Blog 5: The 1976 Tangshan Earthquake

In July 1976, Fai and I were travelling to a village in the outskirts of the main city centre of Tianjin towards Tangshan. On July 27th we were driving early morning to avoid the day time traffic. At about forty minutes past three in the morning, while we were on the road, the Tangshan-Fengnan area in the Heibei province was hit by what is believed to be the largest earthquake of the 20th century. Our car shook for a full 23 seconds while we watched non-regularised and economically drained village huts tumbling in the 8.2 rector scale earthquake. Immediately registering the intensity of the earthquake, Fai and I started to drive back to Tianjin to see his family during which we felt another shock, registered as a 7.2 quake. I was later informed that this shock “practically levelled Ninghe County in greater Tianjin.”

As we drove through the sub-urbs, into the city, hundreds of after shocks followed which make the disaster relief and rescue operations hazardous and also added to the casualties and the damage. The large amount of unstable alluvial soil because of the Yunhe River underneath the city further augmented the damage. As we moved into the city, we could see more of the chaos and government’s loss of control. The survivors carried out much of the rescue operations themselves and used their hands and make-shift tools to dig out other victims, property and food from the ruins. The medical facilities in Tianjin suffered wide damages and was therefore largely handicapped. Medical personnel organized makeshift clinics with basic equipment over the next few days. For a few weeks, we had a dire shortage of food and water in the region. I helped Fai and his family construct a temporary shelter from the rubble and debris of what was left, like many other had done to survive. Stadiums, boulevards, parks and school playgrounds were covered with temporary sheds. In some areas, many built in small areas on both sides of the roads, leaving narrow channels inbetween (Chen, 1988). Many buried their dead in shallow provisional graves that were later reburied due to hygiene reasons.


The indigenous maoist approach to disaster management was the short-term prediction and reporting network could not predict the earthquake. Therefore, the city was not prepared. (Tal, 2009) The first steps towards damage control were taking shape only after 20 days of diligent disaster relief. In he anarchy of The Cultural Revolution, it had taken five years to establish the National Earthquake Administration under the State Council of Heibei. The 1975 earthquake in Liaoning pushed the Central government to issue instruction titled “Jing-Jin Region Criteria for Inspecting Industian and Public Buildings” (Chen, 1988), which referred to Beijing and Tianjin. Under this category, the city bureaus amd danwei carried out surveys of their public, industrial and residential buildings to understand if the structures were capable of withstanding an earthquake. In addition, the State Construction Committee Document no. 406 demanded the reinforcement of units perceived to be important for production and the ‘political economy’ of the country in the region. This included Party Committee and urban government buildings but hardly any residential buildings until 1976. In urban and rural areas houses had been constructed without any seismic standards, as national standards did not exist before 1976. Therefore, both the urbanites and the poor from the suburbs became equally vulnerable. Due to the intensity of the Tangshan earthquake it took urban and residential houses alike. However, unlike most disaster in during the Mao-era, the vulnerability to injury and death were not distributed following socio-political divisions in the city, but were much more uniformly shared by different social groups due to the geological circumstances and poor building standards.

The devastation after the earthquake, 1976
Collapsing factory in Tianjin, 1976,
Distorted Rail Lines, 1976,

Tianjin city alone suffered from 240,000 casualties, 700,000 injuries and 7.5 billion Yuan in direct or indirect damages. Due of the size and the industrial importance of the city, the value of the damage was greater in Tianjin than even in Tangshan. 45% of the the city’s original plant area of about 180,000,000 sq.m. was affected. The Tianjin soda plant released a landslide of residue pile to the extent of 250 meters beyond its periphery. There were more than 2,600 units of machine damages and 4,600 units of industrial power and special equipment were damaged. In addition, 12 major telecommunications hubs were damaged (Chen, 1988). The Tianjin Railway Bureau recorded multiple rail bending incidents and around 21 bridges were destroyed. Many roads were broken, bent or curved. Under the unified organization of the city Earthquake Relief Headquarters Tianjin later received help from the central and other state governments in the from of food, rescue and medical workers and building materials for construction. Medicines and clothes came from Shanghai, freshwater from Dalian and Qingdao, potatoes from Shanxi, pickles from Beijing and relief grain of 4.23 billion kgs from the central Grain Bureau.

Poster encouraging people to reconstruct, 1978
Urban residents in temporary sheds, 1977,

Although the people received large subsidies for reconstruction, in a maoist fashion, which stressed the masses’ own role in construction, they were told to rebuild on their own and rely as little as possible on central assistance (Chen, 1988). 230,000 sheds, taking 2,560,000sq.m. housed 1,700,000 people in the city. In addition, the factories, mines and industries were constructed first and housing only later. As late as 1981, 100,000 urban residents were still living temporary housing. Only then did the socialist central government start to spend on earthquake resistant housing and resettlement schemes.

The third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee was held in Beijing from December 18 to 22, 1978. The main theme was to focus on constructing socialist modernization. The meeting marked the opening of a new chapter for China. This photo shows Deng Xiaoping (right) and Chen Chun at the meeting.


The city started its slow recovery and the municipal government determined Guiyang Road, Heping District, Hexi District camp gate, Nankai District, Heibei District. Huang Wei Li, Hedong District and Hongqiao District Hutong as the main reconstruction areas. However, Tianjin was in a state of constant draughts, economically weak and financially drained after the social institutionalization through socialist propaganda. Moreover, it was partially levelled by the earthquake, therefore it city was forced into introducing large scale urban development schemes under the new regime in the form of the Three Rings Fourteen Arterial Road System and The Luanhe Water Diversion Project.



Chen, Yong, ed. The great Tangshan earthquake of 1976: an anatomy of disaster. Pergamon, 1988.

Berman, Tal. “A Comparison of the Respective Capabilities of Public Participation Practices and Anthropological Fieldwork to Uncover Local Knowledge.”, ResearchGate.


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