Jan 232016


On this date in 1556 Shaanxi earthquake (华县大地震), the deadliest earthquake on record, killed approximately 830,000 people. More than 97 counties in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu and Anhui were affected. An 840-kilometer-wide (520 mi) area was destroyed, and in some counties as much as 60% of the population was killed. Most of the population in the area at the time lived in yaodongs, artificial caves in loess cliffs, many of which collapsed with catastrophic loss of life.


The Shaanxi earthquake’s epicenter was in the Wei River Valley in Shaanxi Province, near the cities of Huaxian, 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-meter (66 ft) deep crevices opened in the earth. Destruction and death were everywhere, affecting places as far as 500 kilometers (310 mi) from the epicenter. The earthquake also triggered landslides, which contributed to the massive death toll. The event 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 (嘉靖大地震).

Modern estimates, based on geological data, give the earthquake a magnitude of approximately 8 on the moment magnitude scale or XI on the Mercalli scale, though more recent discoveries have shown that it was 7.9. 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.


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.

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


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.” Many current commentators have inferred from this that Qin Keda witnessed people fleeing their houses during the quake and being killed by falling debris.


Millions of people at the time lived in artificial loess caves on high cliffs in the area of the Loess Plateau. Loess is a sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt, typically in the 20–50 micrometer size range, twenty percent or less clay and the balance equal parts sand and silt that are loosely cemented by calcium carbonate. The soft loess clay had 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. 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 huge death toll. The earthquake caused landslides, which destroyed the caves.


I have spoken about the cuisine of Shaanxi before. Go here for a broader discussion — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-terracotta-army/ . Huì má shí (烩麻食) is a common Shaanxi dish that is reasonably easy to replicate in a Western kitchen. The basis is a flour noodle that is stir fried before being boiled in soup with vegetables and meat. Standard Shaanxi seasonings are hot pepper, vinegar, and soy sauce. Need I add that if you do not know what you are aiming at, visit a street vendor in Xi’an first, then have a go. (Try one of the shredded pork buns pictured above while you are at it !!).


©Huì má shí

Make the noodles first. Place a mound of all purpose wheat flour on your counter and punch down the top to form a crater. Add cold water slowly and mix with your hands to form an elastic dough. Knead for about 20 minutes, let rest for another 20, then roll into a thin sheet. Pinch off a piece of dough and roll with your fingers against your thumb into a shallow bowl shape; then repeat to use all the dough.

For vegetables choose from chopped greens, peeled and diced potatoes, peeled and diced carrots, soaked cloud ear fungus, soaked tiger lily buds, and chopped green onions. You can also add finely shredded fat pork.

Heat vegetable oil in a wok over high heat and stir fry the noodles in batches for 2 – 3 minutes. Remove and reserve the noodles.

Add all the vegetables and meat to the wok and stir fry. Cover with beef stock and bring to a simmer. Add hot red peppers, rice vinegar, and soy sauce to taste. Cook for about 5 minutes and add the reserved noodles. Cook the noodles through, but do not let them get soft or mushy. Serve in deep bowls.