Negotiating Qiang Ethnicity:

Preserving ‘Qiangness’ in Contemporary China


Rachel Meakin


Unpublished dissertation. London University, School of Oriental and African Studies. Department of Social Anthropology. 2004.




I wrote this dissertation in 2004 for my MA Social Anthropology. Since then much has changed for me personally and for the Qiang people. In 2006 I started teaching at Aba Teachers College in the Qiang area of Wenchuan. In May 2008 the Qiang people were at the heart of the 8.0 earthquake which took more than 80,000 lives and wrought devastation in every Qiang area of western Sichuan. Since then, discussions regarding ‘Qiangness’ have assumed greater significance. Far more Chinese people are aware of their Qiang compatriots and the desire to preserve Qiang identity and culture has resulted in the construction of Qiang museums (e.g. in Beichuan, Wenchuan, and Longxi), the publishing of many books, and a post-earthquake revival of tourism.

Although there are aspects of the dissertation I would write differently now, I have left it largely in its original form, other than improving phraseology and omitting anything which now seems highly irrelevant. In my dissertation I argued that even as there has been much post-Mao heart-searching as to the nature of Chineseness, so the Qiang of northwestern Sichuan have had to go through their own ‘root-seeking’ to renew and renegotiate a sense of Qiangness. There is little contemporary English ethnography of the Qiang and this work is intended to bring a fresh contribution to the field of ethnic studies in China. In my research I discovered indigenous concerns regarding preservation of Qiang culture and various ways people are hoping to achieve this. Through a review of English and Chinese literature and my personal experience of the Qiang region I have attempted to explore these areas of cultural negotiation and preservation.

In the introduction I have explained my methodology and looked at differences between Chinese and Western anthropology, having used resources from both spheres. In the second chapter I explore the complexities of Qiang ethnic identity with particular reference to competing histories. Chapter three looks at the effectiveness of efforts being made to preserve culture through tourism, while in chapter four I look at the dilemma of modernity and cultural preservation with reference to academic efforts in this area. In conclusion I suggest that the demise of the Qiang religious leader, the Shibi, is necessitating new negotiations with regard to Qiang identity which, until now, has been strongly related to religious practices.




I am particularly indebted to Dr Jakob Klein for his encouragement and advice. I would also like to extend immeasurable gratitude to family and friends who supported me in so many ways to bring this dissertation to completion.



Table of Contents


1.      Introduction

1.1   Introduction

1.2   Methodology

1.3   Contrasting approaches in Chinese and Western anthropology



2.      Complexities of Qiang Ethnicity

2.1   Ethnic identity

2.2   Ancient roots

2.3   Early 20th century Qiang identity

2.4   Post-1949 Qiang



3.      Preservation of Qiangness Through Tourism

3.1   Introduction

3.2   Taoping tourist village

3.3   The tourist package: preservation or creation?

3.4   Cultural destruction

3.5   Future possibilities



4.      Culture Preservation and The Dilemma of Modernity

4.1   The dilemma

4.2   Visit to a Qiang village

4.3   Academic preservation of Qiang culture

4.4   Preservation of unofficial Qiang

4.5   “A new tune for the Qiang flute”


 5.      Conclusion

 6.      Bibliography

 7.      Notes


CHAPTER ONE: Introduction


1.1 Introduction

The focus of this dissertation is the Qiang people, predominantly of northwestern Sichuan. At what I believe is a crucial time for the Qiang, my aim is to examine efforts being made to preserve ‘Qiangness’ in contemporary China and look at how that ‘Qiangness’ is being negotiated. As the post-Mao reform period has allowed for greater freedom of expression there has been an increase in literature emerging among the Qiang community in discussion of their ethnic and cultural identity and how this can find its place in China today, adapting to and co-existing with national and global forces of modernisation.

The violence of the Cultural Revolution shocked the Chinese into a period of introspection and raised myriad questions as to the nature of Chineseness (e.g. Tu, 1991). In the post-1978 reforms this introspection expressed itself in a seeking of roots (xun gen) in reaction to the attempted eradication of most representations of pre-Communist Chinese culture. ‘Scar literature’ such as ‘The Wounded’ (Barmé and Lee, 1979) also emerged in which people felt able to bring into the open the sufferings they had faced in the privations of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Within this larger-scale context of Chinese recovery and evolution of identity, how does a minority group like the Qiang people of southwest China negotiate and preserve Qiangness? Do they go through a Chinese or a Qiang ‘xun gen’ and ‘scar literature’ process? Do they simply participate in China’s move into modernity or do they have distinctly Qiang issues to deal with? Qiang-related material being published in Sichuan expresses the desire both to modernise and simultaneously preserve elements of Qiangness.


1.2 Methodology

My research is based primarily on a review of relevant literature. Extensive studies in English have been carried out regarding Qiang history (e.g. Scott, 1952; de Crespigny, 1974; Wang, 1999) and there is a considerable amount of linguistic research (e.g. LaPolla, 2003; Evans, 2001) but English material regarding contemporary Qiang culture seems sparse.[1] The most comprehensive English language anthropological research of the Qiang was done in the pre-1949 period by Graham (published 1958) and Torrance (1920, 1937).

Beyond these resources my research is based largely on material in Chinese which I have collected during visits to the Qiang region. Some of this is scholarly research and some is literature, including fiction, which I have used as a form of auto-ethnography, expressing the daily life and concerns of the Qiang. Similar to film in its potential as ethnographic material, literature is a medium for indirect expression of opinions which may be less forthcoming in conversation, especially with a foreigner in a society where expressing an opinion has sometimes incurred risk. I have also used various Qiang-related websites.

Whilst studying Chinese in Sichuan from 1999-2002 I made several 2-3 day visits to the Qiang area and although this was not formal fieldwork it gave me some first-hand experience of the locality, noted in my diary, which I have drawn on in this work. Alongside specifically Qiang research I have referred to other ethnographies of ethnic minorities in China. The number of such works is growing due to increased access and international scholarly exchange and such works are invaluable for comparative study but in no way negate the need for further study of individual groups as each has its own distinctive culture and contemporary issues with which to contend. As with any cultural identity, ‘Qiangness’ is a constantly evolving concept so I have deliberately avoided providing a brief and simplistic synopsis of the Qiang. Instead, I hope the reader will gradually form an impression of ‘Qiangness’ which grasps some of the complexities of Qiang cultural identity.

Regarding methodological limitations, more fieldwork would have provided greater insight into some of the issues but time was limited and I am offering a preliminary exploration of issues ripe for future in-depth research. Selection of material is a subjective process and I have aimed at breadth so that varying viewpoints are represented. I am very aware that my role as translator both of language[2] and culture is influenced by my Western academic training and hope this contribution to the discussion of Qiang culture will be read and critiqued by Qiang friends. Perhaps by drawing together a variety of materials I might help “rescue the ‘said’ of such discourse from its perishing occasions and fix it in perusable terms.” (Geertz, 1973a:20)


1.3 Contrasting Approaches in Chinese and Western Anthropology

As I refer to both Western and Chinese anthropological sources it is necessary to look here at some pertinent issues. Although Chinese anthropological research has re-emerged in the post-1978 reforms, the government has been cautious in its welcome of foreign anthropologists and in granting foreigners access to some minority areas. For example, Sichuan’s Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, where most of the Qiang live, was only opened to foreigners in 1987. This caution is partly because although the Qiang themselves, who officially number around 300,000, are unlikely contenders for independence, they live alongside Tibetans for whom the relationship with the Chinese state is more ambivalent and Western involvement can be viewed with suspicion. Where research is concerned this caution may also be due to essential differences in Western and Chinese approaches to anthropology.

