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From earthquake ruins, new families form in China

By Emily Chang, CNN
  • More than two-thirds of Beichuan's residents killed from 2008 earthquake
  • Beichuan deemed uninhabitable by government; "New Beichuan" town formed
  • By end of 2008 more than 600 Beichuan quake survivors had remarried
  • More than 68,000 people killed from massive quake, according to China

Beichuan, China (CNN) -- The Xia family lives in a new home perched high in the mountains of Beichuan. Every day they prepare lunch together, a savory feast including vegetables they grow on their own plot and pork from pigs in a pen adjacent to the kitchen. As often as they can, they dine as a family.

"The first time we shared a meal, it was so good to eat together," says Xia Jiazhong.

They make up just one of many new blended families following the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province which left behind a legacy of death, divorce and despair.

Xia's wife was crushed to death when the restaurant where she was working collapsed. Their 13-year-old daughter survived.

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"I lost my wife, my home and my town," Xia says, recalling that fateful day. "I had no will to do anything. Now I have a new home and a woman at my side. Life seems more worth living."

Around the one-year anniversary of the quake, a friend introduced him to Li Dena who, like many survivors, divorced in the quake's emotional aftermath.

Li, a petite woman with a bright smile, also has a daughter of her own.

"I couldn't find her for two days," she recalls. "Finally, I found her, but her hand was smashed. And the pressure was just tremendous."

Xia and Li moved in together shortly after their first meeting.

"Our daughters get along so well," Li smiles. "They care about each other so much. When the big sister can't cook or cut the vegetables because of her bad hand, the little one steps in to help. It's the most wonderful part of our new family in this tragedy."

Beichuan is not far from the quake's epicenter. The tremor nearly leveled the town, killing more than two-thirds of the people who lived there. The government deemed the area uninhabitable and decided not to rebuild. Instead, what residents call "New Beichuan" is under construction about 15 miles south of the old city.

Those who survived from old Beichuan have had to rebuild their homes and their lives elsewhere. By the end of 2008, more than 600 earthquake survivors had remarried, often widows marrying widowers.

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Many of the newlyweds have a local seamstress-turned-matchmaker to thank.

Deng Qunhua was working in an earthquake refugee camp when she started informally matching couples. She became so popular that she opened a small office not far from the Beichuan ruins in nearby An Xian.

"The day I opened my office, so many people flooded in and signed up," she says.

She has now a detailed client portfolio listing hundreds of people looking for love. She posts ads with her clients' profiles around town and works the phone tirelessly, hoping to make the perfect match.

So far, she says she has matched more than 100 earthquake couples.

"I just want to help people," Deng says. "Every time a couple shows me their new marriage certificate, I feel so happy."

However, the success is bittersweet. Many new couples have a hard time adjusting. Some have divorced as quickly as they married.

Deng herself is also starting over. She lost her home in the quake and left her husband.

"I have lost everything and I have nothing," she says bursting into tears. "I pour all my effort into matchmaking."

And so the post-quake story goes, a story of conflicting emotions.

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In the mountains overlooking old Beichuan, 13-year-old Xia Xiying prepares to go to school after lunch prepared by her stepmother.

"My new mom is so kind to me," she says. "It makes me remember my own mom and how she took such good care of me. It can be really emotional."

That said, she's just one of many Beichuan children who lost parents and are adapting to a new life.

"They are all very strong," Xia says, speaking of her classmates. With a wisdom far beyond her years she adds, "The biggest change for me since the earthquake has been within my heart. I understand life better, how to face tragedy and move forward."

Her father and her "new mom" are moving forward too. They vehemently agree, life is definitely less lonely together.

In poor rural areas, like Beichuan, there is also economic pressure to remarry. Couples can combine their incomes and share two homes instead of one. In fact, the Chinese government has actually encouraged new marriages. Earlier this year, officials sponsored a mass marriage ceremony where twenty couples remarried.

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But, not everyone is convinced. Though they live together, Mr. Xia and Ms. Li are not legally married yet.

"I definitely plan to marry her," Xia says.

But Li hesitates and shakes her head. "I don't know. I still have to sort out some things."

It is the trademark of unimaginable grief, the challenge of finding a way between looking back and moving on.