Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes

The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China


By James Palmer

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When an earthquake of historic magnitude leveled the industrial city of Tangshan in the summer of 1976, killing more than a half-million people, China was already gripped by widespread social unrest. As Mao lay on his deathbed, the public mourned the death of popular premier Zhou Enlai. Anger toward the powerful Communist Party officials in the Gang of Four, which had tried to suppress grieving for Zhou, was already potent; when the government failed to respond swiftly to the Tangshan disaster, popular resistance to the Cultural Revolution reached a boiling point.

In Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes, acclaimed historian James Palmer tells the startling story of the most tumultuous year in modern Chinese history, when Mao perished, a city crumbled, and a new China was born.


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For Claudia He, who is incomparable

Students at the Tangshan Public Library, 1962. Tangshan City Museum
Tangshan's railway station, among the first in China, in the 1930s. Tangshan City Museum
A clock at the Tangshan Coal Power Station shows the exact time the earthquake hit. Chang Qing
Ruined factories in Tangshan, July 1976. Chang Qing
Aerial view of the ruined city. Chang Qing
Local Party committee members hand out food. Chang Qing
A political message atop the damaged sailor's club in Qinhuangdao. Tangshan Earthquake Museum
Tangshan's rail track, ruined by the quake. Chang Qing
Two images of PLA soldiers hurrying to aid the stricken city. Tangshan Earthquake Museum
PLA soldiers haul rubble in Tangshan. Tangshan Earthquake Museum
Tangshan residents and rescuers in the Xiaoshan district. Chang Qing
The People's Liberation Army struggles to recover survivors. Chang Qing
Survivors walk through a cleared path in early August 1976. Tangshan Earthquake Museum
Clothing hangs among reconstructed houses. Chang Qing
Children study in an open-air classroom among the ruins of Tangshan. Chang Qing
Tangshan students learn 'Father is good, mother is good, but Chairman Mao is best.' Tangshan Earthquake Museum
Hua Guofeng is applauded by city officials on a visit to Tangshan, 1978. Chang Qing

Tangshan is an ordinary Chinese provincial city, a two-McDonald's town of heavy industry, factories and cheap hotels. Building work is everywhere, the pavements are cracked and broken, and the ubiquitous dust of the Hebei plains ruins clothes and electronics. Thirty-five years ago, its population of one million people made it one of China's larger cities. Today it is double the size it was in 1976, but there are dozens of bigger conurbations.
Migrant workers, brought in busloads from the countryside, huddle around small fires in the night to cook their noodles. They live in tents near the construction sites, where they labour for a few dollars a day. Anyone with ambition or education, however, tends to make their way to Beijing or Tianjin; nobody studying at the local universities plans to remain, unless they have a promise of a very well-paid, or well-connected, job. The city is run by the normal coalition of businessmen, gangsters and officials, a network of relationships smoothed by cash, drink and girls.
The only remarkable thing about Tangshan is that it exists at all. On 28 July 1976, the city was flattened in the space of a few minutes, all but obliterated in one of the world's worst earthquakes.
For many Chinese, though, the Tangshan disaster was only one small part of the 'cursed year' of 1976. It was the last of the 'ten years of chaos' spurred by the Cultural Revolution. As Mao Zedong lay dying in the capital, his potential successors squabbled around him. The Cultural Revolution had frequently exploded into outright battles between different factions, bloody street fights that left hundreds dead at a time. Tens of thousands more had been killed in political persecutions. Beijing was split between potential reformers and the fanatics who had ridden the chaos to power.
The Chinese have many sayings about the relationship between Heaven and Earth, and between high politics and everyday life. One of them is 'The heavens crack, and the earth shakes'. As Maoist rule in China cracked that year, the second part of the saying came true in all too literal – and lethal – a fashion.
Maoism claimed to be a people's movement: the very name of the new China, the People's Republic of China (PRC), proclaimed it. The Cultural Revolution could never have happened without Mao's ability to tap into popular discontent and turn it to his own ends. By the end of his life, however, the public was sick of violence, disorder and fanaticism. While the leadership in Beijing was locked in battles over the succession, the people spoke, launching mass protests that played a critical part in determining the future of the country.
A terrible year, it was also a turning point; it was the year that China began to recover, and that the relative normalcy, peace and prosperity of modern Tangshan, and the rest of China, was achieved. This is the story of 1976 in China, of the fights to determine the fate of a country of 800 million people, and of how over half a million of them lost their lives in the middle of that struggle.


