The Qiang: a culture caught between two giants

Travel | by Miller Wey
Posted: October 12th, 2012 | Updated: November 30th, 2012 | Comments

Southern China's Miao ethnic minority

With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China constitutes just under 20% of the world's inhabitants. Making up the vast majority of residents (91.59%) are the ubiquitous Han, leaving just a little over 8% to the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the People's Republic. In Minority Report, we explore the colorful characters, customs and cultures of these fascinating peripheral groups. >>> The villages of the Qiang minority (Qiāng Zú, 羌族) lie on the slopes of mountain valleys around the upper reaches of the Min River (Mín Jiāng, 岷江) in Sichuan, most notably Aba Prefecture and Beichuan County (Běichuān Xiàn, 北川县). As a people their story hangs to a narrative that goes back to one of China's earliest kingdoms by the thread of a name. Standing on the sidelines of the culturally dominant Tibetan and Han Chinese, the Qiang umbrella actually covers a diverse and widespread people....

An ancient name

The character 羌 (Qiāng) is one of the oldest in the Chinese language, found in its ancient form on Shang Dynasty. In its more pictographic ancient form, it depicted a man and a sheep and represented the nomadic tribes who herded their livestock on the western border of the Shang Kingdom. As subsequent Chinese dynasties expanded ever westward, bringing the Chinese identity with them, these people known as "Qiang" began to change. With the rise of the Tibetan Empire in the 7th century AD (and the continued propagation of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture through the Mongols) the peoples around the northern Min River found themselves squeezed from both east and west by two dominant and extremely influential cultures. Western records of the Qiang begin with explorers and missionaries like the Scottish Rev. Thomas Torrance, who met with the registered Qiang of the region. It wasn't until after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, decades later, that government policies towards non-Han minorities shone a spotlight on ethnic identity and the official "Qiang nationality" came to define those who shared a language family and occupied the area around the upper Min River.

Lives of the Qiang

Qiang villages are mostly built just below the tree line of Sichuan's steep mountain slopes, sometimes as high as 3,500 m (11,000 ft). Looking out over the usually closely-packed buildings of the villages are great stone watch towers as high as 46 m (150 ft) that look out over the mountain valleys. Villages like those as Suopo and Taoping are both great examples. Some 90% of the Qiang are independent farmers, cultivating crops like barley, buckwheat, potatoes, beans and corn along with some animal herding. Much of this is still subsistence farming, although some Qiang have also raised cash crops. Many live in traditional three-story homes with hay-covered floors on the bottom floor for animals, living quarters on the middle story and a third story for additional living quarters or storage. Largely self-sufficient and isolated, the Qiang villages supported a greater diversity among the Qiang rather than unity, something evident in their defining characteristic: their language.

Defining tongue

Many of the people that became part of the Han Chinese ethnicity came from other separate groups conquered, whether by force of arms, economy or culture, in the process of Sinicization. In some cases, a people maintained a separate cultural identity and possibly language while adopting parts of Chinese culture or identity. In the same way, the Tibetan Empire and Tibetan Buddhism were also influential forces in language and culture. Different Qiang villages, which largely lacked a sense of shared identity before the 1950s and 60s, had partly assimilated into these two dominant cultures. So the designation "Qiang" is largely based on their shared language—split between a non-tonal northern branch and a tonal southern branch and further between 8-10 subdivisions. Attempts at introducing a written language to the culture have been largely unsuccessful. With requests to the government going back to 1978, the local prefecture government finally approved a written language in 1993 that was devised by Qiang language specialists based on a northern sub-dialect from 26 Roman letters to represent the 42 consonants and eight vowels. Learning the language has proved difficult to most adults, however, and a diversity of dialects and dearth of reading materials in the Qiang script haven't made the job any easier. Today, less than half of the 250,000 Qiang speak their own language. Increasingly, villages are built in more accessible places, increasing interactions that require Mandarin Chinese, and children attending primary school learn in Chinese (sometimes in Sichuanese dialect, with explanations given in the Qiang language when necessary).

Cultural identity

Beyond the language, the Qiang are also known for their shared religious practices and clothing. Rituals, many of which include dancing and drinking a light barley alcohol, are led by a shaman (known as a duāngōng, 端公 in Chinese), also responsible for passing down much of the Qiang culture orally. Their pantheistic faith reveres spirits in nature and invites them to protect their homes through white stones placed on their roofs. Embroidered shoes with hemp soles and lambskin vests are common among the Qiang, the latter worn with wool-side in during cold weather and wool side out during rainy weather. Some, like researcher Wang Ming-ke, have found many village elders unfamiliar with some of these practices and customs, which may have been brought in from elsewhere. The Ox King Festival, for example, has become the Qiang's "New Years Festival," fixed by the provincial government at the first day of the tenth Chinese lunar month, but some older Qiang in more remote villages interviewed by Wang believe it to be an outside custom.

A moment of crisis

When the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake hit, it devastated many areas in Sichuan, including where the Qiang live. Villages collapsed, some on the wait list to become UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and many village elders, responsible for passing down the culture, were severely hurt or killed. Their New Years Celebration has since been named a piece of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Whole villages have been reconstructed using traditional styles and repair work has been done on others. What this crisis will mean for this culture, already struggling to maintain its own cultural and linguistic identity, remains to be seen. For a firsthand glimpse into Qiang culture, check out Ctrip's tours to Ganzi and Aba which take in Qiang villages such as Suopo.
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