The Lasting Trauma of China’s Wenchuan Earthquake Survivors
18 Aug, 2021  |  Source:Sixth Tone  |  Hits:2574

For Ye Hongmei and Zhu Junsheng, it has now been 13 years since they lost their daughter. Yet their anguish remains brutally, visibly apparent.

The couple is among thousands of parents whose lives were shattered by one of China’s worst disasters of the 21st century — the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

Just before 2:30 p.m. on May 12, 2008, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck southwest China’s Sichuan province, unleashing seismic waves so powerful they rattled buildings over 1,500 kilometers away in Beijing.

In Ye and Zhu’s home city of Dujiangyan, located just 25 kilometers from the epicenter, the damage was devastating. Many buildings in the city collapsed within seconds — including the downtown primary school where the couple’s 8-year-old daughter had just started afternoon classes.

Hundreds of people were trapped under the rubble. Ye and Zhu’s child was among the 246 who never made it out alive.

Over a decade later, memories of Wenchuan have faded in China. The ruins of the primary school where Ye and Zhu’s daughter died have been swept away; the site transformed into a panda-themed commercial street.

But the pain of the bereaved can’t be so easily erased, as Chinese filmmaker Fan Jian explores in his heart-rending new documentary “After the Rain.”

I felt that people were forgetting the disaster ... I thought I should do something.

- Fan Jian, filmmaker

Since 2009, the director has been following Ye and Zhu and another family who lost a daughter during the earthquake, documenting in unflinching detail the unseen human cost of the disaster — the emotional aftershocks that ripple across generations.

“I wanted to resist oblivion,” Fan tells Sixth Tone. “I felt that people were forgetting the disaster … As a documentary maker, I thought I should do something.”

The families’ grieving process has been long and difficult, with the authorities’ response to the disaster making things more complex.

The significant number of students killed — Chinese authorities reported 5,335 schoolchildren dead or missing, though media disputed the figure — sparked public anger in 2008. Parents questioned whether some deaths could have been prevented, pointing out how several school buildings collapsed while nearby towers remained standing. Many suggested the poor quality, “tofu dregs” materials used in the school buildings made them highly vulnerable.

At the time, a senior Chinese construction expert on the government’s disaster relief panel explicitly blamed the deaths at one middle school in Dujiangyan on shoddy construction methods. But a few months later, an official investigation concluded the deaths were caused purely by the magnitude of the earthquake. Parents who protested claimed they were detained and harassed.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government offered free in-vitro fertilization to bereaved parents who wanted to bear another child; as the country still enforced a one-child policy at the time, most of the families had lost their only children.

Ye was among the mothers who accepted the free IVF, hoping to give birth to another daughter. 

Fan, the director, documented this emotional journey in a previous documentary titled “The Next Life,” which culminated in Ye giving birth to Chuanchuan — a boy — in 2011.

But as “After the Rain” makes clear, the family’s story — and their pain — didn’t end there. Fan reconnected with Ye and Zhu in 2017, ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, and found the couple still struggling to process their trauma.

For the couple, the gender of the new baby had meant everything: They felt giving birth to another daughter would give them a sense of closure and the ability to carry on living a meaningful life. The fact Chuanchuan was born a boy was a heavy blow.

Zhu and Ye dressed Chuanchuan as a girl when he was an infant, and they often remind the boy that he’s only alive because of his sister’s death. Zhu especially has a tense relationship with his son, scolding him over trivial issues.

The father is still wracked by guilt over his daughter’s death. On the day of the earthquake, he had searched frantically for her in the ruins till late into the night. He saved the lives of several children but was unable to find his little girl — despite hearing her cries from beneath the wreckage.

In several scenes, Zhu drinks heavily and bitterly scolds himself for his failure. Yet, he appears unable to prevent himself from passing on his trauma to his second child.

“He may seem fine in everyday life — drinking, eating, and bantering with friends,” says Fan. “But on certain days, the memories will resurface.”

Several families affected by the earthquake experience similar tensions, Fan tells Sixth Tone. Some feel compelled to remember the dead, even if it means overlooking their living child. This tendency might be even stronger in China due to traditional beliefs in the transmigration of souls, with parents hoping for the return of the lost souls in their second children, the director speculates.

“After the Rain” made its debut to widespread acclaim at the FIRST International Film Festival in late July, where the feature was shortlisted for best documentary. Fan hopes the film will be able to obtain the “dragon seal” — the official approval required for a film to receive a theatrical release in China — but its fate remains uncertain.

At FIRST, held in the northwestern Chinese city of Xining, the best documentary award became mired in controversy. Though “After the Rain” was screened successfully, a winner for the category was never announced.

Fan, however, has grown used to such complications. Since quitting his job at state broadcaster CCTV in 2007, he has become well-known for exploring contentious social issues on screen. Previous documentaries have focused on the SARS crisis, tensions between migrant workers and property developers in Beijing, and the struggles faced by so-called “leftover women.” His film about the Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua, “Still Tomorrow,” won the Special Jury Award at the 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).

Speaking with Sixth Tone on the sidelines of the festival in Xining, Fan discusses the making of “After the Rain,” the legacy of Wenchuan, and why we should resist forgetting past disasters. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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