Chinese statistics, even today, are inherently unreliable. This is partly due to the size of the country, and partly due to the systematic mispresentation of statistics by local governments for political purposes. I have an acquaintance whose job is to provide economic growth figures for the county where he's employed as a low-level (but fast-tracked) government official; when I asked him how he gets them, he told me, quite simply, that he makes them up. With performance evaluation linked to GDP growth and little independent or external oversight, the motivation for local officials to deceive is enormous.
Take something seemingly as simple as population. How many Chinese are there? The official estimate of China's population is 1.3 billion, but the real figure is likely somewhere between 1.4 and 1.5 billion, perhaps even higher. Apart from size and inefficiency, the root cause of this is the One Child Policy, which has produced tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of unregistered births.
It has also induced local family planning officials systematically to under-report population growth in order to make it seem as if they're doing a better job. (The One Child Policy has had a striking effect on reducing family size, but anyone with rural acquaintances will find that they usually have two or three siblings; it's just not the seven or eight it would have been in the past.) Grassroots officials report fake numbers to their superiors, who massage the statistics when giving them to their bosses, who in turn tweak them further to meet the regional or provincial goals they've been set, and by the time the figures reach the top their relationship with reality is tenuous at best.
The situation in 1976, with the country barely recovering from one of its most chaotic decades and much of the countryside deeply isolated, was even worse. In 1976, the National Bureau of Statistics in Beijing had forty-eight people to cope with the whole of China, and the political motive for lying about figures was even stronger than today. All statistics in this book, save for those gathered directly from the lowest levels, therefore have to be taken with a grain of salt. I've noted likely biases and made estimates of what the actual numbers might be at various points, but these are extremely loose guesses for the most part.
All names are given in the Chinese style of family name first, and in Pinyin, the standard romanisation system developed in the PRC in the 1950s. Unfortunately, this system was largely based around Russian sounds, which can make it a tad unintuitive for English-speakers.
Unfootnoted direct quotations are taken from interviews conducted in Tangshan or Beijing during 2009 – 11. It was rare for interviewees to consent to being recorded, and so I wrote up the accounts from my notes as soon as I could afterwards, checking details by follow-up phone calls where possible. Speaking to strangers is still not easy in China, though the situation has improved immeasurably from the past. Many of my Tangshan interviewees preferred to remain anonymous, or wanted to give only a last name; I have occasionally given people invented personal names for the sake of readability, since the Chinese journalistic habit of 'a witness surnamed Zhang' sounds distinctly odd in English.
The technical terms in 1976 for rural communities were 'communes', for those containing roughly 15,000 – 25,000 people, and 'brigades', which had around 600 – 1,200, but I've chosen instead to talk of 'towns' and 'villages', and ignored the technicalities of administrative divisions in many cases for the sake of ease of reading. Equally, many senior figures held numerous titles and official positions; I've given only the most important or immediately relevant.
It seems redundant to point this out, but China is a very large place, and the Chinese an extraordinarily diverse people. When I say 'the Chinese' or 'Chinese culture', please take it as read that there are numerous exceptions, counter-examples and regional idiosyncrasies in whatever statement follows.

