Wenchuan Earthquake: The Focal Point that Inspires Chinese People to Join the Humanitarian Field

—–Stories with three of our emergency responses experts in Peaceland Foundation



On 12th May 2008, an earthquake of 7.9 Mw struck Wenchuan, a city located in Sichuan province in China. According to the official statistics, the earthquake and the secondary geohazards caused 69,227 deaths, left 18,000 people missing and injured more than 370,000 others. The total affected number reached 42 million in the end. It was no doubt an unforgettable, bitter lesson for every Chinese who experienced it.


For Wang Yingxie (王英颉), Zhang Guangrui (张广瑞), and Zhou Yahui (周亚辉), this earthquake was even more meaningful, in the sense that their lives and career path suddenly changed.  They are now rescue experts in Peaceland Foundation, and they have been through hundreds of disaster relief tasks against flooding, earthquakes, mountain accidents and cyclones. But coincidentally, their determination to devote themselves to the humanitarian field is all lit up by their individual volunteering experience in the Wenchuan earthquake 13 years ago.


Their stories with the Wenchuan earthquake are typical in their generation. They were influenced by this immense disaster while seeing the concept of charity and NGOs sprouting and spreading in China.




Taking actions in 2008


Although the roles they played in the relief work are different, their reason to act after the earthquake was similar. They were all just graduated from universities, and they felt they must do something for the people in need. Their background as outdoor adventurers gave them the confidence to give a hand in the earthquake struck region.


It was the first time for them all to do disaster aids volunteer work. The disaster area was full of chaos and complexity. Yingxie and Guangrui didn’t dare to let their parents know they involved, nor they planned the duration of their stay.


“I’m Sichuanese. I should go back and help”, Yingxie said. When he saw his friends online recruiting a local guide to help distribute life necessities and assist doctors,  he took the role without a second thought. He arrived at Mianzhu city (a disaster region in Sichuan Province) around 2 am on 13th May 2008 and immediately devoted himself to the searching and rescue work.


The clock is ticking, and lives are disappearing. The relief work continued day and night. Yingxie cannot and dare not to have a proper sleep.  After rescuing the buried and injured, Yingxie and his teammates built shelters and established a neighbourhood where the young and the old were carefully looked after. With the assistances from other NGOs, they also initiated some long-term rehabilitation programs.


In the end, Yingxie stayed in Sichuan for two years. And his humanitarian life just started.


Guangrui stayed for one and a half month. He went to help with a collapsed elementary school in Mianzhu. After five days of searching and rescuing, they set up a tent as a temporary ‘school’ for children to celebrate Children’s Day on 1st June in China.


Yahui helped the Red Cross Society of Sichuan with material transportation for about half a month. His responsibility is to ensure relief supplies can be delivered on time between the train station and the afflicted areas. To Yahui, “It was like a war in the peaceful time. Everything was quite memorable and so different from our daily life’’. He enjoyed the warm-hearted atmosphere, which encouraged him to continue in the similar field after finishing his work and left Sichuan.


Guangrui and Yingxie, too, took this volunteer experience seriously. Especially as they had participated in the first stage of the searching and rescue, they realised that the emergency response is a specialised job with certain theory, knowledge, skills, and equipment. And one must be trained to be competent at it.


While Yingxie stayed in the earthquake-stricken region for the community development work, Yahui and Guangrui joined the Blue Sky Rescue, a non-profit civil rescue organization. They started the training to be professional emergency responders and carried out disaster relief tasks as a team.


Since then, to be volunteering in humanitarian aids has become an indispensable part of their lives. Yingxie continued working in the front line of disaster relief after he left Sichuan. “With the experience in Wenchuan earthquake, I was too capable of helping with the situation that I can’t just leave it behinds and go back to my life before.’’




Path to progress—efforts in the next few years


Rope rescue, first aids, diving, helicopter air rescue, hazardous chemicals handling… Yingxie pointed out that “equipped with full sets of skills” are typical to Chinese rescuers. “This was because they need to deal with the diverse natural disasters that happen in china each year”, said Yingxie, “This also increased our efficiency to response.”


But how did they learn all that? Take earthquake rescue learning as an example. They reached out for opportunities to train with the professionals. In the beginning, they trained with China International Search and Rescue Team in the national earthquake emergency rescue training base. Yingxie mentioned that he contacted the Japan International Rescue Team he met in Mianzhu. The latter also offered the training for free after knowing their strong desire to do disaster aids.


Moving on, the team adjusted their learning and equipment according to the needs. They can quickly pick up skills for the new challenges. For instance, flooding frequently happens in South China, so they got trained for flood and swift water rescue to save the drowning. After the Covid breakout in 2020, they took the role to do the disinfection job. Combing the theoretical knowledge with practice and local policy, they passed another level of the game.


“A safe and beneficial rescue activity frequently requires us to handle various risk factors at the same time,” as Guangrui puts. “Only when we are skilful and flexible enough can we apply the multidisciplinary approach to solve the problem. That’s the importance of all the training. And to me, that’s also the interesting part of the emergency rescue—you never stop learning.”Considering its time commitment, they do need to choose, or balance, between the volunteer rescue work with their job, family, and personal life. That’s not easy. In return, they gain trusted friends and the joy and honour of helping others and saving lives.




Moving to international humanitarian aids


In 2008, many international charity groups arrived Sichuan to assist the long-term recovery for the local. Yingxie recalled that in 2008, most volunteers like him had no idea about how to design and launch long-term projects.  “We knew nothing about funding budget and project management. The international NGOs not only brought us funding. More importantly, they shared with us their systemically way of launching projects. We were directly educated, not only of the specific methods but also the value of the international humanitarian aids.”


From some overseas training, they also started to understand the international standards and good practices of humanitarian aid work. For example, they have practised helicopter air rescue in the U.S. and gained hazardous chemicals handling skills from Japan. “we have always trained to be ready for international humanitarian aids.” The rescue approaches and ability of collaboration have been tested through their earthquake rescues in Nepal and Equator and many other cases.


Now Yingxie thinks it is the time for our NGOs to go abroad and seek more cooperation. “Through the development of more than ten years, our organisations are more mature and creative. We’re able to adapt our experience to ease the problem of the local. I hope the spirit out of the Wenchuan earthquake never dies out and keeps deepening our connection to the world.”


As another volunteer said: “Through international humanitarian aids, sometimes what we can do is small and little. Yet, we do it because we want to tell them that we care and respect their basic human rights. We hope this respect can let them live with dignity. And hopefully, the dignity of living leads to hope and inner sustenance.”





Author: Tiange Li   Editor: Ling LI