Little Bits of History

Shaanxi Earthquake

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 23, 2010

Shaanxi Earthquake with epicenter in red and areas affected in yellow

January 23, 1556: The deadliest earthquake on record. Approximately 830,000 people were killed in Shaanxi, China when a 520-mile wide area that cut across  97 counties was destroyed. Death tolls were as high as 60% of the population for some counties, most of whom lived in artificial caves cut into loess cliffs.

By today’s calculations, the earthquake measured about an 8 on the moment magnitude scale or 8.6 on the Richter scale. It was the fifth deadliest natural disaster on record. The quake struck during the reign of Jiajink Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (which coincidently began on this day as well – see link at end) and is therefore called the Jiajing Great Earthquake in China.

Writing at the time indicates that the ground shifted, causing hills to form where none had been before and valleys were cut into once even ground. Rivers changed course and roads were destroyed. Forty of the 114 steles [stone carvings] in the Forest of Stone were broken. The Small Wild Good Pagoda in Xi’an shrunk from 45 meters to 43.4 meters. Also destroyed were the Loess caves in the Loess Plateau. Over eons, silt-like soil was deposited by windstorms and a soft clay formed. Caves were formed over millions of years. However, the soil was highly susceptible to erosion. During the quake, the caves collapsed and after the event mudslides destroyed even more real estate.

Qin Keda, a scholar, survived the earthquake and wrote, “At the very beginning of the earthquake, people indoors should not go out immediately. Just crouch down and wait for chances. Even if the nest is collapsed, some eggs in it may still be kept intact.” This seems to be telling of many who were killed trying to escape while some who stayed in the caves survived. The death toll was extremely high, but even worse was the devastation of an entire region of inner China. As we see with earthquakes today, recovery takes a long time.

“An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain – the equality of all men.” – Ignazio Silon

“Which would you rather have, a bursting planet or an earthquake here and there?” – John Joseph Lunch

“Stupidity is an elemental force for which no earthquake is a match.” – Karl Kraus

“Inhabitants of underdeveloped nations and victims of natural disasters are the only people who have ever been happy to see soy beans.” – Fran Lebowitz

Also on this day, in 1368 the Ming Dynasty began.