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In China's quake zone, aftershocks of the spirit

Generations of Chinese have learned to "eat bitter," but in quake's aftermath optimism masks despair.
Image: Earthquake survivor in Beichuan county, China.
A resident carries his furniture past buildings destroyed by the May 12 earthquake and flooding from the Tanjiashan quake-formed lake in Beichuan county, southwest of China's Sichuan province on Tuesday.Andy Wong / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Inside Meng Futing's refugee tent, the air was hot and fetid. Outside, summer rain had turned the little earthen lane to mud. It was so sticky between the rows of tents that each step Meng took made a sucking sound.

There was no hope of leaving this giant tent city anytime soon. Meng's village, Qipan, was leveled by the May 12 earthquake that devastated central China's hills. The road to Qipan, 24 miles north of Mianzhu, near the epicenter, was still cut off by a landslide.

But even as he recounted his misery, Meng, a 38-year-old farmer, was smiling and, to all outward appearances, cheerful. He was looking forward to an imminent move into prefab barracks going up about 200 yards away.

"We have to face the hardship," he said to a visitor surprised at his equanimity over a disaster that left 85,000 dead or missing. "The earthquake hit us. Nothing we can do about that. It was the work of heaven. Now we have to deal with it."

'Eating bitter'
Across China, children have been taught for generations that enduring hardship -- or "eating bitter," as Chinese like to say -- is just as important as overcoming it. The rugged farmers of Sichuan have developed a reputation for being even abler than the rest of their countrymen in this respect. And since the quake struck, they have earned their reputation anew.

"Our mothers and fathers teach us from an early age," explained Jiang Mixiao, 45, whose apartment building in Dujiangyuan, just northwest of Chengdu, was flattened by the quake. "We all know how to eat bitter."

The Communist Party has made its own contribution to the tradition. The mystique of endurance was a central part of the Long March, in which Mao Zedong led his faltering forces into a mountainous refuge and lived to fight another day. Millions of young people were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution for the express purpose of experiencing the hardships of peasant life.

Party propagandists have long relied on that history to rally support, even though three decades of economic reforms have transformed the way many Chinese live -- particularly party members -- and made the storied hardships only a memory. Now, the party has been forced to rely on the tradition in a new way, counting on the patience of 12 million refugees across the earthquake zone who have little promise of returning home for months or even years.

For them, the disaster has opened a new era of eating bitter. And once again, they have made enduring hardship a point of pride. "I could cry, but what good would that do?" said a homeless factory worker who identified himself only as Yang.

Vastly better than tents
Jiang saw not only her home destroyed, but her factory, too. Still, on a recent day, she laughed easily while chatting with those around her inside her new prefab home, which she is sharing with family and neighbors, four to a room. Her husband was off to look for temporary work, she said, and her son had already found a job in the city center.

Jiang's daughter watched television on a set snatched from the ruins of their apartment, the sound loud enough for all to hear. Laundry hung outside to dry. On one side of the door, a neighbor fried greens in a wok over a little gas flame set up just outside the barracks-style unit. On the other side, another neighbor had some soup boiling. They would all eat together, Jiang said, and she invited a visitor to pull up a chair and dig in.

The earthquake and its aftermath have dramatized another trait that has followed the Chinese through their long history: the ability to live crowded together with a minimum of friction. What to a Westerner might have seemed like unbearably close quarters was neighborliness and making do for Jiang and fellow residents of the prefab city going up outside Dujiangyuan.

This, they knew, was to be their way of living for the foreseeable future. It was vastly better than the tent they left two weeks ago. In their new home, linoleum covered the floor. Showers and toilets were a short walk away. A workman daubed gray putty around the edges of the wall to prevent moisture from seeping in. The lanes between the barrackslike units were covered in concrete with small drainage channels on either side.

The Civil Affairs Ministry said last week that almost 1.5 million tents and 250,000 prefab housing units have been dispatched to the disaster zone. More prefabricated housing is on the way, it said, with the aim of replacing the tents in which most refugees have been living so far.

