Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
A Brief Introduction to the Qiang People

Demographic and Geographic Distribution
The Qiang people, numbering about 200,000, is distributed mainly in the southeastern region of Sichuan Province’s Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, namely the upper reaches of the Min River and nearby Wenchuan, Li, Mao, and Songpan counties. In addition, a portion of the population of Beichuan, which is located one mountain away from the Min River, has also been identified as Qiang.

Natural Environment and Resources
In this region, the edge of the Tibetan Plateau is cut through by the Min River, Jian River, and tributaries, forming tall mountains and deep valleys. Local Qiang people call such valleys “gou” in Mandarin, and their villages are located in each of these gou. There are less trees in Wenchuan and Mao due to excessive logging in recent years. Li, Heishui, and Songpan counties used to be well-known for rich forest resources, but these also have been rapidly shrinking in the past few years. In 1998, the Chinese government banned all logging activity in the upper-stream region of the Min River.

Undiminished forests are mainly found in mountainous areas with an altitude of 2,500 to 4,000 meters, and consist mainly of pine trees. Various types of fungi can be found growing at the foot of the pine trees. Besides timber and mushrooms, the entire mountainous area produces many medicinal plants, such as cordyceps, rhubarb, gastrodia, Notopterygii Rhizoma, and fritillary bulbs, etc. In the past, this region was also a paradise for wild animals such as giant pandas, golden monkeys, and wildebeests, which have been listed as Class 1 protected species, as well as three types of bears, two types of leopards, little pandas, leopard cats, roebucks, muntjacs, deer, wolves, dholes, and boars, etc. The numbers of these animals have greatly decreased due to over-hunting and poaching. Chickens, pheasants, and other types of wild fowl inhabit the fields, forests, and mountainous plains, and are often hunted by the local people.

Beyond the forest at altitudes of 3,500 to 4,000 meters are mild slopes that stretch close to the peak. During the winter, due to harsh, snowy conditions here, trees are sparse and scattered in small clumps. However, during the summer when sunshine and grass are plentiful, this region becomes a good place for grazing cattle and horses. The area below the forest, with altitudes of 2,000 to 3,000 meters, is often made into terrace fields for agriculture. The river dam near the valley provides better and wider farmland with more sun exposure. Here the altitude is around 1,000 to 2,500 meters, and because transportation is convenient, in recent years this area has become the main source of economic crops. Mao County and Wenchuan County are famous for high-quality apples, pears, plums, and chili peppers. On the one hand, the terrace fields, forests, and grasslands vertically distributed in the valleys provide abundant economic resources that satisfy the daily needs of the local people, allowing the “gou” to be a self-sustaining ecosystem. On the other hand, because each “gou” is separated by tall mountains and communication is limited, the villagers of each “gou” are considerably isolated. Only in recent years have the Qiang people from each area begun to be in more frequent contact with each other due to the development of roads along the valleys. Because of this, villagers are also able to export their farm and forest products to outside communities.

The geography of Beichuan is somewhat different than that of the upper-stream region of the Min River. Here the mountains are lower, and the forests are mainly mixed forests; only to the north, close to Songpan and Nanping, are there denser forests. Because this region is closer to where the Han people live, it was developed earlier than other regions. Local villagers rely almost entirely on agriculture for a living, besides occasionally gathering herbs or working part-time jobs outside of their village. However, compared to the upper-stream region of the Min River, this region interacts with the Chengdu Plain more intimately and frequently.

According to the research of linguists, the Qiang language belongs to the Tangut-Qiang languages of the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. The Sino-Tibetan family refers to the language group that is used by the Han Chinese, the Tibetans, and the ethnic minority groups in southern and southwestern China. The Tibeto-Burman family refers to the language group that includes specifically the languages that are used by Tibetans and the ethnic minority groups of southwest China. Tangut-Qiang languages are part of the Tibeto-Burman family, and they include the Qiang dialect as well as those such as rGyalrong, Ergong, Ersu, and Danba.

The Qiang language is divided into Northern Qiang and Southern Qiang, each consisting of five indigenous dialects. The southern Qiang dialects are: Dajishan, Torranceping, Longxi, Mianchi, and Heihu; the northern Qiang dialects are: Yadu, Weigu, Cimulin, Luhua, and Mawo. This internal categorization of Qiangic languages does not yet include the less distinct Qiangic dialects from areas such as Songpinggou, Niuyiba, Yangliugou, Shuangquangou, and Xiaoxinggou.

According to historians, the Qiang people is an ethnic group with a long history. The word “Qiang” is evidenced on the very ancient oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (second millenium B.C.), referring to the Shang people’s enemy in the west. There are many records of wars between the Shang and the Qiang. The Qiang people of that period are also said to be affiliated with the group of people in ancient Chinese history who were surnamed Jiang and were descendants of “Dayu” or Yandi, who both possessed the surname Jiang. Historians believed that they were an ancient ethnic group—the so-called “Shengnong group” or “Jiangyan group.” The “Jiangyan group” migrated from the west toward the east, where it met the “Huangdi group,” conflicted with it, and eventually merged with it. Furthermore, Great Yu, who was the founder of the first dynasty in Chinese history (Xia Dynasty, 2100-1600 B.C), was documented to be born in “West Qiang,” and therefore some scholars believe that the Xia people were in fact Qiang people.

