BEIJING—One way to try to envision tens of thousands of dead might be to stand in the midst of tens of thousands of living people. I can’t say how many people were on Tiananmen Square on May 19, mourning the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. I’m usually not bad at crowd counts—cut out a section by eyeball, tally heads, multiply by the space—but the people spreading back from the flagpole on the north end of the square were an indivisible mass. The square is vastly wide and flat, and from down on the ground among them, you couldn’t possible take all the people in, which is probably as good a way as any to stop and think about the earthquake.
A Chinese reporter guessed there were 30,000 people in the square, if we understood each other right. He may have been talking about the death toll itself. Saying “30,000” means rounding 2,476 dead people off the count that was in the morning newspaper, or rounding 20,000 off the estimates of what the final number may be. Something like 50,000 people were killed last week in Beichuan County and the surrounding areas. Nobody knows for sure.
After I got home from the mourning ceremony, I read that 158 rescue workers (or 200, depending on the report) had died in mudslides in the quake zone. One hundred fifty-eight more dead people doesn’t budge the needle. They weren’t even killed in the earthquake; they were killed by the side effects of the earthquake.
The crowd arrived on the square from the south, filing past Mao’s mausoleum and the obelisk of the Monument to the People’s Heroes toward the top of the square, where the flagpole faces the Tiananmen itself, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, across Chang’an Boulevard. The sky had a hazy white glare to it. The breeze blew from the south, and the red flag was flying in it at half-mast, which I had never seen before.
For Americans, accustomed to lowering the flag with impressive regularity, it’s tempting to suppose that the Chinese must be inured to mass death. Dozens of people died in a high-speed train wreck last month; coal miners die all the time by the scores. Our history books (though not always China’s) recount millions and tens of millions of Chinese lives lost to famine or war or political turmoil.
But 32,476 dead—or 50,000 dead—is a staggering number, even against a background of 1.4 billion people, and China has been staggered by it. It took a while to recognize what had happened. China is more or less the size of the United States, and its major cities are clustered on the east and southeast coasts. The part of Sichuan Province where the quake hit is more or less where rural Missouri would be, if rural Missouri towns had 100,000 souls in them.
In Beijing, the literal aftershock on the day of the quake was easy to miss. I felt queasy, for a passing moment, in my fifth-story Chinese-language classroom. A friend of my wife’s thought that something had slipped or broken in his office chair. An early report on the China Daily Web site announced that there were 117 dead and that Premier Wen Jiabao was rushing to the scene. Then a report said that “up to 8,500” people were dead.
It was the tarps that began to tell me what had happened. American news coverage, describing the scene, mentioned that some of the victims were being covered by red-white-and-blue tarpaulins. That referred to a very particular thing: a kind of striped fabric, a plasticky burlap, that is ubiquitous on the Chinese landscape. Sometimes it comes in other colors, but the red, white, and blue is the most common. This is the material of curtains on the windows of gut-renovation construction sites, of rain covers on the fruit stands, of cargo covers in the beds of the three-wheeled hauling rickshaws and the blankets over the cargo-rickshaw drivers when they take a nap. It makes tents in the migrant-worker encampments. Sewn into square-sided bags, it is the luggage of peasants arriving at the long-distance bus station. The week of the earthquake, I could look out the kitchen window and see a sheet of it laid in the courtyard as a drop cloth, where workers were repainting the building facade. It is the fabric people use for the cheapest and commonest everyday jobs, and in Sichuan they were using it to wrap the dead and wounded.
How do you react to something like that? The practical response was immediate: The People’s Liberation Army swung into action; helicopters and earth movers and rescue teams began working their way toward the epicenter. The symbolic response came together more slowly. China has not developed the American rituals of instant, willed grieving—candles, teddy bears, trauma counselors. Wen and President Hu Jintao did both appear on television amid the rubble, as national leaders ought. But there was no coordinated expression of national sorrow in the beginning. The morning after the earthquake, at a media event to discuss Olympic planning, the Beijing Olympic organizing committee had yet to prepare any official statement on the disaster. A representative of the committee thanked the press for showing concern and took a question about the state of the torch relay as a technical matter: “The earthquake-affected area is not on the route of the torch relay, so it will not be affected.”
