1556 Shaanxi earthquake

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Shaanxi earthquake in 1556
Shaangxi 1556 earthquake map of provinces.PNG
Map of China showing modern-day Shaanxi province (red) and the other provinces affected by the earthquake (orange)
1556 Shaanxi earthquake is located in China
1556 Shaanxi earthquake
Local date23 January 1556 (1556-01-23) in Julian calendar[1]
2 February 1556 (1556-02-02) in Gregorian calendar
the 12th day of the 12 month of the year Jiajing 34 in Chinese calendar
Local timeMorning
Magnitude8.0 Mw[2]
Epicenter34°30′01″N 109°18′00″E / 34.50028°N 109.30000°E / 34.50028; 109.30000Coordinates: 34°30′01″N 109°18′00″E / 34.50028°N 109.30000°E / 34.50028; 109.30000
Areas affectedMing dynasty

The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, or Huaxian earthquake (simplified Chinese: 华县大地震; traditional Chinese: 華縣大地震; pinyin: Huáxiàn Dàdìzhèn), or Jiajing earthquake (Chinese: 嘉靖大地震; pinyin: Jiājìng Dàdìzhèn), is the deadliest earthquake in recorded history. According to imperial records, approximately 830,000 people lost their lives.[4]

It occurred on the morning of 23 January 1556 in Shaanxi, during the Ming dynasty. More than 97 counties in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu and Anhui were affected. Buildings were damaged slightly in the cities of Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai.[5] An 840-kilometre-wide (520 mi) area was destroyed,[6] and in some counties as much as 60% of the population was killed.[7] Most of the population in the area at the time lived in yaodongs, artificial caves in loess cliffs; these collapsed in great numbers, causing many casualties.


The Shaanxi earthquake's epicenter was in the Wei River Valley in Shaanxi Province, near Huaxian (now Huazhou District of Weinan), Weinan and Huayin. In Huaxian, every single building and home was demolished, killing more than half the residents of the city, with a death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands. The situation in Weinan and Huayin was similar. In certain areas, 20-metre-deep (66 ft) crevices opened in the earth. Destruction and death were everywhere, affecting places as far as 500 kilometres (310 mi) from the epicenter. The earthquake also triggered landslides, which contributed to the massive death toll.[8] The rupture occurred during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming dynasty. Therefore, in the Chinese historical record, this earthquake is often referred to as the Jiajing Great earthquake.[9]

Modern estimates, based on geological data, give the earthquake a magnitude of approximately 8 Mw on the moment magnitude scale and XI (catastrophic damage) on the Mercalli scale, though more recent discoveries have shown that it was more likely 7.9 Mw.[1] While it was the deadliest earthquake and the third-deadliest natural disaster in history, there have been earthquakes with considerably higher magnitudes. Following the earthquake, aftershocks continued several times a month for half a year.[10]

In the annals of China it was described in this manner:

In the winter of 1556, an earthquake catastrophe occurred in the Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. In our Hua County, various misfortunes took place. Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a stream burst out in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden.[11]

The earthquake damaged many of the Forest of Stone steles badly. Of the 114 Kaicheng Stone Classics, 40 were broken in the earthquake.[12]

The scholar Qin Keda lived through the earthquake and recorded details. One conclusion he drew was that "at the very beginning of an earthquake, people indoors should not go out immediately. Just crouch down and wait. Even if the nest has collapsed, some eggs may remain intact."[13] The shaking reduced the height of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an by three levels.[14]

Loess caves[edit]

Millions of people at the time lived in artificial loess caves on high cliffs in the area of the Loess Plateau. Loess is the silty soil that windstorms have deposited on the plateau over the ages. The soft loess clay formed over thousands of years due to wind blowing silt into the area from the Gobi Desert. Loess is a highly erosion-prone soil that is susceptible to the forces of wind and water.[15][better source needed]

The Loess Plateau and its dusty soil cover almost all of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces and parts of others. Much of the population lived in dwellings called yaodongs in these cliffs. This was the major contributing factor to the very high death toll. The earthquake collapsed many caves and caused landslides, which destroyed many more.[15][better source needed]