The Western tendency to sympathise with the perceived ‘underdog’ can serve, in the eyes of others, to perpetuate the westerner as the ‘overdog,’[3] holding a superior position from which to criticise government mistreatment of ethnic minorities. Add to this the late 19th century western imperialism under which China suffered and the Chinese government’s own perspective that it has liberated and improved conditions for the minorities and it is not surprising that China has a certain suspicion of foreigners concerned with ethnic minorities in China.

Ye Xiaoqing sees many Western scholars of ethnicity as preoccupied with Western concerns, lacking an understanding of the “overwhelming sense of concern for the national fate of China” which influences Chinese scholarship (2001:191). At an international conference on ethnic autonomy in China,[4] Shih also noted the preoccupation of overseas writers with human rights while local writers, concerned with national unity, were influenced by a “teleology of state”(2002b:250). This dichotomy can be seen in the government’s use of the term ‘national minorities’[5] suggesting minorities within and belonging to the nation, and the term ‘minority nationalities’ used by some overseas writers (e.g. Gladney 1998:15) which implies distinct groups with an attachment to their own ‘nation.’ I have preferred to stay with the general notion of ethnic minority groups.

Such a brief presentation of a Western-Chinese dichotomy is clearly oversimplified and lacks the voice of China’s ethnic groups, among whom there would be a wide range of views. There are those among the Tibetans and Uyghurs who would like independence and might welcome a Western approach, whereas others, like the Bai who are highly assimilated (Blum, 2001), might identify with a more nationalist approach. Whilst there is a desire among the Qiang to preserve their culture and sense of identity, their concerns seem more connected with negotiating their place in contemporary China and improving their situation than with any appeal for greater independence.



CHAPTER TWO:  Complexities regarding Qiang identity


2.1 Ethnic identity


I am Qiang

I am a distant descendant of the ancient Yan Di, King Yu…

I am Qiang

Revering above all the pure white stone…

I am Qiang

The lofty watchtowers symbolise my boldness…

I am Qiang

I play my beloved Qiang flute and ride my steed as a nomad on the great grasslands…

I am Qiang

I am an eternal, indomitable spirit in this universe.

(Written for my beloved Qiang compatriots.)[6]  (Yang, 1996:91)


At its most essential, ethnicity has to do with corporate identity and notions of difference that create boundaries (Barth, 1998 (1969)). The above poem suggests that Qiang ethnic identity lies in a combination of name, historical roots, religion, cultural symbols (such as distinctive architecture and musical instruments), location, and an inner essence of strength and survival among ‘compatriots.’ A corporate Qiang identity has also been officially designated through the nationality classification project (minzu gongzuo) which was initiated in the 1950s by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This project has had a mixed effect on China’s ethnic groups.[7]  For the more than 300 groups that have not been granted the status of a national minority, it has weakened their identity, subsuming them into other minority groups or into the majority Han group. For those like the Qiang who have been recognised, it has resulted in more firmly defined boundaries and a distinct, official identity documented in official publications such as A Brief History of the Qiang (Qiangzu Jianshi. Li, 1986) and A History of Qiang Literature  (Qiangzu Wenxueshi. Li et al, 1994). Similar to the case of the Yao people as described by Litzinger (2000:9) this classification has also brought various sub-groups, with two separate languages and at least ten sub-dialects (Evans, 2001:2-3) under the one classification of Qiang.

In bureaucratic terms, this project has removed the need for those classified as Qiang to assert or define their Qiang identity which could now be seen as “nothing more than genealogy” (Shih 2002b:253). It is on their identity papers and is not an issue for dispute - one just is Qiang, whether as a fashionable, urban head-teacher married to a Han spouse, or as a village agricultural worker wearing traditional clothing and attending ritual ceremonies in the sacred grove. However, in practice this is not the case and negotiations of Qiangness continue against a background of negotiations of Chineseness.


2.2 Ancient Roots

Historical origins is an area of particular complexity, often referred to in ethnographies of Han (Chow, 1997) and non-Han groups (Harrell, 1995; Kaup, 2000; Schein, 2000), and can be a source of corporate ethnic identity but also a source of contention. When discussing the preservation of culture the question of what should be preserved is sometimes closely linked to competing historical discourses. In her study of the Miao, Schein (2000:35-45) notes various suggested Miao origins ranging from Caucasian to Mesopotamian to 5,000 year old Chinese origins. Versions of Qiang history have a comparable breadth.

Until the 1980s the Qiang had no written language and apart from material in Chinese their history had been orally transmitted. Qiang oral legends tell of Qiang descent from the union of an immortal maiden, Mu Jie Zhu, and a mortal man, Dou An Zhu (also known as Ran Bi Wa). A central event in Qiang legendary history and still a sacred oral text of the Shibi[8] or Qiang religious leader is the battle in which the Ge people of Sichuan’s Min valley were displaced by the Qiang who had migrated from the northwest of China (Li et al, 1994:82). The Qiang were helped in their victory over the Ge by their god of heaven, Aba Mubita, who told them to fight the Ge with white stones. Pieces of white quartzite stone now serve as the main representation of deity for the Qiang, helping to maintain the centrality of this legend and connecting the Qiang with their perceived historical identity as a strong, victorious people. Although there are embellished elements of this story, the general consensus of historical documents and archaeological findings does seem to confirm a south-easterly migration to Sichuan’s Min River valley around 400-100 BC and a concurrent displacement of the Ge people (Zheng, 1946:74,77).

This migration seems to be little disputed with the main area of contention being whether, prior to this, the Qiang had a Chinese or non-Chinese past. Some historians see them as non-Chinese (de Crespigny, 1984:168; Wang, 1999[9]; Scott, 1952). The Qiang character ‘’ consists of the characters for ‘person’ and ‘sheep.’ According to Wang it was an exonym meaning “those people in the west who are not one of us” (1999) and referred to a large group who, in early AD, stretched from Xinjiang across eastern Qinghai, southern Gansu, western Sichuan and northern Yunnan. De Crespigny notes that in 259 AD, a Han official recommended that the Qiang should be transferred from Chinese soil, which was only for the Chinese (1984:169, n76). The Qiang have also been associated with Central Asia as  “a branch of Iranian people” (Liu, 1932:365) and with Southwest Asia by Torrance who ascribed Semitic origins to them (1988 [1937]).[10]

In contrast to these theories Liu (2002) links the Qiang to ancient Chinese peoples called the ‘San Miao’ and also sees them connected at source with a wide variety of groups: the Tibetans, Yi, Bai, Hani, Naxi, Lisu, Lahu, Jinuo, Pumi, Jingpo, Dulong, Nu, Achang and Tujia, as well as with the Han, giving them a solidly Chinese history. The official history of the Qiang (Qiangzu Jianshi, 1986:1) and the ethnic section of the Sichuan Provincial Annals (2000:271-2) date the Qiang back to the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (16-11th century BC) and even further back to Yu the Great, legendary founder of the Xia dynasty in the 21st century BC.

A main source for this connection with Yu is Si Ma Qian’s[11] historical records (Shi Ji), in which, writing of something 2,000 years earlier, he states that Yu arose from the Qiang (Qiangzu Jianshi, 1986:1). Older writings give Yu’s birthplace as Henan (Sage 1992:12) but the Yu-Qiang link has taken root both in literature and in various ‘Yu’ tourist sites in Aba Prefecture and Beichuan. The ‘Annals of Yu the Great’ (Luo, 1999) has been published jointly by the tourist department and historical records office in the Qiang town of Wenchuan and a Chinese-style memorial hall for Yu the Great has recently been built just outside Wenchuan, witness to the supposed Chinese ancestry of the Qiang.

