Tangshan remembers its dead

Updated: 2016-07-29 08:03

By Luo Wangshu(China Daily Europe)

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Before traveling to Tangshan, Hebei province, I watched the Chinese movie Aftershock, which tells the story of the 1976 earthquake. I cried so much, I used up two packs of tissues.

I asked 68-year-old Deng Yaping, a former soldier in the communications corps of the People's Liberation Army who was paralyzed in the quake, for her opinion of the movie. "It was not even close to what really happened that night. The reality is beyond people's imaginations," she says.

Walking along the streets, I was struck by the number of posters promoting the 40th anniversary of the earthquake. They were everywhere - grim reminders that the city was wiped out in just one night.

"One-third killed, one-third injured and one-third survived" - that's the widely believed local maxim about casualty numbers, and almost every Tangshan resident has painful memories of the magnitude 7.8 quake. In actuality, closer to one-fourth of the city's 1 million people died, still a horrifying number.

On July 28 every year, people burn paper money in every corner of Tangshan, a folk ritual by which offerings are made to deceased loved ones. These street scenes are Tangshan's shrine to its dead.

Tangshan remembers its dead

In my experience, when bad things happen, people complain and show their weaknesses, but when I spoke with people who were paralyzed, fathers who lost daughters, sons who lost mothers, and sisters who lost brothers, not one of them saw the world through gloomy eyes.

Zhang Baozhong, 79, stared at the monument in a memorial park, looking for his daughter's name. "I thought I remembered her position, but I am not very sure now. I'm getting old," he says.

When I remind him that he could check the name with the park's reception, he replies: "No need to bother them. I can find my own daughter".

His 11-year-old daughter died in the quake. "I have two other children. They are good to me, and I am good to them. I have nothing to complain about," he says. "What I cannot forget is that my eldest daughter was not able to have a better life. We were poor back then."

Before the quake, Deng, the former soldier, could "climb trees, mountains and telegraph poles", and she could carry 40 kilograms of wire during exercises.

Because she shares her name with an Olympic table tennis champion, Deng likes to play the game from her wheelchair. "I deserve the name," she says, waving her paddle above the table.

During the quake, Deng held her son, then 1 year old, in her arms to protect him. Later, when she knew she would never walk again, she divorced her husband to "set him free to pursue happiness". They are still friends.

"After the quake, some medical experts predicted that people who had been paralyzed would live only for about 15 more years. It was a death sentence. Without people caring for me, I would already be dead," she says.

What pleases her the most is visiting her 10-year-old granddaughter. "I always tell my granddaughter that granny has little strength to repay people for their kindness, so living a good life is my payment to society, to the people who loved and cared for me," she says.

Zhang Yu contributed to this story.

(China Daily European Weekly 07/29/2016 page16)