Fallen City

PBS Premiere: July 28, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »


2008 Sichuan Earthquake

On May 12, 2008 at 2:28 p.m., a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Sichuan province of China. With nearly 90,000 people listed as dead or missing, the earthquake was the seventh deadliest earthquake since 1900. The earthquake left an estimated 10 million individuals without shelter--a record number--and it was also the second most costly earthquake since 1900. The National Development and Reform Commission of China estimated the cost of recovery to be as much as $147 billion, the equivalent of the entire economic output of Sichuan for the year prior to the earthquake.

Earthquakes occur in stages, sometimes beginning with foreshocks that can happen days, weeks or even months before the "mainshock." The mainshock delivers the most force and always results in aftershocks that can continue up to several months thereafter. In this earthquake, there were no foreshocks, but aftershocks continued for months, triggering even more devastation in

According to the United States Geological Survey, the earthquake was caused by the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates colliding, which forced the Tibetan Plateau toward China. The Sichuan Basin is especially vulnerable to severe earthquakes due to high levels of subterranean sediments that trap and intensify tremors. These conditions, in addition to the sheer power of the earthquake, caused the 155-mile Longmenshan fault to split into two separate sections. Tremors were felt 900 miles away from the epicenter, reaching as far as Vietnam and Russia.

» Daniell, James. "Sichuan 2008: A Disaster on an Immense Scale." BBC News, May 8, 2013.
» Harris, Tom, and Patrick J. Kiger. "How Earthquakes Work." HowStuffWorks.com, January 16, 2001.
» Hooker, Jake. "Toll Rises in China Quake." The New York Times, May 26, 2008.
» National Geophysical Data Center.
» Oskin, Becky. "What Caused the Deadly China Earthquake?" LiveScience, April 21, 2013.
» Tectonics Observatory. "The Science behind China's 2008 Sichuan Earthquake."
» United States Geological Survey. "Magnitude 7.9 - Eastern Sichuan, China."
» Watts, Jonathan."Sichuan Quake: China's Earthquake Reconstruction to Cost $150bn." The Guardian, August 14, 2008.


In its original incarnation, Beichuan, located in the northern Sichuan province, was a rural village nestled in a river valley surrounded by mountains, and the only autonomous county seat of the ethnic Qiang people. Old Beichuan was especially vulnerable to damage from the earthquake, as rubble from the steep, sloping mountains surrounding the village came crashing down when it occurred. The village was one of the two zones with the most seismic intensity, both during the mainshock of the earthquake and during the aftershocks. Aftershocks triggered landslides in various areas of Sichuan province, threatening rescue efforts and ultimately killing 158 people who were working to rebuild roads.

The earthquake's damage was so extreme that the town was completely abandoned and its residents were relocated to a spot about 15 miles away. An estimated 80 percent of the village's buildings were completely destroyed and two thirds of the town's population--approximately 21,000 people--perished. Thousands of bodies were buried beneath debris and rubble, leaving survivors to mourn over the sites where they presumed their loved ones were.

Due to the dangerous instability of old Beichuan, the government decided to forgo rebuilding the town and instead turn it into a museum to commemorate the victims of the earthquake. Many survivors of Beichuan, left with few employment options and struggling to move forward, became vendors at the old Beichuan memorial site, where tourists from all over the world still arrive every day. These vendors sell DVD footage of the earthquake, books with images of victims and devastation and other earthquake memorabilia. Other family members moved away to urban areas to work and save money for new homes and a new life in the new Beichuan.

» Barboza, David. "One Week Later, a Nation Pauses to Share Its Mourning and Grief." The New York Times, May 20, 2008.
» Block, Melissa. "Ruined Beichuan Starts Anew." NPR, May 4, 2009.
» "Creating New Beichuan Town That Preserves Qiang Ethnic Culture."Shanghai Daily, May 14, 2009.
» French, Howard W. "Fearing Floods, Chinese Order Evacuations in Quake Area."The New York Times, May 28, 2008.
» Honjo, Yusuke et al. Geotechnical Risk and Safety: Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Geotechnical Safety and Risk, Gifu, Japan. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2009.
» Lim, Louisa. "Five Years After a Quake, Chinese Cite Shoddy Reconstruction." NPR, May 13, 2013.
» Phillips, Tom. "Children's Deaths Airbrushed from Memorials to China's Worst Earthquake in History."
National Post, May 13, 2013.

School Collapse Scandal

The disproportionate number of school buildings destroyed by the earthquake was one of the biggest tragedies of the earthquake and a topic of much controversy in the weeks and months that followed. More than 7,000 schoolrooms crumbled, killing an estimated 10,000 students. In Beichuan alone, 1,000 students at the local middle school perished as the building was completely leveled to the ground. "Tofu construction" soon became a common term for poor building construction techniques used to create many of those schools; in some areas, schools were the only buildings that collapsed. This ignited widespread allegations of corruption against education ministry officials and contractors, who were suspected of building schools that failed to meet government standards in order to save money and pocket the remaining profits.

Approximately one year after the quake, the Chinese government confirmed that 5,335 students had died in the earthquake. This was the first official figure released after student deaths became a politically sensitive issue following accusations from parents regarding substandard construction.

» Bradsher, Keith. "Chinese Official Defends Construction of Schools Felled in Quake."The New York Times, March 8, 2009.
» Bristow, Michael. "No Blame in China School Collapse." BBC News, May 8, 2009.
» The New York Times. "Sichuan Earthquake."

Rebuilding and Recovery

A study published in 2010 in the Journal of Urban Health illustrates the psychological toll of the earthquake. According to the study, among 3,324 students from a secondary school in earthquake-affected Chengdu, "22.3% reported post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); 22.6% were probable depression cases; 10.6% reported suicidal ideation; and 14.1% would like to receive psychological counseling." Students also reported anxiety over aftershocks and distress from exposure to media coverage of the disaster and/or visiting disaster-affected sites.

The reconstructed town of Beichuan, officially called Yongchang, cost $1.4 billion to build and houses approximately 40,000 individuals. Many buildings and parks were developed according to the principles of traditional Qiang architecture as a way of preserving the culture of Beichuan. The town is a modernized iteration of the old, rural Beichuan, with swimming pools, sports centers and bicycle paths.

While many of Beichuan's residents were able to relocate to the new town, a number of them continue to struggle financially. Other residents echo the concerns of substandard construction voiced in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Residents of the new town have begun noticing cracked walls and buildings separating from the pavement. Malfeasance also remains an issue, as $228 million of reconstruction funds were embezzled or illegally transferred, according to the National Audit Office, and at least 11 people have been sentenced for corruption.

Amidst praise for the Chinese government's efficient and timely response, criticism of local and national government continues to surface with reports of corruption, media suppression and denial of public access to information. While the Chinese government offered tremendous financial and organizational resources to areas ravaged by the disaster, the question of whether transparency and accountability are upheld remains a point of contention for many.

» "Creating New Beichuan Town That Preserves Qiang Ethnic Culture." Shanghai Daily, May 14, 2009.
» Lau, Joseph T. F. et al. "Psychological Distress Among Adolescents in Chengdu, Sichuan at 1 Month After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake." Journal of Urban Health, May 2010.
» Lim, Louisa. "Five Years After A Quake, Chinese Cite Shoddy Reconstruction." NPR, May 13, 2013.