Deadliest Earthquake In History: China's 1556 Quake And Its Path Of Destruction

By | January 21, 2021

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China, Shaanxi Province, Wei River Valley, Wheat Fields, Loess Plateau. (Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On January 23, 1556, China's Ming Dynasty was rocked by a huge earthquake that became the deadliest quake in recorded history. Although it lasted only a few seconds, its toll was staggering and its effects were felt for generations.

The Shaanxi Earthquake

In the early hours of January 23, 1556, the Wei River Valley, located in the Huazhou District of the Shaanxi Province in northern China, was rocked by an earthquake that modern scientists have estimated at around an 8 on the Richter Scale. The earthquake—which has been known variously as the Jiajing Earthquake because it happened during Emperor Jiajing’s reign, the Chinese Earthquake, and most commonly the Shaanxi Earthquake—only lasted a few seconds, but aftershocks continued for about six months after the initial quake.

The Wei River Valley was certainly no stranger to earthquakes. Falling neatly within three major fault lines, it's experienced at least 26 earthquakes in its time, but this one was different.

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Traditional cave houses in Shanxi. (Meier&Poehlmann/WIkimedia Commons)

Why Was The Shaanxi Earthquake So Deadly?

At the time, the Shaanxi Province was a national center of trade and agriculture and one of the most populous regions of China, but in the blink of an eye, that population decreased by thousands. About 60% of the population of the Huazhou region, about 830,000 people, was killed in the Shaanxi Earthquake. Some villages were totally leveled, leaving only a few survivors, while others died in the ensuing days and weeks, to say nothing of the millions who were severely injured.

One reason the death toll was so high was because the majority of the population lived in homes called yaodongs, manmade caves carved from the soft soil of the hillsides surrounding the Wei River basin. These types of homes kept their occupants warm in the wintertime and cool in the heat of the summer, but when the earthquake struck, the soil lost its form, and thousands of people were buried under tons of dirt and rock. After the earthquake, homes were built using hardier materials, such as wood and bamboo.