The Zhou people were also closely linked to the Jiang clan and the Qiang people. According to ancient Chinese documentation, the female ancestor of the Zhou people was Jiang Yuan, although their surname was Ji. The Jiang clan and Qiang people participated in Zhou’s battle against Shang, and during Western Zhou, rulers would often marry women from the Jiang clan. Therefore, scholars believe that either the Qiang people or the Jiang clan was Zhou’s ally in the west, or the Ji clan was derived from the Jiang clan. After Zhou defeated Shang, the Jiang clan was rewarded with land in the east, which became the four states Shen, Lu, Qi, and Xu of the Western Zhou(1122-770 B.C.) and Spring and Autumn Period(770-476 B.C.). Members of the Jiang clan who remained in the Wei River region made up most of the state of Xishen, but later joined with Quanrong and rebelled against Zhou, forcing the Zhou king to retreat eastward, ending the Western Zhou period. Sub-groups of the Qiang that migrated eastward and gradually developed elements of civilization became a part of the huaxia Chinese, while those who remained in the west and north continued to be called Qiang or Rong. During the Warring States Period(476-221B.C.), many Rong people were persecuted by the huaxia Chinese and Qin people, and escaped westward. They later became the Xiqiang people who inhabited Gansu, Qinghai, the upper-stream region of the Yellow River, and the Huang (湟) River region during the Han Dynasty(206 B.C.-220 A.D.).

Due to military pressure from the Qin Dynasty(221-206 B.C.), the Qiang people in the latter two regions mentioned above continued their long-distance mass migration. Some of them, the Faqiang and Tangmao, went westward as far as beyond the upper reaches of the Yellow River and became the ancestors of Tibetans. Those who moved in the northwestern direction and arrived at the southern side of Tienshan Range in Xinjiang became known as Erqiang. Even larger numbers of Qiang people migrated southwest and settled down in the upper-stream region of the Min River. The Hehuangqiang inhabiting eastern Gansu and eastern Qinghai once created serious trouble for the rulers of the Han Dynasty. From the Han Dynasty to the Southern and Northern Dynasties(420-589 A.D.), the central government continuously allowed an influx of Qiang people, and while this policy resulted in some chaos, it also promoted the blending of ethnic groups. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the highly sinicized Yao, a Qiang sub-group from Nan’an, founded a Chinese-style bureaucracy known as the Later Qin.

According to scholars, the “Tufan” that appeared in the west during the Tang Dynasty(705-907 A.D.) got its name from “Faqiang.” The Supi, Yangtong, Dangxiang, Bairan, and Baigou people that it incorporated as its own were also recorded in ancient Chinese documents as members of the Qiang. Because the Tufan people are considered to be the direct ancestors of today’s Tibetans, the Qiang people are naturally considered ancestors of the Tibetans as well. In the late ninth century, the power of the Tufan was waning, and the Dangxiang Qiang gained power and founded the Western Xia kingdom. It was a kingdom modeled after the Tang and Song(960-1279 A.D.) systems, but was destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Since Tang and Song times, the Qiang people inhabiting the Wei River region in Shaanxi had been gradually assimilating into China, and the Qiang people living in the Gansu-Qinghai-Hehuang region and northwestern Sichuan had also merged with Hans, Mongolians, and Tibetans. Finally, during the Ming(1368-1644 A.D.) and Qing dynasties(1644-1911 A.D.), the only places where Qiang, Qiang fan, or Qiang min could be found were the upper reaches of the Min River and around the Beichuan region. Scholarly studies conducted since the first half of the twentieth century identified the “Qiang min” in Wenchuan County and Li County as members of the “Qiang ethnic group.” Later, during the process of ethnic identification, the Qiang people in locations such as Mao, Songpan, and Beichuan counties were also identified.

Cultural Characteristics
Qiang culture includes: the worship of white stones and holy forest, duangong (shaman) culture, the Sky God Abamubi, traditional Qiang clothing and accessories, forts, iron tripods, religious ceremonies for mountains, and gezhuang dance. A universal characteristic of Qiang women’s clothing is the brightly-colored long shirt worn by young women. The colors are mainly red, green, magenta, or sky blue, and a strip of embroidered cloth is added to the collar and edge of the sleeves. The villages in Wenchuan are famous for their exquisite embroidery, and the area was deemd “the home of the Chinese traditional folk art of Qiang embroidery” by the government in 1986.

Ethnic Holidays and Festivals
The Qiang Calendar Year
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