REMEMBERING THE CITY THAT DIED IN ONE NIGHT
Forty years ago, when Gao Zhihong had just graduated from college, the then-25year-old returned home to visit her family. The joy of reunion didn’t last long: 10 hours after Gao’s arrival in Tangshan, Hebei province, the city was hit by a massive earthquake that caused more than 240,000 deaths.
That night, Gao’s life was turned upside down.
She arrived in her hometown at about 6 pm on July 27. “My whole family was so happy to see me. My sister and I planned to go shopping the next day,” the 65-year-old recalled, her memories not dimmed by the intervening years.
The sisters’ shopping expedition never materialized. At about 4 am, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit Tangshan. Gao’s father and sister were killed, while she and her mother were left paralyzed. Her two younger brothers were luckier, escaping with superficial injuries.
More than 240,000 of the city’s 1 million urban inhabitants died in the quake, regarded as one of the most destructive in history. In addition, 160,000 people were seriously injured — more than 3,800 were paralyzed— and more than 4,200 children were orphaned.
“My mother shook me awake when the quake occurred. My father ran toward the door, and I saw a concrete beam fall from the roof and hit him. I got up and ran to him, but I was hit by another falling beam. I was wedged between two of the beams, unable to move. I saw my father die,” she recalled, her voice choked with emotion.
“It was so dark. I heardmy brothers shouting my name, but I couldn’t move and I was too weak and in too much pain to respond.”
Gao was buried under the debris of the family home for about 10 hours until one of her brothers managed to free her.
Editor’ s note: Today marks the 40 th anniversary of the Tangshan earthquake, which claimed more than 240,000 lives. China Daily talks with two people, brought together by the injuries they suffered, whohave spent four decades rebuilding their lives.
Shortly after the quake, Gao Zhihong was transferred to Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, and then Cangzhou in Hebei for treatment on her legs. She did not return to Tangshan until 1980.
Gao’s boyfriend broke off their relationship when he learned she would never walk again. “I was desperate, I cried myself to sleep every night for several years,” she said.
At the time, she was unaware that her future husband was in the same position. Yang Yufang, then 26, was also paralyzed in the quake, and was sent to larger cities for medical treatment. He found it hard to accept that his life had changed for good.
“When I returned to Tangshan, I put some clothes over my head, so I couldn’t see the destruction in the city. Also, I was afraid to be seen; I was so ashamed of being crippled,” said Yang, whose father and brother died in the quake.
Although it took a long time, he was eventually able to accept the reality of the situation. “What happened had happened. I couldn’t rewrite history. There were only two paths in front ofme— to live or to die. I chose to live,” he said.
“There was no use being angry or resentful. Once I had chosen to live, I had to face reality, to accept it and make the best of it.”
Although Gao and Yang returned to Tangshan independently, they both moved into a clinic owned by the city, and met as patients there in 1981.
In the past four decades, more than 1,800 people paralyzed in the earthquake have been treated at the clinic, and 120 of them still live there.
Inthe 1980s, all college graduates were assigned jobs by the government, and in 1982, when Gao had recovered, she was given a job as a preschool teacher. Despite her background as an engineering major in college, she was gratified to be given a teaching job.
In those days, college graduates were seen as real talents and were often known as “State treasures”. Gao still keeps in touch with her college friends. “They are successful and making their contributions. They are leaders in factories, and some are even successful politicians. Sometimes I envy their success, but my life is peaceful and happy,” she said.
She remembers Aug 15, 1982, her first day at work clearly: “I was so excited. Iwas no longer a loser. I had a job and I earned money. I love children. Sometimes when kids cried and would not leave their mom and dad, some parents put the child on my legs. Because I could not feel my legs, I never tired of the children sitting on them.”
Once Gao had a job, she took her paralyzed mother under her wing. “At first, one ofmy brothers took care ofmy mother. He treated her very well, but I sometimes worried about him. Without a job and with a paralyzed mother to look after, what girl would marry him?”
To resolve the situation, Gao arranged for her mother to move into the clinic. She has taken care of her ever since.
Gao was so busy teaching her students and caring for her mother she failed to notice that Yang, her fellow patient, had fallen in love with her. It took three years, but in 1984, they married and moved into a 15-square-meter room provided by Gao’s employer.
They still live there. Although they only own a queen-sized bed, a wardrobe, two motorcycles adapted for the disabled and two wheelchairs, the tiny space is packed.
They would like to move to a bigger place, but money is an obstacle. “We can feed ourselves but can hardly afford a newhouse,” Gao said.
Yang earns a living as an itinerant key-cutter, patrolling the streets with his tools. He also writes stories and poems. Sometimes the couple read Yang’s poems at home, or share them with patients at the clinic, which they consider their second home, and at memorial occasions.
“I have experienced so
Yang Yufang, a paralyzed earthquake survivor There were only two paths in front ofme — to live or to die. I chose to live.”
much. I received help and love from others. Without their help, I would have died long ago. I have so much to say — that’s why I started to write,” Yang said, who has written a novel and a play about the earthquake, and both will be published soon.
“After I became paralyzed, difficulty and I became twins,” Yang said.
Gao echoed his sentiments: “Some of the things most people can do in five minutes take us a lot of effort to accomplish. Losing the ability to walk was devastating, but we are grateful because we are alive and we have each other.” Zhang Yu contributed to this story
A man mourns his mother, a victim of the earthquake, at a memorial park in Tangshan, Hebei province. Tangshan lies in ruins after the devastating earthquake in 1976. An earthquake monument stands at the edge of a pond in the rebuilt Tangshan.
Although left paralyzed, Yang Yufang and his wife Gao Zhihong survived the Tangshan earthquake.
Left: Deng Yaping plays table tennis in her wheelchair in a local hospital. Center: A memorial to the victims of the 7.8 magnitude tremblor. Right: Yang Yufang fixes a lock at his home.