Preserving Ruins and Memories in an Earthquake-Stricken Town

2017-05-12 14:33:15

Nine years after one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, the ruins of one of the hardest-hit towns serve as a memory to the disaster.

On May 12, 2008, the 7.9-magnitude “Great Wenchuan Earthquake” hit some 80 kilometers from Chengdu, capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and sent tremors as far as Russia, Pakistan, and Taiwan.

Chen Qinggang and Gu Yifan, two multimedia journalists at The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, visited Beichuan County, one of the hardest-hit areas in Sichuan, in April. They spoke with some of the people most directly affected by the earthquake, including those tasked with physically preserving its devastation. This year marks the first time since the disaster that media have been allowed into the ruins of Beichuan’s old town, which were never cleared away to serve as a memory to the disaster.

Earthquake survivors visit the ruins of Beichuan’s old town, nine years after the Great Wenchuan Earthquake. By Cheng Qinggang and Gu Yifan/Sixth Tone

With an estimated death toll of 87,600, the Wenchuan quake is one of the deadliest in recent history. According to widely varying estimates, an additional 4.8 million to 10 million people were displaced from their homes. Four-fifths of all structures in the affected area were leveled, leading many to blame poor infrastructure for the extent of the damage, which totaled an estimated $192 billion. Children were in school when the quake hit at around 2:30 in the afternoon, and entire classes were buried by debris. Such schools were later branded “tofu schools” by the media for their shoddy construction.

Cheng Feng lost her son, who died when his school collapsed during the earthquake. She still has warm memories of the old Beichuan. “It had clear water and green mountains. Life was convenient,” she told The Paper. “My son liked it here.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Cheng Feng, a former resident of Beichuan’s old town, walks through the ruins. Mianyang, Sichuan province, April 15, 2017. Cheng Qinggang and Gu Yifan/Sixth Tone)