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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 21 tremors of magnitude 5 or higher have in the first eight months of this year. Yunnan Province and Xinjiang get struck by a lot of earthquakes. Gansu, Shaanxi and Qinghai Provinces also get hit fairly often. Sichuan got hammered by a really big one in 2008. The destructive Tangshan Earhquake of 1976 wasn't very far from Beijing.

An earthquake is a shaking of the ground. It occurs when large masses of rock suddenly change position. Earthquakes and tremors (small earthquakes) are occurring somewhere around the globe all the time. Some cause a little shaking and people barely know what's going on. Other cause catastrophic damage.

Earthquakes have killed more than 2 million people worldwide since 1900. Hundreds of thousands have died in single events. No other natural events have caused as much destruction in human history and no other events occur with such suddenness and capriciousness. They only thing that ranks with them are catastrophic volcanic eruptions and tsunamia. The former occur with much less frequency and are easier to predict than earthquakes. The latter are generally caused by earthquakes. If anything the destructive power of earthquakes increases as time goes by as the number of people living in earthquake-prone areas increase even as technology to help them improves.

Earthquakes usually occur on faults--massive cracks or fractures that usually are located around places that tectonic plates meet. The hypocenter or focus is the center of the energy of an earthquake, or where the earthquake originates below the surface of the earth. The epicenter is point on the earth's surface directly above the hypocenter.

Many earthquakes in China 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.

Websites and Resources

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film about the
Tangshan earthquake
Good Websites and Sources: Historical Earthquakes in China ; USGS China Earthquake Info ; Wikipedia List of Earthquakes Wikipedia : Tangshan earthquake Photos ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; USGS Info ; Great Tangshan Earthquake pdf file

On Earthquakes: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center ; Wikipedia article on Earthquakes Wikipedia ; Surviving an Earthquake ; Earthquake Pamphlet ; Earthquake severity ; USGS Earthquake Frequently Asked Questions ; Collection of Images from Historic Earthquakes Pacific Earthquake Engineering Researc Center, Jan Kozak Collection ; World Earthquake Map ; Most Recent Earthquakes ; Earthquake Safety Site ; Interactive Earthquake Guide ; USGS Earthquakes for Kids ; Natural Disasters: Top Ten Natural Disasters in China in the 20th Century pdf file ;Wikipedia article on Natural Disasters in China Wikipedia ; Wikipedia List and Links of Natural Disasters Wikipedia ; Hazards and Diasters in China pdf file /


Powerful Chinese Earthquakes

Aftershock trailer
Earthquakes have been recorded in China since 780 B.C. in the Zhou Dynasty. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deadliest earthquake ever killed 830,000 people in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan Provinces on February 2, 1556. Six of the 13 deadliest earthquakes ever occurred in China.

Worst Recorded Earthquakes (number of dead): 1) Hua County in Shaanxi, central China, Jan. 24, 1556 (830,000); 2) Calcutta, India, Oct. 11, 1737 (300,000); 3) Tangshan, China, July 28, 1976 (242,000); 4) December 26, 2004, Sumatra, Thailand and Sri Lanka (225,000); 5) Antioch, Syria, May 20, 526 (250,000); 6) Yokohama, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923 (200,000); 7) Nan-Shan, China, May 22, 1927 (200,000); 8) Hokkaido, Japan, Dec. 30, 1730; 9) Chihli, China, Sept. 27, 1290 (100,000); 10) Haiyuan in Gansu, China, Dec. 16, 1920 (200,000); 11) Messina, Italy, Dec. 28, 1908 (83,000); 12) Shemaka, Caucasia, Nov. 1667 (80,000); 13) Gansu, China, Dec. 26, 1932 (70,000);

Powerful Chinese Earthquakes in the 20th Century

Most deadly earthquakes since 1900 (magnitude on the Richter scale): 1) Tangshan China in 1976, 255,000 dead (7.5); 2) Sumatra in 2004, 225,000 dead (9.3); 3) Nan-shan in Qinghai China in 1927, 200,000 dead (8.3); 4) Haiyuan in Gansu, China in 1920, 200,000 dead (8.6); 5) Japan in 1923, 143,000dead (7.9).

