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Beichuan's Tragedy: Tan Zuoren and the politics, suffering, and injustice of the Wenchuan earthquake

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 July 2018

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It has been argued that Tan Zuoren's essay ‘Longmen Mountain, please bear witness for the children of Beichuan’ is not only an attempt to narrate an alternative version of the story of the Wenchuan earthquake but also to present a vision of an alternative future for Chinese society. The building blocks for this alternative future would be finding a balance between human beings and nature, respect for minorities, and responsible rule. Tan does not demand the end of Communist Party rule, but explains how the system could be changed to make it better for both the people and nature. The keys to achieving this goal are rectifying historical injustices, an honest examination of mistakes, and respect for ordinary people.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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*I would like to thank the Kone Foundation and the Joel Toivola Foundation for the funding that made this research possible. Many thanks to the participants in the research seminars of the Political Science section of the Department of Philosophy, Contemporary History, and Political Science and the Centre for East Asian Studies, both at the University of Turku, for their comments. Special thanks to Jann Von Der Pütten for reading an early draft. Last, thank you to the anonymous reviewer for insightful comments and suggestions for further research.


1 In this article, the names Wenchuan earthquake, 5.12 earthquake, and Sichuan earthquake are used interchangeably. In China, referring simply to the month and the day when a disaster occurred is a rather common way to refer to major earthquakes. Moreover, it can also be considered more neutral than the names that are connected to geographical locations (this point will be discussed further later in this article).

2 Edgerton-Tarpley, Kathryn Jean, ‘From “nourish the people” to “sacrifice for the nation”: Changing responses to disaster in late imperial and modern China’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 73 (2), 2014, pp. 123CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Baogang, Guo, ‘Political legitimacy and China's transition’, Journal of Chinese Political Science, 8 (1 & 2), 2003, pp. 125Google Scholar; Li, Lillian M., Fighting famine in North China. State, market, and environmental decline, 1690s–1990s, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2007Google Scholar; Ross, Lester, ‘Earthquake policy in China’, Asian Survey, 24 (7), 1984, pp. 773787CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rothschild, N. Harry, ‘Sovereignty, virtue, and disaster management: Chief Minister Yao Chong's proactive handling of the locust plague of 715–16’, Environmental History, 17 (4)Google Scholar, October 2012, pp. 783–812; Shue, Vivienne, ‘Legitimacy crisis in China?’, in Gries, Peter Hays and Rosen, Stanley (eds), Chinese politics: State, society and the market, London, Routledge, 2010, pp. 4168Google Scholar; Yanqi, Tong, ‘Morality, benevolence and responsibility: Regime legitimacy in China from past to present’, Journal of Chinese Political Science, 16 (2), 2011, pp. 141159Google Scholar; Dingxin, Zhao, ‘The Mandate of Heaven and performance legitimation in historical and contemporary China’, American Behavioral Scientist, 53 (3), 2009, pp. 416433Google Scholar; Yuchao, Zhu, ‘“Performance legitimacy” and China's political adaptation strategy’, Journal of Chinese Political Science, 16 (2), 2011, pp. 123140Google Scholar.

3 See, for example, Borland, Janet, ‘Capitalising on catastrophe: Reinvigorating the Japanese state with moral values through education following the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake’, Modern Asian Studies, 40 (4), 2006, p. 875CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Clancey, Gregory K., ‘The Meiji earthquake: Nature, nation, and the ambiguities of catastrophe’, Modern Asian Studies, 40 (4), 2006, pp. 909911CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schencking, J. Charles, ‘Catastrophe, opportunism, contestation: The fractured politics of reconstructing Tokyo following the Great Kantô earthquake of 1923’, Modern Asian Studies, 40 (4), 2006, pp. 834CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 870–873; Bin, Xu, ‘Consensus crisis and civil society: The Sichuan earthquake response and state–society relations’, The China Journal, 71, 2014, pp. 9193Google Scholar.

4 Davies, David J., ‘“Go China! Go!”: Running Fan and debating success during China's Olympic summer’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 26 (8), 2009, pp. 10451055CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 1059; Xu, ‘Consensus crisis and civil society’, p. 93.

5 Bin, Xu, ‘Grandpa Wen: Scene and political performance’, Sociological Theory, 30 (2), 2012, p. 122Google Scholar.

6 Liangen, Yin and Haiyan, Wang, ‘People-centred myth: Representation of the Wenchuan earthquake in China Daily’, Discourse & Communication, 4 (4), 2010, pp. 383398CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Teets, Jessica C., ‘Post-earthquake relief and reconstruction efforts: The emergence of civil society in China?’, The China Quarterly, 198, June 2009, pp. 330347CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roney, Britton, ‘Earthquakes and civil society: A comparative study of the response of China's nongovernment organizations to the Wenchuan earthquake’, China Information, 25 (1), 2011, pp. 83104CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shieh, Shawn and Guosheng, Deng, ‘An emerging civil society: The impact of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake on grass-roots associations in China’, The China Journal, 65, January 2011, pp. 181194CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bin, Xu, ‘For whom the bell tolls: State-society relations and the Sichuan earthquake mourning in China’, Theory and Society, 42 (5), 2013, pp. 509542Google Scholar; Xu, ‘Consensus crisis and civil society’.

