirational exhibits, including a memorial to the Sichuan earthquake victims. Among the items on display are a dusty school backpack, a child’s stuffed green frog, a photograph of a dead child’s hand still gripping a pen. However, the star attraction, according to the state media, has been Strong-Willed Pig.

Strong-Willed Pig was voted China’s most inspirational animal in a poll on Red Net, an online forum and news site, according to China Daily. The other spots in the top 10 went to six dogs, a bird, a turtle and a cat, the newspaper reported. China Daily said this was the second straight victory for a pig: Last year’s winner was a sow that fought off a butcher trying to slaughter its husband.

According to the China Daily celebrity status has spoiled Strong-Willed Pig. One of his handlers, quoted by the newspaper, said the pig had become cranky, fat and lazy, unwilling even to walk around his pen or raise its snout for pictures.

Homeless Survivors After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake


More 5.47 million people were left homeless, 5 million were evacuated and 11 million people were housed in camps. Many of them had little other than the shirts on their backs. In the days after the earthquake people camped outside out of fear of aftershocks but hard rain fell in many places, making finding shelter imperative, Many survivors used bricks collected from the rubble to make cooking stoves to make instant noodles, their main source of food.

A great effort was made to get survivors food, water and tents. China desperately needed tents to house those made homeless by the quake and tents were the main things that Beijing asked from international aid agencies. Many remote areas were unable to get the supplies they needed in a timely fashion. Survivors from remote villages approached foreign reporters a week after the quake and told them that no supplies or help had reached them.

Evacuees lived in tents or makeshift shelters. Some had no choice but to seek shelter in buildings made dangerous by the earthquake. The heavy rains raised concerns about outbreaks of disease. One survivor told the Yomirui Shumbin, “I don’t have a problem getting food as I can get relief supplies provided by the government but it’s awful when it rains because I don’t have a tent I’m worried about the hygiene situation when it gets hot.” Along side a road that connects the cities of Deyang with Shifag white-and-blue tents for 30,000 people stretched for nearly two kilometers. Many of the occupants had walked 20 kilometers or more from the nearby mountains to reach the camp.

Evacuation centers were set up in open spaces in affected cities and towns. Many lacked sufficient medical equipment and hygiene control. There was a severe shortage of toilets, creating a sanitation problem and a potential breeding ground for disease. Water was running a few days after the quake in many places but it was reportedly too contaminated to drink.

Sixteen days after the earthquake 40 half-starved survivors were rescued by helicopter from a remote village, 20 kilometers from the nearest town. Their escape routes had been cut off by landslides and they survived on rice and wild herbs,

Response to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

An emergency disaster relief headquarters was set up within hours of the quake. It directed relief efforts. About 90 minutes after the quake Xinhua news service released an “important directive.” President Hu Jintao said, “Save the injured as quickly as possible and do everything possible to ensure the safety of people in the earthquake-hit area.”

Politburo meetings were held to organize the rescue effort. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, a graduate of the Beijing Institute of Geology, was on a plane to the quake zone within two hours after the quake occurred. After arriving he was very visible, visiting devastated areas, talking to experts and comforting survivors. Hu Jintao also made the rounds. He was show rallying relief workers and comforting children. While on the plane bound for Chengdu, Wen said, “The Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council [Cabinet] have asked officials at all levels to be at the forefront of efforts to deal with aftermath of the earthquake and lead the people in their rescue work.” The headquarter of People’s Liberation Army gave orders to the Chengdu-base army, air fore and armed police to “apply full force and might” in rescuing earthquake victims.” Comparisons were made between the quick response in China and the sluggish response to the cyclone in Myanmar.

A survey of quake survivors by the Horizon polling company found that people generally “did not connect the earthquake with God or retribution.” Even so some saw the earthquake as a “mandate from heaven” in the same way that Mao’s death only months after the Tangshan earthquake was seen as a “mandate from heaven.” Some Buddhists suggested that maybe the quake resulted from bad karma created by things like pollution of mountain streams. Other made connections between the quake and the riots in Tibet and events in their personal lives such as quarreling with a person the day before they perished in the quake.

