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The Wenchuan Earthquake—10 Years Later


On May 12, 2008, the ground began to shake in Sichuan province. By the time it stopped, nearly 100,000 people had lost their lives.

Anyone who was in China at that time can say where they were when they heard about it. I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attending a conference. I was in a meeting with a dozen or so others (all from China), when someone came in and told us there were reports of an earthquake in Sichuan. We had no idea of the magnitude, but we stopped and prayed.

As the days unfolded, the horror of it all became clear. The numbers were staggering:

  • The quake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale.
  • 4/5 of the buildings in the affected area were flattened.
  • In some cases, entire villages and towns were destroyed.
  • 5,300 children died, most of them in collapsed school buildings.
  • 375,000 were injured from falling debris.
  • 200 relief workers died in landslides.
  • 130,000 soldiers and relief workers were deployed.
  • The estimated cost of the quake in economic terms was US$86 billion.

During the past few weeks, numerous outlets have been publishing stories and retrospectives on the earthquake and its aftermath. Following are some that caught my attention.

Sometimes it’s best to recall an event by looking at photos. I recommend starting with this Sixth Tone collection of 100 Photos That Shook China. Be warned; they are heart-breaking.

The Atlantic has a collection of photos showing how the ruins are being taken back by nature.

One of the tragedies was that so many couples lost their only child. After the earthquake, the government created an exception to the one-child policy allowing, and even encouraging, these couples to have another child. Sixth Tone went back to Beichuan to meet some of these “second families” to see how they are coping ten years on and to explore what it means for a child to be a replacement child.

As for the generation of second children, their parents try to shield them from the brunt of history and its associated traumas, but it’s impossible for the youngsters to remain entirely ignorant of how their families have been shaped by the quake.

“I get sad when I think of my brother, because he’s not here anymore,” says Qing. “I might not be here if he were.”

Ten years on, the government has preserved the ruined city of Beichuan and turned it into the Chengdu Beichuan Earthquake Memorial that receives millions of visitors each year. The BBC has an interesting video report on the site that includes some very haunting images.

If you’d prefer to listen to commentary on the anniversary, I would recommend this Sixth Tone podcast, in which two of their reporters discuss the aftermath and impact of the earthquake, particularly its role in bringing the role of NGOs to the forefront of civil society.

Ian Johnson, writing for the New York Review of Books takes a look at the response on the part of government and civil society and how it gave hope for more cooperation:

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. Across society, an unprecedented outpouring of support welled up across the land. Many Chinese were now prosperous and eager to contribute to society. People spontaneously donated time and money, driving from far-off provinces in cars laden with food and water or renting out trucks to deliver supplies. Companies took up collections, and rescue crews raced to the scene to dig for survivors.

These weren’t just ad hoc measures, but well-organized ones, thanks to the use of relatively new technologies such as blogs and email listservs. Non-governmental organizations set up a coordinating office and over the coming months channeled an estimated $7 billion in private funds to the relief effort.

Initially, the government welcomed these efforts. Especially during the first week, when its organizational structure in the mountainous regions was badly damaged, the Chinese state worked with the NGOs, and officials learned, often for the first time, that society had organizational forces other than the Communist Party. Even a few years later, optimists were still writing about how China was in a new era in which citizens and the government could solve problems as equals.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last, as the government quickly reigned in the independent groups that were providing assistance.

The earthquake was a jolt, so to speak for the church in China as well, forcing it confront, in ways they had not previously done, the question of how to fulfill its social responsibilities. Writing for ChinaSource Quarterly in 2009, one local believer highlighted the challenge the earthquake presented to the church:

China's churches faced an inevitable question in 2008: How can the church fulfill its social responsibilities and be relevant in the mainstream culture? A church that cannot impact the community or be embraced by society at large is powerless, incapable of fulfilling God's Great Commission. Even as China's house churches were rehearsing for their roles, a historic opportunity presented itself. We must be grateful that China's house churches did not shy back or retreat, but boldly responded to the call.

In this calling, God had bestowed upon China's Christians another responsibility that of being his stewards. According to his own divine will and the ability of his servants, God distributes his wealth for each Christian to manage. Each of us can be the servant who received five talents, two talents, or one talent. How much we are entrusted with is God's prerogative; but the key is our faithful management of our talents.

In 2008, shortly after the earthquake, ChinaSource contributor Grace Lau wrote about how the local church responded by providing grief counseling to those affected by the tragedy:

In Chinese, the word "crisis" is described as the combination of danger and opportunity. The earthquake in Wenchuan has brought a crisis to many Chinese families. As Christians, help for the helpless families comes not only from material supplies and physical healing but also from spiritual restoration. This integrated therapy will bring a new relationship, true hope and lasting love.

When people in an atheistic country spontaneously choose religious therapy, the challenge to Christians becomes how to lead those grieving families into true belief and bring the true love to them. Of course, to have them acknowledge the ultimate care from above is beyond the role of family therapy.

As anyone who has faced tragedy knows, the pain lingers and the scars take a long time to heal. We should continue to pray for those still hurting from the disaster, and for the church in Sichuan as it continues to reach out and share God’s love.

Note: Parts of this post were originally published on Joann Pittman’s personal site, Outside-In.

Image credit: by Wayne Feiden, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Senior Vice President of ChinaSource. She is the editor of ZGBriefs and Chinese Church Voices, as well as a regular contributor to ChinaSource publications. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and most recently,... View Full Bio


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