Like most earthquakes, the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake occurred due to the sudden shifting of tectonic plates against each other. Tectonic plates are large chunks of the earth’s crust, and the cracks between these chunks are known as faults. East Qinling’s northern Piedmont fault is the likely origin of the Shaanxi disaster.
According to the World History Project’s website, this earthquake was the deadliest natural disaster in recorded history. It impacted over 100 counties in China and claimed an estimated 830,000 lives. The high death toll is often attributed to the fragile cave dwellings occupied by many of the region’s inhabitants. These living quarters were located on high cliffs. Therefore, most of the dwellings were destroyed in the landslides produced by the earthquake.