Most powerful earthquakes since 1900 (magnitude on the Richter scale): 1) Chile on May 22, 1960 (9.5); 2) off Sumatra, Indonesia on December 26, 2004 (9.3); 3) Prince William Sound in Alaska on March 28, 1964 (9.2); 4) Andreanof Islands, Alaska on March 9, 1957 (9.1); 5) Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia on November 4, 1952 (9.0); 6) off the coast of Ecuador on January 31, 1906 (8.8); 7) Rat Islands, Alaska on February 4 1965 (8.7); 7) off Nias Island, Indonesia on March 28, 2005 (8.7); 9) Tibet on August 15, 1950 (8.6); 10) Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia on February 3, 1923 (8.5); 10) Banda Sea, Indonesia on February 1, 1918 (8.5); 10) off Etorofu Island, northern territories, Japan (8.5.) [Source: U.S. Geological Survey]

The 1920 earthquake in Gansu measured 8.6 on the Richter scale and killed 200,000. According to the Guinness Book of Records it produced the deadliest landslide ever, killing 180,000 people in Gansu Province on December 16, 1920. An earthquake in China in 1970 that measured 7.5 on the Richter scale killed 10,000.

Earthquake Predictions in China

The Chinese started recording earthquakes in 1831 B.C. In 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.

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.

Today China has 10,000 earthquake scientists and 100,000 amateur observers.

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.

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.

More damage from the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976

Tangshan Earthquake

The worst earthquake in the last 250 years and the third worst one of all time occurred in Tangshan, a city on the South China Sea about 75 miles east of Beijing. It is estimated that 270,000 people were killed and 160,000 were injured.

The Tangshan earthquake struck at 3:42am on July 26, 1976 and measured 7.8 on Richter scale. Casualty figures vary. One report listed 655,237 dead and 779,000 injured. A 1979 report by the Chinese Seismological Society listed 242,000 dead and 164,000 injured.

"For 20 seconds," wrote Patrick Tyler in the New York Times, " the landscape heaved repeatedly, pummeling the city of just over one million with earth-splitting jolts and causing all but a handful of buildings to collapse on sleeping residents. All communications were cut off. People crawled from the rubble dazed and in darkness. A light drizzle was falling. Nearly one-forth of Tangshan's resident's were dead."

Water supplies were cut off, factories were destroyed, people dug for buried neighbors until they dropped from exhaustion and went days without food and water. More than 7,000 entire families were wiped out. Recovery from Tangshan earthquake in 1976 was delayed due to political struggles that took place after the death of Mao. There were reports that the earthquake was preceded by strange animal behavior and other signals.

At the time of the Tangshan earthquake, in 1976, the Chinese government was in the last stages of the Cultural Revolution, before Chairman Mao’s death, and was widely criticized for its insufficient mobilization immediately following the earthquake.

Survivor Stories from Tangshan

Survivors recall watching the entire city collapse around them, being trapped for days beneath rubble and abandoning loved ones to search for survivors. "It was very silent for a few seconds," one survivor told the New York Times, "and then you began to hear the shouts and cries." Later another survivor said, "No one cried. It was so big and so many people died that the streets were all piled up with copses. People didn't even think to cry."

Officials in Beijing didn't realized the city had been completely leveled until 12 hours after it happened. They were alerted to the scale of the disaster by a Tangshan coal miner, Li Yulin, who drove a red ambulance for six hours along dirt roads to reach Beijing. He showed up with mud all over his face and his clothes in tatters at the gates of Zhongnanhai, the high-walled compound where China's leaders live, to deliver his report.

"It took days to mobilize the army and start relief operations," Tyler wrote. "The Tangshan residents dug with their hands, stacking tens of thousands of bodies along the alleyways and roads so chocked by debris that the trucks could not always get through to remove the dead. Airplanes flew over the city spewing disinfectant to stop the spread of disease. China's leaders forbade foreigners from traveling to the area and rejected offers of aid from international relief agencies...With no water and only bags of biscuits dropped from airplanes in the first days, the people of this city had little time to mourn the dead, whose bodies were dumped in mass graves."

"There were a lot of heroic stories," one man told Reuter. "For the following few days there was no water to drink, but still people were able to get restaurant produce. Tangshan otherwise recovered miraculously quick. Some of city’s famous pottery plants started up after 20 days and all of them were producing by the end of the year.

