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China’s 1970 Yunnan Earthquake Part of ‘Secret’ History
Epoch Times Staff
This inscription records “Stories of misery of the Tonghai earthquake.” (Internet Photo)
Details of China’s catastrophic 1970 Yunnan earthquake have been kept hidden from the public for nearly two decades. A survivor shares his memories and personal investigation.
The magnitude 7.8 Tonghai earthquake in China’s southwesternYunnan Province on Jan. 4, 1970 killed more than 15,000 people.
Yang Yang was seven years old when the earthquake hit. In August 1995 he started an independent investigation, traveling around the disaster area, trying to collect photos and historical materials, and interviewing many victims.
In his article “My Experience of the 1970 Tonghai Earthquake,” published in Southern Weekly on March 17, Yang Yang said seismologists observed strange phenomena before the earthquake, and during the earthquake villagers thought a nuclear war had been unleashed. They were warned by authorities to keep silent about the devastation, and, as a consequence, they did not receive any domestic disaster assistance or international aid.
The following are excerpts from Wang Wang’s article, presented in the first person:
Chinese authorities consider the death toll of any natural disaster a state secret. The ban [on the Tonghai earthquake] was lifted in 2005, after which I read the statistics of the earthquake damage dated June 15, 1970 in the Yunnan Provincial Archives, and I saw the following figures:
The death toll was stated as 15,621. In 836 households, all family members were killed; 5,648 people were seriously injured; 166,117 houses had collapsed; 261 orphans and elderly were left [without kin].
The document and statistics had been classified as “top secret” for more than three decades.
I also found that although the scope of that earthquake was large, the area of devastation was only 8,881 square kilometers, with the most seriously affected area being just 2,400 square kilometers.
The quake epicenter was at the borders of Tonghai, Jianshui, and Ershan counties, the 824 square kilometers of the banks of the Qujiang River. The death toll in these three counties was 14,917—more than 95 percent of the total death toll.
I was seven years old at the time. During the earthquake it felt as if the whole world was shaking. There were loud sounds, and then complete silence. But the silence only lasted for a short time. Then there was the sound of people crying, dogs barking, and all kinds of other sounds. Everything was in chaos.
I still don’t know how my father rescued my mother, sisters, and brothers from the collapsed house. I only remember that we couldn’t find the main door and the way out. All familiar things were gone. My parents took us in the dark, climbing from roof to roof to escape and find refuge outside the village. There were many dead people among the debris we climbed over.
We gathered in the fields for the night. In the morning I found that everyone’s face, mouth, ears and noses were full of black dirt. Even our teeth were black.
My parents repeatedly told me not to go beyond the field, but I still snuck out. I saw dead bodies everywhere on the roads. More frightening was that people kept bringing more dead bodies and piling them up. There were about 80 or 90 bodies.
A few days later, the villagers received instructions from authorities not to talk or ask about the number of deaths.
The earthquake hit at 1:00 a.m. on Jan. 5, 1970, with the epicenter in Wujie Village, Gaoda Town, Tonghai County.
More than 2,300 of Gaoda’s 8,000 residents perished.
Pucong, a village of 70 households, had a death toll of 613. In ten families, every member was killed.
Of the 597 people living in Wujie Village, the epicenter of the quake, 194 died, including a 2-hour-old infant.
There were 25 people in Caozi Village, of which 20 died. The only survivors were two old people, a woman, and two children.
Nearly 50 percent of the 150 some residents in Laomao Village died.
In Daiban Village, a woman had given birth to a boy three or four days before the quake. Both of them were thought to be among the dead. People dug them out and placed them together. After burying other bodies, they returned to bury the mother and baby, and they found that the baby was alive and sucking milk from his dead mother’s breast.
Blooming Trees in Winter
The Tonghai earthquake occurred along the Qujiang fault in Yunnan, which has been an area of relatively high, continuous seismic activity throughout recorded history.
Li Siguang, the founder of China’s geomechanics research, was aware of the earthquake risk in southwestern China. Li had formed the Southwest Seismic Geological Survey Team (SSGST) and stressed the importance of studying the fault zone in the Yunnan region because of its frequent seismic activity.
In December 1968, Li proposed a study of the geological structure of the southwest region to improve earthquake monitoring and prediction in the area. In late November 1969, Li directed SSGST teams on field trips. One such team went to Tonghai in early December 1969. One village they visited was just a 10-minute walk away from Wujie Village.
The geological team worked for more than a month in Tonghai. During that time, they witnessed some unusual phenomena. They saw the bamboo trees around their houses suddenly bloom. The peach and pear trees in the village also bloomed during the middle of winter. The more blooming flowers they witnessed, the more worried the researchers became. They concluded that the trees blooming in winter was the result of higher underground temperatures, which brought the plants out of their dormant state.
During the night [of Jan. 4], members of the geological team felt the air was too stuffy in their rooms, so they went outside and walked around in the streets. They noticed many rats scurrying about in groups. At 1:00 a.m., the earthquake happened.
Rumors of War
During the night of the earthquake we had strange weather. Before the quake, it was so hot that we could not fall asleep, but afterwards it became unbearably cold.
There was firewood piled up everywhere around the village. My parents took some and lit a fire for warmth. But soon soldiers came and ordered us to put out the fire. They said they were told by their superiors that war had broken out and enemy planes would soon fly over. If the enemy saw our fire, they might drop bombs on our village.
In fact, news broadcasts, and people, had been talking about a war that year. So people had been busy digging air-raid shelters down the mountains. The possibility of war was on our minds. Therefore, after the earthquake, many people believed that it was from a nuclear war between China and the Soviet Union. People thought that only a nuclear war could have such great destructive power and cause so many casualties.
Li Zude, the director of the Revolutionary Committee in Gaoda, said: “After the strong earthquake occurred, all 10 people in my family were buried under collapsed walls. The question occurred to me whether other countries had launched a war against our country, and as the director of the Revolutionary Committee, I should immediately gather the militia soldiers for battle.”
Pi Shaohan, a resident of Wujie Village, said: “Because it was said to be a war, we were not allowed to light fires at night, fearing the bombardment of enemy planes. It was completely dark everywhere … We rescued 121 people in the dark. Many people died because they were rescued too late.”
After the earthquake, the Chinese communist central government put forward the directives of “self-reliance, hard work, develop production, and rebuild homes.”
The communities in the disaster area were subjected to the “Three Nos”—no food relief, no relief funds, no relief goods.
The most resounding slogan at the time was, “One thousand supporters, or even ten thousand supporters, amount to nothing, but Mao Zedong Thought is the best support.”
Vehicles carrying massive numbers of books such as The Selected works of Mao Zedong, Quotations from Chairman Mao, Chairman Mao’s Poems, and Chairman Mao badges arrived. Also, over 143,000 consolation letters arrived from around the country for the 160,000 people in Tonghai.
As the earthquake disaster zone was sealed off, it completely blocked off international and domestic aid.
I remember after the earthquake we often shouted slogans such as: “We are not afraid of earthquakes! We are one thousand fearless! We are ten thousand fearless! What we lost in the earthquake, we will ask the earth for double repayment!”
However, after shouting slogans, people still had to face reality. With the loss of loved ones, and the difficulties of rebuilding destroyed homes, people were fearful and crying with grief.
Wu Guanggui, a Wujie villager, told me that after the earthquake, he was worried about the entire village having no food, so he and other village cadres borrowed about 250 kilograms of rice from the public granary. They cooked rice gruel to feed the survivors; this lasted until February, close to the Chinese New Year. The next fall they collected small amounts of grains from every family to pay off the borrowed rice.