Ten Years Later

People visit the relic of Xuankou Middle School in the town of Yingxiu, Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province, China. The town was located at the epicenter of a major earthquake that rocked the area on May 12, 2008. Over 86,000 people died or are unaccounted for because of the disaster.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of this once-in-a-century, magnitude-8.2 earthquake. To commemorate the event, we are featuring two articles in the following pages, one written by a quake survivor and the other by a volunteer. They look back on the devastating calamity and its impact, but also on a force of goodness represented by the people rushing to the aid of victims whose lives had been turned upside down. The experience left the authors embracing the values of kindness, goodwill, giving, and mutual help. The catastrophe bore witness to how the worst of conditions can bring out the best in people.    Photo by Hsiao Yiu-hwa



Remembering the 16-Year-Old You

By Fan Caiyun

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

Photos by Hsiao Yiu-hwa

Everything has changed. It is almost impossible to find things that have stayed the same over the last decade in the disaster areas. How about myself? How about my classmates who lost their lives in the quake? Do they still live happily with their 16-year-old looks in another world? So many lives were lost on that fatal day. Those of us who luckily survived must live the best we can. It's one way to honor the memory of those whose lives were lost.


Fan Caiyun visits the old site of her alma mater, Luoshui Middle School, where a hospital stands now. The school has been moved to a new site.

 Ten years is a long time, so long that I have become old enough to sprout white hair. Ten years is also a short time, so short that when I hear or read something about Tzu Chi, I feel as if their volunteers left just yesterday. I still have the cards they gave me with their best wishes. My eyes become moist whenever I read their words. As human beings, we have emotions and feelings. We are destined to feel emotionally bound to people who have left marks in our lives.

Why, then, do I never mention the earthquake? Almost none of the friends I have made since the quake know that I am a quake survivor. Does it mean I have forgotten the past?

Last week I accompanied some Tzu Chi volunteers from Taiwan to places wrecked by the quake. My alma mater, toppled in the disaster, has been replaced by a hospital. Houses that once lay in ruins have been rebuilt with a new look. Villages rendered lifeless by the catastrophe are vibrant and full of life again. We could find almost nothing that had remained the same over the past decade.

And me? How have I changed over the last ten years? The student has become a teacher, and the teenage girl is now a married woman. It seems that life has worked out pretty well for me.

I’ve thanked the heavens above on countless nights for letting me survive that day. But how about those classmates of mine—those classmates whose lives were brought to an abrupt end on that fateful day? Are they living happily in another world with their eternal 16-year-old looks?

Over the last ten years, I haven’t dared to think back to their smiling faces. I haven’t dared to remember the sounds of their voices. Sometimes I can almost convince myself that they are still alive and that we have just lost touch.

Every year on Tomb-Sweeping Day, as I look at their photos in which they flash such bright smiles, I think to myself: “Good for you. You’ll forever be young, while we have no choice but to be dragged forward inexorably by time.”

A Tzu Chi volunteer looks through a window into a Luoshui school classroom ruined by the Wenchuan earthquake.

Live well

Countless lives were lost on the day of the quake. Those lives, so dear to their loved ones, were snuffed out mercilessly, as if they had no more value than some dried-up roadside grass. Some of my classmates’ small, soft bodies were bent out of shape by cement blocks and steel bars as their young lives skidded to a sudden, permanent stop.

Back then, we visited their surviving families to offer our condolences and to try to bring a measure of comfort to their broken hearts. When we met on the street, we greeted each other as if we were family. But gradually some people moved away, or their jobs or lifestyles changed. When we met in public again, they began to avert their eyes or even pretend that we were strangers.

I think I know why they behaved that way—they wanted to leave their pain behind and start anew. We, who were once their children’s classmates, now only triggered their most painful memories. Looking away when we met was easier than the alternative.

I wonder how many nights they burst out crying uncontrollably because they missed their children so much. How strong must a heart be to overcome a grief that great? How much strength did they need to carry on and start a new life? Only people who have experienced such agony know the answers.

How about young people, like me, who survived the earthquake? What did the tragedy do to us? Our youthful days were gone, like the lives of those lost classmates. At the same time, we emerged from the tragedy stronger. We became more resilient, like flowers that grew out of cracks in hard stone.

A girl whose leg was badly injured during the earthquake later married a soldier—maybe out of gratitude for the military personnel who worked tirelessly to rescue people from under the rubble. A boy who had his legs amputated dropped out of school and suffered depression for several years, but he eventually pulled himself together. He met a girl who was also wheelchair-bound but who displayed admirable courage toward facing her life’s challenges. They got married. He rediscovered his life’s purpose through her and was no longer lonely.

These people have testified to the resilience of life. Come to think of it, we are all very lucky to have survived the temblor. Shouldn’t we cherish our new lease on life and live our lives the best we can? When we do that, we honor the memory of the deceased.