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Memorial for the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976

Coverage and Legacy of the Tangshan Earthquake

W.G. Huang wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Through the media we were told the Chinese people took pride in being self-reliant and were capable of handling our own disaster. Then...our teacher told us the government was worried the foreigners would come in and infiltrate China under the pretense of helping out. Once a week we spent an afternoon in school reading in the government newspaper about how people overcame adversity in the disaster areas inspired by a Chairman Mao quotation: 'Humans can conquer nature.'"

“Still unofficial reports slipped through. One time I heard from a friend whose mother was a nurse and had been summoned to Tangshan that tens of thousands of people had been killed. When I told my father, he immediately warned me not to share re information with others. He was worried I could get myself into trouble for spreading rumors...The result of all this secrecy and effort to control rumors was, of course, that people relied heavily on rumors, even to make critical decisions.”

Tangshan was able to recover with generous support form the government and materials form the area's abundant natural resources. Today, Tangshan is a prosperous industrial city of 1.55 million people (six times as many people as after the 1976 earthquake). "Basically a whole new city was planned on top of the ruins," a city official told New York Times.

During the 20th anniversary of the earthquake banners and slogans at construction sites read "Develop the Spirit of Resisting the Earthquake to Build Times Plaza" and "Diligently Launch the Month of Famous Gods Sales to Commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Resisting the Earthquake." At one timer there were plans to build a $72 million Tangshan earthquake theme park.

Mao died only months after the Tangshan earthquake, which was seen by some as a “mandate from heaven.”

Aftershock and Buried, Films About the Tangshan Earthquake

Aftershock (2010) become the highest-grossing domestic film of all time in China, earning $79 million in the summer of 2010. Directed by Feng Xiaogang, it tells the story of a mother's emotional reunion with her daughter, three decades after a 1976 earthquake devastated the Chinese city of Tangshan, killing more than 240,000 people.

Describing the opening of Aftershock , Richard Bernstein of the New York Times wrote: “First you see a tremendous swarm of dragonflies, which is one of those odd natural phenomena believed to prefigure an earthquake. Then there are some modest scenes of domestic life in the Chinese city of Tangshan on July 27, 1976. An unsuspecting brother and sister squabble over a single tomato, until their mother settles the dispute by giving it to the boy...Then at 3:42 a.m. on July 28, unmitigated disaster strikes...Buildings shake, the earth splits apart, bricks, concrete slabs and roofs cascade downward as a city of one million people is reduced to rubble in the space of 23 seconds. Among the victims are the two children we’ve already met, pinioned under a concrete slab, covered in dust, their lives ebbing away.” [Ibid]

Based loosely on a novel by the Chinese-Canadian writer Zhang Ling, Aftershock is something of a Chinese version of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, in which a mother is forced to choose which of her two children will survive the Holocaust. In the Chinese case, the mother of the two children trapped under the concrete slab is told by rescue workers that, in order to save one child, the slab will have to be moved in such a way that the other child will be crushed. The mother is pushed to decide---quickly, because time is running out... Save my son, she says, in an anguished voice just loud enough so her daughter can hear. A family drama of love, guilt, separation and redemption ensues that local audiences have clearly found deeply moving.” [Ibid]

Wang Libo’s film Buried was one of the prizewinners of the 2009 Beijing Documentary Film Festival. Made in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, this probing documentary looks back at controversies surrounding the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake... Using a range of expert testimonies, Wang builds a provocative argument that Chinese officials had significant information forewarning of an imminent earthquake, but did not take sufficient action to help prevent the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. The implications of the film’s conclusions bear heavily on the Chinese government’s handling of both the Tangshan and the Sichuan earthquake. Buried leaves disturbing questions about the power and responsibility of government in disaster management. [Source: ]

On his Buried Wang Libo said: The 1976 Tangshan Earthquake left a lot of open questions. Before the earthquake, seismological personnel in Tangshan and quake experts in Beijing had already warned of an imminent quake. But in the end, more than 240,000 people had to pay with their lives, causing a shocking tragedy of massive proportions. Why did this happen? In the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake about 100,000 people were killed. Faced with terrible quakes, the human race repeats tragedy time and time again. It is terrible that people can only offer money and bland tears after the disaster  when better preparation could have saved lives. A nation has to courageously face its own weakness to remain hopeful. [Ibid]

The entire film, embedded via YouTube, can be watched here: umentary-now-on-youtube/

Image Sources: Taken from various sources on the Internet, Qinhai earthquake from 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 April 2014

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