8 Xu, ‘Grandpa Wen’, p. 124; Xu, ‘Consensus crisis and civil society’, pp. 100–103.

9 Schneider, Florian and Hwang, Yih-Jye, ‘The Sichuan earthquake and the Heavenly Mandate: Legitimizing Chinese rule through disaster discourse’, Journal of Contemporary China, 23 (88), 2014, p. 638CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See, for example, Dalen, Kristin, Flatø, Hedda, Liu Jing and Zhang Huafeng, ‘Recovering from the Wenchuan earthquake: Living conditions and development in the disaster areas 2008–2011’, Fafo Report, 39, 2012, p. 12Google Scholar.

11 Xinhua, ‘权威发布:四川汶川地震抗震救灾进展情况’, 25 August 2008,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

12 US Geological Survey, ‘M7.9—eastern Sichuan, China’,, [accessed 6 April 2018].

13 Xu, ‘Grandpa Wen’, p. 120.

14 David Bandurski, ‘中国媒体大地震 (The great earthquake of Chinese media)’, Wall Street Journal China Online, 29 May 2008,, [accessed 23 March 2018]; Qian Gang, ‘Looking back on Chinese media reporting of school collapses’, China Media Project blog, 7 May 2009,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

15 For an overview of the development of Chinese disaster management, especially from the perspective of openness, see Yi, Kang, Disaster management in China in a changing era, SpringerBriefs in Political Science, Hong Kong, Springer, 2015, pp. 2148Google Scholar.

16 Xu, Bin, ‘Durkheim in Sichuan: The earthquake, national solidarity and the politics of small things’, Social Psychology Quarterly, 72 (1), 2009, pp. 58CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Xu ‘Grandpa Wen’, pp. 120–121.

17 Yin and Wang, ‘People-centred myth’, pp. 394–396.

18 Dalen et al., ‘Recovering from the Wenchuan earthquake’, p. 173.

19 Huan, Zhang, ‘Explaining the perceived justice of disaster relief policy: An empirical study based on the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China’, International Journal of Social Welfare, 23 (2), 2014, p. 2Google Scholar. The survey data was collected with stratified sampling in early July 2008 in Mianyang prefecture.

20 Ibid., pp. 8–9.


21 Branigan, Tania, ‘China releases earthquake death toll of children’, The Guardian, 7 May 2009Google Scholar,, [accessed 6 April 2018].

22 Chen Min, ‘[重建之思] 真相比荣誉更重要——林强访谈录 ([Thinking about reconstruction] Truth is more important than glory—the record of the interview with Lin Qiang)’, Southern Weekend, 30 May 2008,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

23 ‘Earthquake activist freed after three years in prison; other rights defenders to be released this month’, Human Rights in China, 10 June 2011,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

24 David Bandurski, ‘Tan Zuoren and the 5.12 student archive documents’, China Media Project, 6 April 2009,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

25 Tan Zuoren and Xie Yihui, ‘5·12 四川大地震死难学生调查报告’, March 2009; Xioming, Ai, ‘Video: Tan Zuoren's Sichuan earthquake investigation’, China Digital Times, 13 December 2009Google Scholar,, [accessed 23 March 2018]. In the report, it is stated that altogether 5,679 students died in the investigated schools but the numbers do not add up. The figure of 5,522, however, is based on deaths that Tan's team had thus far been able to verify.

26 The link to the Google docs file can be found in ‘Ai Weiwei (艾未未): Commemoration (念)’, China Digital Times, 12 May 2010,, [accessed 23 March 2018]. On 28 April 2009, Ai Weiwei reported on his blog that 7,605 students had died in 124 schools during the 12 May earthquake. Many smaller villages had not been accounted for and thus he estimated that around 8,000 students perished that day. However, it is not possible to access his blogposts anymore. See ‘Ai Weiwei's project: The numbers (updated)’, China Digital Times, 28 April 2009,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

27 A project of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

28 Ai Xiaoming, ‘Tan Zuoren, the good man of Sichuan’, weblog entry. The English translation was reposted by David Bandurski, ‘Ai Xiaoming on Tan Zuoren, the “good man of Sichuan”’, China Media Project, 17 April 2009,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

29 Mianyang post-disaster reconstruction online, ‘民生优先, 科学重建, 北川凤凰涅磐——北川新县城异地重建’,, [accessed 23 March 2018].

30 These figures are based on the official estimates. Tan Zuoren has claimed that 90 per cent of the buildings in Beichuan collapsed and that as much as 80 per cent of the population died.

31 The official website of the Beichuan government affairs ‘人口与民族 (Population and ethnic groups)’, last updated 3 January 2017,, [accessed 19 April 2018]. Please note that the percentages given on the government website do not add up to 100 per cent. The number of the Qiang population is calculated by using the 2007 population statistics cited on the Mianyang post-disaster reconstruction site online. Some other publicly available sources, such as the English and Chinese Wikipedia pages for Beichuan, cite the slightly lower figure of 90,808.

