A factory ruined by the quake has been left unrepaired outside the memorial site / Photo by Njal Homeyer
It’s true that there are more obvious tourist locations than Tangshan, a busy, dusty industrial city in Hebei Province. At first glance, there’s little to draw a traveler to this spot rather than a dozen cities like it, struggling to transition from the old economies of steel and stone to a new world of financial products and consumer markets. But I was in Tangshan this July to visit one very special site, unique to the city, treading a path that hundreds of thousands of others, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, would take over the next couple of weeks.
It took me about 15 minutes to reach my destination by cab from the city center. “Lots of folks have been heading there,” my taxi driver remarked. “They come from all over. I even had one who came all the way from New Zealand.” It was a trip of mourning and remembrance for these pilgrims from all over China – and beyond; a visit to the Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Wall in the city’s Nanhu Park.
In Chinese, it’s the Tangshan Kangzhen Jinian Qiang, literally the “Tangshan anti-seismic memorial wall.” “Anti-seismic,” which sounds more felicitous in Chinese than in English, is found in names all over Tangshan, famously shattered by a massive earthquake in the early morning of July 28, 1976. With the 40th anniversary upcoming, mourners were arriving from all over the country.
At the park, a great black slab of a wall rises in front of you like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, stretching for hundreds of meters around a still pool. On the wall, originally a private project before being taken over by the local government, the names of all the recorded dead of the earthquake are chiseled in gold, organized by the place where they died. In total, there are over 240,000 people remembered, each block containing over 20,000 names. At the bottom of each block, flowers pile up, placed by visitors, some accompanied by cards or hand-written notes.
Most of the travellers there had come to honor their own dead, whether parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters. The children of Tangshan, which for a decade after the quake was a virtual refugee camp, now live all across the world. I heard English to my side, and stopped to talk to Linda, a Chinese-American visitor who had come all the way from California. “My family are from Tangshan, way back,” she said, “But my parents went to Taiwan, and then the US. So for years after the quake they didn’t know who in their family had lived or died. It wasn’t until 1981 that my mother discovered her brother and one of his children had both been killed. So this isn’t the only reason for the trip, but I wanted to come and…” She gestured with the flowers in her hand toward the place on the wall where her uncle and cousin’s names were inscribed.
But the wall isn’t just a place to remember your dead. It’s also a stunning work of memorial and art in its own right, a unique creation that has no equal, as a site of remembrance, in the rest of China today.
The basic idea of the site is clearly taken from the famous Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC, itself designed by Chinese-American artist Maya Lin when she was just 21. A single black wall bearing the names of the dead stretches around both sites – although the Vietnam Wall is reflective, letting the mourners see their own image, while the Tangshan Wall is deep, dark stone. But beyond the wall, the pool, and its central structure, has created a remarkable work of art worth any visitor’s time.
I crossed the pool to the central memorial on the broken stones laid down to make a path. Above me loomed the sculpture, a ruined building, part of it jutting out into the air, carefully constructed from real earthquake ruins. The great concrete slabs might seem strange material, but they created a weird, Cubist beauty of their own.
Around them were arranged statues depicting the quake victims and rescuers. These had a rough-edged, incomplete feel to them, as though they had risen out of the mud and dirt. While the propaganda of the day, back in 1976, showed only heroic imagery, these figures confronted tragedy head on. Naked bodies lay, covered only by sheets. A mother grasped the body of a dead child in her arms, screaming, in a heart-rending version of the traditional artistic pose of the Pieta in which Mary mourns her crucified son. Hands reached up from the earth, desperate for rescue.
Even the scenes of rescuers showed their desperation, muscles straining and grips slipping as they hauled fallen stones away. Accurately, many were wearing only shorts or underwear; the quake struck on a ferociously hot night when most people were sleeping naked. The half-broken glasses of one were slipping off his head as he yanked away a fallen beam, mouth half-open in grief or effort. The raw, brutal tragedy of the quake was immortalized in the stone taken from the earth itself.
I finished my trip to the site with a visit to the small museum next to it, which succinctly describes the events around the quake – though many of the exhibits still lack English text. Beyond the memorial site, I went to tour the rest of Nanhu Park, with its lakes cunningly formed by flooding former coal mines. It’s too big to take in fully in less than a day, but the carefully crafted gardens and the sight of locals flying kites, playing chess and skipping with their grandchildren made a sweet contrast to the sublime but agonizing details of the memorial.
For Tangshan people, the wall is a sacred spot, and visitors should treat it with all the respect due. But it’s worth a day trip from Beijing for its aesthetic value alone, as well as for an appreciation of how the country is beginning to struggle with the tragedies of its past.
A man looks for the names of his relatives who died in the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake / Photo by ic
A memorial shows the exact time and date of the earthquake / Photo by ic
The 1976 Quake
Tangshan was torn apart by a quake that registered a massive 7.8 on the Richter scale at 3:42 AM on July 28, 1976. The epicenter struck right in the center of the city, in what today is “Anti-Quake Square,” shattering the town, then one of China’s major industrial centers. The disaster ravaged the nearby countryside, destroying hundreds of villages. It took over 1,000 lives in the city of Tianjin, and shook buildings as far away as Beijing.
People’s Liberation Army troops marched overnight across wrecked farmland to aid rescue efforts, but the vast majority of people saved were helped by their fellow citizens in the city. Tens of thousands of people were pulled from the rubble, though many were severely, sometimes permanently, injured. (See page 32 for China’s disaster warning efforts today.)
The Tangshan disaster is still remembered in China today, especially following the calamitous 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Aftershock, a 2012 Chinese movie, told the story of a brother and sister separated by the quake and reunited during rescue efforts in Sichuan 32 years later, and used it to reflect upon the changes and pains of Chinese society between 1976 and 2008.