20080317-tanshan1976 32.jpg
Damage from the
Tangshan Earthquake in 1976
On average, China experiences 18 earthquake of magnitude 5 or higher on the Richter scale each year. In 2008, the year of the devastating Sichuan earthquake, there were 25 tremors of magnitude 5 or higher. Sichuan and Yunnan Province and Xinjiang get struck by a lot of earthquakes. Gansu, Shaanxi and Qinghai Provinces also get hit fairly often. The destructive Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 wasn't very far from Beijing.

Earthquakes that have occurred in China fairly often and have been characterized by their seismic intensity, shallow epicenters and wide distributions. More than 800 earthquakes of magnitude 6 or more occurred in China in the 20th century. Between 1900 and 2000, over 550,000 people died in earthquakes in China and China accounted for 53 percent of the total earthquake casualties in the world during that period. Between 1949 and 2000 more than 100 destructive earthquakes occurred in China, with 14 of them in East China. These earthquakes killed more than 270,000 people and accounted for 54 percent of the total death toll caused by natural disasters in China. Earthquake stricken areas cover an area of 300,000 square kilometers and more than 7 million dwellings have been destroyed by earthquakes. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Websites and Sources: Historical Earthquakes in China ; Wikipedia List of Earthquakes Wikipedia : Tangshan earthquake Photos ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia

Earthquake Geology of China

Situated on the edge of the "Ring of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean and affected by an earthquake belt in India and squeezed by the Pacific plate, the Indian plate and the Philippine plate, China has many faults and its seismic fracture zones are well developed.China lies entirely on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate but the Tibetan region in the southwest sits at the boundary of the Indian and Eurasian Plates. This area, which influences Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces and Xinjiang is prone to earthquakes. Eastern China and Taiwan are influenced by the Pacific Ring of Fire earthquake belt. Tibet, Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Xinjiang are influenced by the earthquake belts that shakes the Himalayas, Nepal, Pakistan and India.

Many earthquakes in Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan are linked with movements along the plates that created the Himalayas. At the Himalayas, the Indian subcontinent rams into the Eurasian plate, . Since both continents are too light to subduct, the older heavier Indian crust wedges under Eurasia and thrust up the high plateaus and massive folds of the mountains range. India was south of the equator 30 million years ago and pushed north. An estimated 1.4 million people, mainly people living in remote areas, were severely affected by the devastating May 2008 earthquake. Government official Fam Xiaojian, told Xinhua” “In many counties, the hard-won anti-poverty achievements in the previous two decades disappeared within seconds. The damage is so massive and many farmers have reversed back into poverty again.’

The seismic activities of China mainly take place in the 23 seismic belts in five areas:
1) Southwest areas including Tibet, the wester part of Sichuan province and western and central Yunnan province.
2) Northwestern area, mainly Gansu province, Hexi Corridor, Qinghai, Ningxia and Tian Shan Mountain areas.
3) Northern part, including the Taihang Mountains area, the basins of the of Fen river and Wei river, Yin Mountain area of Inner Mongolia, the Yan Mountain area of the North China Plain, central Shandong and Bohai Bay.
4) Southeastern coastal areas, including Guangdong and Fujian provinces
5) Taiwan and nearby sea areas. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Areas in China Struck by Earthquakes

Earthquakes have occurred in almost all the provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions except in Guizhou, Zhejiang and Hong Kong. The remote area of north Sichuan close to Tibet is prone to earthquakes. One in 1933 resulted in parts of Diexi town becoming submerged by a nearby lake. The 8.0 magnitude Wenchuan county earthquake in central Sichuan’s in 2008 killed nearly 90,000 people.

Yunnan gets its share of tremors. On 3 February 1996, a 6.6 magnitude quake occurred there, causing death for 322 people and injuring over 16,000. About 358,000 homes were completely destroyed and over 654,000 others were damaged. Gaopo in Zhenxiong county of northeast of Yunnan is a temperate province known for its tobacco industry and Pu'er tea. But its mountainous areas are prone to landslides and earthquakes. Two quakes in September 2012 — one of magnitude 5.7 — left 81 dead and hundreds injured. A neighbouring county was hit by a landslide in October that killed 18 children, after one that killed 216 people in 1991, according to the United States Geological Survey.[Source: AFP, January 13, 2013]

Xinjiang in western China experiences earthquakes too. On 24 February 2003, a 6.4 magnitude quake in Southern Xinjiang killed at least 260 people and injured 4,000. It was recorded as the deadliest earthquake of the year worldwide. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Seismic fault lines also run north to south through the eastern region of China and the Manchurian Plain. Some places here, including Beijing, are densely populated and earthquakes that have struck here have been devastating. In July, 1976, Tangshan, about 165 kilometer (102 miles) east of Beijing, was hammered by an earthquake resulting in more than 500,000 deaths. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Earthquake History of China

