Earthquake in China Kills Thousands Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

One of the biggest earthquakes in human history occurred in 1556 in Shaanxi Province, China, killing thousands of people. This natural disaster had a pivotal influence on the decline of the Ming Dynasty.

Summary of Event

On January 23, 1556, one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded human history occurred in China. Translated into the Chinese lunar calendar, the date of disaster fell on the twelfth day of the twelfth month in the thirty-fourth year of the Jiajing (Chia-Ching) emperor’s reign (1522-1567) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);decline of . Earthquake, Chinese (1556) China;earthquake of 1556 Jiajing Wanli

Although the epicenter of this violent earthquake was situated at Huaxian, Weinan, Huayin, Tongguan, and Puzhou counties in Shaanxi Province, its destruction extended to the neighboring provinces of Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Anhui, Hubei, and Hunan. The magnitude of the tremor was 8 on the Richter scale and above XI on the twelve-grade seismic intensity scale used in China. The total epicentral area covered approximately 108,100 square miles (280,000 square kilometers), while the total disaster area reached 347,500 square miles (900,000 square kilometers), including 185 counties. The total area across which the quake was felt is estimated to have been approximately 772,200 square miles (2 million square kilometers).

According to the Ming shilu Ming shilu (true records of Ming), a historical record of the Ming Dynasty, the number of casualties that could be named and found was 820,000, while countless others went unidentified or missing. Because the quake occurred at midnight, most people were crushed to death in bed and had no chance to escape. Heavy rumbling sounds were heard as if mountains were rolling. Landmasses sank or were uplifted; cracks and fissures opened to form gullies; water rose from underground through the fissures. In the epicentral regions of Huaxian, Weinan, and Huayin, city walls, temples, storehouses, offices, and civilian homes collapsed totally.

No single wall was left standing in Huaxian, where even the topography was affected: Mountains and plains moved, and the course of the Wei River, whose lower basin cut into Huaxian, was changed after the land shifted, placing under water many areas formerly on dry land. In Weinan County, all peaks of Mount Wuzhi fell, while land fissures as deep as 230-330 feet (70-100 meters) were formed. Underground water was also redirected in its course. Some wells and springs dried up, while victims drowned in flooded gullies and fissures. Trees fell, were displaced, or were broken. Landslides occurred while in some places well water boiled. Sixty percent of the inhabitants of Huaxian—tens of thousands of people—were killed or injured. Details of the destruction were recorded in official or semiofficial historical chronicles, local records, and inscriptions on stone walls and artifacts found in the affected areas.

Aftershocks of this earthquake were as numerous as they were destructive. A few days after the main shocks, dozens of aftershocks happened daily for a month. In the counties of Weinan, Chaoyi and Huayin, aftershocks lasted as long as four years. A strong aftershock affected Huaxian county two years later, resulting in significant damage.


The Wei River Valley, located in the southern end of the great Hebei fault, has been the scene of seismic activity throughout Chinese history. According to historical records, between the years 1177 b.c.e. and 1976 c.e., there were thirty-six earthquakes of magnitude of 5 to 8 in the province of Shaanxi. The great loss of lives in the 1556 earthquake and its aftermath was the result of two factors: the construction of the dwellings and the dense population at the epicenter. From different sources, the total number of lost human lives exceeded 830,000, making this earthquake the most devastating natural disaster in Chinese history.

Shaanxi Province is situated at the northwestern part of China, with the Mongolian nomads in the north. Shaanxi is dry and cold, with snow falling from September to April in some places. Its northern region is mountainous, and the soil is sandy and ill suited to agriculture. The silk and cotton trade failed to prosper in this impoverished land. During the Ming reign, Shaanxi natives depended on merchants from other provinces for their daily goods. These merchants not only monopolized the market but also practiced usury, charging their clients high rates for their loans. The province was never an attractive place for government officials, who sought transfers rather than stay to help the people. Economy;China

Politically, the Ming Dynasty at the beginning of the sixteenth century witnessed a time of turmoil and decline. Corruption festered in court as the emperors neglected their duties. To keep foreign powers—such as the Japanese, the Mongols, and the Manchus—at bay, the Ming court spent a fortune in defense during a time when national treasury was low. As a result, heavy taxation on an already decrepit peasant population was the only recourse. Taxation;China Starvation became a common phenomenon among the poor, who, having been rejected by the rich and the nobility, turned to violence to survive.

