Deadliest Earthquake In History: China's 1556 Quake And Its Path Of Destruction

On January 23, 1556, the Ming Dynasty of China was shaken by a major earthquake, which became the deadliest earthquake in recorded history. Although it lasted only a few seconds, its toll was fast and its impact was felt for generations.

Shaanxi Earthquake

In the early hours of January 23, 1556, the Wei River Valley, located in the Huzhou District of Shaanxi Province in northern China, was shaken by an earthquake that modern scientists have estimated at around 8 a.m. on the Richter scale. The earthquake — variously known as the Jiajing earthquake because it occurred during the reign of Emperor Jiajing, the Chinese earthquake, and the Shaanxi earthquake in general — lasted only a few seconds, but aftershocks for about six months after the initial earthquake. Be continued

Wee River Valley was certainly no stranger to earthquakes. Falling neatly within the three major fault lines, it experienced at least 26 earthquakes in its time, but this one was different.

Traditional cave house in Shanxi.

Why was the Shanxi earthquake so deadly?

At the time, Shaanxi Province was a national center of trade and agriculture and one of the most populous regions of China, but that population was reduced to thousands in the blink of an eye. Around 830,000 people died in Shaanxi earthquake, about 60% of the population of Hanzhou region. Some villages were completely leveled, leaving only a few survivors, while others died in the coming days and weeks, to say nothing of the millions who were seriously injured.

One reason the death toll was so high was because the majority of the population lived in homes called Weodong, man-made caves carved from the soft soil of the hills surrounding the Wei River basin. These types of homes kept their occupants warm in winter and cool in summer heat, but when the earthquake struck, the soil lost its form and thousands of people were buried under dirt and rock. After the earthquake, houses were constructed using hard materials such as wood and bamboo.

1960, earthquake damage in Valdivia, Chile.

Not the deadliest but the biggest

The Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 may have been the deadliest earthquake in history, but it was not the largest. In fact, it does not crack even in the top 10 most powerful earthquakes. The top honor goes to the Valdivia earthquake that struck Chile in 1960, registering a 9.5 on the Richter scale. The only reason those more powerful earthquakes did not hit as many as the Shanxi earthquake was because they were killed in sparsely populated areas.

The Shaanxi earthquake was not the deadliest natural disaster in Chinese history. On August 18, 1931, the Yangtze River of China flooded, killing 3.7 million people either immediately or within the next few months. In 1887, the Yellow River exploded through mud piles to flood the 50,000 square mile area of ​​Henan Province, killing more than 900,000 people and destroying 11 large cities and hundreds of small villages.

Pavilion at the Stale Forest Museum.

Catastrophic loss

Even if it was not the most powerful earthquake, the Shaanxi earthquake caused a lot of damage. This opened a huge fissure 66 feet deep into the earth, leveling mountains and changing the course of rivers, causing massive floods that destroyed even more homes and farms. Wires burned for the day were broken, and structures were damaged 310 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake. Even today, a 26-foot fault scarp or cliff can be seen, where the fault thrusts upward on one side of the line.

The Shaanxi earthquake destroyed many culturally significant artifacts. The upper floor of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 709, collapsed on its own and caused extensive damage to the 11th century house installation and the Stale Forest Museum, which was set up to preserve China's stale and stone sculptures. Of the 114 stone tablets that made up the ninth-century Tang Stone classics, about 40, including 12 classic Chinese stories, were damaged when the museum broke down.

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