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Nineteen-Seventy-Six Earthquake Shook Loose Today's Mighty China

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Book review: ‘Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes,’ by James Palmer

Current Affairs. Historical Fiction. True Crime. Malcolm Gladwell might have called it a tipping point.

What's Inside

For Palmer, the China we know today was forged in the crucible of and it is the story of that fateful month span that he tells in his helpful new book Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes. Mao lingered, close to death for most of the year. Earlier that year, the Chinese had already been badly shaken by the death of their beloved prime minister Zhou Enlai. By , the Chinese were a weary people.


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The China Palmer describes has eerie echoes of North Korea : a scary realm where entertainment — in any form — was nearly non-existent and the memory of hunger was never far away. Palmer gives texture to his story by sprinkling his account with glimpses of ordinary Chinese and their lives: a young factory worker and her roommates pool their funds to buy a goldfish to warn against earthquakes; a printing plant worker takes a lesson in tai chi at three in morning, which means he's in a city park at the exact moment that the quake hits; after the disaster a surviving family forgets the political persecution they have faced and generously feeds their enemies.

But even as these frightened survivors struggle to hold their lives together, behind the scenes, in the Chinese government, tectonic plates are shifting, grinding, and colliding, We may take it for granted today that Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatic ways prevailed, but in the triumph of moderation was anything but certain. Palmer finishes his book with a visit to the Tangshan memorial wall, finally built in There, the Chinese crowds surge past the government propaganda inscribed on the walls, ignoring it in favor of exiting toward the sunshine. Already a subscriber? This website uses cookies to improve functionality and performance.

Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes

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PubTalk 4/2011 - Predictable Earthquakes

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