The 2008 Sichuan Earthquake through Music, Art, and Film

Straight Adrian Berg Flickr

May 12, 2014 marks the sixth anniversary of the 2008  Sichuan earthquake which killed 69,197 people, injured 374,176 people, and left at least 5 million people homeless. To commemorate the anniversary and to remind everyone that many are still recovering from the long-term effects of this disaster and that the Chinese government has not provided justice to earthquake victims, I thought it would be interesting to share several creative works by artists, musicians, and filmmakers who were moved to create something in response to the earthquake.

Folk artist Abigail Washburn and electronica artist Dave Liang, the man behind The Shanghai Restoration Project, collaborated on an album named Afterquake to raise awareness of the earthquake’s impact on the people and their communities and to raise funds for Sichuan Quake Relief’s efforts to assist victims.  The two musicians spent two weeks in Wenchuan County where they engaged local residents –  listening to their stories, learning about local culture, and leading activities for school children – and recorded singing, spoken word, and music for the album.  Photographer Amanda Kowalski and videographer Luke Mines documented the making of the album and the relocation and rebuilding efforts.

The Afterquake site is a multimedia experience.  Each song is accompanied by a description, lyrics, interview, and video that enrich it with a personal perspective.  Be sure to spend time with every song and to see the entire project.



The Sichuan earthquake arguably began Ai Weiwei’s (艾未未) career as a dissident.  His outrage towards the government for its corrupt behavior that led to shoddy construction of school buildings and its subsequent lack of transparency and cooperation during investigations produced a number of works.

Disturbing the Peace (老妈蹄花 / 老媽蹄花) and its sequel So Sorry (深表遗憾 / 深表遺憾) follow Ai’s attempts to help his friend Tan Zuoren (谭作人 /譚作人) who was arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for his research and questioning regarding the Wenchuan students’ casualties and the corruption resulting poor building construction.  These may be the first works where Ai Weiwei so openly clashes with authorities.

Disturbing the Peace

4851 and Remembrance identify each of the child victims of the earthquake by name.

Sculptural work Snake Ceiling and Remembering joins hundreds of children’s backpacks together.

Snake Ceiling via vpickering, Flickr

With ForgeWenchuan Rebarand Straight, steel rebar from the schools ascend from physical evidence to art.

Forge brownpau Flickr
Forge via Paulo Ordoveza (brownpau) via Flickr

Wenchuan Rebar

Straight Adrian Berg Flickr
Straight via Adrian Berg (aoberg) via Flickr

Straight is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What?


Whereas Ai Weiwei saw objects damaged in the earthquake as failing due to human fault, Zhang Huan (张洹 / 張洹) in Hope Tunnel sees an inevitable failing due to the overwhelming power of natural forces.  Accordingly, man must co-exist with nature and find ways to mitigate danger.

Zhang Huan - Hope Tunnel fresh888
Hope Tunnel via fresh888 Flickr


Documentaries about the earthquake have been made; unsurprisingly, many are critical of the government.  Here are a few:

China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province by Emmy-winning filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill was shown at the Beijing Independent Film Festival, but the filmmakers could not attend the screening because were denied entry into China.  The trailer can be viewed here.

Who Killed Our Children? by Pan Jianlin (潘剑林 / 潘劍林).  Pan was tracked down by government officials after the film was shown at a film festival in South Korea.

Buried (掩理) by Wang Libo takes a slightly different approach and draws comparison to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake to suggest governmental negligence in preparation for the earthquakes.  The film can be viewed in full here.

1428  by Du Haibin (杜海滨 / 杜海濱) looks at the discrepancy between the official narrative and the realities of the disaster and recovery process.  The trailer can be viewed here.

Finally, One Child by Mu Zijian, like Afterquake, focuses more on the human factor of the disasters.  The film follows three families as they deal with loss and look for normalcy.  It won the 2013 Sidney Gross Memorial Prize for Investigative Journalism and is a finalist for the 2014 Student Academy Awards.  The trailer can be viewed here.

One Child Still
Still from One Child.  Courtesy of Mu Zijian


Today, the government paints a rosy picture of the recovery, but the reality may be different.  In April, relief goods intended for the affected areas were found rotting in storage.  Last year, NPR reported many are suffering from financial hardship and that people believe that the government is still building tofu-dreg schools ( 豆腐渣工程).

This was just a small glimpse into the creative works produced in response to the earthquake.   In the future, Beyond Chinatown plans to showcase more artists, musicians, and filmmakers who have something to say about the earthquake.