BEIJING — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, megaphone in hand, personally directed efforts Tuesday to cope with the most calamitous earthquake to hit China in three decades as soldiers poured into rubble-strewn Sichuan province to provide relief.
The death toll in the nation's rugged southwest climbed to more than 12,000 people, and state media cited an official who said that another 9,400 people might still be buried under debris.
Rainstorms hampered relief efforts, but workers pulled 58 survivors from the rubble of collapsed buildings in a number of cities north of the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. As the hours ticked by since the Monday afternoon quake, which registered a devastating 7.9 magnitude, hopes of finding more survivors ebbed amid the devastation.
State television offered nonstop coverage of the quake aftermath, much of it in live broadcasts, displaying often grisly images of relief workers pulling bodies from rubble but also underscoring the vigorous relief efforts of senior government leaders.
Most striking were images of Wen, looking emotional, as he offered encouragement to bedraggled survivors, urged rescuers to greater efforts and gave a deadline for laborers to clear roads of huge boulders and rockslides that the quake unleashed from mountainsides.
China's leaders are rarely seen except in official ceremonies with foreign dignitaries, so the televised images of Wen, looking both commanding and emotionally shaken amid scenes of desolation, marked a departure for the government.
"I've never seen anything like this. It's a little bit more self-confidence by the central government," said Russell Leigh Moses, a political scientist based in the capital.
Wen rushed to Sichuan province immediately after the earthquake, and spent most of the next 24 hours coordinating relief efforts. Moses said that Wen went with the intention not so much to project a strong image of the central government as to "make sure people on the ground did their job."
"I think they were affected by Katrina," Moses said, referring to the bungled U.S. disaster relief efforts in New Orleans following a 2005 hurricane. "They don't want to be on the wrong side on this."
Another academic said the vigorous quake-relief efforts demonstrate that China's monolithic political system can act forcefully.
"A one-party system has its advantages when dealing with emergencies," said Wang Zhiqiang, a scholar at Tsinghua University's School of Public Policy and Management.
China's ruling Communist Party has a mandate that depends heavily on its ability to deliver economic growth, maintain social order and provide rapid help in emergencies. The party was shaken earlier this year by its slow response to massive snowstorms, severe unrest in Tibet and a troubled global Olympic torch relay before the Beijing Summer Games in August.
Hundreds of aftershocks, 13 of them greater than magnitude 6.0 on the Richter scale, jangled nerves throughout the day in Sichuan Province.
Scenes of anguish and misery unfolded in cities such as Mianzhu and Dujiangyan near the epicenter of the quake in Wenchuan County, northwest of Chengdu.
In some cities, corpses were laid out on the streets or remained entangled in the wreckage of multistory buildings that lay in mounds of broken concrete.
In Dujiangyan, relief workers used doors wrenched loose from buildings as makeshift gurneys to carry away the bodies of students from the rubble of the Juyuan Middle School, which collapsed in a pile of rubble, entombing hundreds of students.
As sobbing relatives tried to enter the debris field to look for loved ones, police and relief workers kept them away, only to hear them wail despondently at recognizing dead victims being removed.
Survivors huddled in makeshift tents. Injured people in bandages roamed the streets. Pieces of collapsed buildings lay atop crushed automobiles.
Authorities said they would keep looking for survivors, and some Chinese rescue teams are equipped with advanced U.S.-made life detection equipment that helped locate trapped miners in two mine disasters in December.
"According to past experiences of earthquakes, there may be signs of life after one week or even more. Now is not the time for us to talk about giving up," Wang Zhenyao, chief of disaster relief for the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said at a Beijing briefing.
The state Xinhua news agency quoted the vice governor of Sichuan, Li Chengyun, as saying that 26,206 people had been injured in the quake.
Offers of assistance arrived from Japan, Russia, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Britain, the United States, South Korea and Germany.
"China and its people express their thanks and their welcome toward that," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, without specifying what type of aid would be accepted.
China has sent two shipments of aid to neighboring Myanmar, which is reeling from a May 2 cyclone that killed some 30,000 people, and it may find itself both an aid recipient and donor in the same month.
Censors appeared to ease their grip on the Internet, mobile phone text messaging and uploading videos to the Internet, allowing information and even rumors to flow freely. One text message insistently making the rounds forecast a quake for Beijing in the early morning.
"It was really all I could do to convince my friends that this isn't something that will happen," said Graham Webster, a journalist and blogger on technology issues in the capital.
While most urban Chinese pondered how they could help quake relief efforts, a few discordant voices arose in postings on the Internet, asking why it appeared that schools collapsed more easily in the quake area than Communist Party buildings.
"There will be lots of problems to be solved after the earthquake. For example, illegal construction projects should be punished," said Wang, the Tsinghua professor.
McClatchy special correspondent Fan Di contributed to this report.