Reviewed by Michael Rank
Sometimes perhaps, the heavens really do “blaze forth the death of princes”.
At least that is how it must have felt on July 28, 1976, when one of the worst earthquakes in history destroyed the northern Chinese city of Tangshan.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck as the 82-year-old Chairman Mao Zedong’s health was failing in full view of his 800 million subjects, in a country where natural disasters have long been seen as portents of political upheaval. Hitting the coal-mining city of Tangshan on a sweltering summer’s night, at
exactly 03:42:53, the quake killed hundreds of thousands.
“The 23 seconds of the earthquake were probably the most concentrated instant of destruction that humanity has ever known. In Tangshan alone it did more damage than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, more damage than the firebombings of Dresden or Hamburg or Tokyo, more damage than the explosion at Krakatoa,” says James Palmer in this highly readable account of the quake and its aftermath.
“It took more lives in one fraction of northeast China than the 2004 tsunami did across the whole of the Indian Ocean.”
The book skillfully puts the Tangshan earthquake in its political context, with the country exhausted from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution in which millions had died just a few years before. This was a mass movement that refused to die and was still being waged by the ultra-leftist clique who held the reins of power in Beijing.
These leftists, led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, were engaged in a paranoid struggle to seize control once the increasingly feeble chairman finally went to “meet Marx”. The Chinese people could only watch and weep as their leaders played out their vicious power games.
Although the story of the rise and fall of the Gang of Four, as the leftists were soon to be dubbed, is well known, the Tangshan earthquake has been largely forgotten as the world has focussed on China’s extraordinary economic rise over the last couple of decades.
The author, who was born two years after the earthquake but has the advantage of living in Beijing and being married to a Chinese, has interviewed survivors of the quake to piece together what it was like to live through those terrible days and weeks and what the government did – and didn’t do – to help.
“I was rescued by my neighbor.” “Somebody pulled me out of the ruins that morning, I don’t know who,” survivors recall, evoking the heroism that was remarkable yet commonplace as the people of Tangshan struggled to come to terms with the disaster.
It was, in the words of a nurse, “like a knife cutting through the sky”, but Palmer also tells how, amid the bravery and determination, the story that the state media chose to portray was quite different, and remarkably callous.
Two days after the quake struck, Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily splashed on its front page the story of how the children of party cadre Che Zhengming were buried in their home, but as his daughter cried out, “Dad, save me”, his priority was to save the local party boss from the ruins of his apartment nearby.
Che’s children died, but the party paper “praised his political commitment, noting approvingly that ‘he felt neither remorse nor sorrow’ for the death of his children, but had shown ‘a willingness to benefit the majority at the expense of his own children’, which was an example to everybody.”
The general consensus is that “Tangshan saved itself” rather than relying on outside assistance, for while the People’s Liberation Army played its part, Palmer says troops concentrated almost entirely on the urban area, leaving peasants in the mountainous hinterland to fend for themselves.
The peasants didn’t matter enough, the author reckons, for there were hundreds of millions of them in China, while Tangshan city was a key industrial center that had to be saved at all costs.
Tangshan is one of China’s main coal-mining areas, but remarkably, while there were roughly 10,000 miners underground when the quake hit, only 17 died, according to Palmer. “Earthquakes are less intense deeper underground,” he claims, “and Tangshan’s eight major coal mines were dug deep”.
The author seems surprisingly uninterested in the question of just how many people died in the earthquake. Government surveys after the quake recorded the names of 242,000 people killed, which he says is “the lowest figure possible”, and he also cites a survey from the early 1980s which put the death toll at around 650,000, which Palmer says “seems a reasonable estimate”.
There’s a huge difference between 242,000 and 650,000 dead and the death toll could have been investigated more vigorously.
The book includes some memorable photographs of the quake from the Tangshan Earthquake Museum and by a local photographer, including one taken in an improvised classroom in autumn 1976, in which children are being taught that “father and mother are not as good as Chairman Mao.”
In his introduction, Palmer describes Tangshan today as “an ordinary Chinese provincial city, a two-McDonald’s town of heavy industry, factories and cheap hotels”.
Little physical sign is left of the quake following the construction boom that’s taken hold of Tangshan in recent years like every other Chinese city. There is a couple of collapsed buildings have been preserved as memorial sites, and a new memorial wall, which apparently names every victim (how many are listed, Palmer doesn’t say), as well an an Anti-Earthquake Square, but that’s about all.
The Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, in which 80,000 people died, triggered terrible memories for older people in Tangshan, and their reaction was both generous and bitter.
Donations from Tangshan were among the highest in China but there was “an odd tone of jealousy.
‘Tangshan was worse than Sichuan,’ I was told over and over again, ‘Ours might have been a 7.8 and theirs an 8.0, but we were right at the center’.”
Six weeks after the Tangshan quake Mao died and a few weeks later the Gang of Four were arrested. Their nemesis, Deng Xiaoping, bounced back to power and put China on the road to “reform and opening up”.
This led eventually to China’s spectacular economic boom, but in the light of the shoddily built schools in which thousands of children died in the Sichuan earthquake, one cannot help feeling that not much changed in the way China manages its disasters.
The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer. Faber and Faber Non Fiction (January 17, 2012). ASIN: B006GJ2EJO. Price US$39, File Size: 1940 KB, print length: 288 pages.
Michael Rank was a British Council student in China under the Gang of Four 1974-1976 and a Reuters correspondent in Beijing 1980-1984.
He is now a freelance journalist and translator based in London.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.