Notes From the Epicenter of the Earthquake

By Bill Marx and Wen Huang

Dissident Chinese writer Liao Yiwu lives near the epicenter of the earthquake in Sichuan province. His home is about 17 miles from the school where hundreds of students were trapped. Miraculously, his building survived, though there are several giant cracks in the concrete stairway. In his immediate area more than 1,000 people were killed. Liao says he plays flute in the dark empty building to pass the time.

Liao Yiwu
Author Liao Yiwu

According to Liao, the government has done a good job in their rescue efforts. The fact that the government TV is now broadcasting news of the earthquake 24 hours non-stop has been reassuring.

Liao is keeping a journal about the effects of the earthquake on his life and the lives of others. Here are some short excerpts:

I had just stepped into the residential compound, leisurely walking to my building. Suddenly, the earth under my feet began to shake, like a person suffering from epilepsy. The trees looked like a party of young people shaking their heads under the influence of herbal ecstasy. Because I was undernournished when I was a child, my brain is somewhat damaged — I am slow in responding to my surroundings. Initially, I didn’t realize it was an earthquake until I saw that every building in my compound was vibrating.

I felt like a helpless child who has been suddenly tossed onto a swing. Then the speed of the swing accelerated to the point I couldn’t stand still. I knelt on one leg and found myself sandwiched between two tall buildings. I struggled to get up, turned around mechanically, and ran away from the building as fast as my legs could carry me. Soon, I was followed by a crowd who had dashed out from different buildings…everyone was dazed and scared.

The epilepsy outburst lasted from two to three minutes. Then it stopped and things calmed down. I found myself surrounded by people, including my girl friend, who had run out of our 5th floor apartment.

About ten hours later, I contacted my sister Xiao Fei. She was trapped inside a seven story office building in downtown Chengdu. The picture frames and artworks in her office were strewn on the floor, shattered. She said she felt like she had been tossed around inside a violently shaking colander. My writer friend Ran Yunfei was taking a nap at his 8th floor apartment. He was thrown off his bed. Then he ran out without any clothes on, dragging his quilt along behind him …Thank heavens, my family and my friends have made it through …

I feel guilty that I survived. As I watch those babies and students being pulled out from the debris, I want to cry. I wish I could be there helping, or at least recording their desperate cries and hear the stories from the brave rescue workers…

(Journal entries translated from the Chinese by Wen Huang)

The Corpse Walker

Huang’s translation of Liao Yiwu’s book “The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up” was recently published by Pantheon Books.

Huang spoke to World Books editor Bill Marx about Liao and his controversial volume of interviews, which was banned in China.


  1. joaquim toledo jr on May 6, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    I am trying to get in touch with Wen Huang. I am taking care of the portuguese translation of “China’s Charter 2008” and would be very pleased to invite him to write a short presentation, to be published in one of Brazil’s leading academic journals, “Novos Estudos Cebrap” (
    Thank you,

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