The Great Tangshan Earthquake: Part 1

Title: The GReat Tangshan Earthquake. Image: Woman, crying bleeding and covered in dust, crouches down as the young men behind her help remove rubble around her to rescue an injured person.

In 1976, a powerful earthquake struck Tangshan in northeastern China, nearly destroying the entire city and taking the lives of 240,000. At the time, international experts estimated those wounded who became paraplegics would not live beyond 15 years. However, 40 years later, 817 out of 960 are still alive. Though they escaped the hand of death in the Great Tangshan Earthquake, they were unable to avoid the fate of most people who are paraplegics in China. After the disaster, they received urgent medical care and were sent to various parts of the country for treatment. After a few years, each returned and found a sense of home at Tangshan’s Paraplegic Sanatorium, where they formed friendships and found love among those who had also suffered. Although they’d lost their homes in the rubble to establish new ones, these resilient citizens learned to survive and pursue happiness. They integrated into society through their rehabilitation villages and their newly established cities. Their fight against their destiny and their self-made Nirvana has served as inspirations and revelations to those around them. This article profiles a handful of the residents of Tangshan Rehabilitative Village and tells their remarkable stories of survival and triumph.

Forty Years in a Wheelchair

Li Dongmei was just 13 and in the seventh grade when she was wounded in the earthquake. She later moved to Tangshan’s Paraplegic Sanatorium and Rehabilitation

Village. Since then, Li has been a three-time gold medalist at the National Paralympic Games and has won a total of 42 awards overall at home and abroad.

Twenty-one-year-old Fu Pingsheng was in the Fengnan countryside, visiting relatives when the quake hit. Badly wounded, he was taken to Shijiazhuang city for treatment and rehabilitation. He was later part of the first group of individuals to be admitted to the Paraplegic Sanatorium in 1981, and later to the rehabilitation village. He started learning the Erhu, a two-stringed Chinese instrument, and later established a small band called “Light of Love” that performed at Zhongnanhai imperial garden. They continue to perform in public.

Han Zhongquan, a former village head of the Tangshan Rehabilitation Village, was 25 years old at the time of the earthquake. He and the first village head worked together to build and run the rehabilitation village.

In 2015, Qi Wei was elected as the fifth village head of Tangshan’s Rehabilitation Village at the age of 49 years old. His responsibility was to coordinate the daily affairs of the village.

Lu Dechang, a police officer, was 25 years old at the time of the quake. The night before the natural disaster, he’d served as a security guard for foreign guests. He received treatment in Shenyang city after getting injured.

Artist Yao Cuiqin was 22 years old at the time of the earthquake. The army’s arts soldiers transferred careers, so she switched to banking. In the 1980s, she returned to the arts and performed on stage while also launching literary works such as “Focus on the Bamboo, Listen to the Rain” and “Plum Blossom Snow Shower.” She has been known as the Zhang Haidi of Tangshan, a Chinese writer and motivational speaker.

The Night He Escaped Death

The humidity made it difficult to fall asleep. In the late hours of the night, I imagined the western sky was still burning crimson. This is the deepest collective memory of the survivors of the Tangshan earthquake on July 28, 1976. Some witnessed a dense swarm of dragonflies turn black, others noticed the unusual water level, but what Fu Pingsheng remembered was the extraordinary fog that day. It enveloped the entire city. Before going to sleep that night, he heard the sound of rolling thunder from far off.

For a long time, people had talked about possible earthquakes. A lot of ordinary Tangshan families used indigenous methods such as turning a liquor bottle upside down as an early warning mechanism. But as time passed, people became less vigilant.

At the time of the earthquake, 21-year-old Fu Pingsheng was a school graduate in the Fengnan group near Tangshan. He went home to visit relatives that day. He did not find out until after the disaster that the graduate house had collapsed during the quake. The earthquake hit at 3:42 am, while most of Tangshan’s residents slept. The vast majority of people were unprepared. The strength and power of the earthquake was equal to the size of 400 atomic bombs in Hiroshima; it tore apart the ground beneath Tangshan. The violent shaking caused houses to collapse in just moments. Heavy bricks from rooftops fell on Fu Pingsheng’s back.

Survivors of the earthquake sit and stand in rows, many in wheelchairs, and medical personnel in rear row.

His older brother climbed out of the ruins and searched for him. Fu Pingsheng could hear his brother calling his name. He responded as best as he could, but found he could not respond any further because he could not find his legs. “In reality,” he says, “my legs were still attached to my body, but I couldn’t feel them.” After being pulled out, he was laid on a door plank. He lost control of all bodily functions. “I was not comatose, I was conscious, and I was not hit in the head. The injury was all in my waist, but nobody realized the nerves were damaged. I simply could not worry about it.” When recollecting this experience, he often repeated this sentence.

