14:33 0512 2008

14:33 0512 2008

Shengliver’s Note: The first anniversary of the 5/12 earthquake is around the corner. This entry was written and posted after the earthquake last year. I have revised it and here it is in memory of the disaster. May the dead rest in peace and the living fight on!



I signed in for my afternoon work at the Grade Office around 2:30 pm on May 12, 2008. I arrived at my office on the fourth floor (British usage) around 2:33. I had not yet sat down when one of my female colleagues cried alarmingly, “God, my desk is shaking!”


I looked down at my desk. It was moving slightly from side to side. I thought probably some explosion was going on at a construction site nearby, for I had had similar experiences before. When I turned my eyes to the walls, I found the walls were swaying, too. I felt a bit dizzy.


I immediately rushed out of the office, followed by my two colleagues. Standing in the corridor, we saw students and teachers rushing out of the building. We followed suit at once.


On the way downstairs, I noticed the walls moving up and down gently all the while. A lot of students and teachers were already standing in the open air by the time we reached the ground.


My city lucked out, fortunately. Nobody was killed and nothing was damaged.




Later on that afternoon news broke on the net that a strong earthquake had happened at Wenchuan, Sichuan Province. It measured 8.1 on the Richter scale, epicentre Wenchuan. The next day, the magnitude was modified by the Chinese Seismological Bureau to 7.8. On May 18, the magnitude was re-modified to 8.0 on the Richter scale.

 chinese kids mourning

The following days I followed the developments in Chinese media and also in some overseas media. I experienced initial shock. Then I could not believe my eyes when I saw the footage on China Central Television (CCTV) and online photos of the disaster. All the rubble, devastation, injuries and loss of lives.


My wife could not hold back her tears at the reportage of the victims. I found tears running down my cheeks when watching the television pictures.


On the evening of May 13, I had evening classes. I collected some photos online and showed them to my two classes on Microsoft PowerPoint. With the slides being demonstrated to the class, the hubbub died down and a hush fell over the teenagers. And many faces were glistening.




I went on a package tour of the area in the summer of 2004. I left my home city by train. We got off at the Jiangyou Train Station, where a coach picked us up and took us on deep into the mountains of western Sichuan.

 disaster area

We had lunch somewhere in Pingwu County. The group stopped over in the town of Pingwu and visited an ancient temple called Bao’ensi there. The guide told us that the temple had experienced a number of strong earthquakes and it remained intact after all the tremors. The ancient architecture of wood and bricks was impressive.


The bus was zigzagging in the mountains after we left Pingwu. The landscape was pristine and inspired awe in me. We no longer find such clean rivers in eastern China and middle China.


The town of Nanping County, whose name is now Jiuzhaigou County, was located in a valley with a big river going through it. While my bus was refuelling at a gas station there, I found on its streets some trucks from Wenxian, a county in neighbouring Gansu Province.


Actually it took us a number of hours to travel from Nanping to the mouth of Jiuzhaigou. We spent one night and a whole day in that picturesque spot, lost in its incredible postcard scenery.


Leaving Jiuzhaigou, the bus crawled its way up over the mountains before it came on to a plateau. A small town called Chuanzhusi, a Tibetan settlement, was where I put up for a night before we headed for the world renowned scenic spot – Huanglong.


The journey from Huanglong to Chengdu enabled me to see some terrain I had never known before in my part of the country. The bus passed Songpan, an ancient town on the plateau, with some very old brick walls. After we left Songpan behind, the bus was always descending down mountainsides and through vales to lower altitudes.


The road was narrow and twisted and turned all the while. When the bus was climbing down a steep mountainside, I held my breath. “What if the bus swerved?” a thought crossed my mind.


This area is where the ethnic minority group Qiang inhabit. Here and there stood some magnificent stone towers, a Qiang-style building, used in old times as defence works. The towers have a broad base but taper off towards the top.


