Book Review: Danger of the Dragon Year

1976 was not an auspicious year for China. That “cursed year” of the dragon saw the deaths of Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong and anywhere between 242,000 and 650,000 people killed in a 23-second quake that nearly obliterated China’s coal mining capital.

As historian and author James Palmer writes in his latest work, Heaven Cracks Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China: “The 23 seconds of the earthquake were probably the most concentrated instant of destruction humanity has ever known. In Tangshan alone it did more damage alone than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, more damage than the fire bombings of Dresden, Hamburg or Tokyo, more damage than the explosion at Krakatoa. It took more lives in one fraction of northeast China than the 2004 tsunami did across the whole of the Indian Ocean. While the actual strength of the earthquake was not remarkable – 7.8 on the Richter scale … it was the speed, timing and placing of the quake that made it so devastating.”

But the year also saw a shift in the political landscape with the end of the Gang of Four, the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the return of Deng Xiaoping from house arrest to eventually steer the country away from its strict Maoist path towards a market economy.

The book’s title stems from a traditional Chinese saying that cataclysmic events such as earthquakes are signs of heaven’s displeasure with the ruling dynasty and certainly that seemed to be the case just as the year began with the death of the widely popular and beloved premier Zhou Enlai on January 8.

Zhou’s death led to national mourning resented by the ailing Mao that came to a head in April when thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square with banners and wreaths memorializing the late premier and some criticizing the Gang of Four (including Mao’s hysterical, scheming wife, Jiang Qing) and even Mao himself. The discontent spread to other Chinese cities as well where the people were becoming thoroughly weary of the Cultural Revolution that had taken, according to some estimates, as many as 10 million lives.

Zhou’s death was followed by that of another veteran revolutionary, Zhu De on July 6 and on July 28 Tangshan literally collapsed under a sea of liquid earth and sand. The few remaining buildings were all foreign built – remnants of the German and British mining companies that had originally overseen the area’s vast coal mining industry.

Palmer has skillfully interwoven the Tangshan disaster – particularly with poignant and painful memories of survivors -- with the country’s changing political bedrock, lessons in geophysics and China’s steadfast belief in earthquake “predictions” (mostly “accurate” in hindsight following the temblors) into a brisk, absorbing and gripping account of the dark year.

China’s reaction to the Tangshan quake stands in some stark contrast to the more recent disasters such as the 2008 Sichuan upheaval, which received much more national and international exposure and had the benefits of trained rescue teams, volunteers and foreign aid in addition to the People’s Liberation Army.

Tangshan survivors and the PLA were the sole support for rescue efforts that, due to its importance as an industrial powerhouse, the lack of manpower, hardscrabble logistics and no heavy equipment were concentrated solely on the city itself, leaving devastated rural residents to fend for themselves.

Foreign aid in particular was rejected. It was, Palmer writes, “inconceivable because ‘imitating foreign devils’ was one of the cardinal sins during the Cultural Revolution.”

It was a decision that political officials cheered at the time but later came to deeply regret.

“So many years went by before we realized what a stupid thing we’d done,” recalled one Tangshan deputy political commissioner.

The Gang of Four meanwhile generally ignored the disaster and concentrated on seizing power as Mao’s days drew to an end. But due to their own shortsightedness, overconfidence and ignorance of the popular and political winds blowing against them, they were easily arrested as Deng waited for his chance to push aside Mao’s chosen successor, the decidedly modest and uncharismatic Hua Guofeng whose time as chairman lasted about a year.

Using broad strokes with some telling details Palmer leads the reader easily through the machinations and conspiracies roiling Beijing during this uncertain time with an eye towards China’s remarkable changes and current state of affairs.