Major droughts hit Shaanxi in 1504 and again in 1528; the latter year was the most serious drought of the whole Ming period. Following the droughts, widespread famine and epidemics took place and the common people suffered. The Jiajing emperor neglected the country in his pursuit of Daoist immortality. Thus, by the time the earthquake of 1556 hit Shaanxi, it acted as a catalyst to the rapid deterioration of the Ming Dynasty.

In 1569, a revolt of bandits was reported in Shaanxi, and this revolt eventually spread to the Sichuan region. During the reign of the Ming emperor Wanli (1573-1620), famines occurred so frequently that the hungry were forced to revolt. The price of rice rose so high that the poor had no means to feed themselves. Famine revisited the province in 1627, during the reign of Tianqi (r. 1621-1627), when the people murdered the magistrate of Chengxian, who demanded the payment of taxes despite the national crisis. In 1628, an hungry and angry mob in Shaanxi grew to the size of six thousand. These rebels were joined by soldiers, miners, destitute people, foreign bandits from across the border, and the Mohammadans, a Muslim group who resided along the border among the Shaanxi, Gansu, and Sichuan Provinces. Li Zicheng (Li Tzu-ch’eng, 1606-1645), one of the rebels responsible for bringing down the Ming Empire, was rumored to be a Mohammedan from Shaanxi.

By 1632, there were twenty-four divisions of rebels in Shaanxi and thirty-eight in Henan and Shanxi. The approximate number of rebels in 1635 was 600,000. These rebels held three main strategic points, the northern part of Shaanxi being the first and the most important. The area was surrounded by a chain of mountains with deep streams and winding paths over a stretch of several hundred miles. It would have been extremely difficult for a nonnative force, let alone government forces, to attack this difficult terrain. The rebellious mob in northern Shaanxi supported themselves and their families by hiding and growing crops that they shared with the local peasants. By the same token, in Hanzhong, the southern part of Shaanxi, hungry men from the neighboring provinces came to volunteer as rebels. Hanzhong too, was surrounded by mountains and marshes hundreds of miles in radius; in this area alone, the total number of rebels reached 100,000 by 1637. It was these hungry bandits in Shaanxi who later joined forces with those of Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong (Chang Hsien-chung, 1606-1647), two arch-rebels who brought an end to the Ming Dynasty in the year 1644. The province of Shaanxi played an important role in this downfall, and the rebellions there certainly were exacerbated by the earthquake of 1556 and its aftermath.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Albert. The Glory and Fall of the Ming Dynasty. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. The author talks about Shaanxi’s role in the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the chapter titled “End of a Great Empire.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gere, James M., and Haresh C. Shah, ed. The 1976 Tangshan, China Earthquake. Stanford, Calif.: Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, 1980. Appendix B in this book presents an important document on the Chinese seismic intensity scale. The maximum grade is XII, and each grade is accompanied by characteristic types of damage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gu, Gongxu, et al., eds. Catalogue of Chinese Earthquakes, 1831 B.C.-1969 A.D. Beijing: Science Press, 1989. Details the damage in each area affected. There are catalogs for both strong earthquakes and provincial earthquakes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tang, Xiren. A General History of Earthquake Studies in China. Beijing: Science Press, 1988. The value of this book lies in its extensive research on ancient earthquake records from 1177 b.c.e. to 1976 c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Teng, T. L., and W. H. K. Lee, eds. Chinese Geophysics. Washington, D.C.: American Geophysical Union, 1978. A collection of essays on Chinese earthquakes by international scholars. The Shaanxi 1556 earthquake is discussed by Japanese professor Syun’itiro Omote in his article “Earthquake Damage and Earthquake Prediction in China.”

1488-1505: Reign of Xiaozong

16th cent.: China’s Population Boom

16th cent.: Rise of the Shenshi

16th cent.: Single-Whip Reform

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

1521-1567: Reign of Jiajing

1550-1571: Mongols Raid Beijing

1567-1572: Reign of Longqing

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