China’s Disasters by the Number

The Chinese government declared three days of official mourning beginning Monday for last week’s earthquake. In addition to a lax ban on “public entertainment,” and advertisements, it began with three minutes of national silence at 2.28pm - the time the quake began last week. Drivers were asked to honk their horns at the same time and disaster sirens were also scheduled to wail, which I feared would jar the solemn mood and wouldn't sound too much different from a routine Beijing traffic jam. Nine people in our department stood before two TV sets ticking down the time towards the moment and watching silent footage of the disaster.

Out a window I could see construction workers in blue jump suits and yellow hard hats standing across the street atop office buildings, most with hands folded and heads bowed. The horns began howling; the sirens keened above them and it was as if the entire country was suddenly weeping. Two female coworkers dabbed their eyes and I also began choking up.

Three minutes later it ended. True silence for a second except for sniffles and televisions, then the jackhammers, saws and drills at the construction sites began their barrage again.

"So sad, too sad," one person whispered, a little embarrassed at her tears.

"It's okay." I said. "Everyone is sad."

Like the US post-9/11 and my fellow office workers, many of China's Netizens have been trying to find meaning in what it is being called the worst year in the country's history - though none mention the famines in the late '50s or the Cultural Revolution years.

There were the crippling snowstorms of January, unrest in Tibet followed by what is widely perceived here as international insult and humiliation heaped on the "sacred flame" of the Olympic torch while it made its journey outside the Middle Kingdom. A horrific train crash came next and now the earthquake the Internet is abuzz with material that is familiar in its own way to Americans who have pondered the coincidences of the John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln assassinations ("Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln; both had vice presidents from southern states named Johnson...").

It is also reminiscent of the weird idea that a Nostradamus couplet foretold the attack on the Twin Towers, or that the word "Satan" could be seen in the smoke that rose above the collapsed building on 9/11.

In China, it's about numbers: add up the dates of the snowstorm (1-25), the Tibet riots (3-14) and the earthquake (5-12) individually and you get "8" normally an unusually auspicious number and the reason the Olympics will kick off on 8-8-08 (and why it costs significantly more to get a phone number with multiple 8's).

The five tooth-achingly cute cartoon character Olympic mascots called "Fuwa" – I think of them as exotic, colorful Smurfs are also now seen by some to be harbingers of China's recent miseries. Representing a fish, panda, swallow, Tibetan antelope and the Olympic flame, those seeking coincidence see the panda as an earthquake warning, since the ravaged area is also home to China's endangered giant panda; the Tibetan antelope well, you can figure that out; ditto for the Olympic flame; the swallow is seen as emblematic for the "kite city" of Weifang in Shandong province where China experienced a deadly train crash last month.

The remaining one is a fish symbol, representing water, which online doomsayers suggest could indicate pending horror in the Yangtze River.

Some Taiwanese TV stations are also blaming the feng shui of Beijing's massive new "Bird Nest" Olympic stadium, saying it has "interrupted the pulse" of a giant dragon said to lie beneath the country.

Then there are sincere, if syrupy, efforts to offer some online comfort, like this anonymous poem, which is jerking tears throughout the country. There is now talk of turning it into an earthquake memorial song.

For the children of Wenchuan who have died in the earthquake

Hurry child, grab mommy's hands

Child, tightly grab mommy's hand

The way to heaven is too dark and mommy's afraid you'll hit your head

Hurry, tightly grab mommy's hands, let mom go with you

Mommy, I'm scared that the road to heaven is too dark

I can't see your hands since the fallen walls stole the sunshine away

I will never again see your loving gaze

Child, you can go to the road ahead

You will have no sadness, no endless homework, or your father's scolding

You must remember daddy's face and mine

In the next life we will walk together again