Deadly Earthquake Strikes China Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When a cataclysmic earthquake struck the industrial city of Tangshan in the Hebei Province of northern China, the nation was in the midst of political turbulence caused by an ongoing power struggle between supporters of Premier Zhou Enlai and those of Chairman Mao Zedong in anticipation of the imminent death of both.

Summary of Event

The death of Premier Zhou Enlai on January 8, 1976, ushered in a year of cataclysmic events in China. The reverence for Zhou among the Chinese people was most evident in an unplanned public display of mourning during the ancient Chinese holiday Qing Ming, on April 4, 1976. Many people gathered at Tiananmen Square and placed ceremonial wreaths there to honor Zhou’s memory. The following day, when officials ordered the wreaths confiscated, spontaneous protests surfaced, and Deng Xiaoping, former head of the Military Affairs Committee, was temporarily discredited after radical Maoists, including Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, publicly blamed Deng for the uprising. Disasters;earthquakes Earthquakes;China Tangshan earthquake [kw]Deadly Earthquake Strikes China (July 28, 1976) [kw]Earthquake Strikes China, Deadly (July 28, 1976) [kw]China, Deadly Earthquake Strikes (July 28, 1976) Disasters;earthquakes Earthquakes;China Tangshan earthquake [g]East Asia;July 28, 1976: Deadly Earthquake Strikes China[02500] [g]China;July 28, 1976: Deadly Earthquake Strikes China[02500] [c]Disasters;July 28, 1976: Deadly Earthquake Strikes China[02500] [c]Earth science;July 28, 1976: Deadly Earthquake Strikes China[02500] [c]Government and politics;July 28, 1976: Deadly Earthquake Strikes China[02500] Mao Zedong Zhou Enlai Hua Guofeng Deng Xiaoping Jiang Qing

The source of the unrest lay in the question of who would succeed the ailing Mao Zedong as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and leader of the People’s Republic of China: Jiang, a staunch supporter of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cultural Revolution, China who claimed unconvincingly that Mao had named her to succeed him, or Deng, who, like Zhou Enlai, advanced a more modern approach to China’s future, in opposition to Mao’s traditional cry for national resilience, moral rectitude, and a decentralized economy. Mao, a larger-than-life demigod, had been the celebrated leader of the People’s Republic of China since its inception in 1949. The cult of Mao commanded all thought as found in his Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (known in the West as the Little Red Book), which dutiful followers carried with them at all times. Now, as rumors of the leader’s imminent death surfaced, China, although outwardly calm, was suffering from inner turmoil.

The Tangshan earthquake, which struck on July 28, 1976, occurred in the midst of this struggle, and the Chinese response to the disaster signaled a turning point in the nation’s political and economic infrastructure, the start of a new political era, especially after the death of Chairman Mao in September.

Although China retained an impressive team of seismologists who tracked the locations of impending earthquakes, the one million people in the northern China coaling center of Tangshan had no prior warning of the disaster. Lying directly on the north-south fault line in China, the densely populated city suffered immeasurable loss of human life. Considered the worst quake in more than four hundred years, between initial shock and aftershocks, the Tangshan earthquake measured somewhere from 7.5 to 8.2 on the Richter scale. The quake leveled the city’s industrial center, leaving it indefinitely without electrical power and transportation, and caused fires that plagued the streets for days. It also destroyed dams and reservoirs, precipitating serious flooding. Severe damage was reported as far away as sixty miles southwest in Tianjin and more than one hundred miles northwest in Beijing.

Immediately after the quake, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party imposed severe censorship on the press, and it was only in 1979, three years after the disaster, that the government issued any statistics, reporting that 242,000 had died and 164,000 had been injured as a result of the quake. Critical observers, however, were more inclined to believe the figures provided by the Hebei Revolutionary Committee: 655,000 dead and 779,000 injured.

China’s economy was severely affected by the earthquake. Despite the party’s initial optimism that the Fifth Five-Year Plan in 1976 would outdistance the previous four in the output of steel, chemical fertilizer, and other products, the program—the brainchild of Zhou Enlai—fell far short of CCP estimates. The northern China region comprising Tangshan, Beijing, and Tianjin had complemented Zhou’s plan, because its development of diversified natural resources (including petroleum, steel, and, its most significant contribution, coal mined at the Kailuan Coal Complex, the largest mining station in the country) played a key role in Zhou’s goals of centralization, modernization, and global integration. By the year’s end, however, the combined factors of the earthquake and Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) adversely affected industrial and agricultural output. The ideology of the Cultural Revolution, which reinforced the pillars of egalitarianism and self-reliance, contradicted Zhou’s objectives and exposed a great divide at the highest levels of party leadership.

