Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sixteenth Century Earthquake

We have all been shocked to see the devastation and learn of the tremendous loss of life that occurred in China last week during the Sichuan earthquake. While reading about this current disaster, I was surprised to learn that the deadliest natural disaster, in terms of lives lost, was an earthquake that occurred in the Shaanxi province of China, not far from Sichuan, in the middle of the sixteenth century.

On  January 23, 1556, during the reign of Emperor Jianjing of the Ming Dynasty, a tremendous earthquake shook Shaanxi Province. Scientists have assigned a reading of 8-8.3 on the Richter scale to this quake. Although there have been quakes that have registered higher, no quake has resulted in more deaths. Based on historical records, an estimated 830,000 people are thought to have died. The destruction stretched over an area of 500 square miles; in some counties, over half the inhabitants perished. Many peasants of the time lived in cave dwellings carved into the soft silt cliffs; entire mountainsides collapsed, killing all inside the caves. Aftershocks continued for six months and fires raged for days. I doubt too many Europeans of the time learned of the disaster, but those involved in the spice and silk trade must surely have heard something. The Science Museums of China has information about the Shaanxi earthquake here.

As we pray for and send aid to the victims of the current catastrophe, let us remember the hundreds of thousands of people who died five centuries ago in eerily similar circumstances.


Anonymous said...

True, Julianne, natural disasters seem to repeat themselves. What changes, however, is the political response to them.
While the Chinese authorities are under some pressure due to the upcoming Olympics, I have been appalled by what has recently happened in Myanmar as well, and the atrocious reaction of the ruling junta.

Julianne Douglas said...

I agree, Catherine, the people of Myanamar are suffering needlessly. I hope our countries continue to pressure the junta to allow aid to reach the victims before it is too late.

cindy said...

wow, where do you find these tidbits, julianne? thanks for sharing. my mom said that the recent earthquake is in an area that never had earthquakes (in recent memory) and the people were totally unprepared for it. it's devastating.

Julianne Douglas said...

Do you have any family or friends in the area, Cindy? I'm so sad for all the families that have lost loved ones. And living in California, it's always scary to see the devastation earthquakes can cause.

I just stumbled upon the reference to the 1556 earthquake while I was reading about the present one. Some commentators were drawing comparisons because the intensities of the two quakes were similar.