Ebrey (1996) shows that acculturation of non-Chinese by bestowing on them Chinese descent and surnames has existed for centuries and this current emphasis on Yu descent seems to be a continuation of that tradition, moving the Qiang from their peripherality and giving them a Chinese past which strengthens their Chinese present. It could be argued that the myth of Yu descent clouds the ‘real’ history of the Qiang and is an assimilationist tactic but the various discourses often seem to co-exist, as shown by Yang’s poem above which combines Yu ancestry in the Min valley with a nomadic, grasslands past. This may seem an untenable contradiction for the Western mindset but for groups who see their future as equal citizens in the Chinese nation, the Yu link could be seen as a mark of cultural acceptance and the factuality of a 21st century BC event is less an issue than the contemporary effect of its application (Schein 2000:36).


2.3 Early 20th century Qiang identity

A key question regarding the early twentieth century is whether or not the Qiang had a distinctive corporate identity. Wang (1999, 2002) argues strongly that although the Chinese use of the Qiang exonym has long existed, the Qiang people themselves have only become self-aware as Qiang since the nationality classification of the 1950s with its accompanying documentation of Qiang history and culture. Prior to this, they only used the autonym ‘rma’ which, in their own language, carries the sense of ‘us, the local people’ and is still used today. Wang suggests that pre-1949 this ‘rma’ identity was very localised and defined in relation to neighbouring ‘non-rma’ groups which may have included others seen as Qiang today (2002:137).

The national classification project has clearly been influential in defining minority cultures and bringing them into a new national context but Wang doesn’t explain why a small group, who called themselves ‘rma’ rather than Qiang and numbered only 35,660 in the 1953 census (Mackerras, 1994:239), would be given its own classification rather than be subsumed into the neighbouring Tibetan or Han groups. It seems that even if they were localised groups who saw themselves differently from the ‘non-rma’ groups up or downstream, there was sufficient evidence of linguistic, cultural, historical and religious similarities for them to be given a corporate identity and sufficient awareness of their Qiang connections to label them ‘Qiang.’ Their own lack of a script meant that, other than the history passed down through their own oral legends, the Qiang were dependent on Chinese historiography for knowledge of their ancient past. In this way, the nationality classification has, to some degree, connected the Qiang people to early historical documentation of their past that may well have been unknown to them in previous centuries.

Lending some support to Wang’s theory of a localised ‘rma’ identity, the anthropological biography[12] of the Wang family of Aba prefecture’s Qugu district (Li, 2001) describes a pre-1949 warlord situation where people’s loyalty was to their local headman with little awareness of a wider Qiang affiliation. Despite this, foreign researchers of the pre-1949 period, such as Graham and Torrance, were very conscious of a Qiang cultural identity. For example, Graham, whose fieldwork was from the 1930s, noted a marked boundary between the Qiang and the Chinese:


The Ch’iang have no written language. There are therefore no newspapers, magazines, or books, excepting those published in the Chinese language for the Chinese, and few Ch’iang are able to possess or to read them. There is no radio or television, and no telephone or telegraph lines, for those connecting the Chinese towns and cities are for the use of the Chinese. (1958:11)


Graham’s account notes the Chinese occupying the valleys while the Qiang lived on the steep, upper slopes in defensible, compact zhaizi (stockaded villages) of closely built, square stone houses, often with accompanying watchtower. Every family farmed, even if other occupations were engaged in. Clothing for men and women was usually natural, undyed hemp, with a sheepskin sleeveless waistcoat on top in colder weather. In some areas the better gowns had embroidered blue cloth borders. Graham suggests that the more elaborate cloth belts had been borrowed from the neighbouring Jiarong and Wassu peoples as most Qiang wore simple, hemp belts (1958:21). Dancing was always with men and women opposite each other. Marriages were arranged via a matchmaker, usually with juvenile engagements and often with the girl considerably older than the boy, her main value being as a worker in his family. Divorce was extremely rare and there was a tradition of a younger brother marrying the widow of an elder brother, although an 1881 Chinese edict threatened the death penalty for this practice (Torrance, 1934).

Graham and Torrance both provide extensive accounts of Qiang religious practices, emphasising their centrality in the culture. According to Graham:


The Ch’iang are a reverent and devout people. They consider their religious ceremonies and rituals to be very important…. Since there must be no incorrectness in the performances and repetitions, there is a special priesthood… (1958:53)


The Shibi of this priesthood was a key figure in Qiang society, with power to heal sickness and exorcise demons, to bring favour on crops and livestock, and to bring blessing and protection on the people. Taboos were also kept which included not cutting trees in the sacred groves near the villages. Their ‘white stone worship’ is often described as polytheistic (e.g. Wang et al, 1992), with a supreme god of heaven and regionally varying greater and lesser deities, although Li suggests that it was originally monotheistic but later absorbed belief in local deities (2002). Unlike the Tibetans and Chinese, the Qiang had almost no images of deity with the white stone being the dominant representation.

Despite some cultural commonality with other groups, Graham, who had researched various ethnic groups over several decades, saw enough diversity to entitle his work, “The Customs and Religion of the Ch’iang” (1958). The acceptance of the Qiang as an official ethnic group, when so many other groups didn’t qualify, is clear evidence of the existence of sufficient cultural difference to merit recognition.


2.4 Post-1949 Qiang


In centuries to come, when historians look back at the history of southwest China, they will see the last half of the twentieth century…as the age in which the various peoples of that vast region increasingly adapted to Han Chinese lifestyles…. (Unger 1997:67)


Unger’s comment conjures up the image of a vast tide of Han-ness transforming everyone in its wake into cultural identicality and whilst I am unconvinced that this is fully the case in 2004, the early years of Communist rule seemed to be moving in that direction. Although minority groups were offered autonomy and the ‘carrot’ of independence in the 1931 Communist Party constitution, by the Cultural Revolution period expressions of distinctive minority culture were discouraged as unhealthy ‘local nationalism’ and had to yield to the Party policy of getting rid of cultural and religious ‘olds.’ The movement of Han Chinese into minority areas accelerated the homogenising process of spreading Chinese communist uniformity and the brutality of reprisals discouraged any strong resistance to this.

Spirit Mountain, Spirit Tree, Spirit Grove,’ a short story by Qiang writer Ye Xing Guang (1998), is a moving account of this period with both a ‘seeking roots’ (xun gen) and a ‘scar literature’ feel to it, but within a Qiang context. It is later than much literature of that genre, probably because past accusations of ‘local nationalism’ led to minorities taking longer to feel secure enough for self-expression in the reform period, and also because reforms have generally taken longer to reach western rural China. The story, summarised below, serves as a kind of ‘culture preservation literature’ documenting the survival of a Qiang worldview through the vicissitudes of the last few decades:


During the Great Leap Forward there was a communal dining room in Ox Mountain Stockade and people were told to donate their iron fireplaces to make steel. For the Qiang this fireplace was intimately connected with their ‘guozhuang god’ so this was a terrible offence. The village Shibi refused to yield his fireplace and the villagers followed suit. The Shibi was respected by everyone, officiating at the upper, middle and lower altars in the sacred grove, healing sicknesses, driving away evil spirits and mediating between god and people. His son, Yu Ba Jin, also respected by the people, was the branch Party secretary and was caught between filial piety and the Party. Similarly, the people wanted to please the Party but they were an isolated community with no doctor and little medicine so to fall out with the Shibi, who related to every part of their lives, would have been folly.

The work brigade was ordered to cut down the sacred grove to provide firewood to stoke the furnaces for melting the iron,. Yu Ba Jin appealed to Party minority policy, which had promised respect of their customs and traditions, but to no avail. A series of confrontations followed and then suddenly the Shibi was killed by lightning while protecting the grove. This was taken as a sign from the god of heaven. Yu Ba Jin then took up the protest and lost his Party membership but the sacred grove was still cut down, under order of Scarface Liu.

