The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 lasted only fifteen seconds but was one of the worst natural disasters of all time. The earthquake, possibly the deadliest in recorded history depending on the source consulted—the central government did not release death toll figures for three years—is considered symbolic of the end of Mao’s era in Chinese history.

The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 killed 255,000 people and injured more than 160,000 in the city of Tangshan in northern China’s Hebei Province. The earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.5, occurred directly under Tangshan at a depth of 8 kilometers at 3:42 a.m. on 28 July. Over 90 percent of Tangshan’s buildings were flattened, and economic losses were estimated at 3 billion yuan (US $375 million). The earthquake lasted only about fifteen seconds. It was followed by an aftershock of magnitude 7.1 about fifteen hours later. The tremors caused damage in cities as far away as Beijing, Qinhuangdao, and Tianjin. The Chinese government did not report a death toll until 1979, after economic reform had begun.

Although the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) lists the official death toll at 255,000, it estimates that the death toll may have reached as high as 655,000. That figure would make the Tangshan earthquake the deadliest in modern times and the second deadliest in recorded history. The 2004 Sumatra earthquake in Indonesia killed 283,106, and the Kanto earthquake in Japan killed 142,800 in 1923. The earthquake of 12 May, 2008 in Sichuan Province is estimated to have killed 87,000 people and was the nineteenth deadliest in recorded history.

TABLE 1 Most Destructive Earthquakes on Record

1 Shaanxi China 1556 830,000 8
2 Sumatra Indonesia 2004 227,898 9.1
3 Tangshan China 1976 255,000 7.5
4 Aleppo Syria 1138 230,000 *
5 Damghan Iran 856 200,000 *
6 Ningxia, Gansu China 1920 200,000 7.8
7 Ardabil Iran 893 150,000 *
8 Kanto Japan 1923 142,800 7.9
9 Ashgabat USSR 1948 110,000 7.3
10 Chihli China 1290 100,000 *
*Magnitude unknown.
NOTE: Although the 1556 Shaaxi earthquake is estimated to have killed 830,000 people, figures from this period are hard to verify.
Source: United States Geological Survey.. (n.d.). Most destructive known earthquakes on record in the world. Retrieved March 28, 2008, from http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/world/most_destructive.php

Aid Refused

In 1976 the chief members of a radical political faction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), known as the “Gang of Four,” considered natural disasters a domestic issue and regarded the refusal of aid and sympathy from the international community as an opportunity to “display the socialist system’s superiority of being self-reliant” (Rong, 2006).

The Chinese government has changed its attitude after more than three decades of economic reform. When the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic rocked China and the rest of the world in 2003, the Chinese government joined with worldwide medical and scientific experts to prevent and control the killer disease. China received international aid of $37.5 million, including medical equipment and epidemic prevention materials, from nearly thirty countries, international organizations, and foreign companies. On 12 May 2008, during the Great Sichuan Earthquake, which killed near 70,000 people, the Chinese government also made a great effort to receive international aid and to allow the media the freedom to report the disaster.

After the Tangshan earthquake the Chinese government’s efforts at relief were criticized as inadequate. The government also was criticized for having ignored scientists’ warnings of the need to prepare for an earthquake. Even today earthquake prediction is far from accurate.

The Tangshan earthquake was one event in what came to be referred to in China as the “Curse of 1976.” At the time any extraordinary natural phenomenon, whether snow in summer or droughts in spring, earthquakes or insect plagues, was interpreted as a sign of the displeasure of heaven, indicating that the Mandate of Heaven, which bestowed legitimacy on the Chinese ruling group, might be withdrawn. Enormous political significance was attached to the Tangshan earthquake. In the early 1970s the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) had placed the country in a state of social and ideological anarchy. The leadership took great pains to explain away any political significance that might be attached to expressions of cosmic displeasure. For many Chinese the Tangshan earthquake indicated that important developments were about to take place. Many people in Tangshan reported seeing strange lights (so-called earthquake lights) the night before the earthquake. The “Curse of 1976” was also identified with the deaths of Premier Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) in January, Communist military leader and statesman Zhu De (1886–1976) in July, and CCP leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) in September, and with the arrest the Gang of Four in October. The power struggle between Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, and CCP leader Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) began in 1976 as well.

From Rubble to Recovery

Today more than 7 million people live in the 134,720-square-kilometer Tangshan municipal area, including an urban population of 3 million. By 2006 Tangshan’s gross domestic product had increased to 236.2 yuan, ranking first in Hebei Province. In 2006 the per capita disposable income for urban residents was 12,376 yuan ($6,514) and 5,155 yuan ($2,713) for rural residents.

On 28 July 2006 President Hu Jintao visited Tangshan to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the earthquake. In July 2007 the Chinese government, along with the Architectural Society of China, decided that a memorial park would be built on the earthquake ruins; as of 2008, applications for design ideas were still being accepted. The park will cover about 40 hectares around the ruined site of the Tangshan Rolling Stock Plant. The park will be a museum of earthquake science and will provide a place for the public to pay tribute to earthquake victims.

Further Reading

(2006, July 28). China marks Tangshan earthquake. BBC News. [Television broadcast]. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Li Jinfang. (1991). Social responses to the Tangshan earthquake. Unpublished manuscript. University of Delaware Disaster Research Center.

Liu Huixian, Housner, G. W., Lili Xie, & Duxin He. (2002). The great Tangshan earthquake of 1976 (Monograph). Pasadena: California Institute of Technology.

Rong Jiaojiao. (2006, July 27). 30 years after Tangshan earthquake, China’s attitude toward int’l aid changes. Xinhua General News, 1.

Tangshan City Government (2008). Zhongguo Tangshan [Chinese Tangshan]. Retrieved July 31, 2008, from http://www.tangshan.gov.cn/

United States Geological Survey. (n.d.). Most destructive known earthquakes on record in the world. Retrieved December 29, 2008, from http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/world/most_destructive.php

Wang Wenlan. (2006). Tangshan earthquake: Unforgotten history. China Daily. Retrieved August 20, 2007, from http://www.Chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006-07/26/conent_649955.htm

Source: Suganuma, Unryu (2009). Tangshan Earthquake, Great. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2192–2193. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Tangshan Earthquake, Great (Tángsh?n Dà Dìzhèn ?????)|Tángsh?n Dà Dìzhèn ????? (Tangshan Earthquake, Great)

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