“Will you go to see the film?” I asked Ms Zhou. “Probably
not, it would be too depressing,” she told me earnestly. The memories of 28th July 1976 have cut just too deep.
34 years ago, Ms Zhou’s world was rocked by the earthquake that struck 11km beneath the centre of the city of Tangshan
in Hebei province. She relives the horror of those 20 seconds: “I remember the time, it was 3.28am.
I was jolted awake. First the floor went up and down [Ms Zhou mimes the violent up-and-down action with dramatic movements
of her right arm]. Then I was bounced from side to side [she jolts her body from one side to the other as if it
is being repeatedly bounced off imaginary walls]. It was impossible to move forwards. I couldn’t even get
to the door”.
Ms Zhou and her
family were among the lucky ones. They were far enough from the epicentre (about 60 miles away) and, just as critically,
they lived in a house that was sturdily built. The people in the centre of Tangshan were not so lucky. Photographs
of the aftermath show scenes that are chillingly similar to those taken after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima.
The Tangshan earthquake,
however, yielded a destructive power (at least 7.8 on the Richter scale) that was 400 times greater than the atomic bomb that
was dropped on Hiroshima, according to the UN Global Programme for the Integration of Public Administration and the Science
of Disasters. The official number of fatalities is 242,419, which is far fewer than the provincial government’s
initial estimate of 650,000 (about one third of the then-population of Tangshan).
Ms Zhou continues her
story: “The people at my town’s earthquake monitoring station knew that the earthquake was in Tangshan.
Very soon afterwards, a medical team on their way to Tangshan came to collect my father, who was a medical doctor. We
had all gathered in our garden, well away from the house, when they arrived. Later that day, at 6pm, another strong
earthquake struck Tangshan. We were all so worried about my father because we knew he would have been right on top of
it. That second quake killed thousands of rescue workers.
The second quake also destroyed the
bridge that connected my town to Tangshan. It was a long time before we were able to find out what had happened to Father.
At last we learned that he and his team had survived the second quake. …He was alive and well and still doing
his best to help some of the [estimated 640,000] injured people. When he came back months later, he told us something
about what he had seen. I will never forget those stories.”
Of the countless stories told by the thousands of people who did live to tell the tale, one of those stories is – a
generation later – being told to many millions of people:
Aftershock is the story of the Tangshan earthquake told from the perspective of a survivor whose mother had
condemned her to death by deciding to save her brother instead of her (the mother had been told by a rescue worker that the
slab of concrete that was pinning the two siblings down had to be moved for one of them to be saved, but that the movement
of the slab would kill the other). The girl hears her mum choosing to save her brother but – unknown to her mother
– she later manages to escape the scene.
It is a story of reconciliation and of hope as much as it is
of recriminations and despair. The film’s critics say that many important questions have not been
asked, let alone answered. The most obvious of which is “Could more have been done to have reduced
the death toll?” Indeed, the film doesn’t touch on any aspect of Tangshan’s earthquake
preparedness (or lack of it). Why, for instance, was Tangshan unprepared when at least one nearby county,
Qinglong, had actually heeded scientists’ warnings that a strong earthquake was likely to hit the region; and went as
far as installing its own measures to safeguard its population.
Feng Xiaogang, the director of Aftershock, was asked if he now considers himself a master filmmaker
(in the context of Aftershock becoming the most successful film in Chinese cinema history in terms of opening day
box office receipts – the 36 million yuan it grossed knocked Avatar off top spot). His reply, published
on sina.com, provides a revealing insight into the dilemma that affects mainland Chinese directors, particularly those who
are responsible for films that focus on important events that have occurred during the lifetime of a large proportion of the
not [a master filmmaker]. This is not an era that can produce masters. …Because we [directors] face too many
danger points. …You can’t get too close to these danger points. You can’t just casually cross the
stream. You have to jump from this rock to that rock and carefully try to move forward. …But sometimes there
is no rock, and then you have to make a detour, because, if you just jump into the water, you might drown.”