New homes, new lives rise from the ruins
It’s common in China that newly married couples want to move into a new house. But for earthquake victim Bu Zhena, the apartment in Beichuan Qiang autonomous county in Sichuan province was more than a house. It represented a new life.
Bu, a divorced mother, lost her only son in the magnitude-8 earthquake that struck Beichuan on May 12, 2008. The quake claimed the lives of 69,227 people and injured 374,643 others.
“The moment I learned of the death of my boy, I felt another earthquake in my heart,” the 45-year-old says.
As her life was falling apart, Bu received comfort and strength from Zhao Qin, her current husband. Zhao lost his wife in the earthquake, but their 3-year-old daughter survived. Bu, Zhao and the girl formed a new family in 2009.
Less than two years later, they were offered a residence in newly built apartments in the new Beichuan county seat, together with 7,396 other households. The area had been rehabilitated after the earthquake.
“It’s very lucky that I could start a family again,” Bu says. “I never thought I would hit the jackpot and have my own house in such a well-designed town. I now have a family and a home.”
Beichuan Qiang autonomous county was the worst-hit area of the ferocious Wenchun earthquake. About 20,000 residents were killed or left missing, around one-fourth of the overall catastrophic death toll.
Ten years later, 38 counties and districts in Sichuan that were damaged or demolished have been reconstructed. New schools, hospitals, apartment buildings and parks have risen from the ruins. Places once devastated, such as Beichuan and Wenchuan, have a new look.
When President Xi Jinping visited Yingxiu township, the epicenter of the earthquake, in February, he spoke highly of the achievements made during post-disaster restoration and reconstruction. It demonstrates the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China and the superiority of the socialist system, he said.
He called for continuous efforts to promote industrial development, improve people’s livelihoods and build a better community for local people.
Covering an area of about 5 square kilometers and home to 35,000 people, the new Beichuan was built from scratch about 23 kilometers southeast of the old county seat, which was severely damaged during the quake.
The old Beichuan, one of the largest areas of earthquake remains in the world, is being preserved as a site for scientists to study the impact of quakes on different kinds of buildings.
Zhang Gang, chief planner of urban-rural construction in Beichuan, says the old Beichuan county seat was built on ground with a high risk of geological disaster.
“Confined by surrounding mountains, the original site is unsuitable and impractical for reconstruction,” he says. “That led to the construction of a brand-new county seat elsewhere.”
Zhang says the new buildings will be able to hold up in various disaster conditions, with quake resistance higher than average.
Earthquake experts use a special metric to express a building’s level of resistance. Normal buildings in Beichuan, such as residential apartments, have been built to withstand seismic intensity of 7 degrees, while key structures such as schools and hospitals can withstand 8 degrees of intensity. Experts say this is a high level of safety. The degrees do not equate to earthquake magnitude because there are many variables, such as distance, type of ground, depth of epicenter and other factors, but a rough rule of thumb is that a magnitude-8 earthquake would deliver a shock level of 12 degrees at the epicenter.
Big scale, fast speed
The new Beichuan county project went quickly, starting on May 25, 2009, with support from Shandong province. It was completed in only 15 months, on Sept 25, 2010.
“We’re proud of the speed and scale of our reconstruction, which is an extraordinary achievement by any standard and should make China proud,” Zhang says. “Only a big, strong country with a powerful government can achieve this.”
Wang Shoulei, director of Beichuan county’s publicity department, says the newly restored area is a hot tourism attraction for visitors, both to see the new lives of earthquake survivors and the region’s unique ethnic culture.
In China’s only Qiang autonomous county — a sort of living museum — tourists can enjoy the signature commercial pedestrian street, which was built with Qiang architectural features. Customs are also preserved and celebrated.
Banaqia district, the landmark project of the new county, is now a busy shopping street consisting of cafes, restaurants and shops with local specialties and Qiang ethnic crafts demonstrated by locals. “Banaqia” means market in the Qiang language.
Large-scale shows are staged in the public area, including a dragon dance and Qiang ethnic songs and other performances. Visitors can join locals for a Qiang-style campfire and outdoor dinner, and take home some of Beichuan’s famous smoked food, including pork, sausage and wild animal meat.
In 2017, the number of domestic tourists reached 6.35 million, with total tourism revenue of 5.1 billion yuan ($801 million; 678 million euros; £592 million)— 13.5 times the money generated in 2007, according to the county government.
But a complete community cannot be created just by building houses and businesses. The reconstruction of lives is a more arduous task.
“I was born and grew up in the old county. It’s not easy to say goodbye to a place so familiar,” says An Ping, 47, a Beichuan resident who lost her 11-year-old daughter in the quake.
“But I support rebuilding in another place. It would only break people’s
hearts to remain, with so many beloved ones sleeping beneath you.”
She remarried after the quake and now has 7-year-old twin daughters. They lived in makeshift houses for two years before moving into their new home in early 2011.
“I could barely survive before the birth of my twin girls. They gave me hope to live on,” An says.
On the bed headpost of the girls’ room there is a photograph of An’s first daughter, whose body was never found. The twins call her their “big sister”.
An also received comfort from many other families that shared similar experiences. More than 10,000 people from the old county seat who survived the quake have been relocated in two adjacent neighborhoods. Although they didn’t know each other so well before, they now have an intimate and powerful bond born of grief and trauma. Familiar street names
“Many streets in the new county have the same names as those in the old county. Every time I see the names, it reminds me of the old times. And most people still carry on their old businesses after moving. Life seems just the same as it was before the quake,” Bu says.
Bu once ran a restaurant herself but now chooses to work in her community to help with family planning and logistics — a position to which she was elected by her neighbors.
“I still remember right before Spring Festival in 2011. The heaviest snow of the year fell on the day we moved into the new house,” she says. “A timely snow promises an auspicious year, and it really did.”
Yet deep in her heart there will always be a place for her beloved son. She kept up a happy mood when talking about her life today, but when her thoughts turn to her boy, the tears flow freely and she falls silent.
She says that on Tomb Sweeping Day, a traditional Chinese festival for honoring the dead, her entire family goes to the site of her son’s school in the old county to lay a flower on the debris under which many still lie buried.
A man lays flowers on May 8 at the site of Maoba Middle School, which was destroyed in the 2008 earthquake. Many bodies still lie beneath the rubble.
A resident plays with her children in a square in the new Beichuan county earlier this month.
Bu Zhengying, who lost her only son in the magnitude-8 earthquake that struck Beichuan 10 years ago, shows a photo on May 7 that was taken at her wedding.