The Deadly Tangshan Earthquake of 1976

The Deadly Tangshan Earthquake of 1976

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At 3:42 a.m. on July 28, 1976, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit the sleeping city of Tangshan, in northeastern China. The very large earthquake, striking an area where it was totally unexpected, obliterated the city of Tangshan and killed more than 240,000 people-making it the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century.

Fireballs and Animals Give Warning

Though scientific earthquake prediction is in its nascent stages, nature often gives some advance warning of an impending earthquake.

In a village outside of Tangshan, well water reportedly rose and fell three times the day before the earthquake. In another village, gas began to spout out the water well on July 12 and then increased on July 25 and 26. Other wells throughout the area showed signs of cracking.

Animals also gave a warning that something was about to happen. One thousand chickens in Baiguantuan refused to eat and ran around excitedly chirping. Mice and yellow weasels were seen running around looking for a place to hide. In one household in the city of Tangshan, a goldfish began jumping wildly in its bowl. At 2 a.m. on July 28, shortly before the earthquake struck, the goldfish jumped out of its bowl. Once its owner had returned him to his bowl, the goldfish continued to jump out of its bowl until the earthquake hit.

Strange? Indeed. These were isolated incidents, spread across a city of a million people and a countryside scattered with villages. But nature gave additional warnings.

During the night preceding the earthquake, many people reported seeing strange lights as well as loud sounds. The lights were seen in a multitude of hues. Some people saw flashes of light; others witnessed fireballs flying across the sky. Loud, roaring noises followed the lights and fireballs. Workers at the Tangshan airport described the noises as louder than that of an airplane.

The Earthquake Strikes

When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Tangshan, more than 1 million people were sleeping, unaware of the impending disaster. As the earth began to shake, a few people who were awake had the forethought to dive under a table or other heavy piece of furniture, but most were asleep and did not have time. The entire earthquake lasted approximately 14 to 16 seconds.

Once the quake was over, the people who could scrambled out into the open, only to see the entire city leveled. After an initial period of shock, the survivors began to dig through debris to answer the muffled calls for help as well as find loved ones still under rubble. As injured people were saved from under the rubble, they were lain on the side of the road. Many of the medical personnel were also trapped under debris or killed by the earthquake. The medical centers were destroyed, as were the roads to get there.


Survivors were faced with not having water, food, or electricity. All but one of the roads into Tangshan was impassible. Unfortunately, relief workers accidentally clogged the one remaining road, leaving them and their supplies stuck for hours in the traffic jam.

People needed help immediately; survivors could not wait for help to arrive, so they formed groups to dig for others. They set up medical areas where emergency procedures were conducted with the minimum of supplies. They searched for food and set up temporary shelters.

Though 80% of the people trapped under rubble were saved, a 7.1 magnitude aftershock that hit on the afternoon of July 28 sealed the fate for many who had been waiting under the rubble for help.

After the earthquake hit, 242,419 people lay dead or dying, along with another 164,581 people who were severely injured. In 7,218 households, all members of the family were killed by the earthquake. Many experts have since suggested that the official loss of life was underestimated, that it is likely that closer to 700,000 people died.

Corpses were buried quickly, usually close to the residences in which they perished. This later caused health problems, especially after it rained and the bodies were again exposed. Workers had to find these impromptu graves, dig up the bodies, and then move and rebury the corpses outside of the city.

Damage and Recovery

Before the 1976 earthquake, scientists didn't think Tangshan was susceptible to a large earthquake; thus, the area was zoned an intensity level of VI on the Chinese intensity scale (similar to the Mercalli scale). The 7.8 earthquake that hit Tangshan was given an intensity level of XI (out of XII). The buildings in Tangshan were not built to withstand such a large earthquake.

Ninety-three percent of residential buildings and 78% of industrial buildings were completely destroyed. Eighty percent of the water pumping stations were seriously damaged and the water pipes were damaged throughout the city. Fourteen percent of the sewage pipes were severely damaged.

The foundations of bridges gave way, causing the bridges to collapse. Railroad lines bent. Roads were covered with debris and were riddled with fissures.

With so much damage, recovery was not easy. Food was a high priority. Some food was parachuted in, but the distribution was uneven. Water, even just for drinking, was extremely scarce. Many people drank out of pools or other locations that had become contaminated during the earthquake. Relief workers eventually got water trucks and others to transport clean drinking water into the affected areas.

Political Perspective

In August 1976, Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was dying and his Cultural Revolution was eroding in power. Some scholars believe that the Tangshan earthquake contributed to its downfall. Although science had taken a backseat in the Cultural Revolution since in its inception in 1966, seismology had become a new focus of research in China out of necessity. Between 1970 and 1976, the Chinese government reported predicting nine earthquakes. There was no such warning for Tangshan.

The Mandate of Heaven is a long-established Han tradition that attributes unusual or freakish occurrences in the natural world such as comets, droughts, locusts, and earthquakes to a sign that the (divinely chosen) leadership is incompetent or undeserving. Recognizing that, in the wake of the successful earthquake predictions at Haicheng the previous year, Mao's government touted its ability to predict and then respond to natural disasters. Tangshan was not predicted, and the size of the disaster made the response slow and difficult-a process significantly hindered by Mao's complete rejection of foreign aid.

Rebuild and Recent Research

After the emergency care was given, the rebuilding of Tangshan began almost immediately. Though it took time, the entire city was rebuilt and is again home to over 1 million people, earning Tangshan the nickname "Brave City of China."

In the succeeding decades, the experiences of Tangshan have been used to improve earthquake predicting capabilities and the provision of medical support in major disasters. Additional research has also been focused on anomalous animal behaviors ahead of earthquakes, which have been widely documented.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Ash, Russell. The Top 10 of Everything, 1999. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 1998.
  • Jin, Anshu, and Keiiti Aki. "Temporal Change in Coda Q before the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 and the Haicheng Earthquake of 1975." Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 91.B1 (1986): 665-73.
  • Palmer, James. "Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao." New York: Basic Books, 2012.
  • Ross, Lester. "Earthquake Policy in China." Asian Survey 24.7 (1984): 773--87.
  • Sheng, Z. Y. "Medical Support in the Tangshan Earthquake: A Review of the Management of Mass Casualties and Certain Major Injuries." The Journal of Trauma 27.10 (1987): 1130-35.
  • Wang Jing-Ming and Joe J. Litehiser. "The Distribution of Earthquake Damage to Underground Facilities During the 1976 Tang-Shan Earthquake." Earthquake Spectra 1.4 (1985):741-57.
  • Wang, Jun, Juan Yang, and Bo Li. "Pain of Disasters: The Educational Cost of Exogenous Shocks Evidence from Tangshan Earthquake in 1976." China Economic Review 46 (2017): 27-49.
  • Yong, Chen, et al. The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976: An Anatomy of Disaster. New York: Pergamon Press, 1988.

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