Population and Distribution
The Qiang ethnic group is one of the oldest tribes in China, and mostly inhabits hilly to mountainous areas of the Maowen County in the Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in western Sichuan Province. They have a population of 306,072 (in 2000); a small number lives with the Tibetan, Han and Hui ethnic groups in the Wenchan, Li, Songpan, Heishui counties and Danba area in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
'Qiang' was a name given by ancient Hans to the nomadic people in west China. The ancient Qiangs were not a single distinctive ethnic group. According to historical records, a clan group made their homes in what are today's Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces.
The Qiang people call themselves Erma. Some inscriptions on tortoise shells, dating back 3,000 years ago, show that the ancestors of the Qiang people were already very active in the northwest and central plains of China during the Shang Dynasty (16 - 11 BC). At the end of the 4th century BC, some of the Qiangs began to move southwest and northwest. Some of them migrated to districts near the Dadu, Anning and the upper reaches of the Minjiang River while some have settled in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
During the western Han Dynasty when Emperor Wu was in power, an administrative prefecture was established in the Hexi Corridor. Some lived in this area then gradually moved into the inland provinces, living together with the Han people. During 600-900 A.D. when the Tibetan Regime gradually expanded its rule over the region, some were assimilated by the Tibetans and others by the Hans. A small Qiang group remained indigenous which developed into the distinctive ethnic group of today.
The Qiang and Han peoples have had time-honored close political, economic and cultural ties. Administratively, Han courts from the Qin, Han, Sui and Tang dynasties down to the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) all had political units in the Qiang-occupied areas. In the early Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), the system of appointing local hereditary headmen by the central authority to rule over the Qiangs gave way to officials dispatched from the court. The central administrative system helped enhance the ties between the Qiang and Han ethnic groups. With their horses, medicinal herbs and other native produce, they used to barter farm implements and daily necessities from the Hans. Mutual support and help stimulated the social and economic development of Qiang society.
For a long period before China's national liberation in 1949, they lived in primitive conditions marked by slash and burn farming. A feudal landlord economy dominated production. Landlords and rich peasants, who accounted for only 8 per cent of the population, were in possession of 43 percent of the cultivated land. Poor peasants and hired farm hands, accounting for 43 per cent of the population, had only 16 percent of the land. Many poor peasants lost their land due to heavy rent coupled with usury. They became hired laborers, wandering from place to place to make a living.
The language of the Qiang people consists of a northern and southern dialect. The dialects used by those who belong to the Tibeto-Burman group are classified under the Qiang branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Owing to their close contact with the Han people, many Qiangs speak Chinese. They have no written scripts and Han characters are in common use.
Most Qiangs were believers of Animism, except for those who lived near Tibetan communities and were followers of Lamaism. They worshipped white stones placed on roofs as the 'Heavenly God'. Also, they practice polytheism and totemism. They worship their ancestors and nature. They believe that everything in the world has a soul.
The Qiangs mainly engage in agriculture which is complemented with stockbreeding, hunting and other economic activities. The area in which they live is blessed with a fertile land, mild climate and adequate rain, which provide a good natural condition for the development of agriculture. Major crops include millet, highland barley, potatoes, winter wheat and buckwheat.
This area also abounds in precious Chinese caterpillar fungus, bulb of fritillary, antlers, musk's and bear's gallbladders, which are used for medicine. In addition, rare animals such as giant pandas, golden monkeys and flying foxes can be found here. This area also possesses rich mineral deposits such as iron, coal, crystal, mica and plaster stone.
The Qiangs eat three meals per day. Rice, millet, highland barley, potatoes, winter wheat and buckwheat make up their staple food. Their usual vegetables include radish, cabbage, soybean, pepper and the like. Protein are from beef, veal, pork and chicken. They seldom eat fresh pork at ordinary times. They normally kill pigs for their New Year's Day celebration after midwinter. They cut the meat into pieces and dry it on a beam. They smoke the meat to make its color yellow. It is said that the longer the meat was kept, the more delicious it becomes. When serving, they cut the meat into small pieces and either fry or steam it with different kinds of vegetables. Pepper and spices are also added to enhance its flavor. It is greasy but quite tasty.
They all enjoy drinking homemade corn or barley wine regardless of age and gender. In the past, they often use orchid leaves for smoking. Today, most Qiangs prefer cigarettes.
The Qiang people usually build their villages on the flat areas half way up the mountain. The houses are connected by a long corridor and form a village. Their traditional houses, known as Zhuangfang, are square in shape with stone walls and flat roofs. It usually has two or three stories with the second floor serving as the living area for the family while the ground floor is used for storage and provides accommodation for the livestock. The third floor, if there is, can be used not only to dry and husk their cereals, but also gives room for old people to rest, children to play, and for women to do their knitting.
The most eye-catching architecture in the Qiang village is the tall upright blockhouse. It is usually built in front of a village. Due to the frequent conflicts that happened in their history, the Qiang villages all have blockhouses to defend themselves. This kind of blockhouse is tetragonal, hexagonal or octagonal in shape and is about thirty meters in height or about ten to fourteen stories. Built entirely of broken stones and yellow mud, many of the blockhouses today are as solid as when they were first built hundreds of years ago.
The Qiangs dress themselves simply but beautifully. Men and women alike wear blue gowns made of gunny cloth, cotton and silk with sleeveless sheep's wool jackets. They also bind their legs to wrap their heads with black or white turbans. Women's clothes are somewhat brighter. They are laced, with the collars decorated with plum-shaped silver ornaments. The women also wear sharp-pointed and embroidered shoes, embroidered girdles and earrings, neck rings, hairpins and silver badges.
Like other ethnic groups in China, they are fond of dancing and singing. Popular musical instruments include the Qiang flute, Sheepskin drum and Kouxian (a kind of stringed instrument made of bamboo).