The Chinese started recording earthquakes in 1831 B.C. or in 780 B.C. in the Zhou Dynasty depending on the source. In the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), the direction of the epicenter of earthquakes was determined by a six-foot-wide bronze caldron circled with eight frogs at the bottom and eight dragons at the top. When an earthquake struck a ball dropped from a dragon and fell into the mouth of one of the frogs, showing the direction from which the quake arrived. A device activated by a pendulum triggered the ball to fall. The caldron was kept at the Bureau of Astronomy and Calendars. The Chinese were using seismographs to measure earthquakes around A.D. 1000. The Chinese also invented methods of construction that allowed building to sway and not collapse in an earthquake. Today China has 10,000 earthquake scientists and 100,000 amateur observers.

Five Earthquake Active Periods in the 20th Century
Period — dates — Number of earthquakes above 7 magnitude — Number of the deaths
The first period — 1895-1906 — 10
The second period — 1920-1934 — 12 — 250,000-300,000
The third period — 1946-1955 — 14 — 10,000-20,000
The fourth period — 1966-1976 — 14 — 270,000

Earliest Records of Earthquakes in China

The earliest records of earthquakes in China are found in the “Book of Historical Documents”, a collection of ancient texts written on bamboo slips that dates to the 5th century B.C. It describes the prehistoric emperor of China ordering Xiahou to conquer the Miao people. Xiahou experienced an earthquake in Miao lands in the 23rd century B.C. according to the book. This is the earliest record of an earthquake in China. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

The famous Chinese classical age philosopher Mozi (died 391 B.C.) appears to have described the same earthquake taking in the 23rd century B.C. in the southern part of Shanxi Province. It said Emperor Shun set up his capital in Pucheng, where an earthquake occurred. The area inhabited by Miao had a riot and the ground was cracked open. Mo-tse said: The three rebelled… the ground were spit and the spring sprouted out.

The State Chronicles of Lu Kingdom recorded that Shanxi had an earthquake in 799 B.C. Volume 1 of the Chronicles says that in the 3rd year of the reign of Emperor Yu (799 B.C.) of Zhou Dynasty, earthquakes occurred on the plateaus. Some one said that it was the symbol that Zhou Dynasty would die out.

The State Chronicles of Lu Kingdom also records earthquakes in Qufu (Confucius’ hometown) in Shandong province 618 B.C., 557 B.C., 523 B.C. and 519 B.C. Zhang Heng, (A.D. 78-139) was a native of Shiqiao of Nanyang, Henan Province. He was a famous man of letters crediting with making the world’s first seismograph.

In the year of A.D. 886 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty an earthquake occurred in Nanzhao. The Unofficial history of Nanzhao- Dameng Kingdom by Yangshen of the Ming Dynasty said: In the second year of the reign of Guangqi (886) an earthquake destroyed three cities: Dragonhead, Dragontail and Sanyang. According to textual research: the people in five cities of Nanzhao kingdom moved to the Southern part of Yunnan, they established their capital in Yangcheng. To the south and north of this city, researchers found towns named Dragonhead and Dragontail. The whereabouts of Sanyang is still under investigation. An earthquake in A.D. 1111 during the Song Dynasty occurred in Dali, destroying more than 16 temples there according to Volume A of Nanzhao Unofficial History

Earthquake Predictions in China

An earthquake in Haicheng (north of Liaotung) at 7:36pm on February 4, 1975 was predicted by Chinese scientists by following a pattern of seismic activity that preceded it. Nine out of ten of the cities buildings were destroyed but nearly all of the city's 90,000 residents survived because they had been evacuated. No earthquake anywhere has been predicted since then.

According to Chinese Academy of Sciences: The present position of China in the forecast of earthquake can be summarized as follows: We have some knowledge on the tenet of earthquake cultivation and the regular pattern of the earthquakes, but we are not fully aware of the whole story of earthquakes. We could forecast some types of earthquakes, but we could not forecast all earthquakes. Our long and middle range forecasts on earthquakes are credible to some extent, but the short term and imminent earthquake predictions are still not so successful. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Violet Law wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Since ancient times, earthquakes and other natural disasters often were read as omens of impending dynastic upheavals. There was also fear that any quake in the seismically active region around the capital would tempt invasion. So after a series of quakes in 1966, then-premier Zhou Enlai issued a rallying cry that mankind could conquer nature, and mobilized the masses to detect signs that the Chinese believed could indicate seismic activities. Under the banner of national defense, geologists sifted through a rich body of historical records few other countries have, while farmers observed well-water levels and abnormal animal behaviors from the field. Even middle-schoolers were called upon to supplement monitoring stations with homemade instruments. At the time, China was too poor to develop more advanced technology. [Source: Violet Law, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2016]

