The Chinese Earthquake Roundup

Can grieving parents have another child? And other questions about the tragedy.

Several news accounts from Sichuan have placed the earthquake’s toll within the context of China’s one-child policy, noting that many parents lost their only children. Will these grieving parents be permitted to have another child?

Yes. While the exact enforcement of the one-child policy varies by jurisdiction—Sichuan is considered one of the stricter provinces in that respect—there are a number of exceptions. Mothers are allowed to have a second child if the first one dies or—in many cases—if he or she has a major disability. In rural areas, parents are often allowed to have two children without penalties, especially if the first is a girl. Finally, parents who are both only children are frequently exempted from the one-child policy, as are China’s ethnic minorities.


In coverage of the earthquake, news reports have variously described the provincial capital of Chengdu as having a population ranging from 3 million to 12 million. How many people actually live in Chengdu?

It depends on how you count. The reason for the discrepancies is that Chinese cities are often defined in two different ways: either by the urban core or by the area that falls under a given city’s administrative unit. In many cases, that administrative unit includes rural counties that don’t fit the typical conception of a city, even if they might be within its boundaries. According to 2000 census figures collected by the China Data Center, the population of Chengdu’s prefecture was 11,108,534, while its urban districts contained 4,333,541 people. The complex definition of a “city” in China has created quite a bit of confusion (PDF) in determining the largest cities in the world: Chongqing, an independent municipality within Sichuan’s borders, might be at the top of the list, or it might be just the seventh-biggest in China. (Its estimated population ranges from about 6 million to 31.69 million.)

Counting can be further complicated by the massive migration that has occurred over the past generation within and across Chinese provinces. Sichuan is widely considered the largest source of China’s migrant population, which may number as many as 200 million. And within its borders, many Sichuanese have moved from rural areas to the cities in search of work. As a result, annual population counts reported in a city’s statistical yearbook tend to be too small, because they don’t include a so-called “floating population” that is not registered with the city. The yearbook for Chengdu gives a 2005 population of 10,820,300, with 4,820,700 in the urban districts—figures that suggest a highly unlikely drop in the area’s population since 2000. More likely, the population of the greater Chengdu area is closer to 12 million.


Text messaging was a major form of communication in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. How do you write an SMS in Chinese?

By punching buttons until you get the right character. While Romanized alphabets require converting the numbers of a phone’s keypad into 26 letters, Chinese phones must be able to produce several thousand characters. The most common method for texting in mainland China uses Pinyin, a system of transliterating Chinese, to call up a list of different characters based on the Roman letters you key in. (See this 2006 Explainer for a more in-depth explanation of Pinyin and the similar methods required to type on a Chinese keyboard.)

But Pinyin-based text entry is complicated by two major factors: First, several different characters in Chinese might be transliterated in the same way. Second, while Pinyin is pretty good at capturing the Mandarin Chinese taught in textbooks, it doesn’t reflect the dozens of different dialects used across China. As a result, “stroke-based” methods—which assign the 36 different strokes that can make up a Chinese character to different numbers on the keypad—are becoming a popular alternative. In either case, “predictive text” software—which tries to guess the character a user is attempting to call up—is particularly useful for a user trying to write a character with dozens of strokes or to call up a pinyinsyllable associated with dozens of different characters.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Shuming Bao of the University of Michigan’s China Data Center, Vanessa Fong of Harvard University, Andrew Sears of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Jianfa Shen of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Wang Feng of the University of California-Irvine.