- Writing Disaster:A Chinese Earthquake and the Pitfalls of Historical Investigation
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Night had fallen and typesetting was underway at a Xi’an city newspaper when the quake struck, shaking the pillars and roof beams of the workroom and collapsing the ceiling several metres towards the floor. But no one on the premises was hurt, and so the staff continued their work, unaware of the destruction that night in the rest of the great walled city, or beyond in the surrounding valleys and in the uplands to the north. The following morning, the Guxin ribao daily could simply note the visitation of a great earthquake to China’s northwest on 16 December 1920.1 But from neighbouring Gansu, the vast province to the west and northwest of Xi’an, stretching into Chinese-controlled Inner Asia, there was silence. The earthquake, measuring the maximum intensity of twelve on the Mercalli scale, had cut much of Gansu off completely, burying telegraph lines, rivers and roads under [End Page 201] avalanches of earth, and leaving, over an area of two hundred square kilometres, well over a hundred thousand people entombed in their homes.2
Rarely has so much destruction fallen into such obscurity. The Gansu earthquake, one of the deadliest of the twentieth century, was upstaged by events in China’s more populated east – militarists jousting for position in the disintegrating Chinese republic born just eight years earlier and a severe drought threatening famine for tens of millions on the North China plain. The earthquake has received little coverage in English aside from a 1922 National Geographic Magazine article by Americans touring China’s disaster zones on a semi-official capacity that year.3 While recent academic studies have tended to focus on the event’s seismic and geological aspects, as well as its destructive powers, I first embarked on an investigation of the Gansu disaster as a side project to research for a book on the great North China famine of 1920–1. My aim was to get a sense of the earthquake’s immediate social context, relief and reconstruction at both the local and national levels. But, despite the enormity of the event, I found this remarkably difficult to do.
The disaster struck an especially poor and isolated section of the country, midway between the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the consolidation of Nationalist rule in 1928. Most of the earthquake’s destruction occurred just south of the district of Ningxia in what was then eastern Gansu, a region of peculiar terrain and cave-dwellings that proved catastrophic amid seismic activity, making it unique among major modern earthquakes as an overwhelmingly rural catastrophe. The quake also wrought a disproportionate amount of devastation on the region’s Chinese Hui Muslim communities, who comprised a quarter of Gansu’s population. (The event has become known as the Haiyuan Earthquake of 1920, centred as it was in the county of Haiyuan in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of today’s People’s Republic.)
Few official records were generated on the earthquake, despite its size. Personal correspondence, spotty news dispatches and surveys by academics long into the quake’s aftermath instead comprised the bulk of its documentation. What I soon learned, though, was that the very scarcity of documentation on such a massive event could be turned into an advantage, allowing me to trace the limited historical record as it passed from the hands of local authorities into those of journalists in China’s New Culture movement, intellectuals who were, as it happened, laying the ideological foundations for the Nationalist and Communist revolutions to come.
The process of selection and redaction with each archival generation is of course not unique to this time and place. What was interesting was to see it unfold as I pursued the paper trail in reading rooms across China. A revolutionary narrative of disaster was constructed before me as I sifted through the cables and reports that I collected on the earthquake, accounts of the past that excised the response...