On the way downward, one of my fellow travellers commented, “Look at the stone! It just hangs there. One shake, and it will fall off.”


dam lake river minjiang Before we reached the town of Maoxian, the coach stopped over at a roadside gas station for refuelling. We had a break at the station for about 20 minutes. There were a number of vendors selling various souvenirs and snacks. I chatted with a vendor. I asked him why there was such a large lake below the road. He told me that the lake was formed in the 1930s when a strong earthquake hit the area.  A landslide resulted in the damming of the river Minjiang and the lake came into being. The old town was completely inundated. Even today, if you go boating in the lake on a fine day, you may still see the tops of the old buildings under water. Actually two lakes were formed at the place, a short distance between the two, linked by the streaming white-water Minjiang.


We stayed one night at a hotel in the town of Maoxian. The next morning I took a stroll on the street for a while. Life here seemed still very hard, with primitive buildings on either side of a potholed main road. I bought some fruit from a vendor on the street.


The bus seemed to be travelling all along the river Minjiang. The river flowed fast and swift. At many places white waters were found rushing downstream. Along the river were clusters of villages and towns of a much smaller scale than those in other parts of China. An institute, Aba Teachers’ College, lies on the river. Only three or four buildings made up the academy.


Did my bus pass Wenchuan? Yes, I think so. But I had little memory of the town because we did not stop there at all.


The bus passed the famous town Dujiangyan, which used to be called Guanxian. We had lunch at a small restaurant before we entered the downtown area. Unluckily we did not see the famous irrigation project built by Li Bing and his son in ancient China.




Unprecedented unity among the Chinese nation is presented to the world eye following the killer tremor. People everywhere express their condolences to the unfortunate, who have suffered in the disaster. Donations have been pouring in from all the four corners of the country and the world as well. Government offices, work units, businesses and individuals compete to give money, food and clothing and many other supplies to the disaster-hit areas. A driver and shop-keeper drove a vehicle loaded with food and drinks from his home in Heilongjiang to Wenchuan in Sichuan just to do what he could to help with the relief. The number of people who travelled by train, by air or by car, from different parts of the country to the area after the tremor, is staggering. Some are volunteers and many others are guys who just feel they need to come themselves and help at the frontline.


Overseas Chinese were saddened by the disaster, too. Everywhere in the world expatriates are raising money to be sent back to the motherland. Taiwan and the mainland put aside their political differences. Taiwanese airplanes flew direct from the island to Chengdu, delivering urgently-needed supplies like food, tents and medicine. Mr. Chen Shuibian, a Taiwanese leader who has been promoting Taiwan independence, donated his bit to the people in the quake-levelled areas.


The whole nation is impressed and moved by international generosity towards China. Emergency aid was flown in, rescue teams came over, and medical teams followed. The USA president George Bush offered to do whatever could be done to help if requested on a telephone conversation with President Hu Jintao. Huge amounts of money were given by leaders, businesses and various organisations from abroad.




The government’s response was fast and rescue work was delivered to the point. The rescue work and relief work were well coordinated. The PLA, the air force, the marines, the police, the paramilitaries and medical workers were deployed in the area at a speed that struck the world. The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the area the same afternoon the earthquake struck. His presence lent immense spiritual support to the rescue workers and the suffering people. This leader mixed with the people and inspired all to work harder and stay strong amidst the upheaval, fear, pain and debris.


Chinese media cove the whole matter in a manner that helps the world to get a clear picture of the situation. The transparency and the truthful reporting by Chinese media dispelled some westerners’ deep-rooted prejudice against this ancient land and the government led by the Communists. The communists do care about the people. The communists are not red devils.




The Chinese government and the whole nation deserve applause and full marks for their response to the disaster and their work after the quake. However, things could have been better and lessons should never be forgotten. History repeats itself. If we learn now, we will suffer less in the future should similar disasters strike once again.


·       Lack of experience


We lack experience in dealing with a disaster on such a scale and of such magnitude. The first few hours or days saw the soldiers and other rescue workers resorting to very primitive methods while frantically attempting to pull survivors out of the rubble. A lack of knowledge and skills in the field, and of preparedness, was obviously there.


