An earthquake that cost 10 times the lives lost in the appalling disaster of last December in Soviet Armenia is almost beyond belief. Yet in the early morning of July 28, 1976, while the million people of Tangshan, China, slept, a temblor 12 kilometers under a locomotive factory killed 250,000. The quake wiped out the city. All the houses, mostly of adobe brick, were reduced to rubble, and 95 percent of the public buildings fell, many collapsing like dominoes.

The Chinese quake was the planet's most destructive in 200 years. It was singularly devastating even among a people who are often visited by disasters, natural and man-made, that have taken horrendous death tolls.At least three-fourths of the dead were from Tangshan city itself, most of the rest from the surrounding countryside and the great cities of Beijing and Tianjin 100 miles away, though the damage there was relatively slight. The quake orphaned 4,200 children. Some 80,000 of the city inhabitants were seriously injured.

Some foreigners say the official figures are much too conservative. Estimates go as high as 800,000 dead. If correct, the figure would be second only to the toll in another Chinese disaster, the great earthquake of 1546 in Shaanxi Province, in which 830,000 persons were said to have perished.

The nation still feels the pain and fears the effects. The Deseret News reported in January that Chinese researchers say children born to women pregnant during the earthquake have lower intelligence because of their mothers' trauma. The quake year was a Year of the Dragon; last year, another Year of the Dragon, brought fears that a round of earthquakes was imminent, though the dragon, the only mythical animal among 12 in the Chinese zodiac, is usually a symbol of good fortune.

In Chinese tradition earthquakes and other great disasters were said to foretell the downfall of dynasties because they represented disharmony between heaven and earth. The emperor had a mandate to rule only if harmony existed.

The quake came only two months before the death of Mao Tse-tung, who had ruled the country since the communist takeover in 1949. In January the popular and able premier, Chou En-lai, had died. A month after Mao's passing his widow, Chiang Ch'ing, and others in the so-called "Gang of Four" who ruled during Mao's senility, were deposed.

The downfall of the clique ended a 10-year reign of terror. The quake can be seen as a metaphor of a secretive and rigid totalitarian state over which the four presided in the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese refused to admit to the world and even to the rest of their people that a quake had occurred. Clearly the same kind of global outpouring of material and medical aid and solace we saw in the Armenia quake would have quickly followed. But it was not until two years later that the party newspaper, People's Daily, mentioned it, in a tiny item on the inside pages.

Although the army was called in for heroic rescue and rehabilitation work at the outset, it was six years before survivors moved out in large numbers from tents and temporary reed and stucco houses where they had suffered during the frigid north China winters.

The Chinese commonly believed that Tangshan would become another Pompeii. According to one account, "There was no running water, no communications. Debris and tombs were everywhere. At the epicentral area, the death rate was 90 percent. Miserable scenes of crushed bodies were beyond description."

But Tangshan has risen from the ruins. In 1979 China embarked on a new open policy and a restructuring of society, similar to what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is now undertaking in his nation under his perestroika and glasnost policies. Once the country started its reforms foreign experts were invited to help plan a new city. China now cooperates closely with seismologists worldwide as well. The United States has helped China set up a chain of 970 seismic stations and observation posts.

In 1985 the city was opened to the outside world.

Today Tangshan is again one of the important heavy industrial cities of the northeast, totally rebuilt mostly of six-story flat buildings along wide criss-cross boulevards fronted by, symbolically perhaps, weeping willows. Even more symbolically, the center of the city is a greensward called Phoenix Park. The Phoenix is an important figure in China, representing the empress, but symbolizing as well the city's resurrection.

In the absence of narrow alleys or "hutongs,' which disappeared in the quake, Tangshan is unlike any other major northern Chinese city. Here and there some of the old reed houses can be seen.

Tangshanese say that before the quake the layout of the urban area was a mess, with factories and residential areas mixed. It was heavily polluted with industrial wastes, and communications were primitive.

Each district now has its own hospital, cinema, stores, schools and kindergartens. Actually the city is three urban areas under one administration, about 25 kilometers from one another: the old urban district, built on the ruins of the quake, the East Mining District and another known as the Fengrum District.

I was with a group from Beijing that visited the urban district in April last year. We came by bus over a crowded, narrow two-lane highway, a harrowing six-hour ride - intercity roads in China are sparse and basic. The city is also served by rail, however. There are no regular air carriers.

We found Tangshan well worth the trip, though the setting and the city have none of the scenic charm of the major cities on the tourist routes. Tangshan lies on a plain and is surrounded by flat wheat fields and tiny villages of adobe houses and straw roofs.

In the city center the new Tangshan created a square of about 12 acres flanked by an Earthquake Relief Monument and Seismic Data Exhibition Hall, very much like the Peace Park in Hiroshima. The monument is highly symbolic and poignant. Four single upright 38-foot ladder-shaped columns represent, we were told, both the quake cracks and the new buildings that rose from the ruins. Bas reliefs at the bottom represent the quake and rehabilitation efforts.

A nearby exhibition hall has a large foyer dominated by a fresco depicting the development of seismic science. On the floor above is an exhibition of photos of the quake damage. They are wrenching, reminding me of the Hiroshima photos of August 1945.

The best existing indicator of the quake's severity is at the China National Railway Locomotive and Rolling Stock Industry Corp., not far from downtown, at the epicenter. The magnitude was officially 7.8 on the Richter scale, but some authorities put it at 8.2, or slightly greater than the Mexico City quake of Sept.19, 1985.

The factory is one of the few in the world still making steam locomotives, on which the Chinese railways are heavily reliant. Its 10,000 employees also turn out both standard gauge coaches for the world market and narrow gauge for the Chinese.

The twisted concrete and steel skeleton of the plant foundry hangs over factory rubble. It has been left undisturbed, as one of seven memorial sites. A small monument memorializes the 1,700 workers, of a total work force of 7,700, who died there. The tremor was so severe at this point that the road was twisted up to2 meters horizontally and dropped by as much as 7 meters.

The tallest pre-quake buildings were seven stories. Today the tallest is 17 stories, a residence for coal miners. It is, of course, earthquake resistant. So, we were assured, was our hotel, the Tangshan Guest House, a new 11-story building.

The city wants to keep its population down but at 1.4 million has surpassed the pre-quake population of 1.08 million. Tangshan officials say the Chinese find the city attractive. They are fond not only of showing off industrial plants and rattling off figures on development but also of conducting visitors through kindergartens, hospitals, old folks' homes and housing projects. These were impressive, though clearly were model projects.

Tangshan hopes to lure foreign investment and develop tourism. However, Westerners are still a rarity. We drew crowds and stares. A street vendor from whom I tried to buy a rolling pin was suspicious of my foreign exchange certificates, the peculiar script foreigners get for their hard currencies, having apparently never seen any.

Now the more traditional historical and scenic places under the Tangshan municipal administration, even those some miles away and not historically associated with Tangshan, are being stressed as tourist attractions. Chief among these are the Eastern Qing (Ching) Tombs. They lie in mountain scenery that, it is said, so enchanted the Emperor Shun Zhi (1638-61) that he chose the site for his resting place. It lies about 40 miles from the Tangshan urban district.

But courtyards, marble bridges and dragon walls are found all over China. What makes Tangshan absorbing is not the tombs and temples but its survival of a terrible tragedy and the desperate years that followed it and the contemporary human triumph of building the new and more livable city.

*****

The Tangshan earthquake

July 28, 1976

Severity: 7.8 Richter

Killed: 250,000 people*

Injured: 80,000 people

Orphaned: 4,200 children

*Some estimates go as high as 800,000 dead.