Two big characters -- "Xun Qin (seeking families)" -- are pasted on a table at the door of the nursing department of the Huaxi Hospital in southwest Sichuan Province. Two volunteers, each with a pile of patients' personal information, are waiting.
"We work from 8 AM to 8 PM, receiving people who come to look for their relatives. We have been very busy, although recently, fewer people came," said a volunteer surnamed Deng who works in a science and technology company based in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.
Deng declined to give his full name. He's like many of the tens of thousands of volunteers who have rushed to the front lines for the fight against the May 12 earthquake that devastated southwest China.
They might be teachers, students, medical workers, company clerks or something else. Although their backgrounds are different, they have the same thing in mind at the moment -- to help quake victims.
"Using information from the hospital, we update the patient lists every day. We were very happy that a lot of people found their relatives here, but we had to face difficult situations at times. Many people came here only to find their relatives had passed away while others found nothing. When that happened, we had no words to comfort them," said a volunteer from Sichuan University.
At the Huaxi Hospital, volunteers, most of whom come from Sichuan University, set up a service site on their own.
Ji Yuandong, a junior majoring in math in the university, said about 30 volunteers were working there, and their main job was to help people find relatives. They also attend to patients, chatting with them, comforting them and cleaning them.
"As for my major, I might not be so helpful in the front line, but I had to do something at the moment, so I came here," Ji said.
A 49-year-old restaurant owner, Su Yushuang, also worked at the service site.
After the May 12 quake, she suspended her business and came all the way from northeast China's Liaoning Province. "I've been a care worker for years. Here I trained other volunteers and told them how to take care of patients in critical condition.
"I went through childhood in poverty. I never went to school and even now I don't know many words. However, I'm living a happy life thanks to our country's development, and I'm very honored to help at such a critical time," Su said.
Like Su, many volunteers came from other parts of the country.
Yan Changfeng, 41, came from Guiyang City of southwest China's Guizhou Province. Only two days after the quake, he went to hard-hit Hanwang and other areas, along with other volunteers, to help disinfect piles of debris and move injured people.
Back home, Yan's wife launched a donation for quake relief and their child sold flowers to help raise funds.
Yan likes to collect paintings and calligraphy, but he will sell his collections to help build quake-resistant schools in the disaster region.
"The only thing we can do is to help relieve some of their pain," Yan said.
Among the volunteers, the "Post-1980" generation, which has long been accused of being self-interested, apolitical and pragmatic, is another main force.
At the Chengdu airport, 14 volunteers from Xinan (Southwest) University for Nationalities are helping transfer patients. They are of Tibetan, Hui, Mongolian and five other nationalities.
"At first we helped transfer materials, and these days we help carry patients. We're all only children born in the 1980s. At home I don't even carry a water bucket, but here I do all kinds of things," said Luo Lan, 22.
"Seeing relief materials constantly arriving at the airport from all over the country, I feel that the hearts of all Chinese people are tied together. I think that it's having responsibility for society and the country that unites everybody. The experiences as a volunteer here will surely have a great influence on the rest of my life," said the petite girl.
Some other volunteers work "on the road," driving jeeps between the mountains, transferring relief materials to survivors or carrying journalists to the hardest-hit sites. Some of them are professional race drivers.
Some passed out. Some died from exhaustion. And we may never even know the names of all the volunteers.
"We should start to collect all the touching episodes that happened in the quake zone, and preserve them in an earthquake museum. They are the fortunes of the people," said Zhang Yaohui, director general of the cultural relics bureau in the quake-hit Guanghan City.
As Time Magazine put it: "The outpouring of support has been a revelation ... a collective epiphany when the nation was suddenly confronted with how much it had changed in two decades of booming growth and how some changes have been for the better."
Amid the pain the disaster brings, a new self-awareness is awakening inside Chinese people.
(Xinhua News Agency May 28, 2008)