In contrast with the Chinese rescuers, the few foreign rescue teams, like the Japanese and the Russian teams, who rushed to the scene much later, performed the task with much more experience and advanced equipment. Their professionalism was impressive.


Anyone with a little bit of medical knowledge is aware that a great deal of harm can be done to the rescuee if the person is not handled the right way.


Faced with debris everywhere, what should we do? Are there priorities? Should we start with the first pile of debris we meet on the way?


Supplies rushed in from all over the country and even from foreign lands. Who coordinated the handing-out of the supplies? Which supplies went to whom? Who supervised the process?


Volunteers, registered or self-styled, swarmed to the area in a short span of time. Of course they meant well, hoping to do their bit with the relief work. The question is: Did they cause any problems or confusion to the rescue work? Would they have done more good if they had been organised and better instructed?


·       Lousy standards


poor quality The Chinese nation has a long way to go in respect of conforming to standards. Many bloggers questioned the quality of the school buildings which collapsed. Of course we have to take into consideration that we met a massive earthquake. An earthquake of this magnitude may have ruined any building however strong it was. But to be honest, the collapse of such a large number of school buildings definitely had something to do with the poor building standards. Were there such construction standards as took potential disasters into account? If there were, were the standards written on paper implemented in practice?


It is hard to answer the questions with a clear conscience, for my friend, if you look around, poor-standard practices will meet the eye not only in the building industry but also in food, medicine, manufacturing and many others. Should we learn a lesson now? Should we meet those standards written on paper in our day-to-day work?


·       Corruption


Poor standards have a lot to do with Chinese ways of going about business and life. When guanxi (social relations and networks) can help you get what you legally cannot, standards are thrown away and quality is compromised. Corruption is a universal social problem the world over. However, in China, corruption is aggravated by some elements of Chinese culture – guanxi, for example. Guanxi is Guanxi and standard is standard. We should never ever mix them up. Lousy quality is the root cause of some tragic events.




·       Reconstruction


It will take a long time, years probably, to reconstruct the area. The devastation is widespread. Some towns or villages have virtually been wiped out. With the support from the whole nation, the government and the local communities should have an easier time putting everything back to normal in the area. But it will take time, good planning and huge resources.


·       Mental health


Those who have survived may find it hard to come to terms with life as it is. In a sense, psychological help is more important than food and shelter. Could you imagine being under rubble? How would you feel if you found family and friends were not there? Would you suffer mental pain? Would you wake up from a nightmare at midnight? It would be very very hard to walk out of the shadow in a short time. And all the aftershocks constantly unnerve the survivors in tents and in other temporary shelters.shock

I wish my compatriots could stand up to the harsh reality and rebuild their life on the ruins. Of course workers with the expertise should give the traumatised victims a hand to help them to get back on their feet and to go on ahead with their life.


·       Disability


Physical disability will be widespread. Some lost their hands, some feet and / or legs. And some are paralysed. The new community to be built has to meet the needs of these unfortunate people with a disability. How many wheelchairs will be needed? How many artificial arms and legs will be needed? What social services should be in place?


·       Superstition


Superstition goes that the year 2008 is an auspicious year, supposed to bring good luck and prosperity to the nation. The digit 8 is pronounced BA in Chinese, sounding very much like the Chinese character FA, which means “good fortune”. However, I have heard a lot of rumours that the year 2008 would bring disasters down upon the country. And those rumours are reinforced with a string of incidents. A severe blizzard marked the beginning of the year. Then came along the Tibetan trouble. Just before the earthquake bit, an epidemic of the hand, foot and mouth disease was found in part of Anhui Province. And the above seemed not to be enough. A rail accident in Shandong resulted in many deaths and injuries. And of course the earthquake, worst of all, has made the superstition believable. Added to the rumour was the Falun Gong’s malicious attack on the Chinese government. They claimed that the communist government of China would fall apart in 2008.


