Deadliest Earthquake in Shaanxi Province: 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake
History’s Deadliest Earthquake in Shaanxi 1556, Leveled Mountains and Reversed Rivers

History’s Deadliest Earthquake in Shaanxi 1556, Leveled Mountains and Reversed Rivers

Khalid Elhassan - October 13, 2018

History’s Deadliest Earthquake in Shaanxi 1556, Leveled Mountains and Reversed Rivers
Loess cave dwellings in Shaanxi. ThingLink

Toll and Aftermath

Aftershocks continued for six months. In many counties within the earthquake’s zone of destruction, over 60% of the population was killed outright, with many of the remainder injured, and all the survivors were left without shelter. Fatalities were particularly high because most of the population in Shaanxi and surrounding regions, taking advantage of the soft loess soil, had built their homes out of earth shelters known as yaodongs – a form of artificial cave carved out of hillsides.

Such houses have the advantage of being cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but they had the disadvantage of being particularly vulnerable to seismic activity. When the earthquake struck, they collapsed, with not only the weight of a roof collapsing upon the inhabitants, but an entire hillside falling on and burying whole communities. When it was over, around 830,000 had been killed, and millions more were injured and/ or made homeless.

That made the 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake the deadliest earthquake ever, and the third deadliest natural disaster in history, exceeded only by the 1931 China floods, and the 1887 Yellow River flood. The cost of the damages caused by the Shaanxi earthquake is probably impossible to measure in modern terms. To put it in perspective, however, China at the time was the world’s wealthiest country, and the earthquake destroyed an entire region of its core, killing 60% of that region’s population. A modern analogy might be a natural disaster that destroyed America‘s Mid-Atlantic states and killed over half their population.

History’s Deadliest Earthquake in Shaanxi 1556, Leveled Mountains and Reversed Rivers
Traditional yaodongs, or cave houses, in Shaanxi today. Wikimedia

In the aftermath, the upheaval inspired searches for the causes of earthquakes in general, and the best ways to reduce the damage they cause. An example was the scholar Chin Qeda, who lived through the event and recorded its details. One of his conclusions was that: “at the very beginning of an earthquake, people indoors should not go out immediately. Just crouch down and wait. Even if the nest has collapsed, some eggs may remain intact“.

Additionally, local records indicate that the earthquake led people in Shaanxi and the other affected regions to search for ways to minimize the damage from similar upheavals in the future. For example, many of those killed had been crushed by falling buildings, so after 1556, many of the stone buildings that had been leveled were rebuilt with softer and more earthquake-resistant materials, such as wood and bamboo.

History’s Deadliest Earthquake in Shaanxi 1556, Leveled Mountains and Reversed Rivers
A consistent 8-meter fault scarp, dating from the 1556 earthquake showing where one side of the fault line rose relative to the other, can still be seen today. Earthquakes Without Frontiers

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Encyclopedia Britannica – Shaanxi Province Earthquake of 1556

Fancy Frindle – 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake: Deadliest Earthquake in History

Journal of Structural Geology, Volume 20, Issue 5, May 14th, 1998 – Geomorphological Observations of Active Faults in the Epicentral Region of the Huaxian Large Earthquake in 1556 in Shaanxi Province, China

New Historian – Deadliest Earthquake Hits China

Rafferty, John P. – Plate Tectonics, Volcanoes, and Earthquakes (2010)

Wikipedia – 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake

Wikipedia – List of Natural Disasters by Death Toll

Wong, David W. S., et al. – China: A Geographical Perspective (2018)

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