China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By LUO WANGSHU in Tang­shan, He­bei prov­ince lu­owang­shu@chi­

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.”

Life con­tin­ues

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.

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