All the above rumours and superstition are nonsense. No scientific evidence proves the truthfulness of the claims. The aforesaid incidents are not inherently linked. Nature and luck just go their own way. One thing is for sure: Chinese people are kept better informed of news and current events by media – TV, newspapers, radio and the Web. When anything goes wrong, it will be there in the media. And the nation gets to know it.


Will the government collapse? Of course not. This government has been gaining experience and bettering its governance through this testing time.


·       Donation


Waves of donation for the disaster area have been going on in the country and in many parts of the world. We Chinese have our generosity and sympathy fully demonstrated. And the world has been giving its timely hand to the country.

 son carrying mum

However, donation is not taxation. Donation should be free and voluntary. No one should be pressured to donate. Some Chinese people point the finger at some celebrities, saying that they are not giving enough. Some even call some businesses “iron cocks”, a Chinese term meaning someone who is mean.


This is not morally right. We should not regard ourselves as models of morality. We have no right to pressure anyone to donate. To donate is right; not to donate is right, too. To donate one yuan is right; to donate one billion yuan is right, too.


Before we judge others, why not examine ourselves?


·       Tremor forecast


I read and heard some criticism of the Chinese National Seismological Bureau shortly after the earthquake occurred. They said, “Those scientists are all meal buckets!” A meal bucket means in Chinese someone who only eats but does not produce anything.

pla soldiers

This is unfair judgement. All across the globe, no country has been able to predict an earthquake as precisely as everyday weather patterns. We may watch CCTV (China Central Television) weather forecasts and know whether it will rain or not tomorrow. However, the same cannot be said about earthquakes. Look at the following quote from Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, USA.


From the perspective of the late 1990s, it is evident that expecting timely and accurate earthquake predictions was too ambitious. In the mid-1980s the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program reported to the U.S. Congress that earthquake prediction was more problematic than had been anticipated. Today scientists are more focused on developing improved estimates of long-term earthquake probabilities, measured in decades or centuries.


— Forecasting Danger: The Science of Disaster Prediction; By Roger A. Pielke, Jr.


The Chinese seismologists have done a very good job in locating the May 12 earthquake and providing timely info for the government and the public. Hopefully in the future all over the world seismologists will do better and better regarding the prediction of earthquakes.


Compared with the science and tech giant USA, China is still a student. In the past few decades, great technological advances have been made on this ancient land. Yet we should be aware of the gap between the USA and China in terms of science and tech achievements.


·       A balanced opinion of outsiders


Help and aid from outside mainland China transformed some mindsets. It is well known that a lot of Chinese bore grudges against the Japanese nation. Generalisations like “The Japanese are evil” were not uncommon in China in the past decades as a result of what the Japanese did to the nation in WWII.


History is there and no one is able to erase it. It is time that the two oriental nations respected each other and built their relation further. The Japanese rescue team and the medical team who have worked in Sichuan help ordinary Chinese to modify their opinion of this nation. They have come to see that the Japanese are humans, too. History is not equal to the present. More communication and exchange programmes will further the healthy development of the Sino-Japanese partnership.


The whole nation feels indebted to all the outsiders who gave a helping hand with this crisis. Even political enemies from Chinese Taiwan showed good will and a kind heart all through this humanitarian crisis.


·       A changed nation


After the shock, China is no longer what it used to be. Its economy should not be seriously affected. What has been fundamentally transformed is the nation’s attitude towards life.


We used to take things for granted. Three meals a day were there; family were there; jobs were there; schools were there. Overnight or rather over a few seconds, the world turned upside down and nothing is the same as before.

 changed nation

Family are gone; jobs are gone; schools are gone; friends are no longer there. Where will I get my three meals? How could I carry on with one leg missing?


These hard questions prompt ordinary Chinese to rethink their mentality. It has been a nation of tears and grief since the black moment. It has been a nation of compassion and sympathy. Life all of a sudden takes on new shades of meaning we never took the trouble to have a look at or have a thought for.




While I was revising the entry around 16:20 on May 25 in the office, a strong aftershock was felt here. My location: Shiyan, Hubei, China.


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