He lay in bed for four days, and his dad sat beside him. “I wanted to turn and look, but sadly, I couldn’t even move. I’m unable to even express the heartache of that period,” he explains.

Thirteen-year-old Li Dongmei lived in a one-story bungalow built by the department of public housing. That night, she stumbled into bed after completing her homework. After being shaken awake by the early morning quake, the former savvy gymnast jumped from the bed to the floor. “I would not exist today if I had not jumped down,” she says.

But the moment she ran to the door, the doorframe and four heavy, prefabricated slabs came crashing down. Everything in front of her went black, and she lost consciousness. It seemed that a voice told her to, “go to sleep, go to sleep,” but the sound of footsteps and shouting from the outside pulled her back to reality. She yelled for help. It was her father and her father’s colleague who pulled her out from under the rubble.

“If it were not for the support of the door frame, I would have been trapped inside,” she says. But she still suffered multiple thoracic and lumbar spine fractures. When she was carried out, the skin on her forehead had all peeled off and her eyes were droopy. These scars are still visible today.

She was placed in a tent and fell in and out of consciousness. When she awoke, she was so thirsty that her throat felt like it was burning up. Beside her she recalled hearing one nurse tell another nurse, “This kid will not survive much longer.” The other nurse said, “Give her some water. She will be able to survive,”

Before rescue crews arrived from other areas, people started digging through the rubble with their bare hands; death and hopelessness permeated the air. Heavy rain and aftershocks continued to pummel the devastated city. When there were not enough tents to go around, many of the wounded that were unable to move were placed under tables to be shielded from the rain.

According to reporter Chai Jing’s written records, the survivor Yao Cuiqin also became a paraplegic due to the earthquake. Her experiences were similar: She lay on the floor as it rained outside. She was extremely thirsty, so she opened her mouth to have the rainwater quench her thirst, and then her hand brushed across her numb legs. She thought she was dead and kept moving her hand up to feel her legs. What she felt, instead, was her body. Her legs were broken. To the people of Tangshan, this became known as a “1/3 dead, 1/3 injured, and 1/3 alive” catastrophe. It left 3,817 survivors paraplegics.

Rescue Efforts On The Way

The earthquake turned the railroad tracks into fried dough twists. On July 30th of that year, the new Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers finally pushed through the traffic and entered the city. The large number of medical personnel from the other areas also rushed in. Tens of thousands of injured individuals were waiting for treatment of paralysis, fractures and extrusion injuries. Due to the hot, damp weather, maggots started growing in the wounds of those who were unable to receive treatment. Shanghai’s medical rescue team delivered ten thousand pain relievers and a thousand catheters. Everything was used up in one night.

On the fifth day after the earthquake, Fu Pingsheng’s long awaited helicopter finally arrived.

check this out

He was flown to the city of Shijiazhuang in northern China. For those who could not wait any longer for the new hospitals to be built in the disaster area, the wounded were put on trains and airplanes and sent to various parts of the country to receive treatment. Statistics show the earthquake left 100,263 wounded who were sent out to the following eleven provinces for treatment: Jilin Province, Liaoning Province, Shanxi Province, Henan Province, Hubei Province, Jiangsu Province, Anhui Province, Shandong Province, Zhejiang Province, and Shanghai.

The trains transporting Tangshan’s wounded made stops all over the country. Nurses from the various hospitals started administering treatments to the wounded. Initially, those with spinal cord injuries did not understand their situation. They thought they had fractures, and hence, would be able to walk and work after surgery. They still could not quite wrap their heads around their situation, even when the medical staff labeled them as being in critical condition.

In his book, The First Responder: Handwritten Notes From An Emergency Doctor, medical expert Li Zonghao recalled the Tangshan emergency rescue efforts. “Due to the lack of manpower and technical expertise, many injured people could’ve been spared from the fate of paraplegia if there had not been errors in the handling and transferring process.”

Among the wounded was Zhang Shenglan. She once was a nurse for a patient who had been a critically-ill paraplegic. On her fifth day after returning to Tangshan to get married, the earthquake hit. People carried her out a window and took her to the hospital; no protective measures were taken while transporting her. The turbulent truck ride was 80 kilometers. Meanwhile, the doctor who was treating her mistakenly thought she had a dislocated cervical vertebrae and hurriedly carried out a traction relocation technique. She was in such severe pain she fainted. Her paraplegia could have been avoided.

Han Zhongquan, once a former head of the Tangshan Rehabilitation Village, sustained 16 wounds on his body. His head had swelled to the size of a large watermelon. He remembers when he was transported onto the train, “We were passed through windows on wooden door planks because the doorframes of the trains were too narrow.” All the seats and walkways in the train cars were filled with wounded individuals.

