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China holds first-ever national mourning for quake victims

 

China's national flag flies at half-mast after the flag-raising ceremony on Tian'anmen Square in Beijing Monday morning, May 19, 2008. China on Monday begins a three-day national mourning for the tens of thousands of people killed in a powerful earthquake which struck the country's southwest on May 12. (Xinhua Photo)

BEIJING, May 19 (Xinhua) -- As the sun rose, people gathered on the ruins of the Muyu Middle School in Qingchuan County, where at least 270 students perished in the deadly quake that struck Sichuan province on May 12.

Amid total silence, the national flag was first raised, then lowered again to half staff. Soldiers, police, doctors, nurses, volunteers, students and relatives of the victims watched, some sobbing.

Similar scenes were repeated around the nation on Monday, first day of China's rare three-day national mourning for those killed in the catastrophe.

NATION IN GRIEF

At 4:58 a.m., the national flag at the Tian'anmen Square in downtown Beijing was lowered to half-staff after the daily flag-raising ceremony. The ceremony was attended by about 2,600 people.

Many people, including most TV anchors, chose to wear clothes in the cool colors of white, blue and black, which symbolize sobriety and sadness in China, to show their respect to the more than 34,000 people confirmed dead after the magnitude-8.0 quake.

The government has estimated the death toll at more than 50,000.

"I have been watching TV to follow the disaster situation," said Yu Huilin, a 58-year-old retired teacher, after observing the Tian'anmen ceremony. Yu arrived in Beijing by bus in the early hours of Monday from eastern Shandong Province.

"It's really heart-rending," she said. "But I see the quake-affected people have received help from so many people. I believe they can recover from the disaster and soon rebuild their homes."

Far away in Tibet, a mourning ceremony was held on the square of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, where 26 Tibetan and Han volunteers sat in the shape of a heart, lighting 40 candles that symbolized brightness and hope.

One of the volunteers was Wang Chunhong, who came from Sichuan to do business in Lhasa six years ago. Sichuan was where the quake was centered and it has also had the highest death toll, with 33,570 confirmed dead.

"It is my heartfelt wish that people in my hometown could walk out of the shadow of the tragedy soon," he said. Wang donated 1,000 yuan (about 143 U.S. dollars) to the local Red Cross society.

At the Taer Monastery, a holy site for Tibetan Buddhism in the northwestern Qinghai Province, more than 10,000 local people and 400 monks prayed with their palms together, for the safety and happiness of people in the quake zone.

"In this way we hope to alleviate their sufferings and help them restore normal life soon," said Ngandain, vice head of the monastery.

The mastheads of major newspapers were printed in black. Advertisements were changed to slogans like "we mourn for the dead, and pray for the living," or "may the dead rest in peace, and the living be strong."

The Beijing News carried a picture on its front page, showing the hand of a dead student unearthed in Mianzhu, tightly grasping a pen.

The whole front page of the Beijing Times was in black. Under an image of a candle were the characters "mourning day" written in white, followed by the death toll.

Websites Sina, Sohu, Yahoo and Netease ran entirely in black-and-white, banishing colorful pictures and advertisements.

Public recreational activities were halted during the mourning period, including the Olympic torch relay. All cinemas have closed for the three-day period.

Many foreigners also joined in the mourning.

A man from Yemen who called himself Naif said he shed tears watching the quake news. "I will recite the Koran for the deceased during the three-day national mourning," he said.

Zaid Ali, also from Yemen, who is pursuing a master's degree in computer sciences at Hunan University, said he went to a local mosque with more than 100 others to pray for the dead.

"According to custom in Yemen, we offer such special prayers when our relatives pass away."

2:28 P.M., A MOMENT THAT FREEZES

Millions of people in China and overseas observed three minutes of silence at 2:28 p.m., the exact moment when, a week ago, an earthquake changed the fates of millions.

Du Chunlian tried to rise in front of the Tangshan earthquake monument, but failed.

Du, who is from Tangshan city in north China's Hebei province, has been in a wheelchair since being paralyzed in the catastrophic earthquake that claimed more than 240,000 lives on July 28, 1976. She was asleep when the quake struck and was buried by debris, from which she was later extricated by her father.

"I was crying as I followed the news of the Sichuan earthquake. I can feel the pain of people there," said Du, who waited for five hours on the square after a two-hour journey to attend the mourning ceremony. She donated 150 yuan for quake victims.

Pian Erlan, 66, wept as she held a plaque that read: "I come to see you off. May you rest in peace together with the Tangshan quake victims." Her husband died in the quake 32 years ago.

On Renmin Square in Guiyang, Guizhou's capital, 80-year-old Bai Biying made more than 50 white paper flowers to distribute to passers-by.

In Wuyuan of eastern Jiangxi province, handicapped children, guided by their teachers with sign language, held candles with both hands and lowered their heads.

The No. 1 bus stopped at 2:28 near Wangfujing, Beijing's downtown business district. All the 80-some passengers wearing white paper flowers stood still, and the bus became quiet except for the sound of sobbing.

The bus driver, Sun Xiugang, who is in his 40s, was too choked up to speak. A conductor wrote on a piece of paper words for the victims in Sichuan: "Our emotion burns for you. We are your parents and children."

At the same time, air raid sirens blared, and car, train and ship horns wailed in grief as pedestrians stood with their heads bowed in silence.

Chinese financial markets halted trading for three minutes.

Customers and staff in stores and malls stopped and lowered their heads, as the sound of sirens was broadcast throughout stores.

China Central Television's screen went black. In some Chinese embassies overseas, employees wore white paper flowers on their chests while standing in silence.

RESPECT TO THE DEAD, CARE FOR THE LIVING

The mourning was proposed by history professor Ge Jianxiong of Fudan University in Shanghai, in an article in the Nanfang Daily on Friday. But even if he hadn't proposed it, Ge said, the government would have done the same. "It shows respect for the dead and care for the living by the government and people," added Ge.

Monday was the seventh day since the quake, and according to Chinese tradition, the deceased realize they are dead after seven days. Memorial ceremonies on the seventh day are especially important, as they are believed to mean a better afterlife.

Large-scale national mourning is rare in China; the last time such an occurrence took place was after the September 1976 death of Mao Zedong, founder of the New China.

"Such large-scale activities nationwide for victims in Sichuan mirror the growth of a civil society," said famous writer Zhang Kangkang, "the activities reflect an enhanced awareness of ordinary people, as a result of great changes during the three decades since reform and opening-up."

Wang Baofeng, a teacher in Beijing, said that the touching stories during rescue work in the quake zone, showed the unity and social responsibility of the Chinese nation. "The deeply rooted humanity in Chinese culture is the reason why the Chinese civilization could persist for 5,000 years," she said.

While Qian Gang, who spent ten years interviewing survivors to write the book Tangshan Earthquake, saw the mourning as "a very wise decision of the government".

"People nationwide need a special period to express their condolence and grief," he said, adding that it is a good way to unite the whole nation in face of a major disaster and let the Chinese people know how much they can achieve when in unity.

Source: Xinhua


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