The city remembers its dead
Before traveling to Tangshan, Hebei province, I watched the Chinese-made movie Aftershock, which tells the story of the 1976 earthquake. I cried so much, I used up two packs of tissues.
I asked 68-year-old Deng Yaping, a former soldier in the communications corp of the People’s Liberation Army who was paralyzed in the quake, for her opinion of the movie. “It was not even close to what really happened that night. The reality is beyond people’s imaginations,” she said.
Walking along the streets, I was struck by the number of posters promoting the 40th anniversary of the earthquake. They were everywhere— grim reminders that the city was wiped out in just one night.
“One-third killed, one-third injured and one-third survived,” is a widely believed local maxim about casualty numbers, and almost every Tangshan resident has painful memories of the 7.8 magnitude quake.
On July 28 every year, people burn paper money in every corner of Tangshan, a folk ritual by which offerings are made to deceased loved ones. These street scenes are Tangshan’s unique shrine to its dead.
Tomy mind, when bad things happen, people complain and show their weaknesses, but when I spoke with people who were paralyzed, fathers who lost daughters, sons who lost mothers and sisters who lost brothers, not one of them sawthe world through gloomy eyes.
Zhang Baozhong, 79, stared at the monument in a memorial park, looking for his daughter’s name. “I thought I remembered her position, but I amnot very sure now. I’m getting old,” he said.
When I reminded him that he could check the name with the park’s reception, he replied: “No need to bother them. I can find my own daughter”.
His 11-year-old daughter died in the quake. “I have two other children. They are good to me and I am good to them. I have nothing to complain about,” he said. “What I cannot forget is that my eldest daughter was not able to have a better life. We were poor back then,” he murmured.
Before the quake, Deng, the former soldier, could “climb trees, mountains and telegraph poles”, and she could carry 40 kilograms of wire during exercises.
Because she shares her name with an Olympic table tennis champion, Deng likes to play the game from her wheelchair. “I deserve the name,” she said, waving her paddle above the table.
During the quake, Deng held her then-1-year-old son in her arms to protect him from injury. Later, when she knew she would never walk again, she divorced her husband to “set him free to pursue happiness”. They are still friends.
“After the quake, some medical experts predicted that people who had been paralyzed would only live for about 15 years. It was a death sentence. Without people caring for me, I would already be dead,” she said.
What pleases her the most is visiting her 10-year-old granddaughter. “I always tell my granddaughter that granny has little strength to repay people for their kindness, so living a good life ismy payment to society, to the people who loved and cared for me,” she said.