Making the most of it

I often ponder the meaning of life. Tzu Chi volunteers once told me that no one gets two mornings each day, meaning that you must cherish your time. Once that time is gone, it’s gone for good. Tzu Chi volunteers believe that your time is best used when you give the best you can to benefit society. Your journey in this world will come to an end after just a few short decades. Time passes by very fast. One good way to create meaning for your life is to give as much as you can. So I tell myself to do that. I tell myself to be a kind person and to try my best to live a meaningful, dignified life. That’s how you take responsibility for your life.

After their post-quake emergency aid ended, the Tzu Chi volunteers who had come to our town to carry out relief work left. I returned to school and settled back into the routine of life as a student. When I missed the volunteers, I would visit the places where I had worked alongside them. I remember that one time by a river, a volunteer taught me that our lives are like small boats. We can’t carry too much stuff with us. We should learn to let go—we should learn to forget.

Wearing the shoes the volunteers gave me, I have visited many places and seen a lot of beautiful scenery. Material gifts aside, they gave me something even more important: the gift of kindness. Over the years I have learned to face life’s challenges with the kindness they taught me. I always remember what they said to me: “Caiyun, when you run into difficulties, remember that we’re praying for you somewhere in the world.”

Life is like a tapestry woven with threads of tribulation, loss, regret, triumph, happiness, love, and rebirth—a crisscrossed pattern of light and darkness. The warm memories and positive values from Tzu Chi volunteers have comforted and supported me along life’s path. They help me embrace the goodness, truth, and beauty of the world with gratitude, and they motivate me to give sincerely. For the remainder of my life, I will strive to be a kind person.


A Young Volunteer

Compiled by Tzu Chi Monthly editorial board

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

A much younger Fan Caiyun (front row, second from right) poses with other young volunteer helpers and a Tzu Chi volunteer at a temporary Tzu Chi medical station set up in Luoshui after the Wenchuan quake. Huang Fu-quan

On May 14, 2008, in the immediate aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake, Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at disaster areas to provide aid. They set up service stations, cooked food for victims, distributed relief goods, and provided free medical services.

Fan Caiyun (樊彩云), the young author of “Remembering the 16-Year-Old You,” lived in one of the disaster areas. She was a student at Luoshui Middle School when the quake occurred. The tremor hit after the lunch break, taking the lives of nearly a hundred teachers and students at her school. Not only were some of her classmates killed, but she also lost relatives and friends.

Despite her grief, she joined Tzu Chi volunteers in helping her own townspeople. She helped move supplies like bottled water and rice, delivered hot food to elderly people who lived alone, accompanied Tzu Chi volunteers on visits to tent areas, and interpreted for Tzu Chi doctors who didn’t understand the local dialects. She and many other youngsters like her gave visiting Tzu Chi volunteers a lot of help during that time.

Tzu Chi volunteers were stationed in the disaster areas for about three months. Team after team worked in relays to help survivors—after one team left, another arrived to take over. Later, the foundation also helped rebuild schools and permanent housing for survivors.


That Summer

By Zhou Feng

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

Photos by Hsiao Yiu-hwa

That summer ten years ago in Sichuan, I witnessed people working together with courage and faith to pull through a difficult time. The experience helped me realize how mutual help, kindness, and goodwill are universally cherished values.

The heavily hit town of Yinghu shows the devastation after the Wenchuan earthquake. The temblor damaged over 20,000 kilometers of road. Despite the challenging road conditions, volunteers from both China and abroad managed to overcome all kinds of difficulties and reach the disaster area to render help.

Ten years ago, I went with a few friends from different colleges to volunteer in Mianzhu, Sichuan. We went there with the purest of intentions: to help survivors of the Wenchuan earthquake. After such a huge calamity, we felt we ought to do something for people whose lives had been upended. Even if all we could offer was a smile or a hug, we felt that would be very meaningful. We ended up helping children at a tent school with their studies.

Because aftershocks were still occurring, my family was opposed to my going there. They assumed that I was just seeking an adventure, that I couldn’t possibly help much, and that I would only add to the chaos. Despite their opposition, in the end I decided to go. I purchased a train ticket and set out from my hometown in central Shanxi Province. After traveling for more than 20 hours, I finally arrived in Sichuan.

Ruins were everywhere in the disaster area. I stayed there for nearly 20 days, during which time I encountered people from all walks of life. They came from different areas in China or even from other countries, and they were all there to help. I saw many NGO personnel and reconstruction teams pitching in to help repair roads and build temporary housing for survivors.

I’ll never forget how I felt seeing so many people rushing to the aid of the survivors. I was deeply moved…and astounded. Human beings appear so insignificant and powerless in the face of such devastating natural disasters, but in the aftermath people come together with amazing courage and faith to pull through the hard times. Seeing this in person, my heart was immensely warmed and encouraged.

Since ancient times, the human race has had to deal with all kinds of natural disasters. The civilizations and cultures created by our ancestors fought long odds to survive. Facing the impermanence of the world, I pondered: What is the meaning and value of life? For what do we live? In the greater scheme of things, all my worries about the minor things in life seemed so trifling and petty. Is it worth it to waste our energy and sweat on life’s trivialities?