Years later, Yu Ba Jin has followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming the local Shibi, and his son now wants to re-plant the sacred grove. People give donations, and the son goes to town to seek permission from an official who turns out to be Scarface Liu. Liu asks forgiveness for his wrongdoings, which he says were a result of that period of history, and sends money towards the re-planting, also promising to look into Yu Ba Jin’s dismissal from the Party. (Ye, 1998)


Ye’s tale is a masterly account of Qiang culture and its centrality to village life, describing the religious practices, the sacred grove, the communal importance of the Shibi, and the seemingly inexorable advance of the Party’s plans for progress. Although it is fiction, reality is only thinly veiled and one can see the shift of minority policy from accommodation to suppression and then to relative harmony and co-operation. Ye leaves us with the prospect of renewed ritual in the sacred grove and of Yu Ba Jin perhaps successfully combining the roles of village Shibi and reinstated Party member. This suggests a return to tradition, something which seems to be happening in various parts of China (e.g. Siu, 1990; Ma, 2002; Brunn, 1996).

But, as Siu and Ma both ask, to what extent can the past be returned to and traditions revived? To what extent does the essence of Qiang ethnicity and identity rest in traditional customs and beliefs and how do these fare in an increasingly modern world? Zevik’s description (2002) of the Shibi role is very similar to that of Graham and Torrance pre-1949 but in her research in the mid-nineties she found most Shibi were in their sixties to eighties and that the younger Qiang were more interested in studying computing and English and leaving the countryside, rather than training as Shibi.[13]

This is of crucial significance regarding contemporary and future Qiang identity. One of the defining characteristics of ‘Qiangness’ has been religion, which Feuchtwang suggests is the carrier of the notion of ethnicity (1991:160). If the Shibi is the main culture-bearer and spiritual leader of the Qiang (Wan, 2000:103) and the only person in the Qiang community to memorise the sacred scriptures, the only mediator between the people and the spiritual realm, and the dominant preserver of traditional Qiangness, what will happen if the role disappears? Will a Qiang worldview in which the local people actually participate cease to exist? The possible disappearance of the sacred grove is also an issue. Qiang worship is not centred on temples that can be built anywhere, so if land is not available for a grove, or if people move away from the mountainsides, they lose the locational heart of their religious culture. Alternative ways of expressing and preserving culture are explored in the following two chapters.



CHAPTER THREE:  Preservation of Qiangness through tourism


3.1. Introduction

Tourism… has become one of the most dynamic sources for the destruction, blending, modification and creation of culture. (Van Den Berghe, 1996:552)


In the light of recent political and economic reforms and the opening of China’s hermetic seal in the late seventies it is hardly surprising that tourism features in much contemporary ethnography of China (e.g. Tan, 2001; Oakes, 1998). More mainland Chinese can afford to travel for pleasure and more foreign tourists are visiting China. In areas where ethnic groups have maintained a distinctive culture, the situation created by efforts to protect identity and develop tourism provides, as the above quote suggests, the setting for an anthropologist’s paradise. Tourism development in the Qiang village[14] of Taoping stems both from a desire for economic gain and a concern for culture preservation, the latter indicating the local perception of an existing culture which needs preserving. However, as shown below, once set in motion, tourism is an unpredictable force.


3.2. Taoping Tourist Village

Taoping village, which according to legend has stood on the slopes of Dabaoxue Mountain since 111BC, is 163km from Chengdu and accessed from the Wenchuan-Hongyuan road by a bridge over the Zagunao River, a tributary of the Min River. The village is a cluster of stone-block houses dominated by two 40m watchtowers. Characteristic of many Qiang villages, its structure is defensive, with a local stream diverted to form an underground water system, and interior access between many homes, which generally face inwards creating a fortress-like exterior. Taoping has a favourable location compared to many Qiang mountain villages, with good communication links and good fluvial agricultural land, although the extent of this is restricted by the river and steep mountainsides. Sometimes referred to as a ‘living fossil’ (e.g. Wan 2000:54), Taoping was selected for tourist development in 1996 because of its lack of visible modernity and its accessibility. According to the television documentary, ‘J’aurais êté shaman,’[15] which documents the development of tourism in Taoping, the main inspiration for this came from Zhou Xing Qi, a Qiang tourism official whose passion since the early eighties has been to visit Qiang homes and make cultural records in the hope of stemming the disappearance of Qiang traditions. Seeing tourism as a way of preserving these traditions, his plan in Taoping was to offer tourists a one-day presentation of Qiang culture.

In the documentary, Zhou has recruited a local young woman, Long Xiao Qiong, to be tourism co-ordinator, developing her family home as a guesthouse and Qiang ‘show-home’ according to Zhou’s ideas of what should be preserved and presented as Qiang culture. He wants the family’s glass table to be replaced with a wooden one – the older the better – and is also concerned that a modern building is being built, spoiling the traditional appearance of the village. The documentary then switches to Chengdu’s Holiday Inn where Zhou takes Xiao Qiong and her sister in their best Qiang costumes to drink cappuccinos. The aim, says the French narrator, is to show them that tourism in Taoping can’t compete with modernity. Their commodity is tradition  – ‘the last Qiang village to resist the attack of modernity.’ The tourists will be presented with ‘traditional Qiang’ who will meet the tourist demand for exoticism (Oakes 1998:ix) and perceived authenticity (MacCannell, 1976).


3.3. The tourist package: preservation or creation?

I visited Taoping several times between 2000 and 2002 by which time the ‘tourist package’ was well developed. I was welcomed by Xiao Qiong and others in ornate, brightly coloured costume, had a Qiang meal in the restaurant in her family home, climbed the village watchtowers and saw the white stones symbolic of deity, enjoyed a performance of Qiang song and dance and was tempted to buy from the attractive displays of Qiang needlework. As a tourist experience it was very satisfying and also relatively expensive at that time with a 25Y entrance ticket to the village and extra to see the mill, try the traditional Qiang door-lock, and use the village toilet. Although not all of this income went directly to the villagers, the whole package was bringing economic growth to the village.

My question at this point is: what have Zhou and Xiao Qiong achieved with regard to preservation of Qiang culture? They have created a tableau, a potted version of Qiangness, which will be photographed by thousands of visitors and shown across China and around the world. Goffman refers to this kind of scenario as a “front region” (MacCannell, 1976:92), a place of performance to the tourists which MacCannell suggests results in “restoration, preservation, and fictional re-creation of ethnic attributes” and a form of reconstructed ethnicity (1992:159).

The theme of reinvented, reconstructed and created ethnicity is frequently addressed in ethnographies on China (Kaup, 2000; Gladney, 1998; Dikötter, 1997) although rarely by Chinese scholars themselves (Blum & Jensen, 2002:170). In the Qiang context I would prefer to call the tourist package ‘exaggerated culture’ in which locals are significant agents. While I don’t discount a degree of constructed culture, my concern regarding Western preoccupations with these issues is that they perpetuate the image of ethnic minorities as weak, passive and peripheral, an image which continues to provide an ‘underdog’ to be defended. McCarthy expresses similar concern over the notion of minorities as feminised, primitive targets of Han internal orientalism and stresses that “many minorities do consider themselves active participants in the Chinese nation-state.” (2000:109)

The Taoping tourist package helps preserve the historic appearance of the village, encourages a post-Mao return to distinctive ethnic expression, and allows for new forms of cultural expression, such as Xiao Qiong’s elaborate clothing which is a far cry from the pre-1949 undyed hemp Qiang garments. In their desire to find a tourist myth (Selwyn, 1996:2) which defies modernity tourists may assume her outfit is ‘traditional Qiang’ but Xiao Qiong’s costume goes far beyond tourism as a potent ethnic symbol, also worn on her visit to Beijing as Qiang youth representative (Xu, 2001:208). In this context it affirms China’s cultural diversity and the continued existence of the Qiang as a culturally different group.