Media Coverage and Film on the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008

There was 24 hour coverage of the earthquake on Chinese television. People watched and collectively cheering when children were pulled alive form the rubble and paratroopers jumped into remote areas and collectively shed tear when they listened to interviewers with shell-shocked survivors and parents who lost their children. This was a remarkable change from 1976, when 240,000 people were killed in the Tangshan earthquake and most Chinese heard hardly anything about it and were not informed of the scale of the disaster.

On the first day of the earthquake the government issued an order to the news media not to send reporters to the stricken area and only report material given to them by the government. These orders were widely ignored and the government was forced to loosen up their control on the coverage of the disaster. Within a few days officials were helping foreign reporters get to some of the worst damaged areas and set up interviews with survivors.

Some mourning ceremonies were carefully choreographed for the media. During one such ceremony mourners were given detailed instructions by CCTV and told when to dig through the rubble and when to offer silent prayer. There were also reports of troops being called from rescue duty to greet Prime Minister Hu Jintao when he arrived in the quake-stricken area.

Most Chinese it seemed were pleased with the government’s response to the quake as it was presented in the media. Internet chatter was mostly positive. People were especially impressed by the way Premier Wen Jibao showed up so quickly to direct rescue efforts. Some of the converge was negative. Some newspapers ran stories that were critical of the relief effort, saying help arrived too little, too late.

Two documentaries — "1428," (2009) shot by Hong Kong director Du Haibin, and "Who Killed Our Children", made by Chinese director Pan Jian-lin — focused on the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 69,000 people and left about 4.8 million homeless. "1428" is an award-winning documentary that explores how victims, citizens and government respond to a national tragedy. It is a stringently unsentimental record of the Sichuan earthquake’s aftermath. Du depicts a world in chaos, both material and moral. “Without judgment but with a deep compassion for their subjects, the filmmakers of 1428 bring us a myriad of individual stories of absurdity, confusion and grief.”(Cherise Fong, CNN). Du’s film won the Orizzonti prize for Best Documentary at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, but was banned by Beijing from being shown in public places.” Du arrived in Beichuan the hardest-hit town, ten days after the quake, and began filming the stunned reactions of the villagers, the horrific damage to homes and livelihoods, and the torments that official media coverage overlooked.

Impact of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

After the crackdown in Tibet and disturbances of the Olympics torch relay generated a lot of bad feeling between China and the Western world, the Sichuan earthquake evoked a lot of sympathy. The help offered by the international community produced feelings of goodwill by Chinese, even by some of the most ardent nationalists, towards the international community. The media was full of coverage of the quake.

Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: “The year 2008 was meant to be China’s coming-out party as a superpower. After intense lobbying and setbacks, it had won the right to host that summer’s Olympics, and had lavished money on new architectural landmarks and an extravagant ceremony. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, May 9, 2018]

“But the year started badly. A series of snowstorms in January killed scores of people and crippled the country’s infrastructure. Then, in March, riots broke out across Tibet against Chinese control. That spread internationally, disrupting the iconic Olympic torch relay, which had begun on Mount Olympus in Greece and was to end with the Games’ opening in Beijing. Routes were changed and shortened; in Paris the flame was even extinguished. Many Chinese seethed at the unfolding debacle.

“The earthquake stopped these disputes in in their tracks. In addition to the terrible death toll, the quake had injured more than 374,000 people and left some 5 million homeless. The sheer scale of the tragedy united China and temporarily silenced critics.

“It also presented the country’s leadership with the chance for a needed reset. Within ninety minutes of the quake, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, was on a plane to Sichuan. The government mobilized 130,000 soldiers and paramilitary police, while the Communist Youth League reported that, within a week of the disaster, it had 200,000 volunteers active in the mountainous region. These were the familiar actions of a competent, authoritarian state, but something else happened, too.

Image Sources:, Xinhuanet, Wikipedia, USGS, YouTube

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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