The power of positive thinking and Buddhist meditation techniques saved the life of a Chinese construction worker.

It was a cool early spring day in the eastern coastal port of Ningbo. Wang Jianxin was working at a construction site in the booming city. The job that day for the 52-year-old worker was to dig a five-metre ditch. There was nothing to distinguish Mr Wang from the tens of thousands of men across China labouring in one of the biggest building booms that the world has seen.

Without warning, a wall of the ditch collapsed, burying Mr Wang under a huge pile of earth. Like most construction workers in China, he had little in the way of protective equipment except for his tough plastic safety helmet. It was to be enough to save his life.

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The rim of his helmet had, by chance, trapped a tiny pocket of air around his face. Mr Wang knew that if he panicked and his breathing accelerated he might use up that little amount of oxygen before rescuers could reach him. He forced himself to be calm.

“I had my back to the wall and didn’t know it was falling until it was on top of me. It was suddenly dark and I realised what had happened and found that there was a small air pocket in front of me,” Mr Wang said. That was when the Buddhist turned to meditation to control his intake of oxygen. “I knew it would not last, so I made myself relax and concentrated on slowing down my breathing by meditation.” Above ground, workers were scrabbling through the earth to try to bring Mr Wang to the surface alive. Construction workers and a uniformed rescue team clawed away the earth with their hands until they found Mr Wang’s helmet.

It took two hours but finally they pulled out Mr Wang alive from the earth that could have been his muddy grave.

Doctors were astounded, saying that a person could normally not live longer than five minutes in a similar sealed space. One local doctor said: “It’s a miracle that he’s alive after being buried for two hours.”

Meditation has a history dating back thousands of years in China. However, it is a technique more usually associated with Buddhist monks and doctors of traditional Chinese medicine than construction workers. Mr Wang was one of the lucky ones on China’s building sites.

The country has a woeful record of safety in the workplace with 101,480 people killed last year in work-related or road accidents, down by about 10 per cent from 2006. But a glance at any urban building site highlights the sporadic nature of safety measures used by many Chinese companies. Most workers are given helmets, but in many cases that is the most that employers are willing to provide.

Many of these men are rural migrants who have left their remote patch of farmland in search of better-paying city jobs. With almost no education and scant notion of safety regulations, they eagerly seize the opportunity of a job and are usually too afraid or too ignorant to demand better equipment from their boss.