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"Crack": Beichuan in Ruins

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

This discussion interrogates the ruins of Beichuan, a county town in North Sichuan that was destroyed and rendered uninhabitable by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Those ruins exist today in two principal forms. The remains of the original townsite have been evacuated and opened to the public as an open-air memorial; and earthquake museums have preserved artifacts recovered from the townsite and organized them alongside supporting texts, images, exhibits, dioramas, and amusement attractions. The ghost town, it is argued, ruptures the reform-era sense of national progress and development, forcing its observers and participants to acknowledge loss and absence. Connecting to a wider discourse, the National Earthquake Memorial Museum (NEMM) attempts to piece that sensibility back together by creating a particular memory of the massive state-led relief effort, by "disciplining" the catastrophe through inquiry and education, and by sublimating the earthquake through science, planning, and building. Although they remain emotionally separate, the ruins and NEMM have a natural tension with one another. Away from the epicenter, the privately managed Wenchuan Earthquake Museum (WEM) combines ruins and narrative to capture the "strange objectivity" that comes from any effort to make sense of what is ultimately insensible.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, Western University


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