When the Qiang Ethnic Group of Sichuan Walked Away from the Rubble of the Earthquake, They Bade Goodbye to Age-old Traditions


â—‹ Following the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, some villages of the Qiang ethnic group in the mountains of Sichuan province were destroyed

â—‹ Some members of the Qiang ethnic group, who for centuries have lived a traditional way of life of farming and grazing, have been forced to move to a new place, where they no longer live off the land and have to resort to tourism to earn money

â—‹ Even if their living conditions are now much better, with running water and electricity, some fear losing their traditional culture

Two people of the Qiang ethnic group walk in their isolated village in the mountains. Photo: Li Hao / GT

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When the sun is hot, Yang Shuisheng, 78, sits on a stone near his new home in Mucun Village in Qionglai, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, sometimes for hours, watching just off.

Mucun Village, which consists of 249 people of the Qiang ethnicity, is just a two-hour drive from the provincial capital of Chengdu and has been transformed into a resort town.

Rows of two-story houses bearing the symbol of a goat’s head – the totem pole of the Qiang ethnic group – stand side by side, ready to welcome tourists. Next to the front door is a stone tablet with the words “Memorial of May 12 Relocation” on it.

Yang is the shibi (sorcerer) of this particular Qiang tribe, who lived 300 kilometers away in Xige Village, Wenchuan County, on top of a mountain 3000 meters above sea level. On May 12, 2008, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Wenchuan, killing more than 80,000 people in Sichuan Province.

A year after the earthquake, the villagers of Xige moved to Qionglai, abandoning their 300-year-old house. Most of their homes were reduced to rubble during the natural disaster and they could no longer maintain their traditional, isolated way of life.

For the first time in their lives, they had gas stoves, flush toilets and, most surprisingly, tourism. But some, like Yang, mourn their past way of life and fear the loss of their ancient customs and traditions.

An old man stands in front of the 512 Resettlement Memorial in Qionglai New Village. Photo: Li Hao / GT

Encountered resistance

Yang Decheng, the former party secretary of the village, still cries as he remembers the day of the earthquake 10 years ago.

He was visiting another village when the ground started to shake and he “couldn’t see anything”. When he pulled himself together, he found that almost all the houses around him had fallen.

In the days following the earthquake, the villagers wanted to rebuild their house. But that soon turned out to be impossible, as the earthquake had also destroyed roads and loosened the earth.

In 2009, Yang and his successor, Chen Yongquan, heard about a government program granting land to quake-stricken rural villagers who could not rebuild their homes. They wondered if they should migrate, an idea that immediately met resistance from the elderly in the village.

The Qiang are an ancient ethnic group dating from before the first Chinese dynasty. Currently, there are around 300,000 Qiang in the mountains of southwest China, where they lead a traditional agricultural way of life. The ancestors of Xige village settled there 300 years ago, fleeing the war. Researchers say the tribe and its culture were well preserved.

Earlier this week, this Global Times reporter followed Yang to Xige, climbing a three-hour walk along a dirt road that meandered uphill.

Wang Longquan’s house is at the end of this road, at the top of a steppe decorated with dandelions. Her house has no electricity and no cell phone reception. He and his wife Yang Cuiyun drink water from a nearby stream and burn wood collected from the forest for heating and cooking. Like others, they have land to grow corn for their own consumption. They returned to live in Xige in order to earn money by digging and selling chongcao (caterpillar fungus). They usually leave early in the morning and walk for five hours in the depths of the forests; sometimes they walk all day without finding a single one.

Just like Wang, in 2009, many residents wanted to return to their old way of life. But Chen, the village Party secretary, went from house to house, convincing people to move.

“We almost broke into fights. Some of them even pulled out their knives,” Chen said. “The Qiang people are traditionally fierce and used to fight back in the old days.”

On May 8, 2009, the villagers were packed and ready to move. Most of the villagers had sold their cattle and bagged only their most valuable possessions, such as clothes, blankets and pots. Most were silent as they walked in single file down the descent.

“We all knew life would be easier once we moved, but we were doing really well in the past as well,” Yang said. “Who wants to leave their hometown if they have a choice? ”

Wang Longquan and his wife show the caterpillar fungus they are digging in the mountains. Photo: Li Hao / GT

Forced to modernize

Life in the new village turned out to be even more difficult.

