Calligraphy in the breeze at Sichuan Normal University, a year on from the earthquake which killed tens of thousands (picture by Katrina Hamlin)


Young, patriotic crowds gather in Chengdu's Tianfu square to mark the anniversary (picture by a friend of one of Katrina's students)

Below is a guest post by Katrina Hamlin, a friend of mine who has taught English in Chengdu since last August. I find especially interesting the idea (in the fourth from last paragraph) that the earthquake has encouraged in the city’s youth the spirit of a civil society, at the same time as channelling immense pride in China’s state.


Tuesday 12th May 2009 in Chengdu, Sichuan. A year since the earthquake. In the morning, I attended my Chinese class at Sichuan Normal University. In the afternoon, I taught English. No-one mentioned the anniversary. There was no memorial or silence. I don’t think I heard the word ‘earthquake’ once.

In the evening, I found the teachers’ flats surrounded by dozens of paper wreaths, taller than me and glowing with colour. There was a tent containing trestle tables and the remains of a banquet. I slipped inside. No, the guests assured me; this has nothing to do with the earthquake. They showed me a picture of a serene old man who had recently passed away.

I know my students and colleagues won’t forget last May. I’ve heard many stories about comforting hysterical friends and sleeping on the basketball courts for a week. Why, then, did they act as though the earthquake had never happened?

I wondered if I’d mistaken the date.

I didn’t see anything until the end of the day, when I spotted a line of pastel posters; doves, candles and rainbows. Behind, calligraphy hung in the trees. It was beautiful in its simplicity. But I still struggled to see how thousands of deaths prompted a few pictures while one old man had drawn a crowd.

I thought of what I heard before the anniversary. I’d asked my boss whether class would stop in honour of the occasion. She stared, told me not to expect a holiday, and promptly changed the subject. I also had a meeting at the university’s international office.

“Don’t speak about that,” the wide eyed secretary implored me.

So I avoided the topic in this week’s classes. Instead I prepared lessons on national identity and moral dilemmas.

What does being Chinese mean to you, Candy?

“Since the earthquake, China has changed for me; I feel more together with the Chinese people; more united.”

Why would the passer-by not rescue the drowning boy, Serena?

“Sometimes, we must be selfish. Even in the earthquake, some people were selfish, not everyone can be a hero.”

I slowly learnt that the earthquake was on everyone’s minds. I finally plucked up the courage to speak to some students in private. I asked about the anniversary, and how they’d marked it on campus – if at all.

Well, they’d made a banner. There were some photos too, but they were taken down because it rained. What else? Nothing.

What was their impression of Wenchuan’s recovery?

They were overwhelmed by the initial response. But now they feel very aware of how much remains to be done, though resources and media interest are dwindling. Moon, an English major, told me about her concern for the victims� mental health. Many psychologists had volunteered to help those suffering from severe emotional trauma. But without a salary, they couldn’t stay. A year is a long time without your home or family, but far too brief a period in which to come to terms with such a loss.

Moon and the other students responded to all my inquiries with a great deal of thought and quiet passion. They’d kept up with developments, and spent time thinking through what had happened. They really did care. But had they found a more public way to express that, beyond posters and photos? Some had.

Jia you!
Xiong qi!

‘Add oil!’ – ‘Go! Go!’. Sichuan Normal University might have been quiet on the Tuesday, but Chengdu’s Tianfu Square was not. Moon’s friend had joined the crowd. We pored over pictures taken on his mobile phone. People laid chrysanthemums beneath the Chinese flag, sung the national anthem and observed a three minute silence. Then they sang again: ‘tuan jie jiu shi li liang‘, ‘Unity is Strength’, and ‘wu xing hong qi‘, ‘The Five Star Red Flag’. But here too, grief wasn’t much in evidence. Optimism came first.

After speaking with my students, I sought out other members of Chengdu’s foreign community to ask them to share their observations.

Teachers’ and students’ experiences mirrored my own. There’d been little signs of mourning in their schools and campuses.

Sichuan Quake Relief’s project manager Walter Brown has worked with young people in Chengdu and the disaster zone since last May. He described his impression of the youth’s response.

To him, they seemed increasingly selfless. Many were eager to contribute to relief work. Children are declaring “I want to grow up to be a volunteer”. Overall, the quake was encouraging the growth of a civil society. But, Walter cautioned, it also represented another way for them to express their national pride.

I believe that despite what I could – or couldn’t – see on the day itself, the students and young people in Chengdu felt the anniversary deeply. But they are only comfortable showing that in certain ways and contexts. The posters and banners provided one, superficial, outlet. But more striking expressions required a large group and a collective confidence. Individuals responded as a part of the crowd, or as a part of China; and that public response had to be positive.

When they came together they demonstrated determination and pride. Not sadness. I think – I’m certain – that grief and anxiety are there too. But for now these are private emotions, out of sight.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a nothing conclusion – ‘they are sad’. It felt like a revelation after what I did not see here on 12th May.

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