The biggest challenge for a paraplegic is often bedsores. Han Zhongquan was sent to a city in Henan Province called Hebi. He was on the train from July 28th to August 3rd. He barely moved during the ride and lay in a supine position. His hip section had swollen to 37 centimeters long, and he had bedsores 20 centimeters wide. Later, he had to endure a skin graft, and two of his legs were partially amputated.

Li Dongmei, who was in critical condition, was originally supposed to receive treatment in Zhengzhou, Henan. She vaguely remembers herself being on a tractor, and then being jolted around on a train, but because of internal bleeding and vomiting blood, she was urgently pulled off the train in the middle of Xingtai.

At that time, the city of Xingtai had not been assigned as a rescue site, but there were still medical personnel in the station ready to meet the wounded. Li Dongmei, who had lost a lot of blood, was pulled out the window of the train, put into an ambulance and driven directly to the hospital.

Many of the wounded and the local medical staff who took care of them forged a strong bond. Li Lixia, who was sent to the Central Hospital of Hangzhong city, was among the most critically injured. Most of her body was covered in bedsores. The surface of her wounds needed to be cleaned daily to prevent infections. Her sustained high fever would not subside. Even using a hand-held thermometer, her body temperature could easily reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Her injuries were so severe they gave her “one week life-expectancy at tops; even final photos were taken,” but her attending doctors and nurses did not give up or slack on the treatment. They still meticulously and cautiously attended to her wounds, even staying in the hospital in order to watch her closely. Eventually, they pulled her out of the road to death. They personally sent her back to Tangshan after the recovery treatment was completed. Li Lixia and her family would remain forever grateful to the staff and have maintained a long-term relationship with them.

Hulu Island in Liaoning Province is another main location that received wounded patients. Three months into her pregnancy at the time, Qi Guirong was heavily injured and was expected to be a critical paraplegic. She was transported to the local Bohai Shipyard Worker’s Hospital for treatment. She had severe blood loss and was urgently in need of a blood transfusion. Thanks to the 3000 ml of blood donated by more than a dozen workers, who spent three consecutive days working to get blood to bring her back to health. After recovery, Qi Guirong went to Hulu Island twice to “go the thousand miles to look for family.” She went there for the 20th and 40th anniversaries of the Tangshan earthquake. She visited staff and showed gratitude to those who worked so hard to save her so many years ago.

The Years of Recovery in a Foreign Land

“The doctors told my father they had already given their best efforts and it would be up to me to see if I wanted to wake up, “ Li Dongmei recalls. Three months later she was completely awake. Her mother and sister were killed in the earthquake, but her brother was also sent to Xingtai for treatment. She heard the words “severe paralysis” for the first time from the doctors.

Before her injuries, her physical exercise performance had been outstanding. She broke the Tangshan Elementary long jump score three times. She had an admiration for soldiers at a young age. Her goal was to grow up and become a “female sports soldier” and bring glory to the country.

“My first words after opening my eyes three months into my stay in the hospital were, ‘When can I go to school?’” recalls Li Dongmei. “At the time, what I desired most was to be able to walk.” The doctors told her it was thanks to her athleticism that she was alive. If it were anyone else, they would not be. If she took good care, she would be able to go to school soon.

Foreign experts at the time claimed the patients who were paraplegics would not live more than 15 years. On the one hand, some were skeptical of this prediction. On the other hand, perhaps in order give a sense relief to the wounded, many medical personnel used wellintentioned white lies to comfort them. They told patients their “neurological recovery would be very slow and not to worry.” Patients were told they would recover in 30 years at the latest, or perhaps they would recover suddenly.

Young Li Dongmei believed “all sicknesses could be cured. It was just a matter of time.” Coincidentally, there was a movie called Female Diving Team. The main actress was also a paraplegic, but recovered at the end and was even able to participate in competitions. The story inspired Li Dongmei who was convinced she too would recover.

However, she slowly learned about the reality of her situation from fellow patients, friends and family members. But she still believed that since she was young, she would at least be able to walk with crutches. Hence, she set up a strict rehabilitation plan for herself: waking up at 5 a.m. and using her walker from noon until evening.

Not all individuals who are paralyzed can emerge from the trauma of an earthquake in such a short time. They feel that they have suddenly lost everything during their best and most successful years: health, family, love and career. This is a huge blow that has brought many patients to the brink of collapse both mentally and physically.

The initial emotional state of those who are paraplegics is sadness and fear. Many people refused to go out, afraid of the strange stares from people on the street. They were even more afraid of hearing, “Poor little fellow, I feel sorry for you.” They even chose to close themselves off and commit suicide.

A patient who was a former, successful entrepreneur was transported to a hospital in Shijiazhuang city. After learning he’d lost his wife and child and that his wheelchair would be his life-long partner, he tried pulling out his infusion needle on several occasions, berating the doctors who tried to save him.

