Ten years ago today, an earthquake struck the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, killing nearly 70,000 people and leaving a further 18,000 missing. In the days that followed, the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake — as the disaster came to be known — received a huge outpouring of public support, mourning, and commemoration.
Like in most societies, Chinese people conduct special ceremonies to memorialize the deceased. We might burn incense, recite Buddhist sutras in their honor, or sweep their tombs every year. These acts not only lay to rest the souls of the dead, but also help the living accept the reality of death itself.
Chinese tradition dictates that when people die from “unnatural or violent causes” like natural disasters, their souls find it difficult to depart the living world. Special burial ceremonies must therefore be carried out in order to comfort the victims and finally placate their restless souls.
Not so long ago, however, government officials took a dim view of the souls of the dead. The different ways China responded to three major earthquakes in recent years — the Tangshan, Wenchuan, and Yushu quakes — reveal some of the significant changes that have occurred in the relationship between the state and the soul.
From the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Chinese government repeatedly tried to eliminate so-called feudal superstitions and turn China into an atheist society. During this period, it became a social taboo to mention the notion that a deceased person had a soul, and the term could not be brought up during private funerals or public commemoration ceremonies. But though the state frowned upon this convention, ordinary Chinese still sought ways to bring comfort to the dead in the afterlife.
On July 28, 1976, a massive earthquake hit the city of Tangshan in northern China’s Hebei province. While official government figures put the death toll at 242,000 people, the number may actually be much higher. Although the government organized emergency disaster relief and reconstruction efforts, the prevailing political ideology meant that it ignored the issue of how to commemorate the souls of the victims for several years afterward. Individual victims’ souls went unrecognized, and public memorial services avoided mentioning the idea of laying to rest the souls of the dead.
In the decade after the quake, state-run local media emphasized the “great strides” that had been made in building a “New Tangshan” and avoided reporting the grief of the survivors. This was similar to the way other natural disasters were depicted at the time: First, media outlets praised the leading role of the Party in organizing relief work; then, the papers published messages of gratitude from survivors; and finally, the people’s glorious “anti-earthquake spirit” was invoked to prove the superiority of the socialist system.
The prevailing narrative left no space for the distraught survivors to mourn their loved ones. Public ceremonies gave little emotional closure to those left behind. In the febrile political atmosphere of the late Cultural Revolution, hard-line Maoist ideology demanded a violent break from traditional notions of death and the afterlife.
The models of social organization promulgated during the Mao era centered on the supremacy of collectivism and voluntarism. This was another reason why individual loss, suffering, and memory were largely repressed. Indeed, the day after the disaster, the Party newspaper People’s Daily ran the headline: “Strong Earthquake Shakes Tangshan and Fengnan, Hebei Province; Under the Guidance of Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Line, Disaster Victims Show Anti-Quake Spirit, Demonstrate Man’s Ability to Triumph Over Nature.” Not until a decade later were the first individual accounts widely publicized.
Survivors of Tangshan avoided public shows of grief, memorial services, the recitation of sutras, the burning of paper money, and other acts suspected of being “superstitious.” Similarly, the Tangshan Earthquake Monument and Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Hall museum, both built in 1986, leave no space for locals to commemorate their lost loved ones. Indeed, mourners rarely knew how individual victims met their end, as many were buried quickly and in unmarked graves. At most, locals secretly burned paper money for them on quiet city streets.
In 2008, the government-built Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Wall was unveiled. Featuring a eulogy to the deceased and the name of every known victim carved into its surface, the wall gives survivors and other residents an opportunity to memorialize and remember those who died in the quake. The wall was hailed as a final recognition that the state bears a responsibility to remember the departed souls.
Large-scale natural disasters leave both survivors and other social groups with deep emotional pain, sadness, fear, and anger. On both the individual and societal levels, we must find ways to resolve the practical issues that underlie any disaster and help people to channel their emotions in culturally appropriate ways. A great failing of Mao-era ideology was that, in its sustained attack on all forms of tradition, it failed to offer any means of dealing with the profound feelings of emptiness that well up after a disaster.
Compared with the victims of Tangshan, the souls of those who died in the Wenchuan earthquake were far luckier. Mourned by the state and publicly memorialized, they had funerals carried out in accordance with local customs and traditions as well as the feelings of their surviving loved ones. Two years later, after the Yushu earthquake struck northwestern China, those who died were also honored with a national day of mourning. Chinese media reported stories of Buddhist lamas reading sutras in honor of the dead.
From Tangshan to Wenchuan and later Yushu, the state’s treatment of earthquake casualties reveals some of the major shifts that have taken place in Chinese society over the past few decades. The state has increasingly recognized the importance of matters pertaining to the soul, including tradition, religion, and the search for transcendence outside of the socialist system. Of course, the state does not have to clearly define the soul, nor does it have to prove or disprove its existence. Yet it knows that it cannot deny or ignore traditional consensuses about how best to respect the souls of the dead.
In 2007, the Chinese government made Tomb-Sweeping Day a national holiday, conferring a legal basis and state support for private ceremonies held in memory of deceased individuals. In addition, the Hungry Ghost Festival — once decried as a bastion of feudal superstition when the dead are thought to visit the living — has undergone a cultural reassessment in recent years and was inscribed onto China’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2011. It is the clearest indication yet that, more than four decades after Tangshan, the state finally understands the deep-seated human desire to remember those whom death steals away from us, whether through natural causes or not.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A girl places flowers on the graves of people who died during the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, Sichuan province, April 5, 2018. Zhang Youqiong/VCG)