January 23, 1556: What Was the Worst Earthquake in History?

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A Brief History

On January 23, 1556, China was rocked by a devastating earthquake that resulted in more human death than any other earthquake in recorded history.  Known as The Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556, the event is estimated to have caused the deaths of 830,000 people.  An area stretching an incredible 520 miles in diameter was largely destroyed, with minor damage extending much further.  By comparison, the second deadliest earthquake in human history was the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, also in China, that killed somewhere between 250,000 and 700,000 people.  No other earthquakes are reported to have killed as many as 275,000 people.

Digging Deeper

Because the quake occurred during the reign of Jiajing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese term for the event is usually referred to as the “Jianjing Great Earthquake.”  Also called the Shaanxi Earthquake because of the Province of Shaanxi being at the center of the seismic event and the hardest hit area, other provinces also experienced much loss of life and damage, including Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces.  Shaanxi is located more or less in central China, home to about 37 million Chinese (today).  The capital city, Xi’an, is one of the 4 ancient capitals of China and has about 6 million residents in the city and double that amount in the metropolitan area.  Shaanxi Province is not to be confused with the adjacent and similarly named Shanxi Province.  Much of Shaanxi Province is covered by the Loess Plateau, a huge area of silt deposited by the Yellow River over many thousands of years, both from periodic flooding and from being carried by the wind.  This silt, called “loess,” had been honeycombed by caves providing homes for many of the Chinese living in the province in 1556.  The collapse of these fragile caves is largely responsible for the extreme loss of life due to the earthquake.  These simple cave homes, called “yaodong” by the Chinese, were easily carved into the soil and provided reasonably comfortable homes, insulated against both the summer heat and the winter cold.

Traditional cave houses in Shanxi.  Photograph by Meier&Poehlmann.

The epicenter of the great earthquake occurred in the area of Huaxian, a city in the Wei River Valley.  Virtually every home and building in the city was demolished, with extensive loss of life.  More than half of all the residents of Huaxian are reported to have died.  The quake not only shook buildings and caves apart, it also created enormous cracks in the ground as much as 66 feet deep.  Areas with sloped earth experienced landslides that cost many more human lives.  Although there have been considerably stronger earthquakes recorded, none have approached the human death toll of the Shaanxi Earthquake.  Estimates of the power of the quake are about 8 on the moment magnitude scale.  Aftershocks continued for 6 months after the main earthquake.

While the monetary cost of the Shaanxi Earthquake cannot be estimated in modern monetary numbers, there was historical collateral damage to the Forest of Stone Steles, a collection of stone pillars, many of which were shattered by the quake.  In all, an estimated 60% of the population in the affected area was killed, in fact becoming the deadliest natural disaster in human history up to that point and remaining the third deadliest natural disaster in terms of human fatalities in recorded history.  (The worst two natural disasters both being in China, including flooding in 1931 and in 1887, disasters that killed from 1 to 4 million people and from 1 to 2 million people respectively.)

Hankow city hall in the 1931 flood.  Photograph by 武汉一中老校友.

Questions for Students (and others):  Have you previously heard of the Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556?  Do you believe any natural disaster can result in more human deaths in modern times?  What is the worst natural disaster you have witnessed on television or in person?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Weiping, An.  Atlas of Shanxi Earthquake Isoseismal Line.  China Press, 2009.

Atlas of Shanxi Earthquake Isoseismal Line (Shanxi Dizhen Dengzhenxian Tuji)(Chinese Edition) (Hardcover)

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Zeilinga de Boer, Jelle, and Donald Theodore Sanders.  Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions.  Princeton University Press, 2004.

Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions (Hardcover)

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The featured image in this article, a map by User:Roke~commonswiki showing Shaanxi province in China and the provinces affected by the w:1556 Shaanxi earthquake, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.