The cost of damage done by the earthquake is almost impossible to measure in modern terms. The death toll, however, has been traditionally given as 820,000 to 830,000.[1] The accompanying property damage would have been incalculable—an entire region of inner China had been destroyed and an estimated 60% of the region's population died.[15][better source needed]

Foreign reaction[edit]

The Portuguese Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz, who visited Guangzhou later in 1556, heard about the earthquake, and later reported about it in the last chapter of his book A Treatise of China (1569). He viewed the earthquake as a possible punishment for people's sins, and the Great Comet of 1556 as, possibly, the sign of this calamity (as well as perhaps the sign of the birth of the Antichrist).[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c International Association of Engineering Geology International Congress. Proceedings. [1990] (1990). ISBN 90-6191-664-X.[author missing][title missing][page needed][verification needed]
  2. ^ Du et al. 2017, p. 84.
  3. ^ "4百多年前一次天灾致死83万人!黄河倒流,地震一震就是5年!".
  4. ^ Du, Jianjun; Li, Dunpeng; Wang, Yufang; Ma, Yinsheng (February 2017), "Late Quaternary Activity of the Huashan Piedmont Fault and Associated Hazards in the Southeastern Weihe Graben, Central China", Acta Geologica Sinica, 91 (1): 76–92, doi:10.1111/1755-6724.13064
  5. ^ Science Museums of China Museum of Earthquakes, Ruins of Hua County Earthquake (1556)
  6. ^ "China's History of Massive Earthquakes". 12 May 2008. Archived from the original on 14 May 2008. Retrieved 16 June 2008.
  7. ^ George Pararas-Carayannis (23 March 2013). "Historical Earthquakes in China". DISASTER PAGES. Archived from the original on 7 May 2018.
  8. ^ History.com Archived 13 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine, History Channel's Record of the earthquake.
  9. ^ Zhiyue Bo (2010). China's Elite Politics: Governance and Democratization. World Scientific. p. 272. ISBN 978-981-283-673-1.
  10. ^ Kepu.ac.cn, China virtual museums quake
  11. ^ This quotation is from a translation of a Chinese study of historical earthquake. 賀明靜編著,(1990年),《(1556年)華縣地震災害研究》,西安:陜西人民出版社,頁92。
  12. ^ "MUSEUM OF FOREST OF STONE TABLETS IN XI' AN". Archived from the original on 16 August 2004.
  13. ^ Kisti.re.kr, China virtual museums quake
  14. ^ Christopher E.M. Pearson (5 September 2017). 1000 Monuments of Genius. ЛитРес. p. 73. ISBN 978-5-457-76702-7.
  15. ^ a b c Gale Eaton (23 October 2015). A History of Civilization in 50 Disasters (History in 50). Tilbury House Publishers. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-88448-407-3.
  16. ^ Cruz, Gaspar da (1953), "Treatise in which the things of China are related at great length, with their particularities, ... Composed by the Rev. Father Fr. Gaspar da Cruz of the Order of Sain Dominic", in Boxer, Charles Ralph (ed.), South China in the sixteenth century: being the narratives of Galeote Pereira, Fr. Gaspar da Cruz, O.P. [and] Fr. Martín de Rada, O.E.S.A. (1550–1575), Issue 106 of Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, Printed for the Hakluyt Society, retrieved 5 June 2011 (Translation of da Cruz's 1569 book, with C.R. Boxer's comments)

Further reading[edit]

  • Houa, Jian-Jun; Hanb, Mu-Kang; Chaib, Bao-Long; Hanc, Heng-Yue (1998), "Geomorphological observations of active faults in the epicentral region of the Huaxian large earthquake in 1556 in Shaanxi Province, China", Journal of Structural Geology, 20 (5): 549–557, Bibcode:1998JSG....20..549H, doi:10.1016/S0191-8141(97)00112-0.

External links[edit]