1976 Tangshan earthquake

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Tangshan earthquake
1976 Tangshan.png
UTC time Doublet earthquake:    
  A: 1976-07-27 19:42:55
  B: 1976-07-28 10:45:36
ISC event  
  A: 711732
  B: 711773
  A: ComCat
  B: ComCat
Local date 28 July 1976
Local time Peking time:
  A: 03:42
  B: 18:45
  A: 7.6 Mw; 7.6 Ms [1]
  B: 7.0 Mw; 7.4 Ms [2]
Depth A: 12.2 km[3]
B: 16.7 km[4]
Epicenter 39°38′N 118°06′E / 39.63°N 118.10°E / 39.63; 118.10 39°43′N 118°26′E / 39.72°N 118.44°E / 39.72; 118.44
Areas affected People's Republic of China
Casualties 242,769–700,000 dead (3rd deadliest earthquake of modern history)

The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, also known as the Great Tangshan earthquake,[5] was a natural disaster resulting from a magnitude 7.6 earthquake that hit the region around Tangshan (in Hebei, People's Republic of China) on July 28, 1976, at 3:42 in the morning. In minutes the city of Tangshen, an industrial city with approximately one million inhabitants, was effectively destroyed, and over 240,000 people killed.

The number of deaths initially reported by the Chinese government was 655,000, but this number has since been stated to be around 240,000 to 255,000.[6] Another report indicates that the actual death toll was much higher, at approximately 650,000, and explains that the lower estimates are limited to Tangshan and exclude fatalities in the densely populated surrounding areas.[7] A further 164,000 people were recorded as being severely injured.[8]

The earthquake occurred at a turbulent time in Chinese recent history, during a series of political events involving the Communist Party of China including the expulsion of the ruling Gang of Four by Mao Zedong's chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. In traditional Chinese thought, natural disasters are sometimes seen as precursors of dynastic change.[9]

The earthquake's main shock, with a magnitude of 7.6 Mw,[10], struck 28 July at 03:42 (Peking time).[11] Twelve aftershocks of magnitude six or greater then followed; the largest (Mw  7.0[12]) occurred 15 hours later about 50 km to the northeast.[13] The main shock occurred on the N 40° E trending Tangshan fault, which broke along an 8 km (5.0 mi) trace through the middle of Tangshan, with right-lateral strike-slip displacements of up to 1.5 meters. The main aftershock occurred about 50 km east on a north trending fault, with left-lateral strike-slip faulting. It is believed these were caused by east-west compression[14] as the Amurian Plate slides past the Eurasia Plate.[citation needed]


Buildings were flattened into rubble when the earthquake hit.

The high loss of life caused by the earthquake can be attributed[by whom?] to the time it struck and how suddenly it struck, as well as to the quality and nature of building construction in China. The earthquake lacked the foreshocks that sometimes come with earthquakes of this magnitude.[citation needed] It also struck at just before 4 a.m., when most people were asleep and unprepared. Tangshan itself was thought to be in a region with a relatively low risk of earthquakes. Very few buildings had been built to withstand an earthquake, and the city lies on unstable alluvial soil. Therefore, hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed.[citation needed]

The earthquake devastated the city over an area of roughly 6.5 kilometres (4.0 mi) by 8 kilometres (5.0 mi). Many of the people who survived the initial earthquake were trapped under collapsed buildings. Tremors were felt as far away as Xi'an, approximately 760 km (470 mi) away. Eighty-five percent of the buildings in the city were collapsed into ruins or became uninhabitable. The seismic waves spread far, with damage in cities such as Qinhuangdao and Tianjin, and a few buildings as far away as Beijing, 140 km from the epicenter, were damaged. The economic loss totaled to 10 billion yuan.[15]

Death toll

Controversial statistics

Until fairly recently, China's political environment has made it difficult to properly gauge the extent of natural disasters.[citation needed] Successive governments have placed more importance on the appearance of harmony rather than accurate information on damage.[citation needed] The Tangshan earthquake came at a rather politically sensitive time during the late stages of the Cultural Revolution, making accurate statistics especially difficult to find. The Tangshan earthquake killed 242,000 people according to official figures,[citation needed] though some sources estimate a death toll up to three times higher. This would make it the deadliest earthquake in modern times, and the second or third deadliest in recorded history. It is worth noting that the population of Tangshan at the time the quake struck was estimated to be around 1.6 million[16] and that most of Tangshan's city proper was flattened.

Many experts[according to whom?] believe the Chinese government has never released an accurate death toll for the disaster. The death toll figure of 242,419 came from the Chinese Seismological Service in 1988,[17] while some sources have estimated the death toll to be at 650,000. The initial estimates of 655,000 dead and 779,000 injured were released by Hebei Revolutionary Committee.[18]


A Tangshan earthquake memorial in Tianjin

The Chinese government refused to accept international aid from the United Nations, and insisted on self-reliance.[19] Shanghai sent 56 medical teams to Tangshan, in addition to the People's Liberation Army who were assisting while also trying to fix their tarnished image of Red Guard suppressors.[20] Rebuilding infrastructure started immediately in Tangshan, and the city was completely rebuilt. Today Tangshan city is home to nearly three million people and is known as "the Phoenix City".[citation needed]

