The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China, by James Palmer, Faber, RRP£18.99, 256 pages
After a colossal earthquake hit the city of Tangshan on July 28 1976, two miners and two mining managers commandeered an ambulance and raced to Beijing, 178km away. Entering central Beijing, they turned on the vehicle’s siren and found themselves face to face with China’s senior leadership. One of them, clad only in a pair of swimming trunks and a miner’s jacket, blurted out: “Vice-premiers, there’s nothing left standing in Tangshan!”
He was exaggerating, but not by much: the catastrophe killed 250,000 people. “The 23 seconds of the earthquake were probably the most concentrated instant of destruction humanity has ever known,” writes James Palmer. “In Tangshan alone it did more damage than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, more damage than the fire-bombings of Dresden.”
The terrifically detailed description of this road trip from hell to the inner precincts of power in Beijing is emblematic of the tricky balancing act Palmer mostly pulls off in The Death of Mao. His book is both a masterly recreation of the horrors of the earthquake and of the power struggles going on in Beijing as Mao Zedong lay close to death in a hospital visited frequently by anxious doctors and senior leaders.
Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was part of the infamous Gang of Four that tried and failed to corner power after his death, had, just days before the earthquake, accused doctors of making his condition sound worse than it was. She told them he was suffering from bronchitis. “I think you have not been properly reformed,” Jiang raged. “In bourgeois society, doctors are masters and nurses the servants. That is why Chairman says we should accept only a third of what the doctors say.”
In that aptly chosen quote, Palmer sums up the lunacy of the last days of the Cultural Revolution. It turns out that even the head of the State Seismological Bureau in Beijing had been dismissed before the earthquake hit, denounced as “a capitalist roader”.
Palmer excels at creating a three-dimensional docudrama of the earthquake. The people who were safest were the coal miners of Tangshan: “Of the roughly 10,000 miners beneath the earth when the quake hit, 17 died. Earthquakes are less intense deeper underground.” Who knew?
Palmer interviews a photographer, Chang Qing, who had swapped apartments with a colleague nine months before the earthquake. “My whole family lived. His didn’t,” he says. Palmer discovers that among Chang’s extensive photo collection of the earthquake, there are none of the dead. “They were everywhere, but I couldn’t bear to look at them. So many …” Chang says, before he begins to cry.
The Death of Mao renders beautifully these moments of tragedy. The description of the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai meanders, by contrast, and is not helped by riffs such as this one. “Work is the closest that most people in the developed world get to the experience of what living in an authoritarian society is like … I mean working in a very bad office, run from some distant and uncaring headquarters.” To leap from the madness of Maoist China to Dilbert on one page is the sort of athleticism that historians should probably avoid.
Mao’s death and the power struggle that would result in Deng Xiaoping coming to power would lead to the birth of a new China. Hundreds of millions would be lifted out of poverty. At one point Palmer meets a woman, crippled by the quake, who wanted to commit suicide after being told she would never walk again. She is today a successful Daoist fortune-teller in one of Tangshan’s parks. If a young woman asks, she tells her she will be married soon. If a middle-aged man wants to know his future, she tells him he will be promoted. The difference between Mao’s China and today’s China is that hundreds of millions can hope for happier lives.
Rahul Jacob is the FT’s South China correspondent