What took shape over the following week was considerably more raw than the American version. The Chinese press, shaking off the usual official censorship, did not fall back on self-censorship. There has been no consensus of tastefulness like the one that led to photos of jumpers and body parts being memory-holed shortly after 9/11. On the radio, as part of an earthquake broadcast, a child survivor sobbed while describing limbs sticking from the ruins of a collapsed school. The May 19 Beijing News, announcing the beginning of three days of official mourning, offered a front-page blowup of a photo of a dead and blackened fist, clutching a broken toothbrush. I flipped the paper over for relief and the back-page photo displayed a girl in a hospital bed, viewed from above, with a Barbie doll in her arms and a red stain spreading out from under her blanket, from where her left leg used to be.
The mourning itself was to begin with a three-minute nationwide observation, starting at 2:28 p.m. on Monday, exactly one week after the quake. Citizens nationwide would stop what they were doing and stand silently, while motor vehicles laid on their horns and air-raid sirens sounded.
On Tiananmen Square, the buildup was dizzying—people strolling or hurrying north, in crossing paths, till they ran out of room to walk. When 2:28 arrived, the pause itself felt curiously inadequate. The vastness of the square worked against it: The horns and sirens came from far off, a faint disturbance carrying across the open space. Camera shutters clicked and clicked. A silver-haired woman in a wheelchair bowed her head, and the photographers moved in on her.
Then it was over, officially. The crowd held its place, murmuring, considering. Near me, a man broke huskily into song: “Qilai! Qilai! Qilai!”—“Arise! Arise! Arise!”—the words of the national anthem. The singing faltered. A chant began: “Zhongguo”—“China”—“jia you!” It was what people yell at sports events to exhort the athletes—“Jia you!” Literally meaning “add gas”; “step on it”; “go.” Go, China!
For a few minutes, the singing and chanting continued raggedly, at odds, among different knots of people: Arise, you who refuse to be slaves … “Jia you! Zhonggou! Jia you!” Then, swiftly, the crowd made up its mind: “ZHONGGUO! JIA YOU!” Thousands of fists pumped in unison, amid phones and cameras held aloft. Newspapers, their front pages done in black and white, bobbed along. A call-and-response developed: dozens of people, leaders of their vicinity, offering “Zhongguo!” and tens of thousands returning “JIA YOU!” A small man rode above the crowd, clutching a flag and a poster and a flower, thrusting his arms up over and over again in a Y of rapture.
After 5 or 10 minutes, the chanting gave way to applause. A new call immediately picked up. “Zhongguo!” “WAN SUI!”—“Ten thousand years!”—the old cry for wishing long life to Mao. Off across the crowd and across the street, the Great Helmsman’s portrait looked down from the gate, but the masses were hailing their own country and themselves. “Zhongguo!” “WAN SUI!” “Zhongguo!” “WAN SUI!” “Sichuan!” “WAN SUI!”
The crowd milled, not pressed to the front any longer. People snapped pictures of each other, of the most fervent demonstrators, the elderly, children, pretty girls. Cameras pointed in my face. It occurred to me that I was an obvious foreigner in the middle of an impromptu nationalist rally, but that was too specific and intellectual to be a real worry. It was enough that I was in an immense, agitated crowd, one that hadn’t figured out what it was doing. “Country?” a man demanded, after snapping my picture. “Meiguo,” I said. He grinned and gave me a thumbs up.
Waves of chanting came and went, for 20 minutes, half an hour, on and on. Men were raw-voiced or panting with exertion. Uniformed police officers moved among them, with no obvious concern or emphasis. Then someone unfurled a large Chinese flag, and people began to push in toward him in excitement. A middle-aged man in a blue-on-blue dress shirt moved toward the flag-bearer, unobtrusively, and said something to him, and the flag began to retreat to the south and east, pulling part of the crowd with it. Another middle-aged man, wearing a blue pullover, held a walkie-talkie down by his side and watched.
Then the whole back of the crowd broke into a march, a river of people flowing from west to east, where the flag had gone. “China rising! China rising!” a gaunt young man in lensless hipster glasses called out, grinning, as he passed me. The river eddied into new vortexes of chanting: “Sichuan!” “JIA YOU!” I spotted the man in the blue-on-blue shirt again, steering a white man and woman out of the thick of one vortex. “We just crossed some sort of a boundary, in the center,” the white man said, in a Southern Hemisphere accent. The chanting carried on.
It was more than an hour before the authorities finally decided to end it. The normal method of clearing the square, if an event requires it, is for a line of soldiers to march down from the north and sweep it clear. This time, the soldiers worked their way south at a stroll, in no formation, wearing pale green shirtsleeves. A baby-faced NCO took some pictures. The crowd began to move along. One man turned back and tried one more yell: “ZHONGGUO!” The plainclothesman in the dress shirt stepped over to him. Take a rest, he said, mildly.