THE GREAT BLACK DRAGON FIRE: A Chinese Inferno by Harrison E. Salisbury


Email this review


Salisbury's 25th book--a vivid report from the veteran New York Times journalist on the 1987 fire, little known in the West, that roared through more than 18 million acres in China and the Soviet Union. "I had never been so moved by a story," writes Salisbury, "not even in the blitz of London or Leningrad after the siege." This profound response was prompted by a tour that the author took in China of the fire's devastation--"almost the size of New England"--only a few months after its onslaught. Here, Salisbury chronicles both that tour and the fire itself--which began on May 6, 1987, when a bush-cutter named Wang Yu-feng accidentally sparked fire to some spilled gasoline. (Wang eventually was sentenced to six years and six months for his carelessness.) Within days, the conflagration had grown so large that, "like China's Great Wall, it could have been seen from the moon"; Salisbury concentrates on the fire's attack on the city of Xilinji, and on the heroic efforts of several, including the mayor, Mrs. Wang Zhaowin (who was later scapegoated from her job), to minimize its damage. (Conversely, he forcefully undercuts the alleged heroics of a firefighter-turned-folk hero known as Black Beard, "very much a young man on the make".) Destroying as much as one-fifth of China's total timber, the fire also wrought $150 million in property damage--but took the relatively low toll of 220 lives and 250 serious injuries. Still, its pall remains, and as Salisbury helicopters over "the black ruin extending across the landscape," he realizes that "what so moved me was the eternity of what happened. . .[the changes] would be forever." An affecting, informative, and, at 176 pages, admirably economical brief.

Pub Date: May 30th, 1989
ISBN: 316-80903-9
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online: