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The 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake In China

Updated on September 4, 2012

Worst Earthquake Ever Recorded

How does one quantify destruction on so massive a scale? By the number of victims, structural damage or simply by the potency of the earthquake itself? A good question to ask myself and ourselves before we journey to the epicentre of this horrific yet enthralling event.

Pick a side and dance on its corpse however you wish, but the answer -- to me -- is quite simple: The one which frightened me the most. And that takes some doing, I assure you.

I could cheat and mention the earthquake that most definitely rocked the earth after the xenophobe Chicxulub (the asteroid that obliterated the dinosaurs) gently tapped mother earth. But Homo Sapiens Sapiens did not dominate the landscape back then, so it isn't nearly as fascinating, now is it?


The Setting

A brief glance at this evocative picture of today's Wei River Valley in central China should ring some preliminary alarm bells with regards to seismic activity. Now, rewind the tape around 460 years to 1556, remove all footprints of modern-day architectural interference and drink in the idyllic panorama while planting your seismograph in the luscious and fertile soil (let's forget its the dead of winter). It's time to make history, or conversely for history to quite literally unmake you.

You know something the people of nearby cities Huaxian, Weinan and Huayin, don't, and frankly you don't have the time or the cojones to tell them. They wouldn't believe you anyway.It's time to dig in -- rather firmly I may add.


Beyond what must have been an impressive initial crack, the echoing boom, or recurring waves of sesimic evil went on for months. Just in case you even began to think about reconstruction.

But that's ok, because there's nothing to repair because the earthquake took out every settlement, house, cave (a huge number of people lived in the Loess caves, not a great move considering) and structure just about everywhere you look. In a blink, an estimated 820,000 people lost their lives (ok, not all in a blink).

The Shaanxi's, or Jiajing earthquake, epicentre was in central China, and it affected over 9 different (large) regions.

What God made, the earthquake unmade

All of a sudden, the natural and immutable nature of your surroundings is rather brusquely called into question. The annals of China reported that this earthquake led to a number of "various misfortunes" in the region (from the same people who brought you the proverb "may you live in interesting times" -- ah-ha yes, quite).

Suddenly, you feel the sun on your neck.That mountain you were using for shade? Simply gone, and what's worse, is that it's now a valley. Other peaks have stuttered and tottered around the landscape, rivers figure'eighted and pigs would quite literally fly. It is estimated that the earthquake itself was the third worst natural disaster in recorded history, but we're not counting the impact to human life in the region (and probably beyond), and in that, it's second-to-none.

Obviously not live footage, but you get the idea
Obviously not live footage, but you get the idea

Statistics and figures

When and where: Jan. 23, 1556. Shansi, China.

Dead: 820-830,000. In some counties up to 60% of the population perished as a result.

Potency: Richer scale 8, Mercalli XI

Spread: 97 counties in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu and Anhui.

Epicentre: 520 miles.


As you pick up the tattered remnants of your equipment you realize that any hope of portalling forward into the future has been lost. So what's in store for you?

The earth, having been entirely razed offers no safe abode. If anything, pestilence, disease and despair are more easily contracted there than anywhere else. Your best bet is to move-on, or return to the newly fashioned Yaodongs (caves) and pray the last shock was indeed the last. But then again you risk being walled-in by the sudden trend in landslides. Ultimately, your chances aren't all that great, but you take heart in the exemplary stoicism of the Chinese.

If a person has ambition, things will be accomplished.

Good luck!


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    • thooghun profile image

      James D. Preston 6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thanks for the read chspublish, much appreciated. Ironically, it seems we're not better prepared today than we were back then. If anything...

    • chspublish profile image

      chspublish 6 years ago from Ireland

      Pretty horrendous on the scale of things, alright. We continue to be at the mercy of natural forces within our planet. It makes you wonder what lies ahead for us on a further scale of natural events. Congrats on your research. It makes for very interesting reading.