The province of Shaanxi in northwestern China has the unenviable record of being the site of the world’s most deadly recorded earthquake. It happened in the winter of 1555-1556 during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and is therefore often referred to as the Jiajing earthquake. Measuring an estimated 8.0 on the Richter scale, the quake destroyed an area of 830 sq km (520 sq mi); in some counties nearly two thirds of the population were killed. The epicentre was in the Wei River valley near Mount Hua and aftershocks were felt for a whole six months.
The main reason why this natural disaster caused such catastrophic loss of life – well over three quarters of a million people are thought to have died – was that a high proportion of the region’s inhabitants were living in artificial caves called yaodongs. These had been dug out of porous and unstable loess deposits of which the cliffs and hillsides of the area were composed. Hundreds of thousands died when their primitive dwellings collapsed during the quake.
A scholar of the day, Qin Keda, was one of the lucky survivors and has left us a detailed account of the earthquake, describing vividly how rivers literally changed direction and new land masses and bodies of water were suddenly formed. He also left future generations in his debt through his observations on survival techniques. Noting how many people perished when, having abandoned their buildings, they were struck down by falling debris or else disappeared into huge cracks in the ground, Qin Keda opined that remaining indoors and crouching down in a safe place would undoubtedly have given them a better chance of survival.
When did the Shaanxi earthquake happen: January 23 1556
Where did the Shaanxi earthquake happen: Shaanxi Province, China
What was Shaanxi’s earthquake death toll: At least 830,000
You should know: Shaanxi forms part of the cradle of Chinese civilization. It lay at the heart of the state of Qin, the emperor who first united the country in the 3rd century BC and who gave his name to the modern country.