The highway leading to Yingxiu, a small town near the epicenter of China's May 12 earthquake, is rent by fissures big enough to swallow a child and is choked with smashed trucks and enormous rocks. Near the town's outskirts, just past a compact car that has been crushed by a boulder, a landslide cuts off the road entirely. A mother, who walked into the mountains beyond to bring out her 12-year-old son, says he has been scarred by what he has seen. The landscape they are leaving behind is hellish, she says: rows of wrecked houses, collapsed schools and putrefying bodies lining the road. But the news doesn't faze the two friends who have trekked there by train, car and now, finally, on foot to help victims of the Wenchuan earthquake. Dressed in white T shirts reading "I [heart] China," the men are determined to reach the core of the devastation. "After we saw the news of the disaster, we decided we had to help," says Wu Guanglei, a 36-year-old high school physics teacher from Zigong, a town located 190 miles (300 km) to the south. "We Chinese people are growing closer and closer together," adds Wu Xiangping, 28, who took leave from his job at a Beijing advertising firm to join the relief effort. "And because of that the country's morality is rising too."
These simple observations, stated with a tinge of hope and pride, crystallize much of what China as a nation has learned about itself over the past several weeks. The 8.0-magnitude quake, the country's worst natural disaster in more than 30 years, has probably killed at least 50,000 and has left more than 5 million homeless, according to official sources. Horrific videos from the disaster zone the twisted bodies of children layered like fossils in the sediment of a pancaked concrete schoolhouse, the desperate decision to amputate the legs of a dying girl pinned in rubble forced the Chinese people to look into the abyss. And reflected back was the image of a more compassionate and stronger nation than many had perhaps expected, a place where tens of millions of Chinese lined up for hours to make sure their donations of cash or food or clothes were accepted and where tens of thousands of others like the Wus left their jobs and families and rushed to aid their compatriots. So many clothes were contributed that they were piled in mounds six feet high in some devastated towns. Contributions from the country's infamously tightfisted companies hit $1 billion within days.
The outpouring of support has been a revelation. For years, China's citizens couldn't watch the evening news without being reminded of their darker sides, of the grasping, reckless self-interest that has characterized China's headlong rush to become wealthy and powerful: stories of slave labor and child-kidnapping rings, rampant government corruption, counterfeit products, tainted food, dangerous toys and, lately, a crackdown on dissent in Tibet. But from a monstrous humanitarian crisis has come a new self-awareness, a recognition of the Chinese people's sympathy and generosity of spirit. The earthquake has been a "shock of consciousness" as scholar Jiang Wenran puts it, a collective epiphany when the nation was suddenly confronted with how much it had changed in two decades of booming growth and liked what it saw.
When the national emergency abates, much of China will revert to its familiar ways, of course. But something is fundamentally different. There is a new confidence in the ability, even duty, of ordinary Chinese to contribute to building a more virtuous society and a willingness to press the government for the right to continue. Most of the volunteers were doing so for the first time, for example, and many said they were eager to do more community work in the future. Says Jiang: "It's a major leap forward in the formation of China's civil society, which is vital for China's future democratization process." That doesn't mean the Wenchuan earthquake will lead to elections in the next few years, but the complex and shifting relationship between the Communist Party and increasingly vociferous citizens could evolve into some form of compromise between absolute autocratic control and Western-style democracy.
It's not just China's self-image that has changed. The quake has altered, at least temporarily, the world's perception of China, whose growing economic and military might is viewed with suspicion and fear in many quarters. China's relationship with the West has been particularly strained after March's bloody demonstrations in Tibet and the chaotic protests that dogged the Olympic Torch relay. But the quake, coming just 10 days after Cyclone Nargis ripped into Burma, has cast the Chinese government in a different light. By blocking foreign aid, Burma's paranoid military junta demonstrated just how impotent and callous to the suffering of its citizens a repressive autocracy can be. But even Beijing's critics expressed admiration for China's swift response to the quake. Some 120,000 soldiers and paramilitary troops were deployed along with thousands of vehicles and aircraft, and China gracefully accepted foreign aid, including rescue teams from Taiwan, Singapore and even old rival Japan. Some of China's most xenophobic bloggers expressed astonishment at the sympathy shown for their country by the rest of the world, the donations of cash and goods and personnel. The outpouring of international goodwill "has changed everything," says a Western diplomat based in Beijing even rekindling the guttering Olympic torch. "The Olympics seemed destined for disaster and that would have been a major setback for China's emergence onto the world stage," says the diplomat. "Now many people will be cheering for the Chinese and hoping they pull off a good show. That will be pivotal for China self-confidence and its perception of its place in the world."