“In 1975, China’s war on earthquakes scored a victory when a 7.3 temblor in Haicheng in the northeast was reportedly detected — thanks to foreshocks — just hours before it struck. This successful prediction and evacuation was the world’s first for a major quake. It caused an international sensation that prompted a delegation of American seismologists to visit China nine months later. “The Chinese felt that they were on the right track,” said Fa-ti Fan, a historian at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “In hindsight, there was a bit of wishful thinking — they believed prediction was something they could eventually achieve.” Only 15 months later and 250 miles to the south, the Tangshan quake struck. The 7.5-magnitude quake remains the world’s third deadliest, with a death toll exceeding 240,000.

“Even so, the Chinese faith in prediction lingers, from the leadership down to the masses. “In the past few decades our country boasts 30 examples of successfully predicting quakes in short to near terms,” said Pan Huaiwen, the chief of China’s Earthquake Networks Center, in May. “So long as we keep practicing, we’ll have a shot at succeeding…. We still lead the world in this area.”

But some seismologists, especially those who have studied what made the Haicheng prediction possible, argue the focus on prediction can be hazardous. “The promotion of prediction success stories led to a false sense of security,” said Chen Qifu and Kelin Wang in an analysis of the 2008 Wenchuan quake, China’s last big one, published in 2010 in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. “In reality, prediction isn’t that simple. In the scientific community, the seismologists have recognized the problems,” said Wang, now senior research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada, “The problem with promoting predictions is that people are not thinking the right thing.” Rather, Wang said it’s far more important to build to code and install warning systems that alert people as soon as a quake begins.

Animals and Earthquake Predictions in China

The Chinese have presented evidence that cows and other animals change their behavior before earthquakes, and used this as a means of predicting earthquakes. According to Chinese sources the following occurrences can foretell earthquakes:
1) Anomaly of Animals: orses Refuse to go into their stalls; hibernating snakes emerge from their dens in a panicked state; dogs bark fiercely; rats migrate; and frogs jump to their banks.
2) Anomalies of Climate, light and geology: strange winds sheltering the sun; pouring rain; floods; lighting-shaped, pillar-shaped and ball-shaped lights appear and water gushes from wells. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

The earthquake bureau in Nanning in Guangxi Province in southern China uses snakes to predict earthquakes. The snakes, which are said to display unusual behavior before earthquakes, are monitored around the clock at local snakes farms with video cameras. The bureau director said, “When an earthquake is about to occur, snakes will move of their nests, even in the cold of winter.” He said the snakes can sense an earthquake three to five days before they occur at a distance of up to 120 kilometers. “If the earthquake is a big one the snakes will even smash into walls while trying to escape,” he said.

Employees at the Guangzhou Zoo are monitoring the behavior of peacocks, frogs, snakes, turtles, deer and squirrels to see what kind of behavior they exhibit before earthquakes. An official there said, “We’ve found animals behave oddly before an earthquake. Hibernating animals, for example, will wake up and flee from their caves while the aquatic ones will leap from the water’s surface.”

In February 2010, five people were detained for spreading rumors using the Internet and text messages that an earthquake was going to strike Shanxi Province, causing thousands to flee outdoors.

Chinese City Uses Dogs to Predict Earthquakes

In May 2013, AFP reported: “A Chinese city is using dogs to predict earthquakes, an official said, after state-run media reported that neighbours were complaining of nightly false alarms — in the form of barking. The earthquake authority of Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province in the east, keeps dogs since they will “act abnormally when an earthquake is coming”, sometimes up to 10 days in advance, an official surnamed Song told AFP.[Source: Agence France-Presse, May 7, 2013]

The bureau used the dogs at the request of the provincial government, he added, saying that chickens and ducks could be effective as well. But neighbours are complaining on social media about the animals’ nightly howling, according to the official provincial news website Dajiang. “The compound of the Nanchang earthquake authority has I don’t know how many dogs, every night at 11 pm they start barking over and over,” it quoted one as saying.

Song told AFP the dogs had now been sent to a lower-level earthquake bureau in the city but denied they had been barking. However Dajiang quoted him as saying the dogs could be muzzled to accommodate residents’ concerns. Asked if that would stop them carrying out their predictive function, he agreed and said he would ask his boss what to do about that, it reported.

What to Do in an Earthquake According to the Chinese

According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences: What is the correct action to take in earthquakes? Should people run away or should they find a hiding place? Most experts in our country believe that people should find a hiding place in nearby places if they are indoors at the beginning of the earthquake and retreat to safe places when the earthquake stops. When people are staying indoors during the earthquake, they should select a hiding place where the structure is sound and where can give good protection to people. Places where triangular structures are formed and where there is smaller rooms or with strong pillars are safer. More spacious places in outdoors are also quite safe. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Correct postures: 1) Bend over and wait for chance. Crouch or sit down, try to bend the body and lower the center of gravity. 2) Hold to a solid object such as a table leg. 3) Protect the head and eyes from injuries and cover the mouth and nose. 4) Avoid the crowd of people, never throng with each other, don't spark any lights because flammable gas may stay in the air.