32 The official website of the Beichuan government affairs ‘北川羌族自治县历史沿革 (Historical evolution of Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County)’, last updated 17 December 2016,, [accessed 19 April 2018].

33 Ai, ‘Tan Zuoren, the good man of Sichuan’.

34 All the references to the ‘Longmen Mountain, please bear witness for the children of Beichuan (龙门山——请为北川孩子作证)’ essay are based on the Chinese language version that was published on 4 April 2009 at 1:31:51, at, [accessed 23 March 2018].

35 Red tourism refers to tourist activities conducted at ‘revolutionary bases’ or other sites of historical significance to Chinese communism.

36 ‘[. . .] 哪怕提笔就死, 我无怨无悔’: Tan, ‘Longmen Mountain’, section 3 ‘灾中之祸 人间惨剧 (Disaster within a disaster: the human tragedy)’.

37 The official website of the Beichuan government affairs ‘ 北川羌族自治县历史沿革 (Historical evolution of Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County)', last updated 17 December 2016,, [accessed 19 April 2018].

38 Tan claims that the original Beichuan town (Yuli village) suffered relatively little damage, excluding the flooding of Tangjiashan quake lake (a barrier lake formed by the earthquake) that took place later.

39 Based on the author's field trip in late July 2014.

40 Tan claims that Wenchuan had been Sichuan's model city of anti-seismic preparedness for the previous ten years and the damage suffered there was relatively little, considering that the town is located just 50 km from the earthquake's epicentre. I have not been able to fully confirm Tan's claim, but according to Qian, the local governments in Wenchuan and Mianyang had started running earthquake quiz competitions in order to educate the public on seismic hazards (Qian Gang, ‘Learning our hard lessons from Sichuan's March 2008 earthquake quiz competitions’, China Media Project blog, 12 May 2009,, [accessed 23 March 2018].) However, in the earthquake-affected area in general, the preparedness level was inadequate, despite all the legal reforms that had taken place at both the national and provincial levels. After the earthquake, a research group from Tsinghua University in collaboration with Southwest and Beijing Jiaotong universities launched an investigation on building damage and they reported that many buildings, particularly schools and industrial structures, lacked adequate levels of seismic resistance. David Bandurski, ‘A news story on school collapses tantalizes, then disappears’, China Media Project, 26 May 2009,, [accessed 9 April 2018]. The news story on the research originally appeared in China Economic Weekly and was reposted by the China Media Project.

41 Lu, Catherine, ‘Tragedies and international relations’, in Erskine, Toni and Lebow, Richard Ned (eds), Tragedy and international relations, Palgrave Studies in International Relations series, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 158171CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Wallace, Jennifer, ‘Tragedy in China’, The Cambridge Quarterly, 42 (2), 2013, pp. 99CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 103.

43 Ibid.


44 Ibid., p. 107.


45 Davies, ‘“Go China! Go!”’, p. 1051.

46 Ibid., pp. 1050–1056.


47 In Sichuan, at least Shifang, Wenchuan, and Dujiangyan have made similar claims. Other provinces, such as Henan, have tried to appropriate Yu the Great's legacy in the past. In the ancient texts, it is only stated that Yu the Great was born in Xiqiang (the West Qiang), which was a large area. See Chen Sisi, ‘发现西羌古道有关遗迹 “大禹故乡”迷雾更浓 (Discovery of ancient West Qiang pathway thickens the mystery surrounding “Birthplace of Yu the Great”)’, Sichuan Daily via Sichuan Online, 25 June 2007. See also Edgerton-Tarpley, ‘From “nourish the people” to “sacrifice for the nation”’, p. 17.

48 For more on the legend of Yu the Great, see, for example, Edgerton-Tarpley, ‘From “nourish the people” to “sacrifice for the nation”’; and Rothschild, ‘Sovereignty, virtue, and disaster management’.

49 Economy, Elizabeth C., The river runs black: The environmental challenge to China's future, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 30Google Scholar.

50 Xu, ‘Grandpa Wen’, p. 124.

51 Rothschild, ‘Sovereignty, virtue, and disaster management’ shows that during the Tang dynasty, political quarrelling between the supporters of active and passive disaster prevention was sometimes intense. The root of this power struggle was the disagreement over the desirability of active disaster mitigation measures, because essentially the Mandate of Heaven only talked about rituals and virtuous behaviour as ways to appease Heaven. For more on the Mandate of Heaven, see, for example, Schwartz, Benjamin I., The world of thought in ancient China, Cambridge, MA, The Belknap Press, 1985Google Scholar.

52 See, for example, Edgerton-Tarpley, ‘From “nourish the people” to “sacrifice for the nation”’, pp. 4–5; Rothschild, ‘Sovereignty, virtue, and disaster management’, pp. 784, 790.

53 Yuan, Li, ‘The Ming emperors’ practice of self-examination and self-blame’, Chinese Studies in History, 44 (3), 2011, pp. 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 24–28.

54 ‘[. . .]中國人并不是劣等民族,。尊重生命,让我们从北川开始’: Tan, ‘Longmen Mountain’, section 7 ‘事实判断 科学正名 (Replacing the name of the Wenchuan earthquake with a new one that is based on facts)’.

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