At first, the villagers wanted to grow potatoes and corn, as before. But it rained frequently in the new region and their crops rotted in the water. The villagers no longer had the vast land they enjoyed in the mountains and could no longer raise cattle. They were forced to live on government allowances.

Chen then thinks about the development of tourism. He applied for funding from the Chengdu government to remodel their homes in the stony Qiang style. Villagers cook vegetables from the vegetable garden for tourists and run guozhuang, a traditional ethnic dance square around a bonfire on weekends.

Last year, the 68 families in the village earned about 2 million yuan ($ 314,539) from tourism, or about 30,000 yuan per family. Not much, but better than the average 10,000 yuan per family they used to earn by digging weeds.

Chen also experienced personal changes. Back in Xige, he only had a few conferences a year and never bothered with paperwork. Now he has to write reports, speak the official lingo and sit in an office.

Above all, he must constantly teach the villagers new things. He was the first to renovate his house and the first to use the WeChat instant messaging app. He taught villagers how to create an account and QR code to receive digital payments from tourists with smartphones. But he still has a lot of worries on his mind.

“At the moment we still cannot receive large numbers of tourists and we need more publicity,” he said.

Last week, when the Global Times reporter visited the new village, a few tourists were also there. One of them said that she came to see and learn about some Qiang ethnic traditions, but that there were not enough activities for her to stay overnight.

Lose the tradition

Shibi Yang Shuisheng was among the last to leave Xige.

In 2009, he emigrated with others to the new village, but only stayed there a few months before insisting on returning to his stone house. Last winter, while chopping firewood in the mountains, he slipped in the snow and fell. His children came and took him to the hospital. Subsequently, he settled permanently in the new village.

The shibi is at the center of Qiang culture. These wizards perform traditional ceremonies and dances on special occasions, such as during the Qiang New Year, which falls on October 1 of the lunar calendar. In addition, since the Qiang people do not have a written language, many shibi memorized epic poems that tell the story of the Qiang, an achievement some compare to that of Homer.

Yang is small and wobbly. His face was warped by a bear slap when he was young, leaving him only half a nose. However, the scar made him more believable as shibi, as the Qiang believe, those with great powers must suffer loss, whether in health or in body. He was revered for his extensive knowledge of indigenous rituals.

But everything changed after their move. Today, Yang is just another old man sitting with his arms crossed on his doorstep. Few ask him more to do traditional ceremonies.

“When people pass away, with a simple phone call, the funeral home will pick up the body,” Chen said. “Some old people are afraid of being cremated, but there is nothing we can do because the city government will not allow burials and our ancestral cemetery is located in the mountains.”

In the past, when someone died, the shibi would host the ceremony. They knew what the deceased should wear, what to say to calm the spirits and which paths to take to get to the cemetery. “Now there is no use for shibi“Chen said.

Many young villagers move to neighboring towns to work, abandoning their heritage and traditions. Yang is a teacher without a pupil. “After me, there will be no one left,” Yang said.

He had put away his ritual cap and his goatskin drum. When asked by the Global Times reporter if he could show these instruments, he simply replied, “They are at home.

Chen admits there are advantages. He appreciates the possibility of better education for young people. Chen himself had only graduated from elementary school, which made him the most literate of the villagers. Since their move, many local children have completed high school and a few have been admitted to colleges this year.

In their free time, some villagers debate which is best, Xige or the new village. Yang Li, a woman in her thirties, told the Global Times that she did not want to go back to her old way of life. “The roads are better here and welcoming tourists is easier. Before, I had to walk around for hours digging yams and herbs.

The earthquake also changed things for us. During his visit to Xige, the Global Times reporter saw some plots of land cleared to build new houses. Yang Decheng said business developers from Chengdu visited the area.

Yang Decheng spoke about it with a down-to-earth tone, showing no preference anyway. But one thing is certain: without the 2008 earthquake, no one would have left Xige. They would still live the isolated traditional way of life that they had followed for centuries.

“The developers would never have found out about us, if we hadn’t moved,” he said.

Journal title: Out of the mountains


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