Wednesday, January 23

Living in the Wrong Neighborhood - Circa 1556

Dwellings similar to those of 1556 

By Art Cashin

On this day (+2) in 1556 news of a terrible earthquake in Northern China began to reach ports and cities nearby.  The main  quake had occurred two days before but even now violent after-shocks could be felt across much of Asia.  There was no Richter Scale at the time but folks in the area thought it was a grand-daddy earthquake - unfortunately they were right.

But even if the quake lacked something in seismic ferocity, however, it certainly made it up in neighborhood selection.  Just as tornadoes love trailer parks and typhoons fancy the poorer regions of Bangladesh,  this particular earthquake picked an extraordinarily vulnerable part of China.

In this region (Shanxi), for over four centuries, winds from the desert blew ever larger amounts of soft clay into near mountainous mounds.  Several local peasants noticed that air-pocket "caves" in the mounds made easy, safe and cheap living quarters. Soon tens of thousands would carve man-made air pockets in the clay as inexpensive living quarters.  For generation after generation, soft clay and prosperity led to a population that looked like a giant two-legged ant farm.

Then came the earthquake in the dead of night.  Soft clay collapsed on soft clay crushing or suffocating the peasants in their little cubbies.  No one ever excavated the disaster area fully but most anthropologists believe the death toll was somewhere between 800,000 and 1,200,000.  It ranks as one of the greatest natural calamities of all time.

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

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