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Trapped in earthquake rubble for 36 days, a pig became a global hero

Zhu Jianqiang (Strong-Willed Pig), depicted in 2018, became a national icon after surviving a devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, China. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

On May 12, 2008, western China’s Sichuan province was struck by an earthquake, the 14th deadliest in recorded global history.

Triggered by the collision of the Eurasian and Indian-Australian tectonic plates along the Longmenshan Fault, the quake had its epicenter in mountains 50 miles outside the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, and measured 8.0 on the Richter scale.

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A combination of the area’s steep contours, substandard local construction and the quake’s afternoon timing meant that occupied buildings — many of them schools — toppled over and slid down hillsides, leading to the deaths of nearly 90,000 people, including more than 5,000 children. Between 4.8 and 11 million residents were displaced, according to various estimates. The quake also caused the highest number of geohazards ever recorded, making the odds of survival for any trapped victims appear bleak.

But amid accounts of widespread devastation — whole towns, such as Qushan, were destroyed — tales of bravery began to emerge. A 22-year-old dancer, Liao Zhy, lost almost everything on May 12: her 10-month-old daughter, her mother-in-law, her home and both her feet. She was the only survivor in her apartment building when it collapsed.

Her recovery began with her practicing her dance steps in the hospital and lasted 10 years. By 2018, she was running marathons, choreographing new routines and helping set up shelters at earthquake sites.

One story, however, drew even greater international attention. A lucky male survivor — known as Zhu Jianqiang — became a symbol of hope for beating the odds and cheating death, having endured an incredible 36 days buried under debris.

His name translates to “Strong-Willed Pig.” He was a 1-year-old barrow hog.

Born in April 2007 and kept in the village of Tuanshan by his owner, Wan Xingming, the fortunate pig weighed 150 kilograms (330 pounds) at the time the Sichuan quake struck.

On the afternoon of the earthquake, local rescue efforts were focused less on secluded villages and more on the city of Pengzhou, home to nearly 800,000 residents. The damage there had been catastrophic: Collapsed dams had formed more than 30 “quake lakes,” requiring soldiers to plant explosives and create sluices to divert mounting floodwaters.

But it was water that would lead to Strong-Willed Pig’s survival.

Trapped underground in the ruins of his owner’s property, the pig was able to consume rainwater which had tracked in through the debris above him. He also had access to a sack of charcoal.

Traditionally used as a fattening mineral or a worm remedy for farm pigs, the charcoal provided the bare minimum sustenance to keep the confined pig alive. More than a month after the quake struck, he was freed from his confinement by soldiers on rescue duty from the Chengdu Military Area Command.

The pig reportedly shed tears after being reunited with his owner and given food. He quickly became a celebrity. In China, folklore links pigs with good fortune and wealth; once Strong-Willed Pig had received his new name — he’d previously been nameless — he became a beacon of hope for those praying that their missing loved ones might still be alive.

He would also become a marketing ploy: More than 100 businesses adopted his name as recovery efforts continued.

After the pig was rescued, it was Fan Jianchuan, owner and curator of the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, who named him Strong-Willed Pig. Fan also recognized that the animal’s fortitude belied his fragile physical and mental condition. Leg injuries made it difficult for him to stand, and he had lost two-thirds of his body weight while trapped under the rubble.

Fan, a former soldier and vice-mayor and a real estate billionaire, paid 3,008 yuan (around $440 today) for the pig and arranged for him to be adopted by his museum in Chengdu. Here, Strong-Willed Pig could receive care in the form of daily walks, a diet of mixed vegetables, health checks — and a goat playmate who had also survived the Sichuan earthquake.

He could also be exhibited to the fans he had amassed. Six months after his emergence from the rubble, Strong-Willed Pig was named China’s “Animal of the Year” in an online poll.

Strong-Willed Pig’s media headlines were a needed diversion from the quake’s devastation and the overwhelming cleanup program. Reports estimated the damage at 1 trillion yuan (around $150 billion), requiring new homes for 3 million rural residents left homeless, 860,000 city apartments, 4,432 elementary and high schools, and 169 new hospitals.

Debris clearance was also daunting. Many collapsed buildings remained abandoned for years; photographs taken 10 years later showed unattended blockwork being consumed by undergrowth. Toppled residential buildings in the stricken city of Beichuan drew comparisons with Pripyat, the Ukrainian town abandoned during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

The scale of the cleanup didn’t hamper tributes to the quake’s victims. The Beichuan region became the site of the National Earthquake Memorial, built to commemorate the 1,000 lives lost when the area’s middle school collapsed.

Strong-Willed Pig, continuing to draw visitors at his museum, would also be granted a memorial: an heir. Unfortunately, breeding was impossible, since barrow pigs are castrated before they reach sexual maturity.

Instead, he was successfully cloned in 2011, producing six piglets at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Huizhou. Scientists collected cells from Strong-Willed Pig and noted that, once the clones had been birthed via a surrogate, “each piglet has a black birthmark between their eyes and bears a striking resemblance to Zhu Jianqiang.”

Strong-Willed Pig couldn’t meet his clones, due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. But he lived another 10 years, eventually dying in 2021 0f “old age and exhaustion.”

Just as he had on the day of his rescue, the pig once again dominated media coverage. The hashtag “Strong-Willed Pig has died” received 430 million views on the Chinese social media service Weibo.