So staggering was the scale of destruction unleashed by the Sichuan earthquake that, much like the Haitian quake in January, its horror was often reduced to a series of statistics: more than 87,000 dead or missing, nearly 400,000 injured, upward of five million homeless. Beichuan, nestled along a river bend deep in the mountainous folds of Sichuan, stood nearly 60 miles north of the quake’s epicenter. It was a beautiful spot, but its underlying geology — the convergence of two fault lines — was so volatile that officials had for years considered razing the town, which was the county seat, and rebuilding it elsewhere. The quake did the job in an instant, leveling 80 percent of the town’s buildings and killing an estimated two-thirds of its 22,000 inhabitants, many of them members of the Qiang ethnic minority.
Two years later, Beichuan is a ghost town encircled by razor wire and Chinese soldiers. Most survivors still live in temporary housing, the blue-roofed aluminum cities that dot the earthquake zone. Some, like Yang and Xue, moved to Anchang, which is serving as the county seat until construction is completed on a new one, which will be known as Yongchang, or Eternal Prosperity. This replacement city, rising on the flood plain 15 miles south of Beichuan, is a small part of the $440 billion that China has reportedly spent on relief and reconstruction. Sichuan, whose armies of poor migrant workers helped fuel the economic boom in eastern China, is now receiving government largess, from housing, roads and infrastructure to the creation of a new industry: “earthquake tourism.”
Looming over the physical reconstruction, however, has been another question: How can society rebuild? In China, one answer has been to pair grieving men and women to create instant families that will help ensure social and economic stability. For Westerners, marriage choices tend to be based on individual notions of love or romance, or at least that is how we see it. But in Sichuan, marriage is, first and foremost, about family and community. Families shattered by the earthquake are not just personal tragedies; they are a fissure in the foundation of society.