Determining the seismic fracture energy during an earthquake and understanding the associated creation and development of a fault zone requires a combination of both seismological and geological field data. The actual thickness of the zone that slips during the rupture of a large earthquake is not known and is a key seismological parameter in understanding energy dissipation, rupture processes and seismic efficiency. The 1999 magnitude-7.7 earthquake in Chi-Chi, Taiwan, produced large slip (8 to 10 metres) at or near the surface, which is accessible to borehole drilling and provides a rare opportunity to sample a fault that had large slip in a recent earthquake. Here we present the retrieved cores from the Taiwan Chelungpu-fault Drilling Project and identify the main slip zone associated with the Chi-Chi earthquake. The surface fracture energy estimated from grain sizes in the gouge zone of the fault sample was directly compared to the seismic fracture energy determined from near-field seismic data. From the comparison, the contribution of gouge surface energy to the earthquake breakdown work is quantified to be 6 per cent.