An elaborate hero narrative that emerged in Chinese state media reports in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake has been revealed as a fabrication by a recent investigation.
A middle school teacher, Tan Qianqiu, was said to have gathered four of his students into his arms as the building crumbled, saving them, but losing his own life.
A report by the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou, however, indicates that three of those students do not exist, and that the entire story was concocted. The Daily is one of the few newspapers in China that pursues investigations sensitive to the authorities; its editors have been imprisoned for the trouble.
The 7.9 earthquake that struck Wenchuan, Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008, killed or buried approximately 90,000 people, according to official reports. The quake was all the more tragic as an estimated 10,000 of the victims were school children who were crushed when their schools collapsed.
In some districts, school buildings crumbled to rubble while nearby government buildings remained intact. Called “tofu-dreg” buildings by mourning parents, it was widely understood that the poor quality constructions resulted from enormous embezzlement by local officials.
Manufacturing a Hero
The story of a teacher who gave his life for his students surfaced three days after the quake. Tan Qianqiu was a teacher at the Dongqi Middle School in Hanwang Township, close to the epicenter of the quake. This school was one that collapsed and many children died.
Xinhua state media published a story describing how Tan had acted like “an angel from a fairytale.” It said as the building collapsed, he opened his arms and covered four students with his body. All four students were saved, but he died, the article stated.
In a short time, this Xinhua report was quoted everywhere, and the late teacher was called a hero, and an “excellent Party member in the earthquake and disaster relief.”
In 2009, a movie titled “The Last Lesson” was made based on this news story, and the story was also included in sixth-grade elementary school text books, published by Jiangsu Education Publishing House.
The Southern Metropolitan Daily published a report on Oct. 21 saying that the hero story reported by state media, such as Xinhua News and People’s Daily, was not true.
According to investigations by Southern Metropolitan Daily, only one out of the four students allegedly saved by their teacher is alive. This student’s name is Liu Hongli. As for the other three students named in the story, Fu Qiang died in the quake, and Tian Gang and Yu Jian do not exist at all.
Liu told the Daily that the story is not true. She said she was sitting in the second row, which was about two meters from where the teacher stood. “There was simply not enough time for teacher Tan to rush over from the front of the classroom to save me,” she said.
“We students all know it is not true. Our teachers have talked about teacher Tan’s story in every meeting, but students all laughed at it,” Liu said.
The Daily also points out discrepancies regarding Liu’s interview date. It says Liu was still in the intensive care unit at Huaxi Hospital in Chengdu City one week after the quake, when a Hong Kong-based media came to interview her, asking her to say something in front of the cameras “to thank teacher Tan.”
Liu told Southern Metropolitan Daily she had no idea about a connection between her teacher and her being alive. “I don’t really remember what I said exactly. I just mumbled a lot of nonsense,” Liu said.
It is unclear how Xinhua News came up with the 938-word article three days after the earthquake.
Some commentators call the exposure of this fabricated news story “The Fairytale Angel’s Collapse,” and cite it as another example of state propaganda meant to manipulate public sentiment in China.