The trip to Beijing points to ‘back regions’ or Qiang spheres of life not represented in Taoping’s tourist-focused ‘front region’ and I would suggest two of these. The first is that of modernity. Contrary to tourist myths and the documentary portrayal of Xiao Qiong as rural and overwhelmed by Holiday Inn modernity, she has spent four years studying nursing in the modern city of Yibin where she was chairperson of the student’s association, a Party member, and a national award winner (Lin, 2003:32). Ironically, although native to Taoping, she is also only half-Qiang. Her father is registered as Tibetan but claims to be Han from Shaanxi (Xu, 2001:208). Her main reason for returning home after study was to develop tourism having perceived the economic potential of the village (Lin, 2003:32).

The second back region is the area of private religious and cultural Qiang practices such as the sacred grove rituals and weddings and cremations. Keeping these protected from the tourist public is a way of preserving them from outside influence but, as Zhou’s native village Shibi suggests in the documentary, it also emphasises the limitations of the front region to express the heart of Qiang culture, particularly in the restricted time and context of a tourism visit. As a ‘maker of worlds’ (Overing, 1990), the Shibi is intimately involved with the religious and cultural world of the Qiang and implies that the tourist package envisaged by Zhou will barely scratch the surface of ‘Qiangness’ which means tourists will only perceive and pass on to others selected cultural elements.

The Taoping tourist project is clearly limited in its ability to provide a comprehensive Qiang portrayal but in the context of preservation it is important not so much regarding its ‘true’ representation of Qiangness as it is or was, but for its contribution to putting the Qiang on the map as a people group in China with a distinctive cultural identity. This may be in some measure a constructed identity but it also gives the Qiang a space in which to negotiate and express Qiangness. As a government-approved project it also gives official affirmation to Qiang identity, providing a source of pride and inspiration with the village as a symbol of this distinctive identity.


3.4. Cultural destruction

Tourism in Taoping is, however, not without its detrimental effects, some of which occur when the tourists cross the ‘package’ boundaries. Visiting Taoping with a young Western married couple, we stayed in a very basic extension to a private home where the host insisted that Qiang custom requires any guest couples, Qiang or otherwise, to sleep separately. Despite the wife’s reluctance, the host was adamant so husband and wife slept apart. I later heard that another couple in a similar situation had insisted on staying together which indicates the power of tourism to remove taboos and undermine culture and also questions which will be more effective: the power to preserve or the power to change? The power of income or the power of traditional customs?

A further issue was covered in a joint Chinese-Japanese ethnography of Taoping township (Lu et al, 2000:55-6). They expressed concern at the wear and tear on buildings from graffiti and from thousands of people climbing the watchtowers. Concern was also expressed that competition over tourism was causing disputes between the villagers. With the apparent goal of preventing further damage the local government is exerting its influence, although not in a way that will stem graffiti or wear and tear. In June 2003, the Xinhua news agency reported that Taoping


is restoring its original appearance as the local government strengthens its protection measures…. [A]s tourism has become hot since 1997, a number of facilities have been built to attract visitors, damaging the village's original landscapes. To better protect its history and culture, the local government decided to spend 60 million yuan (7.23 million US dollars) to remove unnecessary structures inside the ancient village. Since March, some 70 business premises including hotels, restaurants and grocery stores have been moved out and six illegally built cement buildings demolished.[16]


These ‘70 businesses’ imply a well-developed, modern tourist centre but in my experience most were accommodation and small restaurants in family homes. Where this kind of business has been closed down, the owners have the frustration of seeing wealthier villagers, possibly their relatives, get richer, while they return to an agriculture based income. This results in architectural preservation but possible community breakdown with the village as a commodity and most villagers playing a minor role, presumably with no choice as to whether or not coach loads of tourists are a daily part of their lives. The assessment of modern buildings as ‘unnecessary structures’ indicates that, for these villagers, modernity will have to be behind doors.[17]

As fewer villagers benefit directly from tourist income, there may be less encroachment on their customs and taboos but it seems they are one step closer to living in a museum and one step further from modern benefits that improved economic conditions would bring. As Peters points out in her study of the tourist town of Lijiang, disenfranchising the locals can result in disinterest in heritage preservation (2001:316). Hopefully income from officially-managed tourism will benefit the community although in other locations this has sadly not always been the case (Oakes 1998:182).


3.5. Future possibilities

To have invested 60 million yuan in Taoping’s preservation the local government must be expecting high profit which is likely considering Sichuan’s 2002 revenue from tourism was 38 billion yuan and the projected growth rate for the province is 20% annually for the next few years.[18]  For Taoping this will have the dual effect of more people being aware of the Qiang and being presented with a ‘cultural package’ as well as a probable increase of the negatives mentioned above. Improvements being carried out on the Wenchuan-Chengdu road should halve the journey time to less than two hours by 2005 (McNally 2004:444). If the Qiang area becomes accessible for day visitors from a city of several million like Chengdu, then the prospects for tourist development are enormous but this necessitates careful planning and consideration of what an even greater influx of tourists might mean for Qiang culture.[19]

One scenic area that has been put forward as a potential Qiang tourist site is around the village of A’er. This was mentioned to Torrance’s son, on a visit in the early nineties, as a tourism investment possibility[20] and has been mentioned to me by Qiang friends, one of whom described it as an area with 1,300 square kilometers of natural scenery, with rare animals, lakes and waterfalls and a local village which has kept its ancient culture.[21] This has the potential for ‘eco-cultural tourism’ (Russell & Wallace, 2004:2) where culture, environment, local people and the tourist are all considered in the planning.

Developing a wider area for tourism than Taoping and one or two other villages would bring much greater economic benefits to the area and change the nature of tourist-tourism host interaction. With a general trend developing of domestic tourists choosing relaxation over sight-seeing,[22] tourists would stay in the Qiang area for more than a short group visit and the goal of the tourist would change from a quick taste of ‘Qiangness’ to a place of relaxation and leisure with the Qiang culture providing an exotic backdrop. Rather than creating a ‘museum village’ with mixed results for the locals, Qiang culture would be preserved as a tourism commodity but locals would be freer both to improve their living standards and stay close to their spiritual roots if they so choose. Whilst this might conjure up visions of a mass influx of modernity via tourism, modernity in terms of material improvement does not automatically mean sacrificing culture.

Wider possibilities for private enterprise, quicker access to Chengdu and improved local conditions might draw more Qiang youth like Xiao Qiong, who go to the cities for higher education, to return to local involvement. If this doesn’t happen there is the possibility addressed by Kipnis (2001) that rural youth who succeed educationally will move to the towns and stay urban, leaving behind those in the villages who have not succeeded educationally, which threatens to perpetuate a ‘culture of backwardness’ in the largely rural Qiang area.

One downside of an increase in less controlled tourism would be the reduction of the buffer zone between locals and visitors which may increase the pressure to break taboos and accommodate tourist preferences (Holloway, 1998:329), particularly if visitors want to enter culturally ‘off-limits’ areas such as religious ceremonies. An example of this is the Qiang dog-beating ceremony where a dog is punished as an example to any Qiang who breaks the taboo of cutting trees in a sealed area (Zhou 2003:251). A tourist might object to this on the basis of animal rights which might pressure the local government to object to the practice, whereas for the religious Qiang the ceremony is part of the social fabric, maintaining social behaviour and ecological balance.