1 Who will protect us now?
On 9 January 1976, He Jianguo left Tangshan and took the train to buy a goldfish. She had been the only girl in her dormitory able to get time off that day, and her dorm-mates had picked her to go and get a pet – not for pleasure, but as an alarm system.
There had been at least two moderate earthquakes in the region every year for the previous six years; some of the older people said quietly it was a sign that things were bad in China. So Jianguo and the others had, like thousands of people in Tangshan, decided to get a goldfish, based on media reports that animals could predict earthquakes.
Cats or dogs were difficult to keep, especially in the city, and to find food for, but fish were easy enough. If it got agitated, Jianguo reasoned, she would know a quake was coming and at least she could get outside. But goldfish were too much of a luxury item to be bought in Tangshan. You had to go up to Tianjin on the train.
It was a long trip, but a nice break for Jianguo. Most people on the train were wrapped in long grey-green overcoats, made in army-imitation cut; there was no heating and the carriages were freezing. She didn't talk with her fellow passengers much, but stared out of the window at the beautiful white fields, munching sesame seeds.
She had tramped through half a foot of snow, grey with pollution from the Tangshan factories, to get to the railway station in the first place. It still beat her job as a secretary for a ceramics factory, spending the whole day copying documents by hand or bringing people tea. Nor was there much to do in her spare time, and she was bored with political rallies, books and opera.
Sometimes it was fun to get together and chant slogans and bang drums, but most of the time it was just another work obligation. You couldn't even play cards or mah-jongg, considered signs of degenerate gambling. Only two of the girls in the dorm had proper boyfriends, and they rarely found time or space to be with them.
There was no make-up, and hairdressers barely went beyond chopping for length, and so the girls wore their hair in the same long, thick plaits, and tried to make themselves pretty with ribbons or artificial flowers. In the winter you could have snowball fights at least, but it was too cold to spend a lot of time outside, so gossip was the main pastime, though this could be nasty, even lethal, when it turned to certain topics. Quite apart from politics, illicit sex, especially adultery, could get you years in prison if people found out.
Like many of her generation, born in the patriotic fervour of the fifties, she had a name that aspired to great things. Jianguo – 'Build the country!' She had wanted to go to a university, but they had been closed down in 1970. Now only technical and political colleges were still open. Missing her chance to go to university was only one way the years of chaos had affected her life. Although the Cultural Revolution had started when she was only eleven, in 1966, she never lost the sense of it being something unnatural, an overturning of the right order.
She remembered seeing a box of gold in her home town, crafted into gold bricks and delicate leaves, pulled out of a waste pipe by a sewer worker. Someone had flushed it down there, knowing that if they were caught with it in their house, it would be taken as a sign of hoarding, of counter-revolutionary feeling or even be imagined to be a foreign bribe to a spy. A small crowd was gathered round, mouths open at the gold shining through the shit, but nobody wanted to pick it up. It could have bought half the town in ordinary times; now it offered only the chance of shame or death.
When she was a girl, she had shouted slogans – 'Destroy the Four Olds!', 'Victory to Chairman Mao!' – along with the other 'little Red Guards' in her school. Her older brothers and sisters1 had been Red Guards proper, rampaging about China in the late sixties before Mao decided to curb them in turn, after which they had found themselves sent off to the countryside to 'learn from the peasants'.
At least she had an idea where her older siblings were. One girl in her work unit was from a big village in the north-eastern province of Liaoning. From there, all the students over fourteen had gone to Beijing in 1967, travelling for free on the train, as Mao had promised. Nobody in the village had ever heard from them again.
Jianguo's uncle, who worked in Tangshan, had managed to secure her a job there. Now she lived with seven other girls in a cold room in a twenty-year-old block-built building. In the winter, when their coal ration ran out, they would sleep together under the blankets like rabbits in a burrow.
All of them were thin and small; when they were children, the famine caused by collectivisation was at its worst, and they were malnourished and stunted. These days there was barely enough, and they ate in the communal canteen, a steady, dull diet of rice and vegetables. China had been on rationing for over twenty years. People traded ration tickets for favours, sweets, or sex sometimes, but Jianguo and the other girls were able to get by on theirs.
When she arrived in Tianjin, she saw the faces of some people were red with crying, and white banners hung everywhere. For a few minutes she wondered who they were for. So many of the Party's leaders were sick and old. Then she saw Zhou Enlai's face embroidered on one of the banners, and felt sad for a moment. She had liked the Prime Minister; he seemed kind, like an uncle. There wasn't time to mourn, though. She bought the goldfish from an old peasant woman, paying two mao2 for it, and gingerly carried it in a bag back to the train station. She decided to call it Xiao Hong, 'Little Red', a good revolutionary name. It would be nice to feel safe.
