On April 6, 2012, I had a one-day trip to Tangshan city.
Two days before the trip, I sat in my dormitory in Beijing, staring at the map of Northern China, trying to figure out how to spend the three-day holiday of the Qingming Festival. It’s a traditional Chinese festival for people to honor their ancestors and passed-away relatives. Since my hometown was in southern China and a trip home took nearly 20 hours, I was not going back home. But I didn’t want to stay in Beijing either. Somehow the Qingming Festival meant something to me. I thought I should go to a place where I could be involved in memorial activities.
Then I saw “Tangshan city” on the map.
It was in Hebei Province, 112 miles east of Beijing. Tangshan was known to most people for the 1976 earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and took over 255,000 lives in merely 23 seconds.
The earthquake came almost 36 years ago. In 2010, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang filmed Aftershock, a movie narrating the sufferings of one Tangshan family during the 1976 earthquake and the aftershock. When the Wenchuan earthquake happened in 2008, I could view the whole picture of it and the damages it brought through live broadcastings on TV. But as to the 1976 earthquake, I knew nothing except the death toll and the date it happened. Feng’s movie revealed the buried memories of the earthquake in front of me. Hardly could I stay detached.
According to information I got online, the city had recovered from the disaster long before. Now it was called the “Phoenix City”, because it came to life again after the catastrophe, just like the mythical phoenix bird that got reborn after a fierce fire. During the Wenchuan earthquake, people in Tangshan even set up a rescue team and helped the rescue work based on their own experiences.
“It’s an amazing city,” I said to myself. Then I decided to have a trip there, with the desire to sense the city’s past and present with my own eyes and pay tribute to the lost.
I arrived at Tangshan North Station after a one-hour train trip. Then I got on a local bus which could take me to the central part of the city.
The bus ran on a straight and broad road named Yingbin Road, meaning welcoming the guests. Along the road I saw many steel factories and cement factories. Smokes came out of the chimneys on the roofs of the factories where throngs of trucks entered and left. GDP of Tangshan city ranked among the tops in Hebei Province in recent years. That’s what I read online.
In the central part of the city I saw rows of residential buildings and office buildings here and there, most having more than 20 floors. A large number of buildings were still under construction. On the construction sites, yellow cranes echoed with the yellow helmets of the workers. Booms on the cranes moved like huge pencils, drawing the pictures of concretes.
International chain stores like Carrefour, domestic-famous home appliance stores like Gome were among the stores lining up the streets. Cars and buses were bustling and hustling on the streets. People on the sidewalks were heading to offices, stores, and homes. They were the protagonists of the busy scene.
These may be called the chapter Present of Tangshan City. Then I turned the page over, to the chapter Past.
The Tangshan Earthquake Ruins Memorial Park was seated in the south-east part of the city. A sculpture of a clock was put at the gate of the park. The clock stopped eternally at 03:42 —- the exact time when the earthquake struck. In the middle of the park there were memorial walls on which names of the victims were engraved. Since it was the Qingming Festival, many people came to honor their lost loved ones. Flowers were piled at the foot of the walls.
Then I turned around. And I saw a pool.
The pool extended far to the end of the park. Over it were crushed boulders scattered around. Near the corner of the pool floated a scrap of broken railroad rail, and a leafless tree stood by. Despite the gentle ripples, everything seemed still. Water in the pool deadened all sounds.
The pool, the rocks and the railway were kept just the way they were after the quake, but the scene looked that tranquil.
On the Tangshan Memorial Square, I met a grandma who was strolling there. She told me her own experience of the 1976 quake. She was 24 when the earthquake hit Tangshan. “I had totally no idea what an earthquake was,” grandma said, “Our house collapses in a sudden and we didn’t know what to do.” Three months after the earthquake, grandma married to her husband. “We couldn’t buy anything at that time to prepare for our wedding,” grandma said with an easy smile. From her, I saw the bitter memory of the disaster fading away.
After “reading” chapter Present and chapter Past, I understood the way Tangshan remembered 1976. The city and its people chose to remember the 23 seconds of shaking and the lives lost in it, but they chose not to be hurt anymore. They moved on and let go of the sorrowful memories.
Let things go. I thought that’s what Tangshan told me. In life there were moments I felt bad; there were moments I felt mad; there were moments I regreted, but definitely there were points where all such moments came to an end. And when they did, I should let them go.
On my way back to Beijing, I felt empowered and inspired, by the city’s attitude towards life and death.