There are definitely plans for further tourist development in Aba. A 1993 report[23] described the Qiang area as having a “long future and incalculable development potential” with regard to tourism (Xu 2001:203) and the local authorities are currently working on the creation of a 150km long ‘Cultural Gallery of Ethnic Tibetan and Qiang.’[24] This emphasis on Qiang ethnicity indicates continued provision of a space for the Qiang to explore, negotiate and present their Qiangness in contemporary China.



CHAPTER FOUR: Culture preservation and the dilemma of modernity


4.1. The dilemma


To the extent [minorities] lose tradition and culture, they lose the identity through which their Chinese membership is bestowed; to the extent they don’t modernise, they are inferior citizens. (McCarthy, 2000:114)


McCarthy goes to the heart of the dilemma currently faced by many Qiang. If they stay in culturally different Qiangness they risk being seen as backward but if they modernise will they lose their distinct cultural identity? In other words, can modernity happen without assimilation, not necessarily into 'Han-ness' but into what is becoming both a national and a global secularised modernity? The following summary of a story published in a Qiang literary magazine[25] illustrates the dilemma:


Xiao Hua, a twelve-year old Qiang girl, has had to leave school on the death of her father who had left their mountain zhaizi to find more lucrative work to pay for her education. Xiao Hua now helps her mother and sick grandmother by herding the sheep and cows. Despite local officials arguing that lack of education will continue the cycle of poverty, the grandmother refuses to let her return to school, seeing a girl’s education as money wasted when she should be helping at home and learning needlework.

The village is selected as a tourist site because of its lack of modernity and people come from miles around for officially organised Qiang New Year[26] celebrations. Before the main celebration, the villagers go with the Shibi to the sacred grove for the sacrificial mountain ceremony, where a goat is sacrificed. The Shibi has persuaded his son to come back to the village and follow in his footsteps. Later, at the official ceremony, officials speak of investment possibilities, of protecting the primitive style of the village but also of improving people’s living conditions, of changing people’s outlook and of harmonious co-operation. Xiao Hua, desperate to return to school, ponders over the county chief’s final comment: “A people group without education (mei you wenhua) is a people group without hope.” [27] (Gu, 2002:9)


There are clear parallels with Taoping but I focus on this story here because the promise of economic redemption through tourism has in reality affected few villages, and the story presents us with a scenario of ‘Qiangness’ defined by backwardness and poverty. Various problems are highlighted: the poverty of the village and the father working away from home to finance his children’s education; the mother left to care for the land and livestock; the grandmother’s cultural response to female education; the official view that education is the way out of poverty; the paradox of tourism where the ‘primitive style’ of the village is a pre-requisite, but simultaneously tourism requires modern thinking among the locals and should bring improved conditions.

The story is an interesting mix of official pedagogy regarding education and the need to modernise, and an accommodation of distinct Qiang identity. The official’s use of ‘mei you wenhua’ in this context refers to lack of education and by implication invalidates Qiang culture as a place of no hope. This suggests that Qiang culture can be accommodated as a tourism commodity for financial gain but that the future of the Qiang lies in national education which can lead to assimilation. By contrast, the writer, through his inclusion of the goat sacrifice in the sacred grove and the son of the Shibi taking on his father’s role, seems to suggest that there is a way for Qiangness and modernity to co-exist.


4.2 Visit to a Qiang village

I was given first-hand experience of these tensions in March 2002, when I visited the home of a Qiang university student. Wei’s[28] home was in the highest of three zhaizi which form a Qiang village group (cunzi). We visited relatives in the lowest zhaizi which was of relatively modern appearance, reached by a reasonable road. Their inexpensive, modern, cement-floored home was sparsely furnished but had both television and video player. An unmade-up road along a cliff edge brought us to the next zhaizi, which had more traditional Qiang houses although we ate in a Chinese courtyard-style home where a dubbed version of the American cartoon ‘Prince of Egypt’ was playing on the VCD machine. There was little evidence of distinctly Qiang clothing until an elderly lady, already wearing a white turban, suddenly decided she and a granddaughter would put on their embroidered aprons to show me.

The highest zhaizi was typical fortress-style with no modern buildings in sight and a tall watchtower at the cliff edge commanding a view down the mountainside. There were few white stones in evidence but Wei said their religion is still important locally. No telephone link meant no advance warning was possible so our arrival was unexpected. Wei’s elderly grandmother was sorting seed potatoes. Someone fetched the mother who was working land some distance from the house. When she arrived, wearing a white turban, embroidered shoes with up-turned toe and a plain blue shift over dark trousers with none of the ornateness seen in Taoping, we sat chatting with her and the grandmother on the parapet of the flat roof which serves as a communal spot and also as a drying space for crops like chillies and their staple, maize.

We ate an evening meal of local produce around the three-legged fire. Rice is one of the few bought items and the mother only goes down to the market town a few times a year. The father came in late from the fields, said little and retired early. Wei said his father worries about providing for his children’s education and works very long hours. Weak electricity arrived mid-evening providing barely enough light for the mother’s embroidery and making me wonder how homework had been accomplished although some would be done at the school in the lowest zhaizi where the children are often weekly boarders.

This account shows that certain visual expressions of Qiang culture such as the fortress villages, the clothing, the local produce, have persisted more in the poorer, higher zhaizi where living conditions are tougher, whilst expressions of modernity are more evident lower down where national and even global influences are present through media technology. Income based solely on agriculture where erosion and land scarcity are a problem means it is hard to break the poverty cycle. Wei thinks people will eventually move from the higher mountain areas because life is so difficult there and many have already moved (Evans 2001:2). Wei’s mother is a Qiang speaker and Wei understands the language but doesn’t speak it himself and assumes the language will disappear. In his opinion people need to spend so much time on English and computer skills they are not going to spend time studying Qiang, even though a written form was developed in the eighties. His own concern is to improve his family’s living standards and, like his father, he worries a lot.

Wei sees local religious beliefs as superstition and would not choose to wear traditional dress. Education and economic progress are his priorities, and having lived an urban existence the last few years he is painfully conscious of the two worlds his life straddles and the comparative deprivation of the Qiang area. It seems unlikely that he would ever return to live in his native village. Whilst he has a strong sense of being Qiang, it is connected with a sense of lack and a need for improved living conditions. Conscious of national and global issues, he commented that the living improvements his parents hoped for were slow coming and that he hoped agricultural reform policies would be implemented to increase farmers’ income in the face of World Trade Organisation entry and “the growing trend of globalization.”[29] This is someone coping with Qiangness within a Chinese and global context for whom cultural preservation cannot be a priority if it means lack of progress in any way.


4.3 Academic preservation of Qiang culture.

One suggested method of cultural preservation which can co-exist with modernity is coming from the academic community in Chengdu. The Southwest Minorities University and the Southwest University of Communications have co-produced a website called ‘The Southwest Jiaotong Qiang Workstation,’ expressing concern at the current plight of Qiang culture and wanting to bring the Qiang nationality back “from the brink of possible extinction.” [30]  The forces behind this extinction are listed as scientific development, commercialisation, urbanisation and globalisation. Threatened by extinction are language, artistic forms, traditional style buildings and Qiang ceremonies that are apparently giving way to Easter and Christmas, changes which are influencing the “mentality, values and codes of conduct”[31] of the Qiang. At this point in time Easter and Christmas are hardly a threat to Qiang culture but Christmas, in particular, is growing in popularity across China as a commercial festival and the reference to it here seems to be a subtle appeal to the nation to preserve Qiang culture and protect the nation’s cultural plurality against homogenising and westernising outside forces.

