Book Review: Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes
by James Palmer
Basic Books, 2012
Long before Shakespeare filled his Julius Caesar with cosmological portents of doom and had his distraught Casca say, “Either there is a civil strife in heaven/Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,/Incenses them to send destruction,” a Babylonian scribe in 323 B.C. wrote on his clay tablet that Alexander the Great had died – and followed it with the simple annotation, “Clouds.” Humans have always been disposed to link prodigies in the natural world with more mundane happenings on Earth. A comet heralded the Norman Conquest, and scripture has it there was a bright star over Bethlehem two thousand years ago. And since Earth is a constantly-thrashing madhouse of natural prodigies – monsoons, lightning, volcanic eruptions, heat waves – there’s almost always a natural prodigy ready to hand to signal divine disapproval. In this way droughts have brought down emperors, the plague was seen as a divine commentary on the licentiousness of Restoration London, and religious extremists still today still fix on every natural disaster as a mark of heavenly wrath.
Perhaps no natural prodigy is more harrowing than a powerful earthquake. Those who’ve lived through them comment on the feeling of absolute helplessness and of being swallowed in darkness (dust and dirt erupt skyward immediately, and walls cave in around their occupants). The seemingly indestructible municipal buildings and roads that withstood such a pounding only the day before buckle like paper, but their ruins are every bit as pitilessly solid. As James Parker writes in his immensely readable and engaging new book Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes, “Earthquakes are the most unnatural of natural disasters. They turn the world upside down. The ground beneath your feet disappears.”
Earthquakes (and their often even more powerful aftershocks) are his main subject – one in particular, the 7.8 magnitude quake that struck the busy northeastern Chinese industrial city of Tangshan in the early morning of 23 June, 1976, and did an extraordinary amount of damage in an extraordinarily short amount of time. The actual quake only lasted a few seconds, a brief duration that completely belies the amount of destructive energy released. “The 23 seconds of the earthquake were probably the most concentrated instant of destruction humanity has ever known,” according to Palmer. “In Tangshan alone it did more damage than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, more damage than the firebombings of Dresden or Hamburg or Tokyo, more damage than the explosion at Krakatoa. It took more lives in one fraction of north-east China than the 2004 tsunami did across the whole of the Indian Ocean.”
Many of Tangshan’s residents were worried about earthquakes – many paid specially close attention to pets and domestic animals, counting on the legendary ability of these creatures to detect a coming quake (a group of schoolgirls sent one of their number on a train trip to buy a goldfish for this purpose, although as Palmer points out, whether or not the fish did its duty is immaterial since the girls all went to bed – what was the poor fish supposed to do? Lean up out of its bowl and yell at them in Chinese?). And like so many earthquakes, the Tangshan disaster announced itself with brief but spectacular light-shows, something Palmer calls “a well documented but almost completely unexplained phenomenon” (“the best theories involve magnetic disruptions, the release of gases from the earth or the creation of sudden intense electrical fields,” he tells us, “but the possible mechanisms involved are little understood”). And after the light-show came the destruction, leaving “landmarks shifted willy-nilly and roads and rails twisted like noodles.” That destruction was lightning-fast – many witnesses reported having no time at all to run for safety – and as Palmer relates, “At the heart of the earthquake zone, the earth moved with such speed that the sides of trees facing the fault were burnt by the friction.”
Most people in Tangshan were caught completely unaware, deep asleep in the middle of the night. Travelers filling the city’s busy train station were trapped inside and showered with glass from its falling chandeliers before being crushed under its collapsing roof. 26-year-old mining student Zhu Yinlai was awakened in his dormitory by a loud cracking sound and barely had time to leap to the floor before a part of the roof came down, trapping him and his roommates. While he waited for rescue, he could hear his less fortunate roommates groaning in the darkness. “One boy was badly wounded,” Palmer writes, “his chest crushed. Zhu could hear him calling for help at first, then saying, to nobody in particular, ‘I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe.’ A few moments later he spoke softly again ‘Dying, dying, dying.’”
An enormous surge of wounded survivors immediately swamped all available help. In the hours after the quake, Tangshan’s air base took in as many as they could, “blood pooling underneath them in the rain,” but soon a grim practicality took over: “The doctors were forced to perform ruthless triage. ‘He’s too far gone, but him outside.’ Mothers, crazy with grief, brought in children who had died hours before.”
Initial government estimates put the death toll at 240,000, but that number, reflecting only the city of Tangshan itself, was, as Palmer says, “the lowest figure possible.” In the 1980s a new figure, accounting for migrant workers and casualties from the surrounding area, was put at 650,000. Palmer, who has spent a great deal of time living and writing in China, paints an affecting portrait of the present-day city and its memory of the catastrophe. “Every so often in Tangshan,” he writes of the living survivors, “you’ll see a man with a missing arm, or a woman walking on an artificial foot.”
In the aftermath of the quake and its attendant horrors, Palmer finds the intertwined secondary subject of his book, and he does so by making the very connection Chinese citizens were forbidden from making. “In Tangshan,” he reports, “the first thing the authorities were keen to crack down on was any claim that the disaster somehow foreshadowed the fall of the government or future calamities. With Mao dying and [Premier] Zhuo Enlai and [Marshal] Zhu De dead, the earthquake was rapidly worked into a narrative of a ‘disastrous year’, which implied more disasters to come. It was a direct challenge to the Mandate of Heaven, a blow struck at the very heart of the government’s legitimacy.” It’s a testament to the felicity of Palmer’s writing that he can raise the specter of such foreshadowing himself and also discount it. He uses the disaster as a wedge to pry open and study Mao’s China at a turning point.
About Mao himself, whose Great Leap Forward caused at least 50 million deaths from “artificial starvation,” Palmer is decidedly philosophical. “He’s respected as a national figure, not a Communist one,” he tells us. “It’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever stop being held up as a hero, but it’s equally unlikely that, outside of an idealistic or angry fringe, his bloody ideology will ever have the same sway.” The hated Gang of Four’s callousness is highlighted by the disaster, as Palmer observes, “Tangshan showed how removed the Gang was from the concerns of most Chinese. Later accounts claimed that, in private, they made remarks like, ‘The earthquake in Tangshan affected only one million people, of whom only a few hundred thousand died. It’s nothing compared to the criticism of Deng, which is a matter of eight hundred million people.’” But although only one high-ranking government official visited Tangshan in the wake of the earthquake, Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes doesn’t give the impression of a tottering regime. Trucks of aid and supplies poured into Tangshan in the days following the disaster, hospitals and pensions were established for the survivors, and work was begun to re-establish essential services. Palmer relates all of this with a refreshing lack of the cant that typifies too many characterizations of 20th Century China. Whether he’s writing about events at the turn of the century of relaying the contents of survivor-interviews he took recently, he gives a welcome human dimension to the people involved. “There’s an oddly persistent myth in both China and the West that the Chinese are unusually passive, that they easily accept oppression or are naturally willing to bow down to power,” he tells us. “It’s never been true; open any chapter of Chinese history and uprisings, revolts and dissenting intellectuals leap from the pages.”
In the end, this is a far more convincing – and winning – portrait of a stricken city than it is an examination-in-miniature of Mao’s ailing China on the eve of Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of commercial relationships with the West. The great quake underscored more than anything the apparently universal human instinct to help those who’ve experienced gigantic, impersonal disaster. That instinct began very local: the people of Tangshan were digging out both friends and strangers – in the absence of heavy machinery, with their bare hands – long before outside help began arriving.