Quake victims have been told they should expect to live in the new units for up to three years, after which they will get government financing to help rebuild their former homes. In the meantime, their living conditions have come to resemble those of soldiers: shared showers, shared toilets, shared sleeping space, shared meals and shared idleness in the 10-foot-wide lanes between endless rows of prefabricated barracks.

"This is a lot better than those tents," said Jiang as the greens were proclaimed ready to eat and bowls were set around a low table fashioned from crates.

Faith in science

A half-century of Communist atheism and nearly universal primary schooling have left most Chinese without the urge to seek spiritual explanations for what has befallen them. A survey of quake victims, conducted by the Horizon polling company, found that people generally "did not connect the earthquake with God or retribution," said Fan Wen, Horizon's public affairs research director.

But some victims have reached beyond the science nevertheless, wondering about a divine hand in what happened and looking for answers in Buddhist precepts. Their interpretations suggest that, under the surface of a country devoted to material gain, some Chinese have preserved a well of traditional faith that sustains them in times of crisis.

Zhao Yong, who works with the Hope China volunteer organization providing psychological counseling in the disaster zone, said a number of Buddhist believers have suggested that bad karma, created by evils such as polluting mountain streams, could have played a role in the tragedy.

Others sought a spiritual explanation outside organized religion. A middle school student in Beichuan, one of the hardest-hit towns 20 miles north of here, told counselors he believed he might have helped bring on the earthquake because he cursed a classmate during a quarrel the day before and the classmate perished. One woman told the group's interviewers she believed the earthquake was an act of God because, the previous day, she had been chatting with a friend who remarked how all their houses would be destroyed if an earthquake were to occur.

But most people in the earthquake zone seemed content to accept the scientific explanation offered by the government in the official media, according to several dozen interviews last week. In addition, the interviews showed, the government's swift rescue operations and sustained effort to provide emergency housing were widely applauded, creating a willingness to embrace government declarations.

Many victims, in talking with a foreign journalist, seemed gratified that they had the opportunity at last to offer praise about the authoritarian system in China, which much of the time during such discussions is criticized, in China as well as abroad.

'A little bit too optimistic'

He Shegui, a retired accountant, was glorying in Sichuan's reputation for eating bitter. Even in the days of Mao Zedong and the bloody civil war, he said, Sichuan soldiers were famous for enduring more suffering than the troops from other regions.

In a relaxed conversation in a just-completed concrete lane between rows of prefab housing, he recounted in a jocular tone how he and his wife slept in a Dujiangyuan city bus for three days after the earthquake. He, 73, was just outside their apartment building when the quake struck, he said, and he saw his wife come running out just in time.

But then it came time to talk about those who did not make it out of the building in time. "We lost people all around us," He said, his voice suddenly choking and tears welling up in his eyes as he listed the names of friends and relatives who died.

Many victims are like He, with pent-up emotions just under the surface, Fan said. The confident declarations about eating bitter and quickly rebuilding may give way to uncontrolled grief and resentment later unless government resettlement plans work well and party propaganda keeps up their morale, she warned.

"A survey during a previous earthquake showed that three or four months after the quake, the suicide rate increased," she added. "I think that the affected people in Sichuan are a little bit too optimistic. When they face the reality, they will have a letdown. The bigger their hope now, the bigger their letdown later on. People need to lower their hope and expectations."

Dan Zhongbin, 76, also reached back into years of Chinese history to explain how Sichuanese can eat bitter without complaining. "The mountains around here are not easy to live in," he said with pride in his voice. "Everybody knows how to endure hardship."

Dan, a retired construction worker, was sitting in his refugee tent whiling away the afternoon by reading a history of political struggles during the Cultural Revolution. Those were the days of China's great men, he said. But today's leaders have also shown their mettle during the earthquake, he added. Premier Wen Jiabao in particular showed great concern for people's welfare, Dan said.

Suddenly, from nowhere, a rush of uncontrolled emotion welled up. Losing his aplomb, Dan turned aside to conceal a bout of sobbing. A minute later, regaining control, he turned back toward his visitor. "They are good, too," he said, tears still in his eyes.