The aftermath of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake.

(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

As Mao lay incapacitated from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), the earthquake disaster precipitated great change in China. The factional party feuds between those who supported Mao’s principles and those who supported Deng Xiaoping, who defended Zhou’s program, erupted in full force during the recovery efforts immediately following the Tangshan earthquake.

After the disaster, the international community’s offers of assistance were met with courteous but emphatic rejection by Maoist party officials. Rather, after nine days in seclusion, these officials emerged with a coordinated plan to facilitate recovery of the region. In place of foreign aid, the CCP directed each province to contribute specified provisions to the stricken area. For example, Shanghai was required to send numerous medical personnel and supplies, and Inner Mongolia was instructed to contribute large quantities of food. Prior to this effort, Mao’s handpicked successor, Hua Guofeng, a compromise candidate between Jiang Qing and her bitter rival Deng Xiaoping, had dispatched eleven divisions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to facilitate the evacuation of some 630,000 people from the Tangshan area to temporary refugee centers.





Hua’s impressive management of the relief efforts, however, did not silence the radical opposition, led by Jiang. Nonetheless, Hua’s resistance to the radicals and his determination to showcase the resilient legacy of Mao’s tightly organized government solidified his alliance with the PLA and endeared him to the press, thereby affording him a strong support base when forces of opposition threatened. Ultimately, Hua was able to discredit Jiang—abjured as the notorious leader of the “Gang of Four” (made up of Jiang and her supporters Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan, all from Shanghai). A month following Mao’s death, the members of the Gang of Four Gang of Four were arrested at Hua’s command, incarcerated, and then publicly tried and convicted of treasonous activity against the CCP, among other crimes.


The death of Mao Zedong on September 9, 1976, signaled the final chapter of the revolutionary era begun when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As the old guard passed from the scene, a new generation of Chinese leaders emerged with a new plan for modernizing China and rebuilding Tangshan. The earthquake, which struck three months before Mao’s death, showcased on every level the bridge between the old guard, which emphasized national resilience of the Chinese people, and the new, which fostered a more progressive, international approach for China at the end of the twentieth century. Hence, during the initial stage of the Tangshan relief effort, Mao, through his spokesman Hua Guofeng, orchestrated a highly synchronized effort that yielded effective results.

By the time the Tangshan project was completed ten years later, however, Deng Xiaoping—whose economic program for modernization offered a more practical solution for the 1980’s than the well-worn Maoist rhetoric emanating from Hua Guofeng—emerged as the leader of China. Organized by urban planners, in itself a departure from CCP practices under Mao, the reconstruction efforts in Tangshan became the symbol of China’s modernity: The new city would be both serviceable and spacious. Tangshan was rebuilt to be earthquake-proof, with the majority of its citizens and its economic center no longer situated on or near the fault line. Although budget constraints inevitably forced retrenchment, the new Tangshan, like the earthquake recovery, represented the combined efforts of revolutionary and modern China. Disasters;earthquakes Earthquakes;China Tangshan earthquake

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chen, Beatrice. “Resist the Earthquake and Rescue Ourselves.” In The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Focuses on the political changes that affected urban planning during the period of recovery and reconstruction that occurred after the Tangshan earthquake. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dietrich, Craig. People’s China: A Brief History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Provides a lucid analysis of the People’s Republic of China and its architect, Mao Zedong, as well as a candid evaluation of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. Updated edition of a classic study of China. Includes maps, photographs, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gates, Millicent Anne, and E. Bruce Geelhoed. The Dragon and the Snake: An American Account of the Turmoil in China, 1976-1977. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. Chronicles the life of Thomas Gates, U.S. liaison officer to the People’s Republic of China from May, 1976, to January, 1977. Coauthored by Gates’s widow. Includes photographs and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Modern classic text discusses China from the late Ming dynasty to the end of the twentieth century. Provides detailed description of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Includes illustrations, maps, charts, photographs, glossary, and bibliography.

Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China

Earthquake Devastates Mexico City

Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform

Massive Quake Rocks Iran

Northridge Quake Rocks Los Angeles

Kōbe Earthquake Kills Thousands

Categories: History