Political aftermath

The earthquake came in one of the most dramatic years in the history of the People's Republic. The earthquake was preceded by the death of Zhou Enlai in earlier months and followed by the death of Mao Zedong in September. The political repercussions of the disaster and its aftermath contributed to the end of the Cultural Revolution. Mao's chosen successor Hua Guofeng showed concern, thereby solidifying his status as China's leader. He, along with Vice-Premier Chen Yonggui, made a personal visit to Tangshan on August 4 to survey the damage and was photographed in the tasks of cleaning up and comforting the survivors.[21]

Leaders who opposed the return of Deng Xiaoping, especially the group which became known as Gang of Four, filled the press with concern for the victims, but explicitly said that the nation should not be diverted by the earthquake, and that the priority was to denounce Deng instead. Jiang Qing was widely quoted as saying "There were merely several hundred thousand deaths. So what? Denouncing Deng Xiaoping concerns 800 million people."[22] Other Gang of Four slogans said: "Be alert to Deng Xiaoping's criminal attempt to exploit earthquake phobia to suppress revolution!"[23]


Within China's geography, the deadliest known earthquake in history occurred in 1556 in Shaanxi. The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake is estimated to have killed 830,000 people, although figures from this period are hard to verify.[24] The 1920 Haiyuan earthquake in Gansu Province killed an estimated 235,000. In 1927 another earthquake struck in the same area, this time at Xining; measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale, it resulted in 200,000 deaths. Among the earthquakes that caused an extreme loss of life in the same decade is the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, which killed 143,000 in Tokyo in 1923.[citation needed]

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was equally powerful at 8.0 on the Richter scale. However, it occurred in a mountainous region where relief efforts were noticeably hampered by the geographical make-up of the land nearby. Nevertheless, the Sichuan earthquake had a much quicker and more organized response system than Tangshan, as the political, social and technological environment was different. The Chinese government allowed international aid and open media access to the disaster area.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ ISC-EHB Event 711732 [IRIS].
  2. ^ ISC-EHB Event 711773 [IRIS].
  3. ^ ISC-EHB Event 711732 [IRIS].
  4. ^ ISC-EHB Event 711773 [IRIS].
  5. ^ So-called by numerous sources, of which the voluminous work edited by Housner & He (2002) is the most notable.
  6. ^ Spignesi 2005.
  7. ^ Palmer 2012, p. 236.
  8. ^ Stoltman, Lidstone & Dechano 2004.
  9. ^ Pelling & Dill 2006.
  10. ^ ISC-EHB Event 711732 [IRIS].
  11. ^ Lomnitz & Lomnitz 1978.
  12. ^ ISC-EHB Event 711732 [IRIS].
  13. ^ Lomnitz & Lomnitz 1978, p. 109.
  14. ^ Lomnitz & Lomnitz 1978.
  15. ^ Stoltman, Lidstone & Dechano 2004.
  16. ^ "1976: Chinese earthquake kills hundreds of thousands". News.bbc.co.uk. 28 July 1976. Retrieved 3 July 2018. 
  17. ^ Spignesi 2005.[better source needed]
  18. ^ Spence 1991.
  19. ^ Spence 1991.
  20. ^ Spence 1991.
  21. ^ Described in Palmer 2012, Ch.6, "I Live, You Die,".
  22. ^ Palmer (2012, p. 189) quoting from Jiaqi Yan,Gao Gao translated and edited by D.W.Y. Kwok., Turbulent Decade a History of the Cultural Revolution (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1996), p. 514.
  23. ^ Palmer 2012, p. 191.
  24. ^ [1][dead link]


  • "1976: Chinese earthquake kills hundreds of thousands", News.bbc.co.uk, 28 July 1976, retrieved 3 July 2018 .
  • Housner, George W.; He, Duxin, eds. (2002), Report On The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, Pasadena, California: Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory, California Institute of Technology . English translation of the Chinese report of 1986.
  • Lomnitz, Cinna; Lomnitz, Larissa (12 January 1978), "Tangshan 1976: a case history in earthquake prediction", Nature, 271: 109–111, doi:10.1038/271109a0 .
  • Palmer, James (2012), Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China, Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-01478-1 .
  • Pelling, Mark; Dill, Kathleen (2006), "'Natural' Disasters as Catalysts of Political Action" (PDF), Burmalibrary.org, ISP/NSC Briefing paper .
  • Spence, Jonathan (1991), The Search for Modern China, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-30780-8 .
  • Spignesi, Stephen J. (2005), "Chapter 15: The 1976 Tangshan, China, Earthquake", Catastrophe!: The 100 Greatest Disasters of All Time, ISBN 0-8065-2558-4 .
  • State Council Document No. 69, 29 June 1974, archived from the original on 2009-10-02, retrieved 2011-03-21 .
  • Stoltman, Joseph P.; Lidstone, John; Dechano, M. Lisa. (2004), International Perspectives On Natural Disasters, Springer Publishing, ISBN 1-4020-2850-4 .

Further reading

  • Qian Gang. The Great China Earthquake. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989. ISBN 7-119-00565-0.
  • James Palmer. Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-465-01478-1 (hardcover alk. paper) 9780465023493 (ebk. alk. paper).
  • Translation of the report on The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 Prepared by Earthquake Engineering Laboratory California Institute of Technology, 2002.

External links

  • "Integration of Public Administration and Earthquake Science: The Best Practice Case of Qinglong County" at GlobalWatch.org
  • The International Seismological Centre has a bibliography and/or authoritative data for this event.
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