20 Cases of Successful Self-Rescue:
1) Rescuing Step by Step When Many People Buried
2) Retreat Calmly When Hearing the Earth Sound
3) Expose the Head to Ease the Breath
4) Remove with Strange Happenings
5) Save Energy to Pass Message by Knocking
6) A Couple Survived by Taking Drastic Actions
7) Enlarging Hiding Places to Survive
8) Remove When Funny Things Occurred
9) Triangular Spaces Makes Survival Possible
10) Take Precaution Measures When Strange Happenings Occurred
11) Hiding beneath the Loom, Surviving the Earthquake
12) Be More Careful with Incessant Occurrences
13) Surviving in a Small Bay
14) Take Measures when Unusual Things Happens
15) Find a Hiding Place with Calmness
16) Being Mentally Prepared
17) Detecting Earth Light and Removing
18) A Sensitive Dog Gave Warnings
19) Rushing out at the Beginning of the Earthquake
20) Being Warned by the Horse

When Pressed Down: After major earthquakes, aftershocks may happen. The situation may become even grave. One must improve the situation he is in and manage to keep away from dangers. Keep away from unsteady or collapsing objects, suspending objects and other dangerous objects; move away the debris and enlarge the space around one. Note: don't move anything forcefully, so that the person buried down won't invite further collapses; manage to support the collapsed walls with bricks so that one won't be pressed down again during the aftershocks; don't use indoor facilities casually, including power, water sources etc; don't use open fire; cover the mouth and nose when one smells the flavor of gases or toxic gases; don't shout aimlessly, keep energy, ask for rescue through knocking. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Preparations of an Earthquake According to the Chinese

To be prepared for an earthquake the Chinese Academy of Sciences recommends: 1) Make family earthquake protection plans.
2) Get foods and drinks ready according to the requirements of the government and relevant departments.
3) Inspect and annul the potential dangers at home and reinforce the dwellings.
4) Inspect and reinforce the dwelling place.
5) Look at the houses of the family to see if there is any place against earthquakes resisting. Get familiar with the surroundings. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

6) See how is the quality of the house. Has it been out of repair for a long time? Houses in disadvantageous conditions must be reinforced. Retreat the houses that can not be reinforced.
7) Is the structure of the house beneficial to resist earthquakes? Inner walls and heavy ornaments should be removed.
8) Place furniture and objects in a rational order Take down the objects hanging on the wall to prevent them from injuring people after falling down.
9) Put toxic and flammable objects in safe place.
10) Tidy up the household so that the door and the corridors are accessible.
11) Fix tall furniture and prevent them from falling down and hurting people.
12) When place the objects in order, place the light ones above and heavy ones in the lower part. Objects such as flower basins in the terrace must be taken away.

13) Make rooms in firm furniture, so that people can hide in them when an earthquake happens. Strengthen the beds.
14) Get necessary things ready for the earthquake in a bag.
15) Put the bag in a place within your reach.
16) Practice an anti-earthquake exercise.
17 ) Practice how to "keep away from earthquake within a minute" and practice how to disperse people.

Chinese Official Uses Quake Relief Money to Buy Top-Level Ping Pong Equipment

In 2013, Xu Mengjia was removed as the top party official of Ya'an — prefecture-level city of 1.4 million in the western part of Sichuan just below the Tibetan Plateau — which was hit by a 6.6-magnitude earthquake in April that killed 196 people and injured more than 10,000, amid accusations that he used the disaster to defraud the government to but ping equipment. [Source: AFP, Dec 4, 2013]

AFP reported: ““The probe was announced on the website of the ruling Communist party's top disciplinary inspection body, which said he was "suspected of serious discipline violations" — a commonly used euphemism for corruption. Following the earthquake, allegations emerged online that Xu exaggerated the disaster to cheat the central government of relief funds, and that he had illegally sold state-owned land.

“The state-run Beijing Youth Daily reported that the former chief had a passion for table tennis and once promoted a female training partner who worked at a local blood donation center to a post as a senior county-level official. "The woman not only played table tennis well, she was also favoured very much by Xu," the report quoted unnamed sources as saying. Xu had a private table tennis suite in the city's public gymnasium, including a training machine, a bathroom and a rest room, it said, adding that he kept four government cars including a military-plated SUV.

Image Sources: Taken from various sources on the Internet, Qinhai earthquake from

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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