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September 7, 2014

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Qiang among China’s ancients

RECORDS of strength and bravery carved onto bones and tortoise shells provide insights into an ancient nomadic people in western China called “Qiang,” who have inhabited the area for more than 3,000 years.

While some Qiang people were long ago merged into or greatly influenced by the majority Han people, most still keep much of their own culture and characteristics today.

As one of the oldest nations in western China, part of the Qiang people’s ancestry came from the famous Yan Emperor. Some 5,000 years ago, the Yan Emperor and his tribe were defeated by the Yellow Emperor. Most of his people were integrated with that of the Yellow Emperor and formed into a new nationality named Huaxia. The rest moved west or south and became the ancestors of Tibetan, Yi and Qiang ethnic groups.

Qiang have their own language, which belongs to the Qiang language branch of the Tibetan-Myanmese language family of the Sino-Tibetan system. There are generally two types of dialects — northern and southern. Like other dialects in China, Qiang don’t have a written script of their own but have long used Chinese as the written form. Even though an alphabetic writing system was created for the Qiang in 1958, many Qiang people today still use Chinese.

With a population of 309,576 in 2010, most Qiang people live in mountainous regions in the northwestern part of Sichuan Province including Maoxian, Wenchuan, Lixian, Beichuan and Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. A small number of Qiang dwell in Guizhou, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.

Qiang country at the east of the Tibetan Plateau is rich in mountains and canyons. The Mingjiang River, as the mother river of the Qiang, provides hydropower.

The area abounds in Chinese prickly ashes, walnuts, tea trees and lacquer trees as well as Chinese caterpillar fungus, bulb of fritillary, antlers and musk, which are used as medicine.

Corn, potato, wheat and highland barley are the Qiang’s staple food accompanied by buckwheat and beans. The Qiang also eat vegetables like rapeseed, cabbage, and Chinese cabbage.

Mianzhenzhen, made from maize flour, is a popular cuisine among the Qiang. It is a kind of grainy pasta made of maize powder. Some Qiang people tend to mix maize flour with rice for steaming. That is usually called jinguoyin or yinguojin.

Unique in style, the ethnic group’s zajiu wine is made of buckwheat, wheat, barley or maize, fermented. It has a history of over 1,000 years and many customs to go with it. The wine is a necessary presence at big events and there is a fixed ceremony for drinking: A toastmaster, who is of noble character and high prestige, makes a speech for the wine and offers a little wine as a sacrifice to Heaven, Earth and spirits. Then he inserts a pipet into the wine jug and people suck out the wine in order of age, singing, dancing and enjoying themselves.

Most Qiang people live in granite houses two or three stories tall. Because of complex terrain, the Qiang created rope bridges and built roads between caves or along cliffs to facilitate transportation. Watchtowers were constructed for defending against enemies and storing foods. The Dujiangyan irrigation system was devised more than 2,000 years ago and remains in use today.

The Qiang today wear mostly traditional clothes. The men usually wear long blue gowns with buttons down the front right. With sleeveless and collarless woolen jackets, the Qiang men have their heads covered by black scarves, legs banded with puttees and waists bound with cotton-hemp belts.

The Qiang women generally wear bright-colored clothes. Their traditional clothes are usually composed of embroidered long garments, embroidered aprons and ribbons. They also wear black or white scarves. The Qiang women are fond of ornaments like silver badges, ornaments for collar, bracelets, rings and earrings.

Qiang embroidery, with its own characteristics in pattern and skill, is among the best-known in China.

Most Qiang retain their original polytheist religion and believe in animism. In their tradition, white stones and fir trees are representatives of gods. White means fair and rational while black means immoral. They often put spirit tablets made of white stones on rooftops to fight against evil.

Their unsophisticated music is based on just five or six notes. Multiple voices is one of its unique characteristics. Similarly, Qiang dance retains its primitive, earthy style. They dance mostly in religious activities accompanied by a sheepskin drum and handbells to satisfy ancestors or entertain themselves. The dance can be divided into four types: for entertainment, sacrifice, etiquette or meetings.

Rrmeajjea is a Qiang religious festival that falls on the first day of the 10th month in the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. It usually lasts for three to five days. On that day, people offer sacrifice to the gods, celebrate the harvest and express their gratitude. They are costumed for a reunion dinner on the day, drink zajiu wine and perform an old cheerful dance called shaolang.

Another grand festival is called jishanhui (sacrificing mountain gathering). It is celebrated on different days in different regions. People insert cedar twigs on the roof and hang paper-cuts from them, and donate sacrifice to the gods. Wizards will also be invited to play the sheepskin drum and sing national epic tunes.


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