One of China's oldest ethnic groups, the Qiang people live on Minshan Mountain, near the Minjiang River in southwest China's Sichuan Province. Their high-altitude lifestyle earned them the nickname "cloud dwellers." Both the homeland and the unique culture of the Qiang people were seriously damaged by the devastating earthquake on May 12, 2008. Many ancient stone towers and homes were destroyed. Their numbers already dwindling, some elder Qiang cultural inheritors died in the earthquake.
"Although we have already moved into the new homes, we still miss our old village," said Wang Mingquan, a 76-year-old Qiang inhabitant of Luobozhai Village and village shaman. "Our souls are there."
A crucial issue for the local government is how to protect Qiang culture and pass it on to the coming generations following the reconstruction. Beijing Review reporter Xu Bei explored three Qiang villages at the time of the 3rd anniversary of the earthquake in Wenchuan.
Reinventing Qiang Architecture
Villagers moved into the newly built Luobozhai Village with the help of Jiangmen Construction Co. from south China's Guangdong Province. According to village head Ma Qianguo, new buildings feature reinforced concrete structures coated with yellow mud, maintaining the appearance of Qiang architectural style only superficially.
"Despite the upgraded living standards, villagers still cling to the memory of their old village," Ma said.
The stockaded houses and yards of the old village were closely linked by a complex network of crisscrossing passageways, not unlike an ancient castle. Although the new village mimics the fortified appearance of the original, it lacks the socially integrative properties of authentic Qiang architecture; households once intimately connected are now isolated.
Fortunately, the local government has included linked-lane architecture within the realm of relic protection, allocating funds for the repair of the previous site.
As the yellow-mud-made buildings are sentitive to humid weather conditions, April and September are the best times to repair the old village.
Villagers will be allowed to move back to their old houses once repairs are complete.
"This is a better way to protect Qiang culture, since the culture needs people to inherit it, so as to prevent its disappearance under the strong influence of modern civilization," said Yang Guoqing, deputy director of the Bureau of Arts and Sports of the Wenchuan County.
Qiang-style dwellings in Wenchuan feature varieties of materials, appearance and style. For example, a Qiang village in Longxi Township near Luobo is made of carved stone and yellow mud. The soil-and-stone residences are typically square, flat-roofed buildings three stories tall. The first floor is for keeping livestock; the second floor typically contains the bedroom, living room, and kitchen; and the third is used for storing grain and other sundries. Grains are dried on the roofs, which can also serve as a "white stone" shrine; ever since migrating to Sichuan from the Tibetan Plateau, Qiang people have venerated white stones as sacred tokens marking the path back to their previous homeland.
Now, life has returned to the way it once was for Wang Zhenzhi, an 83-year old Qiang woman lives with four generations under one roof. The local government allocated 20,000 yuan ($2,942) to repair her house.
A cultural center
The Wenchuan County Government will establish the Longxi Qiang People Valley as a center of Qiang cultural preservation, said Yang. A statue of a shibi, or Qiang shaman, will be built at the entrance of the Qiang People Valley. In addition, a 300-square-meter folk museum will showcase Qiang dwellings, culture and customs.
In addition to protection of Qiang culture, Qiang Valley is expected to create business opportunities.
"Longxi Township, not suitable for manufacturing, has certain advantages for developing tourism," said Xu Xueshu, a research fellow with the Bashu Culture Research Center under the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences. "Tourism will preserve the inheritance of Qiang culture," Xu added.
The elders' worries
Protection of intangible aspects of Qiang culture, such as shamanism, embroidery techniques and sheepskin drum dances, should be regarded as important as the protection of tangible Qiang culture, said Yang. "Protection of key inheritors and places are keys to protecting Qiang culture," Yang said.
Village elders are particularly worried that the shibi shamanistic tradition will not be passed on.
The Qiang revere shibi most highly of all, for they are wise in the ways of ghosts and gods. They also perform exorcisms and make sacrifices to the mountains, which themselves are considered divine to the Qiang.
"The shibi oral tradition was inherited by passing songs from generation to generation," said Wang Zhisheng, a shibi from Qiangfeng Village in Mianchi Township.
According to Wang, the numbers of shibi are dwindling, especially in the 21st century, as young people show decreasing interest in traditional culture. "After my generation passes away, our descendants might only see shibi culture in textbooks and museums," Wang said.
"Learning to be a shibi requires time to study and a place to practice, but my three disciples have to do a lot of other jobs to support their families," said Wang Mingquan, a shibi in Luobozhai Village. To make a living, they have to give up shibi cultural learning and focus on a vocation or leave their villages to become migrant workers.
Wang suggested that the Central Government should invest in shibi culture.
Modernization and urbanization marginalized Qiang culture years prior to the earthquake.
As most schools in old villages were destroyed amid the quake, local were forced to attend boarding schools in other (Han majority) counties. That means their only contact with authentic Qiang culture was on their weekend visits home.
"Once they get used to the outside world and accustomed to mainstream culture, local culture will gradually fade from their minds," said Yang.
"Although the establishment of the Qiang Valley creates a sound environment to protect the Qiang culture, villagers need to realize the value of their history and culture." Yang said.
(Reporting from Wenchuan County)