The radio announcement was made that morning, but Zhou Enlai had died the day before. It was not unexpected; he had had bowel cancer for years. Foreign governments hurried to pay their regards. A dapper, handsome man, he had studied in Paris when young, like so many Asian communists, and spoke French fluently, and a couple of other languages too. Well-read and cosmopolitan, he was always the acceptable face of the regime, delighting diplomats with his gnomic wisdom, an Oriental sage ever-ready with a comment on Lenin or Dickens or the French Revolution. Over the last years he had entertained over a thousand foreign delegations, from the Young Pioneers of Hungary to US Republican Congressmen.
In private, he had lived in fear, pain and regret. In some ways, death must have been a relief. He had seen his oldest allies in the government systematically disposed of by Mao and his clique during the course of the last ten years. Among the first and most significant was Liu Shaoqi, one-time president of China and an old comrade of Mao and Zhou; he had been publicly castigated for a year before being placed under arrest as a 'traitor, spy and renegade'. After two years of humiliation, he was, according to some accounts, stripped of his clothes and locked in a bank vault, where he died of exposure; it was several weeks before his naked, vomit-smeared body was brought out.
Many of those killed had stood up to Mao over his disastrous agricultural and industrial policies and subsequent war on peasant 'hoarders' in the 1950s. This was the so-called 'Great Leap Forward', intended to transform Chinese agriculture and industry, but which had instead resulted in at least thirty-two million deaths by famine, and perhaps over fifty million. Peng Dehuai, the fiery, brilliant peasant general who in 1959 had confronted Mao directly over the famine, losing his army positions as a result, was arrested in 1966. He was beaten so badly that half the bones in his body were broken and his liver permanently damaged.
Zhou had done nothing to stop the Great Leap Forward himself. But he had done what he could to protect Peng and others, sending soldiers to escort and protect Peng after his arrest. Even in his lowest moment, Peng had reacted strongly to news that Zhou had described him as a 'comrade', putting his head into his hands and shaking with emotion. But in the long run Zhou had been able to do nothing to protect him from numerous public humiliations and torture. At one public 'struggle session', the crowd had broken Peng's ribs, leaving him to be carried in agony back to his cell. He'd been under house arrest, denied doctors, till he died in 1974.
Zhou's other attempts to save old comrades were no more successful. After the old general He Long personally pleaded with him, he let him into his house for protection, but ended up putting his own stamp on a document approving the case against He. The best he could do for Zhang Linzhi, the minister for coal and mining, was to order an autopsy on his body after he was either beaten to death or driven to suicide.
And Zhou had betrayed people, slavishly proclaiming his own devotion to Mao. He wrote statements he knew to be lies, proclaiming that Liu was 'a big traitor, big scab, big spy, big foreign agent and collaborator who sold out the country. He is full of the five poisons and a counter-revolutionary guilty on more than ten accounts!'3 Towards the end, he was haunted by his memories of failure and collaboration. He dreamt of Chen Yi, an old friend purged in 1969. 'Chen and I were half way up a hill . . . Chen slipped and fell, and I couldn't grab him in time. Then both of us tumbled together over a cliff.'4
For ten years before his death, Zhou had feared his own end was near. Mao sadistically subjected him to a series of petty ordeals, such as swapping out his chair at diplomatic meetings and forcing him to sit, racked with pain, on a hard backless seat. Denying his rivals medical treatment was one of Mao's favourite tricks, and after Zhou was diagnosed with cancer he suddenly found it hard to get pain medication and reliable doctors. There was an unstated rule that any major operation among the elite of the Party had to be approved by the Central Committee, due to the time it would remove them from work, meaning that Zhou, like others, was also medically hostage to the Chairman's whims.
Then there was the political harassment. The 'Criticise Lin Biao, Criticise Confucius' campaign, launched in 1974 and seemingly eschewing the values of the Chinese past, was in fact aimed at Zhou and made constant reference to the 'slave state of Zhou', ostensibly referring to an early Chinese kingdom praised by Confucius. This kind of historical – cultural code was common in Chinese politics, especially during the Cultural Revolution, one of the first salvos of which was an attack on a play about honest Ming officials, which was taken to refer to Peng Dehuai's criticism of Mao during the Great Leap Forward.5
The Chinese language itself, with characters that could be altered with one stroke into a new meaning, contributed to this kind of coded reading, which infected everyday life. Even among half-literate villagers, accidentally miswriting a character could be read as evidence of counter-revolutionary feeling, leading to humiliation, exile or death.
But Zhou remained too respected, and too popular with the public, for Mao to dispose of him completely. He and the rest of the Party elite targeted by Mao were hardly innocents. Zhou had done his share of political purging and execution in the twenties, thirties and forties, during the bitter internecine struggles in the revolutionary movement, and he and the others had had no objections to the mass murders of 'rich peasants', 'bandits' and 'traitors to the Chinese people' carried out after 1949. They had also been complicit in supporting Mao to begin with, and in creating a system which allowed his personality cult and murderous ideology to take root. From the start of the Cultural Revolution Zhou had reluctantly been pressed into backing Mao in persecuting others, and his own writings, when not tuned to please a Western audience, expressed the usual vicious banalities against 'counter-revolutionaries' and 'class enemies'.
