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Visitors at Tangshan’s museum look at exhibits about the 1976 earthquake – the most destructive of the 20th century – which destroyed the city.
Visitors at Tangshan’s museum look at exhibits about the 1976 earthquake – the most destructive of the 20th century – which destroyed the city.
Jiang Wenfang, 71, whose father, brother and daughter died in the earthquake, visits the memorial wall for those who died.
Jiang Wenfang, 71, whose father, brother and daughter died in the earthquake, visits the memorial wall for those who died.

China's phoenix city rose from earthquake ruins

Victims of the most destructive earthquake of the 20th century say their city's recovery has become a symbol of hope to the survivors of China's more recent natural disasters.

TANGSHAN, CHINA // Jiang Wenfang carries a small bunch of pink and red plastic flowers and places them beneath the wall bearing nearly a quarter of a million names - victims of the most destructive earthquake of the 20th century.

The 71-year-old lost her daughter, brother and father in the earthquake that flattened this city in eastern China in July 1976.

"Some families were annihilated," Ms Jiang said, tears forming in her eyes.

Along with the staggering loss of life - 242,419 people in a city of one million - 164,581 people were injured and 93 per cent of all residential houses and 73 per cent industrial buildings were broken beyond repair in the 7.8-magnitude quake.

Yet despite the destruction, Tangshan today is a modern city of wide boulevards, glitzy shopping centres and fashionable young people. The way the Phoenix City, as it has become known, has regenerated itself into the thriving city of 7 million is a source of pride.

Its recovery has become a symbol of hope to the survivors of China's more recent natural disasters, including the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province in the south-west that killed 68,000.

"People faced a kind of desperate solidarity. Now we see this city in an optimistic way because it has rebuilt and remodelled itself," said Zhang Zilin, a 75-year-old streetsweeper who works at the city centre memorial and who narrowly escaped being crushed when the ceiling of her home caved in after the earthquake.

The city has few physical reminders of what happened 36 years ago.

There are now thriving steel, manufacturing and shipping industries. The city's rebirth resulted from something "in the genes of the Tangshan people", according to Xiao Qinghua, 62, a retired steel industry worker who lost his mother in the earthquake.

"They're very stubborn and determined to get over it," he said.

Yet behind the facade of normality lie the after effects of one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century. Almost anyone middle aged or older has painful memories. Some talk of screaming children, of being buried in debris, of neighbourhoods razed to the ground and of the struggles for food. Residents say they had to drink pondwater to survive and many endured years of living in temporary housing.

The horror began at 3.42am on 28 July when the earth shook for 23 seconds.

Ms Jiang was sleeping in the dormitory of the steel factory where she worked. With her were her 14-year-old daughter, Shang Liping, and sons, Shang Guoping and Shang Yongping, aged six and eight. Her husband, Shang Zili, in hospital, recovering from burns the resulf of an oil tank explosion. After the ceiling caved she managed to pull her young sons from the debris. When she reached for her daughter, her daughter didn't reach back.

"Her face was buried in the pillow," Ms Jiang recalled. "There were hardly any bruises or injuries. She must have suffocated."

Ms Jiang, now a widow, said it could have been even worse. In 7,218 households, all family members were killed by the quake and its aftershock 16 hours later that also shook the city with a 7.8 magnitude.

"People in their 20s look at Tangshan, they visit parts of the city and feel it's pretty much what they can see in any other city like Shanghai or Beijing, but for us there are spots that will give you flashbacks," said Gao Shuangxi, 61, a retired coal mine worker.

When Mr Gao dug himself out of the courtyard house where he lived, "not a single building was standing". His parents survived, but his grandmother, uncle and cousin died, along with many of his friends.

He recalls bizarre moments in the quake's aftermath, such as how soldiers shot the bears and monkeys that escaped from the city's zoo when their enclosures were damaged. There are also positive recollections, such as of the camaraderie of residents who faced challenges by searching for food together, echoing the comments survivors of natural disasters often make about how people band together in the face of extreme adversity.

"Everybody had a heart of gold ... that was my best experience of communism. It was like an ideal world," Mr Gao said.

The few physical reminders of the disaster include an "anti-earthquake memorial" in the city centre, while further out is the memorial wall and a museum that talks of how relief efforts and rebuilding work showed "the greatness of the Communist Party of China".

Nearby, the ruins of buildings have been left as they were to show future generations what happened. Every year 28 July is commemorated.

While such reminders ensure the tragedy will not be forgotten, in some families, discussion of the earthquake is forbidden, at least when younger people are present. Yu Na's parents and grandparents do not want to pass on bad memories to the 18-year-old student.

"Once in a while, when they meet someone who used to be their neighbour, they will talk about their experience of digging up bodies, but it's absolutely taboo in the family to talk about it," she said while sitting in a KFC restaurant in the shiny rebuilt city centre.

When the 2010 film Aftershock, which features the aftermath of the earthquake, was shown in the city, Ms Yu said many older residents found it too painful to watch and stayed away.

The year after the earthquake in which her daughter died, Ms Jiang gave birth to another little girl – Shang Jiping. She's now 35.


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