“In the winter of 1556, an earthquake catastrophe occurred in the Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. In our Hua County, various misfortunes took place. Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a stream burst out in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden.”
– Translation of a Chinese study of historical earthquakes, 1990
It was, experts have determined, a 7.9 earthquake that radiated more than 300 miles from the epicenter at Hua in Shaanxi province. Cracks in the ground were as much as 60 feet deep. The aftershocks – three to five a week – lasted for six months.
More than 800,000 people died. Many of them lived in yaodongs, the artificial cave dwellings carved into the loess cliffs around the plain of Shaanxi.The silty soil that had accumulated there was mostly dust blown in from the Gobi desert. The yaodongs simply collapsed instantly.
Whether the great Shaanxi earthquake took place on January 23 or 24 – or, as the China Museum of Science tells us – on February 6, doesn’t really matter. It still ranks as the worst earthquake in history. It is also the third worst natural disaster – in terms of loss of life – in history and not surprisingly the first two also occurred in China. In 1931, between 1 and 2.5 million people died in floods Because the numbers are so imprecise, it’s possible that the runner-up might actually be first: between 1 and 2 million people died in the Yellow River floods of 1887.
In short, in just a little over 40 years, China lost somewhere between 2 and 4 million citizens. Today, the population of Shaanxi is about 37 million – and it’s only the 16th most populous province.
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Today is John Belushi’s birthday. Sorry – you have to click through, but here it is: