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A Mother’s Tale, on the 5th Anniversary of Wenchuan Earthquake

On May 12, 2008, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake stuck Wenchuan area in Sichuan province. 80,000 died, including more than 5,000 students age from four to eighteen. The quake exposed what has since been known as tofu-dreg construction projects. In Beichuan High School, two recently-built classroom buildings collapsed while older buildings stood erect, burying 496 of its 2,000+ students. The following is a translation of a video interview, conducted by the Ai Weiwei Workshop in 2010, of a bereft mother and her ordeal. Losing her son is sad enough; but there has been much more. Learn about China from one mother’s story on this Mother’s Day.    

My name is Liu Yuting (刘玉婷), and I am the mother of Yuan Yong (袁勇) who was, before the earthquake, a freshman of the no. 4 class at Beichuan High School (北川中学). On May 12 when the earthquake stuck, I was in Mianyang, not in Beichuan, the epicenter. In Mianyang, few houses collapsed, and I thought: since Beichuan is only a little over an hour of driving away, not that far really, I thought it shouldn’t be too bad. My son is a strong, healthy boy and he should be fine.

An old man with a radio said that Beichuan had been devastated and many had probably died. I was stuck with fear. When I reached the school, I saw that houses around the classroom building were all standing, including houses built in the 1960s that had been designated before the quake as “condemned houses.”  These brick-and-wood houses didn’t collapse, didn’t even crack, but the school’s classroom building did. In the rubble, you didn’t even see frames, or anything like that. It crumbled into dust and powder. My son’s classroom was on the fifth floor, the top floor. I looked at the rubble, and I thought he might have been rescued.

The teachers were all sheltered in the gym. I found my son’s class counselor. The counselor pulled a piece of crumpled paper out of his pocket with a dozen or so names on it. He told me my son left there alive, he was injured, and the teachers arranged for another student by the last name Bai to take care of my son. I looked for him in each hospital. I found that student. He said he parted ways with my son at a temporary dressing station in An Xian county (安县).

I went to Mianyang, Jiangyou, Deyang, even Chengdu, and I searched for my son in every single hospital. I didn’t want to eat, nor did I feel hungry. I searched for my son day and night. Finally when I couldn’t find him anywhere, I knew my son had perished. So I went back and began to search for him in funeral homes. Then in a police station, probably a temporary one, in An Xian county, I saw my son’s picture, taken before he was cremated. So I didn’t even get to see my son at his death. All I saw was just a picture.

I was thinking, “as long as my son lives, I don’t mind if he loses an arm or a leg. I want to have my son.” He’s such a considerate boy. I had lived a busy life up to that point. My child was everything for me, I was happy in my heart no matter how busy, how tired I was. But having lost my son, I lost the drive to do anything. Making money doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. So I quit my business, no more of it.

Because the building crumbled into powder, most of the kids didn’t have a chance to run to safety. Kids on lower floors suffered the most casualties. The entire sophomore class had only a few survivors. My son’s class had the most survivors, but still, only 30 or so made it. If a landslide buried my son, I would have held no grudges. Or, even if the building didn’t collapse the way it did, I could still accept it, because it was a severe quake and buildings could collapse. But I believe this was a man-made disaster caused by cutting corners during construction.

All the parents demanded an evaluation of the building. But later, there was a directive to stop the evaluation of collapsed classroom buildings. Experts came and explained to us what seismic waves were. As an ordinary person, I don’t understand seismic waves, but it’s puzzling how that seismic wave hit precisely that school, precisely that classroom building. If the earth cracked open, this whole area would have tumbled down. Why nothing else but this classroom building? I don’t understand.

[Showing photos of the school site] These two are dorm buildings. This one is the canteen. The classroom in the middle collapsed but not the buildings right next to it. This is the school’s office building, including restrooms. In the front is residential housing, a row of it, and nothing collapsed.

