The Qiang people are a quite interesting and culturally distinct Tibetan ethnic minority group in the mountains north of Chengdu in Sichuan Province. There is a population of about 326,500, and most live in and around the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
One of the things that is interesting and strange about them is that though they are categorized and thought of as a people group, from village to village and from valley to valley, the costumes and languages are strikingly different when examined closely.
They live in a beautiful area in high mountains near Juizhaigou Park, have a strange history, and lived isolated in the mountains for thousands of years.
Where the Qiang Live in China
The Qiang live in the mountainous region north of Chengdu in Sichuan Province. They live mainly in the upper river valleys and mountains of the Min River in towns and villages. This is a circular region with Wenchuan on the southern boundary, Lixian and Heishui on the eastern boundary, Songpan on the northern tip, Pingwu on the northeast, and Beichuan in the southeast. The town of Maoxian is in the middle of this region.
Forced to travel to work and survive, many moved out of this region. Some live in other provinces such as Yunnan, Gansu, and Guizhou Province
The Main Qiang Homeland
The area of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang County, Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, and the upper valley area of the Minjiang River has the largest concentration of Qiang people where more than 300,000 of them live.
This area includes the Huanglong National Park and Jiuzhaigou National Park area and other scenic valleys to the east of these.
For Distinctive Cultures — Seek Out the Remote and Traditional Qiang People
The most distinctive Qiang are those who were in the most remote valleys of the past such as those who live in Taoping Village. These were the less assimilated or affected by Han and Tibetan influence.
Until recently, the areas around the Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong valleys were among the most isolated of the Qiang areas. It was in places like this that the culture of the people remained the most distinctive and different, perhaps more central Asian.
However, this area was discovered to be extremely beautiful, and it has been opened up to international tourism since the 1970s.
Linguists have a difficult time explaining how the Qiang dialects originated. The Qiang are better thought of as an amalgamation of descendants of ancient peoples living in the same area rather than as one ethnic group because the languages and cultures are so diverse and distinctive. From village to adjacent village and from valley to valley, the people might not understand each other at all if they speak their native language. So people will communicate in Tibetan or Mandarin instead.
There are two main language groups called Northern Qiang and Southern Qiang. The Northern Qiang languages are not tonal, but Southern Qiang languages consist of between two to six tones. Many northern Qiang from contact or assimilation are bilingual in Tibetan, while most living near the Chinese towns such as Pingwu are able to speak Chinese. Many speakers of Northern Qiang dialects are considered Tibetan by official classification.
Sun Hongkai in his book on Qiang in 1981 divides Northern Qiang into the following dialects: Luhua, Mawo, Zhimulin, Weigu, and Yadu. These dialects are located in Heishui County as well as the northern part of Mao County. The Luhua, Mawo, Zhimulin, and Weigu varieties of Northern Qiang are spoken by the Heishui Tibetans. The Mawo dialect is considered to be the prestige dialect by the Heishui Tibetans.
Qiang Origins and History
The Qiang have an ancient history because the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) oracle bones mention Qiang people. The word seems to have been a generic term for people or peoples to the west of the Shang who raised sheep. The word Qiang means "shepherds." However, as far as known, the Qiang people never had a written language to record their own history.
The Qiang's Mysterious Ancient Origins
Chinese believe, according to their ancient records, that the ancestors of the Qiang people were the "Qiang" people who lived in western China 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. The Shang Dynasty-era oracle bone inscriptions are East Asia's first known historical writings.
It is thought that a group or groups of them moved into Sichuan. They were on the peripheries of the expanding and warring Tibetan and Han empires for hundreds of years. Those nearer the Tibetans were assimilated or adopted more of Tibetan language, religion and culture. Those nearer the Han empires were assimilated and became more like the Han people.
However, a minority isolated in the high mountains of the Min River headwaters retained more of their ancestral religion, language and culture. In this way, they can be thought of as living museums of ancient Himalayan and Central Asian culture.
In many of the villages, the people continued to raise sheep for example. Their housing styles, religions, and culture are unlike of the Han people or the Tibetans.
The Yi, Bai and Naxi people of Yunnan and other areas are related with the Qiang in Sichuan. Their Qiang ancestors also moved eastwards to settle in warm lowlands.
Qiang History During the Imperial Age
During the Tang Dynasty (618–907) era, the Tibetan regime gradually expanded its reign to Qiang territory. Some of the Qiang were assimilated by the Tibetans, and others were assimilated by the Han. This left only a small remainder of Qiang to develop into the distinctive ethnic grouping that still exists today.
Since the Qiang didn't have their own writings, little is known about the history of the people in the various remote villages during the imperial eras. Their legends are somewhat fantastic. For example, some villages have small piles of white rocks around them. The legend is that several hundred years ago, their ancestors defeated another tribe that attacked them by surprise. Though caught unprepared, they destroyed the enemy tribe by using branches and stones.
