Field of Science

23 January, 1556: The Jiajing Great Earthquake

"In the winter of 1556, an earthquake catastrophe occurred in the Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. In our Hua County, various misfortunes took place. Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a stream burst out in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden."
Contemporary witness report, found on Wikipedia.

The northern provinces of Shaanxi and adjacent areas were a densely populated region of the Ming-dynasty China (1368-1644).
The fertile soil of the plateaus of inner China had for centuries attracted people and the slopes consisting of the soft loess were used to dig caves as humble, but functional, homes.
It was in part a result of this type of construction that the January 23, 1556 earthquake (estimated magnitude of 8 to 8.3, epicentre located near the city of Huashan) caused such terrible destruction and devastation.
Many caves collapsed immediately killing the occupants and deadly landslides occurred - 97 counties in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu and Anhui were hit. In some regions 60% of the population was killed, in sum presumably more than 820.000 people died - the greatest loss of human lives in written history.
As so often, the earthquake was followed first by devastating fires, then by famine, causing riots and starvation. For a half year after the earthquake aftershocks were recorded, significantly slowing down the reconstruction of the infrastructure.

In Chinese records this earthquake is often referred also as the Jiajing Great Earthquake, after emperor Jiajing ruling China at the time (1521 to 1567).

In contrast to other countries, like the nearby Japan, in China, where disastrous earthquakes also occurred frequently in history, no depictions of earthquakes can be found. A chief present Chinese seismologist at the State Seismological Bureau in Beijing, when asked why no historical images of earthquake disasters exist in China, simply answered "because they are not nice. We, in China, paint only beautiful and pleasant motives."



Bibliography:


KOZAK, J. & CERMAK, V. (2010): The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Springer-Verlag: 203
Figure 1: "The earth goat" symbol according to the Chinese animal zodiac.

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