Last week Zhang Qiyu decided to take a break from her elite university in Beijing and volunteer at a refugee camp for survivors of the Sichuan earthquake.
Petite, pony-tailed and bespectacled, the 22-year-old swapped her urban dormitory for a tent in the Mianzhu countryside among thousands of the 5 million people made homeless by China’s most devastating natural disaster in more than 30 years.
While bulldozers, mechanical diggers and cement mixers dress wounds inflicted on the landscape, she is now helping to heal the psychological scars by caring for infants at a newly erected children’s center.
She and an army of 150,000 other volunteers — plus 130,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of construction workers — are part of a rebuilding effort that looks set to reshape not just Sichuan, but also the way the nation sees itself and relates to the outside world.
Like many of her generation, Zhang says she is now more patriotic and concerned about her country.
“I have grown up in 2008 because so many things have happened,” she says. “I used to look at events and think how they affected me. Now I consider whether they benefit my country.”
That nationalist ethos pervades the relief effort one month after the quake. Throughout the affected area China is doing what it has done most prolifically for the past decade: building.
The sights and sounds of reconstruction are everywhere. In Fuxin scavengers with bolt cutters, sledgehammers and blowtorches are picking through the rubble for pieces of iron and steel to take away for recycling.
Families are returning to half-damaged homes in Beichuan to salvage what belongings they can find for the years of migration that lie ahead of them. Concrete mixers are laying the foundations for thousands of prefab huts.
At the refugee camp in Mianyang gymnasium the formerly cramped conditions have eased as more than half the residents are relocated. Unlike in the first week after the disaster, residents are eating meat, shaving, playing table tennis, listening to radios and, in a few more cases, smiling.
In Mianzhu’s tent towns makeshift high streets have sprung up by the roadside where vendors under tarpaulins sell stock recovered from ruined shops. Some of the briskest trade is done by a man who owns a tent that touts patriotic “I Love China” Olympic T-shirts.
“I’ve sold dozens today,” owner Feng Liping says.
Zhang is a proud wearer of the white T-shirt, which is emblazoned with a red map of China and the slogan Zhongguo jiayou (中國加油). Normally a chant used in sports, the phrase has become ubiquitous since the earthquake and was most loudly heard in Tiananmen Square on the day of mourning, when a three-minute silence was followed by a burst of nationalist chanting.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake many commentators expressed hope that a new and more open China would emerge from the rubble. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) won acclaim for the swift and empathetic way he responded to the needs of victims.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) played a key role, prompting unusual official cooperation with civil society, the leash on the media was loosened and, for the first time, the government held a period of national mourning for ordinary citizens rather than state leaders.
There is praise for the government among the vast majority of refugees in the quake zone. One month on the political fallout has been, if anything, positive for the government. Along with the turmoil in Tibet and the Olympic torch protests, the earthquake is part of a triptych of events this year that has taken nationalist sentiment to levels not seen in decades.