Mao's motivations in launching the Cultural Revolution had been manifold. It was an opportunity to cleanse the Party leadership of those who had turned against him in the Great Leap Forward, mostly military men who were getting above themselves. It was a chance, too, for him to solidify an already developing personality cult. But there was also an ideological, or at least psychological, element. Mao delighted in being the one constant amidst the chaos, seeing it as a cleansing and purifying force. He took joy in turning the world upside down. It helped that he had an utter disregard for ordinary people's lives – although, like all dictators, he occasionally practised sentimentalities on those around him, asking after their families and arranging small favours – and firmly believed that you couldn't make an omelette without killing a few hundred thousand people.
Compared to millions, Zhou had it lucky. Outside the central leadership, any number of his habits, from his love of art to his contacts with the hated Nationalists (Guomindang) in Taiwan and his fluency and delight in foreign languages, not to mention his general air of cosmopolitanism, would have been enough to get him tarred 'black', in contrast to revolutionary 'red'.
Mobs harassed, tortured and murdered people for wearing too much hair pomade, for having studied in Europe, for having a globe of the world (for who needed to know about anything outside China?), for having had a Nationalist husband, wife or brother, for once owning land and so on. Anyone with any pretensions to intellectualism suffered.
If Zhou had been a schoolteacher or a writer, or even a regular Party cadre, he might well have ended up kicked to death on the street, or hanging himself to escape months of relentless persecution, insults and forced self-criticism. At the least he would have been shamed, forced on the streets wearing a dunce's hat and with a mocking billboard around his neck, made to clean the toilets in a commune or to break rocks in a quarry. His statues would have been smashed, his books burnt, his writings ripped to shreds – mostly by childish mobs barely out of their teens, egged on by the words of Chairman Mao.
Yet, for many ordinary Chinese, Zhou was seen as a great protector, almost a protective deity. His wife, Deng Yingchao, couldn't have children. She had had an abortion as a young revolutionary worker, without telling Zhou, fearing that pregnancy would detract from her ability to carry out the work of the Party, and then suffered a miscarriage when fleeing from a Nationalist purge. She was childless and not particularly attractive, but unusually for the Communist elite, and Chinese men generally, he had not divorced her. This added considerably to his reputation as a wise moderate, a man of Confucian virtue and strength. So did his patrician ways; he had the manner of a benevolent court official of some earlier dynasty. He claimed to see the people of China as his children, and this paternal benevolence seemed very real to many, who called him 'Father of the Country' – a term never applied to Mao. He occupied the same pedestal in people's minds as Ataturk in Turkey or that Nelson Mandela would in post-apartheid South Africa.
During the worst times of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou did what he could to protect the temples, old city walls and palaces of Beijing and elsewhere, deploying People's Liberation Army (PLA) units loyal to him to guard sites such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven from mobs of Red Guards. Over most issues, though, he kow-towed to Mao, and he saved more monuments than people. Nevertheless, his reputation as a moderate, as a sane, wise man in these times of chaos, endured.
Zhou enjoyed much popular affection, but it paled compared to Mao's own personality cult. From the very start of the PRC, Mao's portrait had been placed in the centre of even small and remote villages. 'Mao Zedong thought' was a compulsory topic of discussion for everyone from scientists to schoolchildren.
After the Cultural Revolution began, devotion to Mao reached new heights. His 'Little Red Book' of quotations was compulsory reading – five billion were printed, enough for every citizen to own six copies. Terms previously reserved for emperors, like wansui ('Live ten thousand years!') were now appropriated for Mao, and his statues went up in every square.
Mao was turned from leader into god. Wherever his image appeared, it had to be 'red, bright, and shining'. In posters, he transformed from a saintly but still human figure, blessing troops or workers, to a disembodied head floating above the people, the 'sun which makes all things grow'. His portraits spread from public areas to private homes, where they often occupied the spot previously kept for household deities. Like Muslims offering daily prayers, people 'asked for instructions in the morning, thanked Mao at noon, and reported back at night', each time bowing three times before Mao's portrait or bust, reading from his works, and stretching their arms in praise.
Three portraits had decorated most homes in the sixties: Zhou, Mao and Lin Biao, the then vice-chairman of the Party. Lin had been one of the most spectacularly successful Communist generals, a close ally and slavish sycophant of Mao's, and a prominent supporter of the leftists when the Cultural Revolution began. But his portrait had come down overnight in September 1971. His own efforts to consolidate his power base in the military, while systematically undercutting and persecuting other leading generals, had made others, including Mao, nervous. They set out to undermine him in turn.


On Sale
Jan 3, 2012
Page Count
296 pages
Basic Books

James Palmer

About the Author

James Palmer is a Senior Editor at Foreign Policy and the author of two previous books: The Bloody White Baron and Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes. He is a recipient of the Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul Prize for travel writing. He currently lives in Beijing and will be moving to Washington D.C. in 2019.

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