After serving in the disaster area, I began participating in one philanthropic activity after another, volunteering when I could. The more I volunteered, the more I realized that most people in the world embrace core values such as goodwill and benevolence. Peace, kindness, mutual help, and a good life are what people long for. To make our lives more meaningful and our world better, we should help one another head toward that goodness.

Volunteers put on a skit at a Tzu Chi service station about the difficulties posed by the language barrier when they are trying to provide help to quake survivors. They encouraged local people to come forward and serve as interpreters to facilitate the provision of aid. Wang Xian-huang

Friends from Taiwan

I didn’t know anyone from Taiwan before I volunteered in Sichuan. Since childhood, however, I had been very familiar with a song by a Taiwanese singer lauding the beauty of southern Taiwan. I therefore developed a longing for the place.

When I was volunteering in Sichuan, I met a man from Taiwan who was a few years my senior. He was a Tzu Chi volunteer. We got to talking about books I loved, such as An Unfinished Song and Dream of the Red Chamber, which, as it turned out, he liked a lot too. We also talked about traditional Chinese culture and what young people in China and Taiwan were like. Although that was a decade ago, the two of us have stayed in touch. We drop each other a line from time to time, asking how each other is doing. I always feel very warm inside when I hear from him.

There was another Tzu Chi volunteer, from Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, whom I remember very well. She was in her 60s, her hair was gray, and she was very elegant. She worked nonstop every day in the disaster area, sometimes washing cooking pots, sometimes putting kitchen utensils in order, and sometimes sweeping the ground. I asked her one day out of curiosity why she never rested. “We had to take time off from work and fly all the way here to volunteer,” she answered. “It wasn’t an easy trip, so we must cherish our time here all the more and help out as much as we can to make the trip worth it. The more I work, the happier I am.” I was really impressed by her attitude of wanting to contribute as much as she could.

One day during lunch break at the tent school, we suddenly heard sounds of gongs and drums. It turned out that some local officials and elementary school students had come to present banners to Tzu Chi volunteers to thank them for coming all the way from Taiwan to help quake survivors. As I looked at the scene before me, my eyes filled with tears. It was a touching scene of aid recipients sincerely thanking their helpers.

As I got to know the group better, I learned that the footprints of Tzu Chi volunteers are not limited to Sichuan, but can be found in many other places in China and across the world. Tzu Chi volunteers use their own free time to visit the needy, establish recipient rosters, and then personally distribute aid. They pay for their own food, board, and transportation on every relief mission. Giving without asking for anything in return is their guiding spirit.

I became good friends with quite a few Tzu Chi volunteers. Most of them are young people who believe in actively serving society. They have helped broaden my horizon and deepened my faith in the possibility of a better world. My world has become brighter because of them.

Tzu Chi volunteers assess damage in Shifang, an area in Sichuan that was wrecked by the Wenchuan quake. They arrived at the disaster area from Taiwan just 50 hours after the quake.

A loving world

I have taken part in a number of local Tzu Chi events over the past decade, first as a student in Beijing and now working in Shanghai. One time I traveled with other volunteers to northern Jiangsu Province to distribute scholarships to students from impoverished families. The trip opened my eyes to the wide gap in living conditions between remote farming villages and big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The students’ homes we visited were sparsely furnished and had few electric appliances. Life wasn’t easy for these financially strapped students and their families.

An education is the best hope for these youngsters to rise and escape from their poverty. However, due to their family’s limited finances, they face more hurdles against an education than students from wealthier families. It would be very meaningful if we could help these underprivileged students stay in school. Therefore, as I work for a better life for myself, I do what I can to help them avoid dropping out for lack of financial resources. One person’s strength may be limited, but when we all work together, we can make a difference.

Tzu Chi is noted for its high efficiency and internationalization. We have all learned through the media about poverty in Africa and the disaster caused by the Syrian civil war, but the actual conditions there could be even worse. I’m proud to belong to an organization that works to relieve the suffering of people in those places.

Volunteering for Tzu Chi has taught me to reduce my desires, be frugal, love life, and live wisely. I also take part in community volunteer work apart from the work of Tzu Chi. The two kinds of work may be different in form, but they are the same in spirit—we serve others and give our love through them.

Ten years have passed since the quake. Looking back, I feel I made the right decision to volunteer in the disaster area that summer. That experience has done me a lot of good, and its impact lasts to this day. It has helped me learn to face life with a more peaceful, grateful heart. I thank my family, my friends, and the teachers and classmates I had for helping me become who I am. I also thank all those people I do not know personally, but who have helped make our lives better.

A quote by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore comes to mind: “Once we dreamt that we were strangers. We wake up to find that we were dear to each other.” Yes, we are dear to each other. Let’s cherish one another and together make the world a better place.


July 2018