The 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake
Early in the morning of January 23rd, 1556, Ming Dynasty China was rocked by a massive earthquake that was epicentered in the Wei River Valley’s Huazhou District, in northern China’s Shaanxi Province. The resultant damage, across a region stretching for hundreds of miles, was extensive, and the loss of life horrific. Because it occurred during the reign of the Jiaging Emperor, the earthquake is often referred to in traditional Chinese history as the Jiajing Earthquake. Today, it is more commonly known as the Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556. Whatever the designation, it proved to be the deadliest earthquake ever recorded in human history.
Although the upheaval lasted only for a few seconds, it leveled mountains, opened fissures up to 66 feet deep in the earth, altered the path of rivers, caused massive flooding, produced massive landslides, and ignited fires that lasted for days. Over half the population of Huazhou was killed, as every single home and building was destroyed in an upheaval that probably registered 8 on the Richter scale.
The situation in nearby Huayin and Weinan was similar. The mayhem spread far and wide, causing death and destruction at distances up to 310 miles away from the epicenter, and buildings were damaged as far away as Beijing and Shanghai There have been other earthquakes that registered far higher on the Richter scale, and that lasted for far longer. But none have ever killed as many people as did the Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556.
As described in the annals of China: “In the winter of 1556, an earthquake catastrophe occurred in the Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. In our Hua County, various misfortunes took place. Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a stream burst out in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden“.
In addition to significant loss of life, reaching into the hundreds of thousands, the earthquake caused significant cultural damage. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 709, lost its top floor and about 6 feet of height. China’s Stele Forrest museum, which housed a steadily growing collection of steles and stone sculptures since the 11th century, was badly hit, and many of its artifacts were damaged or destroyed. Most significant of those was a collection known as the Tang Stone Classics, a group of twelve early Chinese classic works, about 650,000 characters in length, that were engraved on 114 stone tablets on the orders of a 9th century emperor. 40 of those tablets were broken during the earthquake.