Construction of this building started in ’93, and went on for several years. It was completed around ’98. [Continue to show photos of the rubble] Look, such small pieces, such size. There were a few parents who knew something about architecture. Take a look at this, the lap length. Look at this. You can see the gap here. The blueprints required welding, and the lap length should be much longer, but it was only 3 centimeters. These are some of the blueprints. There are a lot more, and I merely photocopied a few pages. We made a comparison chart. [For example,] where there should be 8 steel bars of 20cm diameter, only 4 steel bars of 16cm diameter were used. If you compare the blueprints and what you find from the collapsed building, there is a big difference.

The principle of Beichuan High School, Zhao Changwen, who oversaw the construction of the building, is now an academic director [in a school] in Chengdu, a much higher position. Why? I heard that when he left Beichuan, he took with him the school’s own coffer—a lot of work units in China have their own coffers. Lu Wanchun, the man who sold the steel bars used in the building, is still in the construction business in Beichuan. So I can’t get over it. These children shouldn’t have died; I must bring a complaint against these people.

As far as insurance goes, we had also negotiated with the insurance company and the government. For minors, the provision has a RMB 50,000 cap, and for disease, the cap is 60,000. The dead children each got RMB 4,000. Of the injured and disabled, some got RMB 1,000, some got RMB 2,000, others got RMB 4,000, but none received RMB 60,000. Because the insurance is unreasonable, we have made many visits to the insurance company. Because of it, one of the parents was convicted of “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order” and sentenced to five years in jail. He was accused of organizing parents to fight the insurance company, but as far as I know, he was not the organizer, and the real reason  he was targeted was because he was doing it for his sister’s child, not his own. Of course we all felt it was not fair, but we were helpless. Some parents eventually lost heart, for all these trips, all the expenditures, the time, and the energy, were in vain. Not to consider that, if they could sentence He Hongchun, they could also sentence any of us.

In the early days after the earthquake, the central government and everyone else were all talking about holding accountable those who were responsible for the tofu-dreg projects. We, the parents, waited; we felt that even if we didn’t do anything, those responsible would be punished. Besides it was the year of the Olympics, a big thing. But when the Olympics were over, we still didn’t hear anything. So we talked among ourselves and decided: Let’s petition higher authorities.

In 2009, a few parents and I sent these documents to the provincial Construction Department (建设厅), also to the provincial Office of Letters and Calls. We went with Yang Anquan and his wife who used to live in Beijing where they had a business. We went together. At the Office of Letters and Calls, only two of four of us were allowed to go in. When we got to the second door, they said only one of you two could go in, so Yang Anquan went in, and I was kept out. Yang Anquan, a man from the mountains, probably didn’t know what to say. They took him to a room and asked him questions. He left a copy of our documents there and was given a receipt. We were told to go home to wait.

As I began to petition, the government already knew that I had been interviewed by overseas media, Chinese and foreign, and they knew I had contact with them. They said to me, “they videotaped you, but they probably will change what you had said when they show it overseas, and that would hurt the image of the country. Don’t be used by those media outlets, and don’t be used by hostile forces.”

Everyone knew that Tan Zuoren (谭作人) had been interviewing people about the sub-standard building projects in Sichuan. The government thought I must have had contact with Tan Zuoren. Needless to say, when Tan Zuoren’s trial took place, many parents would go. In the days leading up to his trial, I knew that many parents were summoned, questioned and warned. That day they took me to a guesthouse where I was forced to stay a night with them there. The next day when the trial was held, they took me to a park to drink tea. Anyway they made sure that I didn’t go to Chengdu for the trial.

At the time I was assigned to the Beichuan Public Security Bureau as a “person to be helped.” There they introduced me to a lieutenant of their Domestic Security Team, a woman. They said, “You women folks can chat and have an easy time to communicate.” That day she called me, she said she was going to find housing for me. So I went, but she said she had a meeting to attend, leaving me to talk to another of their officers. After a while I said I had to go, and I had to go back to Mianyang. He said, “We have cars here, why don’t I give a ride to Mianyang?” When we got to Mianyang, he insisted that we dine together, then they took me to a guesthouse. It was….my memory is getting poor….a guesthouse of the Chaoyang Factory.

