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.