The preservation these researchers envisage is not through isolation from these forces, but a pluralism where the uniqueness of the “Qiang nationality” can be preserved through a systematic classification of all aspects of Qiang history, literature, art, tradition and lifestyle which will inform the world of the existence and distinctiveness of the Qiang. An example of this was a 2003 trip to a Qiang village by researchers from Chengdu and Yunnan to document the Shibi scriptures.[32] This academic approach has similar goals to tourism regarding culture preservation but appeals to an audience of academics and organisations who might co-operate in preservation projects. From this perspective, Qiang identity is not necessarily dependent on a percentage of the Qiang people keeping centuries-old ceremonies and a traditional Qiang worldview, or on outwardly visual expressions like clothing or rituals. It is possible for Qiangness to be an internalised sense of identity strongly connected to mythology, history, past culture, all of which can be celebrated through tourism but also through dissemination of cultural knowledge, perhaps as a component of general education, which is something that research centres like the Qiang Workstation programme would help facilitate.

Ironically those with a desire to preserve Qiang culture don’t necessarily hold a Qiang religious worldview or see the Shibi as their spiritual mediator and are therefore less likely to be conveying Qiang culture in practice to the next generation. McKhann found this to be true among the Naxi people where concern over loss of Naxi culture was greatest among those “who are the most adamant that their children speak Chinese at home, learn English as a second language at school, and eschew dongba rituals as ‘backward’ (luohou).” (2001:162)  However, the combination of academic research, tourism,  and continued Qiang cultural practices in the villages, together all contribute to the preservation of various aspects of Qiang culture.


4.4 Preservation of unofficial Qiang

One example of preservation through research has been an attempt to locate people who could be called unofficial Qiang (Yang, 1996). Even as the 1950s nationalities classification project produced an official history, it also produced official population statistics which, for the Qiang, show a large increase from 35,660 in 1952 to 198,252 in 1990 (Mackerras, 1994:239). Most of these Qiang live in Aba Prefecture or Beichuan although there are also some in Gansu (Yang, 1996:45) and Guizhou (Yu, 2000:17). Some of this population increase can be attributed to improved living conditions[33] and some to the phenomenon of  “minority nationals…claim [ing] back their true ethnic identities” (Wong, 2000:56), attracted by preferential government policies for minority groups.

Travelling in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi, Yang Guang Cheng, a Qiang researcher, has tried to trace possible unofficial Qiang. In Gansu he was told that many Qiang there had been classified as Han or Tibetan and an official explained that


there are Qiang people in Diebu (迭部) and Zhouqu (舟曲) counties. In the past Zhouqu was called Qiangdao (羌道). The Qiang population of these counties is over 100,000…. Now all of them have become Tibetan. (Yang, 1996:46)


An elderly cadre said he had written a 150-page report in 1980 requesting the establishment of a ‘Luoda Qiang autonomous county’ in Diebu but received no response. Similarly, one official Tibetan who saw himself as Qiang explained that a 1970s survey had acknowledged them as Qiang but nothing was changed officially. He thought their Buddhist practices had influenced the decision to classify them as Tibetan but was quite specific regarding Qiang cultural similarities:


Sichuan Qiang dress is exactly the same as ours. Playing the Qiang flute, the mouth harp, dancing the guozhuang, drinking sipping wine, worshipping the white stone god on the roofs of our homes, having the tripod fireplace, wearing embroidered shoes, wearing hemp clothes, wearing long garments, the women wearing silver jewellery, it's all just the same.  (1996:47)


In Shaanxi Province, Yang finds the Qiang character () still used on shop signs and is told that there are many Qiang in the poor Daba mountain region on the border of Shaanxi and Sichuan who are now officially Han but are still aware of their Qiang identity. He also notes a 1993 government special report in Sichuan’s Guangyuan Town which requested that the Qiang population be recognised as more than one million. Whilst these various appeals for official recognition of a broader Qiang population have failed, Yang’s documentation still preserves a record of possible Qiang distribution. Another article in the same magazine, appealing for international research co-operation (1996:107) explores historical cross-border Qiang connections, mentioning possible ancient links with, for example, Afghanistan and India.


4.5 ‘A New Tune for the Qiang Flute’[34]

In the book ‘A New Tune for the Qiang Flute’ Li Jin’s documentation of the Wang family of Qugu suggests a new tune possibly more in keeping with a teleology of state than with a strongly culturally distinctive Qiangness. It is presented as an anthropological representation of the Qiang, in a series designed to redress neglect of cultural preservation among China’s ethnic groups (Li, 2001:2). Following the life of Wang Tai Chang and his relatives through the 20th century, it is presented as a way of communicating “anthropological knowledge, the content of the people's lives and social development and changes” rather than a family history (2001:2-3).

Born in 1922 to a powerful, opium-growing headman of Qugu, Wang eventually became a Communist Party representative of the Qiang at county and national level, liberated by the Party from the oppression of the Imperial and Nationalist periods. Although the account contains detailed description of Qiang culture and religion, the ‘new tune’ emphasises how well the family has adapted to being part of the modern nation of China and how instrumental Wang has been both in bringing improvements in technology, education and health to the Qiang area and in educating the Qiang in Party policy and modern thinking.

Li writes of Wang’s grandchildren, some of whom live in Chengdu, as “a generation closely linked with the destiny of the republic… [having] blended in with the great tide of China’s construction.”(2001:76) Several of the family are employed in the army or police, for example in the mainly Han town of Dujiangyan, and several have Hui or Han partners. Despite this level of absorption into China’s cultural diversity, Li stresses how much the family members want to preserve their Qiangness. They keep certain customs at home and, like Xiao Qiong, one of them is looking for a way to combine Qiang culture and the market, wanting to promote national and international awareness of their ethnic culture. The final paragraph illustrates the main thrust of the book:


Under the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party’s…ethnic minority policies of equality and unity, the Qiang people have gone from being closed to opening up. From being isolated outside society’s political mainstream, they have become active in the national political structure at every level. From being a discriminated against and oppressed ethnic group, they have…regional autonomy and are masters of their own affairs. Through the ups and downs of Wang Tai Chang’s family we can see the gradual move of the Qiang towards modernisation… (2001:90)


At its most ‘advanced’ this modernisation seems to include inter-ethnic marriage and leaving the Qiang area but Li’s ethnography provides a model for this to happen with a sense of roots and pride in their cultural heritage. While some might see Wang Tai Chang as assimilationist, he has been instrumental in the Qiang, who are officially only about 0.015% of China’s population, being etched into the “new jigsaw of China” (Harrell, 1996:16). He used his influence at national level to have the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Zone changed in 1987 to Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Zone, despite the Qiang only constituting about 16% of Aba Prefecture’s population (Xu, 2001:203). This has literally put the Qiang more visibly on the map of China, providing them with distinctly marked territory for all to see, and a native place (laoxiang), in keeping with the Chinese custom of being connected with the family laoxiang, even if born elsewhere.

It is noticeable, however, that this ‘new tune’ has little room for aspects of Qiang culture such as sacrifices and rituals like the dog-beating ceremony which are consigned to history by use of the past tense. This is also the case in Lu et al’s (2000) study of Taoping where descriptions of many religious practices are prefaced by “before Liberation.” Li Shan He, however, provides us with first-hand experience of contemporary religious practices in the Qiang region (2002:15), including sacrifice, which suggests that the Wang family history is promoting a modern form of ‘Qiangness’ not representative of many rural Qiang, but which is a form that can negotiate a non-locationally based ‘Qiangness’ in contemporary China.

