Rapeseed plants in Sichuan Province flowered a month late in 2008. People did not think much of it. In those days, people still believed experts and the experts said the delayed flowering season was normal. They also said the thousands of frogs suddenly jumping onto streets was normal.
That day, I was sitting in my study in Chengdu working on an article. When the floor started moving I thought it was just the cat being naughty. I realized an earthquake had struck only when books started to fall off the shelf.
Buildings shook. Lampposts swayed. An ominous glow was on the horizon. I rushed down the stairs. The ground heaved like boiling water. Along with my neighbor, I finally made it to safety in an open area outside our apartment complex.
News arrived slowly. Many people had died in the Dujiangyan area at the epicenter of the quake. Roads to Beichuan, a county close to the epicenter, were cut off. Blood supplies were running out.
“My country is calling me,” I thought to myself. “It’s time for us to build a New Great Wall with our flesh and blood.” Our national anthem resonated in my head. The next morning I set off to Beichuan with two friends.
I didn’t know it at the time, but those were my final days as a typical Chinese patriot.
I arrived in the town of Beichuan and was perplexed as I stood in front of the ruins of Beichuan No. 1 High School. I couldn’t understand why the rubble of a brand new five-story building covered half the area of a basketball court while nearby structures built decades ago were still standing. I couldn’t understand why new buildings seemed as fragile as crackers. I couldn’t understand why even the students on the ground floor of the school were apparently unable to make it to safety.
I saw a woman loitering around the pile of debris. Pointing at the rubble, she muttered: “Look, that’s my baby. Her hand is still moving. She is still alive but I can’t pull her out.” I could see the bottom of a little girl’s floral printed shirt, and other children as well. Many of the children were still moving. But the military rescue team forbade us from getting closer to the rubble, fearing further collapse. We stood by helplessly. The children eventually stopped moving.
I was a typical patriot before 2008. I believed that “hostile foreign forces” were responsible for most of my peoples’ misfortunes. As a soccer commentator covering games between Japan and China, I wrote lines like, “Cut off the Japanese devils’ heads.” I saw Japanese soccer players as the descendants of the Japanese soldiers who brutally killed Chinese civilians in the 1937 massacre of Nanjing. I used to curse CNN for its anti-China commentaries. I was one of the protesters who stood in front of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and raised my fist after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
But my patriotism began to come into question as I stood in front of the ruins of Beichuan High School. It became clear that the “imperialists” did not steal the reinforced-steel bars from the concrete used to make our schools. Our school children were not killed by foreign devils. Instead, they were killed by the filthy hands of my own people.
I still believe that we should “build a New Great Wall with our flesh and blood” but now I also believe the Great Wall should protect our flesh and blood.
After the quake, I roamed for many days over the mountain areas in Beichuan with other volunteers and managed to rescue some elderly people and young children. One day, we came across a primary school funded by Project Hope, a welfare organization that aims to bring schools to poverty-stricken rural areas of China.
The school building was still standing and even the glass windows were intact. All of the students of this school had survived the quake.
I later asked the school principal and the teachers the reason for this miracle. They said we should thank the person who supervised the construction of the school building. This man, once a member of an engineering corps in the People’s Liberation Army, had been hired by the company that donated the money to build the school. They told me the man used to tap on every newly built cement pillar with a little hammer. By listening to the sound, he could tell whether the concrete was mixed at the right ratio. The construction team was ordered to start all over again if the man was not happy with the sound.
Teachers added that two kinds of noises used to reverberate in the school construction site: the sounds from building and the yells from the man arguing with people — either with builders over the quality of the construction or with the local government officials over delayed payment for construction (all donations to Project Hope for building new schools had to go through local governments and all builders were assigned by local governments).
I met this construction supervisor and asked him if he had followed any special codes when building the school. “No, it was simply built by following the national standards,” he said. I also learned that he had supervised the construction of five other school buildings and all of them withstood the quake. Meanwhile, the mainstream media is prohibited from praising this man. They may not even mention his name.
One evening two years ago, I received a call from him. He said he had been forcibly treated for fictitious mental problems and his wife had left him. He said he wanted to escape from Sichuan, the source of his troubles. He begged me to help him leave and find a job in northern China. Then we lost touch.
Four years after the Sichuan earthquake I am still perplexed. Why can’t we publicize the names of children who died during the quake? Every single victim’s name of the 9/11 attacks was read out loud and published many times. And why can’t we mention the name of the man who built safe structures that saved so many lives?
Four years after the earthquake, I now reveal his name: Gou Yandong
Gou Yandong is a remarkable patriot. He saved many Chinese children by building safe structures. He deserves to be rewarded.
A month after the quake, I returned to Beijing. One day I bumped into a respected journalist from CCTV, the state television news channel. We talked about the shoddy “tofu structures” that claimed many lives during the quake.
“Corrupt officials deserve to be shot dead,” I barked.
“No,” responded the respected wise man while gazing intently at me. “Tackling such issues in China must be a gradual process. Otherwise, there will be chaos again. After all, we have to rely on these officials for post-quake reconstruction.”
I used to have a lot of respect for that man. Now we are strangers.
Some people now call me a traitor. Some call me an agent of the foreign devils. But how can I be an agent of the foreign devils when I don’t even have a U.S. green card, when unlike much of the Chinese elite my child doesn’t drive a Ferrari or study at a prestigious foreign university, when I don’t own any real estate in the United States or Europe. I love my country, but I cannot love a government that is responsible for so many shoddy “tofu structures.”
These days, people in China like to talk about patriotism because of the disputes with our neighbors over small islands and sea lanes. I am, in fact, quite open to using military force to claim Huangyan Island, the disputed island between China and the Phillippines. But I am against the idea of fighting enemies abroad while letting bad guys at home get away with murder. Many typical patriots think differently. They believe bringing bad guys to justice can wait but claiming a tiny island can’t.
After witnessing events in 2008 — not only the quake but also the Olympic Games and the melamine milk scandal — my definition of patriotism changed.
Patriotism is not about robbing our own people while claiming foreigners are looting us. Patriotism is not about bullying mothers of children who died in the earthquake, while calling for people to stand up to the foreign bullies of our motherland.
Patriotism is about taking fewer kickbacks and using proper construction methods when building classrooms. Patriotism is about constructing fewer extravagant offices for the bureaucrats and building more useful structures for farmers. Patriotism is about drinking less baijiu (a fiery Chinese spirit) using public money. Patriotism is about allowing people to move freely in our country and letting our children study in the city where they wish to study. Patriotism is about speaking more truth. Patriotism is about dignity for the Chinese people.
I am a patriot. I would love to see a little island added to our vast territory of this great nation. But I would much prefer to see the names of countless of extinguished souls engraved on humble memorials in my country.
Li Chengpeng is a writer and a blogger who has over five million followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. This article was adapted from a longer article posted online on the fourth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake earlier this month. It was translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan.