To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, we'll be running a series of features on the quake and the stories of devastation and recovery that followed. In this piece, written shortly after the quake and originally published in CHENGDOO citylife, issue 13 ("Aftermath"), a writer reflects on earthquake experiences, both his own and those of people around him.
Panicked Chengdu residents camped out for weeks, some more than a month, following the Wenchuan quake. A year later, aftershocks still hit the region. Photo by Leo Chen.
Vulnerability: Time, space, and multiple realities
By Forest Venn
"The month after the quake was totally awesome!" said Yin Yimin, a businessman native to Xipu, a west-Chengdu suburb. "We covered our courtyard with four big tarps, and a lot of people came over and partied with us under there. That was totally awesome! Basi de hen!"
Yin was talking about the period in 1976 after the Tangshan quake when many residents of greater Chengdu, shaken from routine by rumors of imminent disaster, slept out in tents for an entire month. He was 6 at the time.
Now his 10-year-old son is having a similar experience. The boy has been spending the nights rough-housing with friends and extended family on factory-wrapped mattresses at his father's furniture warehouse. He lost his personal savings to quake relief, but otherwise has been thrilled with the long vacation.
My wife was on the 10th floor. But I was on the ground in the People's Park, and it has therefore been hard for me to understand the sensation that even now distracts her through the day and keeps her up at night: the sensation of a building going liquid beneath her shoes.
Among our relatives we have only one uncle who was in the disaster zone, in Hongkou, Dujiangyan. If you saw the 10 of us eating together and were told that one had been near the heart of the quake, you would immediately identify him as the one. He is extremely pensive and also somehow giddy. Of course we all wonder what it was like, but he doesn't talk about it. When I said, "So many deaths!," he looked at me like I came from another planet.
"'So many' doesn't touch it."
The tremor flattened entire cities. Dujiangyan, pictured here, was the largest city to be badly damaged. Photo by Leo Chen.
We are so far from 1976 that many Chengdu natives no longer remember whether or not they felt the Tangshan quake, nor, if they do remember a slight shaking in that year, are they sure that it was in July from Tangshan rather than in August from Songpan.
We are 20 times farther from Tangshan than from Wenchuan, but according to Chengdu native Jing Lin, a wholesaler at Hehuachi, the panic here after Tangshan far exceeded what we have experienced recently. "... We didn't have any news in '76. Everything we heard came by rumor. Tangshan happened at night, so we assumed ours would happen at night. No one slept at home all month. The rumors said all kinds of things. Some said the earth would open up and swallow tents, so nobody knew where to pitch camp." He slept near Beimen in the back of a Liberation Truck belonging to his father's work unit. He was 11.
This May he has been sleeping with his wife and daughter on a bedroll on the dusty commons of a housing development in Xipu called the International Cosmopolitan.
"This time it's completely different. Although Wenchuan is much closer than Tangshan, this time we see reality on TV. So we aren't scared."
An internal wall was all that was left standing of this building in Dujiangyan after the quake. Photo by Leo Chen.
Two Different Kinds of Truth
An older resident of the International Cosmopolitan, Li Houhua, 80, is more circumspect. He has no plans to move back into his apartment. Does he doubt what he sees on TV? He wouldn't go that far. "Of course the TV is true. It says it's safe to go back inside, and that's the truth. But if I put water in a basin and set it there, I see it sloshing back and forth—well, that's another kind of truth. There are two different kinds!"
There's more to the story, Li suspects. "They say even the Americans can't predict earthquakes. How ridiculous! The Americans put people on the moon. Our own government has put a man into space! How can they not know what's under our feet? Impossible!"
From the second day, I felt that my wife needed advice on how to deal with fear. She was—and still is—keenly aware of the barking of dogs and the movements of roaches. On the fifth night, which we would again spend abroad, I was pleased to see the Pixian TV station announcing an interview with the director of the Mental Health Center of Huaxi Hospital.
A specialist in post-traumatic stress, Dr. Sun was going to discuss the key points to psychological recovery. I shouted at my wife to come watch the interview. "The most important thing," Dr. Sun began, "is to believe the Party, believe the government, believe the media."
Do Not Believe Rumors
At 11 p.m. a van drove through the neighborhood broadcasting, "Do not believe rumors, do not spread rumors." It came through the street again in the morning around 6. My wife woke to an aftershock in the wee hours, but my slumber was so dead-pig-like that the propaganda van was both the last thing I heard before sleep and the first thing I heard after waking.
"If you think about it, we're actually very fortunate," says my uncle, who works at a tent factory in Xindu. "It isn't many people who get to witness in their lifetimes the creation of new mountains and new river courses."
Post-disaster rescue work in Mianzhu, one of the towns hit hardest by the quake. Photo by Leo Chen.
The sense of profound vulnerability is an encumbrance to daily life. But it reflects a truth about the dynamic and perhaps illusory nature of our experience which, although it stands at the center of both physics and religion, is extremely difficult to gain an intuition for.
On this subject, A.S. Eddington in 1927 described the difficulty that a physicist faces in the simple act of entering a room:
"I must make sure of landing on a plank traveling at twenty miles a second round the sun – a fraction of a second too early or too late, and the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence."
Forest Venn is an American writer who lived in Chengdu for nearly a decade.
The 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck at 2:28 on May 12, 2008 and claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 people and rendered millions more homeless. Tremors were reportedly felt as far away as Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City.