They said, “Tell us what you the parents really want.” Since they asked me to tell, I told them all, including the sub-standard buildings, insurance, the collective burial ground of my child, all the things we the parents have grievance about. He said, wherever you go to petition, your petition eventually will still come back to us, to where it started. Give us your documents, like documents showing the safety problems with the school building. I gave them a copy, including photocopies of the blueprints. The blueprints say clearly that Beichuan High School [inaudible] and is a framework structure by design. This is something I remember very clearly. They said, “If we report the problem to higher authorities, it would be much more effective.” That was how he said it to me.

During the four days when I was held in the guesthouse, a friend from my hometown was visiting Chengdu. I wanted to go to meet my friend, but they wouldn’t let me, saying “Ask them to come over here if they want to meet.” In any case, they were just keeping me in sight. During the night, several people stayed in the same room with me.

In the end they asked me to write a letter guaranteeing that I would stop petitioning. I said I would not write any guarantee for you, instead, I can write down my thoughts. Petitioning is my right, I wrote, I might have incurred expenditures and headaches for the state, for some offices, that’s possible. But I will not be able to guarantee that I will stop petitioning against the sub-standard buildings. They read what I wrote, they said it wasn’t good enough, adding a few things and asking me to copy it. So I did, or they wouldn’t let me go. If I didn’t write that thing, they would have confined me there indefinitely.

It was during the Two Sessions in early March. At the time I was back to my hometown, and my cellphone service was suspended because of late payment. Since my cellphone was being tapped, when they couldn’t locate me, they thought I had gone to Beijing to petition. The state security police in Sichuan contacted their colleagues in my hometown to see if I had gone to Beijing. They called me repeatedly, asking to meet me. I said, well, it’s ok to meet with them, and I’m not afraid. At the meeting with the public security in my hometown, I showed them some of my petition documents. They looked at them and they fell silent: how could there be such buildings? The pictures I showed them were pictures of the rubble.

They said to me, if you want to petition, you can go, but let us know when you go. I said, if I let you know, I will never get to Beijing. They said, their colleagues in Sichuan contacted them, and they are on their way, and will arrive very soon.

It seems that provinces were compared with each other to see which province had more petitioners. Even though I was petitioning against Sichuan, my ID was issued in Henan. So I imagine that the state security in the two provinces were coordinated and of the same organization. I figured that they shared the responsibility and coordinate with each other to stop me. I told them that I still had to petition.

Many people felt that it had been taking so much time, money and effort. They felt helpless, and they gave up. Some cautioned me that many petitioners were punished when they came back home, and they told me to put my safety first. Everyone told me “whatever you do, be safe.”

I know that, as long as there is any possibility at all, I will persist. But at the same time, I understand that one’s persistence doesn’t necessarily result in a quick solution. But if I don’t persist, if no one persists, if even the victims themselves give up, who will bother to handle it? You can talk about a dog who died, a cat who died, but our children died under the building, why can’t we speak out?Why can’t we let everyone know the truth? When I speak out, I don’t feel I am denigrating the country; I am merely being truthful.

I don’t know where I can find the solution for my problem. I feel the most difficult thing is that I can’t find anyone, anywhere, to lodge my complaint. But as the mother of my child, I will do everything I can.


  1. […] A Mother’s Tale, on the 5th Anniversary of Wenchuan Earthquake ( […]

  2. gwenkuo says:

    Nice post about China change. Sharing inspiring contemporary Chinese art…

  3. […] 27/3/2014 [Chinachange] A Mother’s Tale, on the 5th Anniversary of Wenchuan Earthquake […]

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