Another wounded patient, a young woman, was unable to accept the fact that she was paralyzed. When her room caught on fire, she did not make a sound. “It’d be better to burn to death,” she said.

Moreover, another wounded woman attempted a hunger strike to end her life. She was being treated at Sanmenxia Municipal People’s Hospital in Henan Province. Later, the local party secretary personally came to the hospital to persuade her to eat and encouraged her to live her life.

To those who have a grim outlook on their destiny, finding sustenance and resolve is a very important matter. To Fu Pingsheng, his sustenance was music. He was in treatment for three years and eight months at the Fourth Hospital of Shijiazhuang. “I thought I was not going to be able to play anymore,” he said. “As soon as I was able to sit up, I started to practice.” Musically gifted as a child, he had been admitted to the Kunming, Yunnan Troupe to be an arts-and-culture soldier when he was 14 or 15 years old. “The notification letter had already arrived at my home, but because I was still young, my parents did not let me go.” He once made his own Erhu by hand. When he was little, he would hug the family’s Red brand radio as he listened to the songs they played. Just by listening, he was able to distinguish the voices and levels. Without a jukebox or tape recorder, he relied solely on the radio and learned many of the songs by ear.

Although to many the Erhu has a whining sound, for Fu Pingsheng, it made those painful nightmares of the quake fainter. He has wholeheartedly invested himself in his music. “Once I start playing, I don’t have to think about anything else.” Many of the injured in that same hospital listened to his music in order to overcome the initial emotions of the first few months of recovery.

Unlike the Hospital’s Sanatorium

In the summer of 1980, those wounded were systematically and gradually transferred back to their local Tangshan region to carry out the remainder of their treatment and recovery. Since the quake, Tangshan city has built multiple public paraplegic recovery centers. Among the largest is Tangshan Paraplegic Recovery Center. It is a center funded by the government, which contributed more than $250,000 toward its completion. The 106 staff members who were trained in other medical treatment systems and institutions were urgently transferred to the new center. In May 1981, the first group of paraplegic patients was hospitalized in this brand-new home.

At the time, the nursing home was only one level. Another level was later built. In Li Dongmei’s memory, the nursing center initially planted a lot of grapes and persimmon trees, which added to the grounds already lush vegetation. Outside, the wards were also equipped with rehabilitory features such as a sunroom with three walls facing the light.

The recovery center was huge and devoid of the typical bustling and beeping sounds of a hospital. In fact, the only traces of a hospital environment were the nurses, clothed in white, which would come and go.

The recovery center’s overall medical procedures have been very effective. The rate of bedsore cure is above 97 percent, and the incidence of complications greatly reduced. Today, 40 years later, out of the 3,817 survivors who are paraplegics from the Tangshan quake, 960 are alive. There are 44 paraplegic patients today who still enjoy free treatment at this recovery center. They have long overturned the prediction that those who are paraplegic will not survive for more than 15 years.

The recovery center’s longest living individual was a woman named Zhao Kuiying, who lived to be 94 years old. Before she died, she expressed endless gratitude to the nurses who took care of them. Whenever she felt ill, all the people in the paraplegic recovery center would donate money for her care. She took out a notebook before she passed away. Inside it, she had recorded a list of people who donated money to her and the amounts. She asked the nurses to use whatever remains of her savings to reimburse these people: “Reimburse double the amount to those who gave $1.50 and $3.00,” she said.

Searching for a New Direction

So many of the critically wounded required timely feeding, help with drinking water, having their bodies turned over, going to the bathroom, and tending to their treatments during recovery. There were also so many different kinds of mental conditions that needed to be constantly monitored, along with observation and psychological counseling. It was a task that required great patience and skills.

The individuals who became paraplegic expressed feeling more sensitive, vulnerable, and lonely, especially during the holidays. And many feeling more anxious about their future.

The recovery center places particular emphasis on psychological counseling, and this is precisely what was the most overlooked and least developed during the initial treatment of the earthquake victims. The medical staff increased the number of rounds to patient rooms and would often chat with patients. This not only increased the level of trust and understanding, but the medical staff was also able to grasp the emotional condition of each injured individual.

At 13, Li Dongmei was the youngest patient who was a paraplegic. Perhaps because she was so young or because of her cheerful nature she was known in the recovery center as the “happy seed.” She would sit in her wheelchair and go all over. Everyone affectionately called her the “corridor singer.”

In times of feeling low, like when she was diagnosed with an extremely painful case of appendicitis, the medical staff comforted her by saying: “You have overcome a big earthquake, and you can definitely overcome this.” She says: “I felt that I was lucky compared to all the victims who didn’t survive the earthquake. Because of this, I would be strong and continue to live well.”

check this out

by Qu Hui and Bai Fan

Part 2 in following issue…

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.


Read more articles from the Jon Cryer Issue.


sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: