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A Disappearing Culture

"We lost 805 items of Qiang cultural relics in the earthquake," Gao Zeyou, Director of Beichuan Qiang Folk Museum told Beijing Review. "Almost all the museums in Beichuan County were destroyed and all the items in the Qiang Folk Museum were damaged. The destruction has been ruinous."

The history of the Qiang ethnic group can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.-1046 B.C.). According to China's census of 2000, there were 306,000 Qiang people, living mainly in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Nationality Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. Beichuan, one of the counties in the prefecture, has a history of 1,400 years, and has long been a gathering place for the Qiang people. It is now the only Qiang Autonomous County of China. Among the 169,000 inhabitants of Beichuan, 60 percent are Qiang people. In the earthquake, around 30,000 Qiang people lost their lives.

Unique characteristics

The Qiang people have a rich culture. Their homes, clothes, food, music, dance and language all have unique characteristics.

"The Qiang flute needn't play the melody of the weeping willow, for the Yumen Pass shut out the vernal wind below." This ancient poem, usually accompanied by Qiang flute, is well known across China. The flute is difficult to play and few have mastered it.


The Qiang folk song and drum are also specific to their culture, and gradually disappearing as younger generations look to more modern forms of music. The earthquake claimed the lives of a number of Qiang flute players, drummers and folk singers.

The Qiang language has no written form, so customs can only be passed down by word of mouth or demonstration. A number of Qiang elders, renowned for their cultural knowledge, were killed in the earthquake. "There were more than 10 Qiang elders in Wenchuan County, the epicenter of the quake, who knew a lot of things about Qiang culture and history. They are regarded as walking history books of the Qiang nationality. However, several of them were killed by the earthquake," said Hou Bin, a professor at Southwest University of Nationalities.

The Qiang villages are usually built on mountains, a fact that has earned them the name "villages in the clouds." Traditionally they had watchtowers, or Qiong Long, that looked out over the surrounding terrain. Qiang people have a history of building watchtowers for more than 2,000 years. But the earthquake destroyed several of their watchtowers, and left others severely damaged with badly cracked walls.

While the earthquake has drawn extra attention to the protection of Qiang culture, it has in fact been an issue in China for some time. Last year the government of Mianyang City, Sichuan Province, allocated 100,000 yuan (some $14,500) for the collection of Qiang cultural relics. "Nobody could have imagined that this collection would just lead to more relics being destroyed by the earthquake," said Gao.

After the earthquake, many Qiang people lost their homes and had to leave their villages. For a lot of the survivors, it was the first time they had seen the outside world. "Since Beichuan was totally destroyed, Qiang people have had to find other places to build new houses. This might separate the Qiang people into many places, and add difficulty to the passing on of Qiang culture," said Gao.

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