McNally’s gloomy forecast of an increasing economic gap “between Sichuan's affluent basin cities and their poor mountain cousins” (2004:430), alongside the government of Sichuan’s aims for greater urbanisation and more rural labourers moving to the cities “permanently and legally” (2004:439), might mean more Qiang will want this modern form of ‘Qiangness’ if it facilitates a move away from poverty. Like Wei, those who move away to higher education may hope to combine Qiangness and Chineseness in a way that retains ethnic identity but enables full participation in modern, urban, contemporary China.



CHAPTER FIVE: Conclusion

As to the future of the Ch’iang of western Szechwan, one can only conjecture. Will they be completely absorbed by the Chinese, or will a goodly number of them cling to their old customs, traditions and religion? (Graham, 1958:104)


This final question in Graham’s pre-1949 research, published in the shadow of the Great Leap Forward, is still relevant today. The Qiang have managed to survive the cultural suppression of the Cultural Revolution and enter a more open space in which to explore their roots and express their cultural difference. Religious practices have re-emerged, which Torrance and Graham placed at the heart of their descriptions of Qiang culture, but the demise of the Shibi suggests this renewal may be short-lived, necessitating new negotiations with regard to Qiang identity. Expressions of concern regarding disappearance of Qiang culture indicate that these negotiations are already in motion.

The development of Taoping as a tourist village, partly in response to Zhou’s preservation concerns, has brought the Qiang to national and international attention but raises concerns regarding local involvement in heritage preservation. In Taoping it has brought economic gain but stifled private enterprise, encapsulating locals in a ‘past’ where visible modernity is prohibited – an ironic reversal of the Cultural Revolution when cultural difference was discouraged. Tourism also propagates a simplified cultural package, which may not fully represent culture as various Qiang perceive it. This shows the need for careful consideration if, as seems inevitable, tourism spreads beyond selected villages to the wider Qiang region. The development of eco-cultural tourism in places like A’er could be a creative way of preserving distinctive culture and improving local conditions.

While the official classification lends permanence to ‘Qiang’ as an ethnic identity, the content within this boundary continues to be negotiable. The Qiang Workstation, concerned about extinction of Qiang culture, offers non-locational, non-religious ways of being Qiang, through documentation of cultural heritage which continues to affirm a sense of identity, rather than actual participation in Qiang cultural practices. This academic aspect of preservation is becoming increasingly relevant as Qiang like the student, Wei, move away to education and need to negotiate the tension between their roots and a future in an urban environment. It also provides a national and international forum for discussion of different discourses: competing histories, official and unofficial Qiang, different teleologies.

Li’s ethnography of the Wang family of Qugu presents a model of relatively high assimilation but if McNally’s economic assessment of Aba is correct, assimilation is not imminent on a large scale, particularly for many who have neither wealth nor access to quality education. The term ‘rma’ may eventually fade as an autonym with the decreasing use of the Qiang language but there is still hope that through these various efforts to preserve Qiang culture, the Qiang people will continue to be distinctively Qiang and also increasingly enjoy the benefits of modernity, good education and prosperity.



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·         LaPolla, R. 2001. The Qiang Nationality Language and Culture Web Site at:  (Accessed 27.07.04)

·         ‘Protection of 2,000-year-old ethnic village improved’ Xinhua: 2003-06-26, Accessed 9th March 2004.

·         ‘Sichuan Plans Huge Investment in Tourism Projects.’  Accessed 11.03.04.

·         More Chinese choose relaxing travel.’ Xinhuanet: 2002.07.24.  Accessed 11.03.04 via,

·         Cultural Gallery of Ethnic Tibetan and Qiang” to Attract More Tourists. Accessed 11.03.04. Xinhua.

·         Southwest Jiaotong University Qiang Workstation:   Accessed 12.05.04


Public Documents

Information Office of the State Council Of the People's Republic of China. September 1999, Beijing. National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China.


J’aurais êté shaman’ © Samarka Productions. 1998. Sichuan Television, Chengdu and F-Productions, Paris.




[1] For a bibliography of Qiang material see ‘The Qiang Nationality Language and Culture Web Site’ at:  (© 2001 Randy la Polla).

[2] All Chinese-English translations are by the author.

[3] As evidenced in Mohanty’s incisive discussion of the approach of some European feminist anthropologists hoping to liberate a composite ‘African woman’ (Mohanty, 1993).

[4] International Workshop on Regional Autonomy of Ethnic Minorities in Beijing, June 2001 (Shih 2002b).

[5] National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China, Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, September 1999, Beijing.

[6] Excerpts from Yang Ming Wei’s poem ‘I am Qiang’ in a magazine called Xi Qiang Wenhua (Culture of the Western Qiang).

[7] This is well illustrated in Jonathan Unger’s 1997 article, ‘Not Quite Han: The Ethnic Minorities of China’s Southwest.’

[8] Referred to as ‘duangong’ in standard Chinese, the Qiang religious figure has a variety of titles among the various Qiang dialects. Rather than use an English term such as priest or shaman, which carry presuppositions, I have used the Qiang term ‘Shibi’ throughout the dissertation.

[9] This article was accessed on-line and had no page numbers. See bibliography for details.

[10] This seems an unlikely theory. Wang (1999) attributes it to the diffusionism and evolutionism of the early twentieth century but it is part of an ongoing discourse as discussed in Tudor Parfitt’s The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2002.

[11] Si Ma Qian, known as the ‘Great Historian,’ 163-85 BC.

[12] Li Jin’s ‘A New Melody for the Qiang Flute’ (2001) is part of a series called ‘A 20th Century Record of China’s Ethnic Families,’ published by Yunnan University as an anthropological record of China’s minority groups.

[13] Email communication, 18.08.2004.

[14] In Chinese the word used for most Qiang villages is ‘zhaizi’ (寨子) which has the sense of a stockade, i.e. a village with defences.

[15] “J’aurais êté shaman” (I would have been a shaman). © Samarka Productions. 1998. Sichuan Television, Chengdu & F-Productions, Paris.

[16] ‘Protection of 2,000-year-old ethnic village improved’ Xinhua: 2003-06-26,  Accessed 9th March 2004.

[17] Since the earthquake in 2008 a complex of Qiang style guest houses has been built adjacent to the village. Visitors can visit the original village as a cultural and historical site but cannot stay there.

[18] ‘Sichuan Plans Huge Investment in Tourism Projects.’  Accessed 11.03.04.

[19] Although the Wenchuan-Chengdu road was severely damaged during the earthquake, the recovery project has included many improvements and 2½ hours from Chengdu is realistic on a good day.

[20] Rev T. Torrance. Unpublished personal travel diary, 1994.

[21] Personal correspondence, 5th May 2004.

[22] ‘More Chinese choose relaxing travel.’ Xinhuanet: 2002.07.24.  Accessed 11.03.04 via,

[23] Research in the Development of Minority Nationalities Autonomous Regions in Sichuan Province.

[24]Cultural Gallery of Ethnic Tibetan and Qiang” to Attract More Tourists. Accessed 11.03.04. Xinhua.

[25] Qiangzu Wenxue (Qiang Literature). 2002. Published by the Qiang Literature Editorial Department.

[26] Qiang New Year is on the first day of the tenth lunar month.

[27]Yi ge mei you wenhua de minzu shi meiyou xiwang de minzu.” (Gu, 2000:9). Although ‘wenhua’ translates directly as ‘culture’ the meaning is frequently ‘education’ as in this context.

[28] To protect privacy I have used pseudonyms for all personal contacts.

[29] Personal correspondence, 21.09.02.                                  

[31] Ibid.

[32] A joint project between Chengdu’s Southwest Minorities University and Yunnan's Minorities Institute. Graham (1958) also includes transcriptions of Shibi oral scriptures.

[33] In 1941, Graham found extremely high infant mortality among the Qiang (1958:40).

[34] See note 12.

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