Devastated by the 2008 Earthquake
An 8.0 earthquake on 12th May 2008 hit in the area inhabited by the Qiang, and its impact was devastating. It is thought that about 10 percent of the Qiang, about 30,000 people, were killed. The Wenchuan Earthquake Museum in the Qiang region is a place you can go to learn about it.
There was another, smaller, 7.0 Jiuzhaigou earthquake in the western part of the Qiang region in 2017. But there was little loss of life. The side valleys and Huanglong Valley were little affected, but Jiuzhaigou was severely affected, and it closed.
Tourism dropped markedly to the whole region. As of the summer of 2019, some parts of the park are still under construction or closed
Qiang Food and Dining
Millet, highland barley, potatoes, winter wheat and buckwheat were the traditional staple food of many of the Qiang. Living in their high and remote valleys, they had a self-sufficient way of life. Wine and smoking of orchid leaves (and now tobacco) are also popular among some of the Qiangs.
A Simple Qiang Dining Custom
Many of the Qiang eat tortilla-like bread made of wheat called sanchuisanda. This means "three blows with the mouth, and three hits with the hand." The bread is made of wheat flour and is baked in hot ashes. But since the loaf is covered with ashes, to shake off the ashes, one needs to blow on it and pat it two or three times before eating it.
Though clothing styles differed a lot, many men and women wore gowns made of gunny cloth and cotton with sleeveless wool jackets. Many women laced their clothing with collars decorated with plum-shaped silver ornaments.
Some wore sharp-pointed and embroidered shoes, embroidered girdles and earrings, neck rings, hairpins and silver badges. Nowadays, men who ride horses wear pants and hats to protect themselves from the sun.
Most of the clothing that they wore was made of cotton, silk, sheep fur, ox fur, and flax. Nowadays, however, the most of the Qiang wear modern and cheap Chinese-made clothes daily.
Qiang Customs and Traditions
Customs and traditions vary a lot, but some traditions of some of the villagers are described here.
One of the most interesting customs involves a ceremony when a boy becomes 15 years old. The Qiang villagers sit around a fire while the boy kowtows to a picture of their ancestor. Kowtow is a term that was borrowed from Mandarin Chinese for kneeling and bowing to touch one's head to the ground. They boy is then presented with an amulet to signify that he has become a man.
The Qiang people have many forms of memorials for their deceased. Besides cremation, they have performed sky burials, cliff burials, and regular ground burials. To perform a sky burial, the body must be scalped, cut up, and pounded into several pieces. Once this is completed, the priest lights an incense to release the spirit into the air. The body is left behind.
The various Qiang people have three main kinds of religions. Most follow Tibetan, Buddhist, and Han religions. These people have a multitude of idols and gods of those religions. However, the people of the most isolated valleys may have retained more of the Central Asian original beliefs.
These Qiang use white stones to represent the Supreme Being. Some put these white stones on their roofs for good luck.
Some Qiang might chant to a god called the 'supreme god of heaven'. In other areas, the people believe in a mountain god that represents the supreme god.
Many of the more traditional Qiang still live in stone structures. The size and designs vary from area to area. Most people live in one-story stone homes. Some live in two or three story structures that accommodate larger families.
In larger structures consisting of two to three stories, the first floor is used for keeping livestock and poultry, the second floor is the living quarters, and the third floor might be used to store grain or other things.
Many Qiang built their villages as fortresses of about 40 households. Taoping Village one of the bigger ones and is visited by tourists. It is an example of a village built like a fortress, and the style is reminiscent of central or western Asia. It has a complicated internal street and aqueduct structure that was meant to defeat attacks.
The striking towers were posts for surveillance and observation and allowed men to shoot at attackers. The towers range from a few meters high to tens of meters high, and the sides are shaped as tetragons, hexagons or octagons. They were designed soundly and built solidly, so they are still in good condition after many earthquakes.
The oldest building in the village has a history of 2,000 years. It is constructed of yellow mud and stones. It shows skill in the arts of math, geometry and mechanics and shows something of the ancient culture of the original Qiang people who perhaps were Central Asian.
The Qiang people are known to be good dancers and singers. They celebrate their customs and religions by holding various festivals such as the Sacrificial Rite to the Holy Mountain and the Qiang Nian Festival.
The Sacrificial Rite to the Holy Mountain happens in late winter or spring. Some Qiang pray to their gods for good weather to make their crops grow.
The Qiang Nian Festival happens on the first of the tenth month of the Chinese calendar year (late October or November). It involves giving thanks to their gods for providing a good harvest.
Women are not allowed to attend the Jishanhui Festival. Men sacrifice a cow or sheep on an altar to the god of the Mountains. They ask for a good harvest and peace for the village.
How to Visit the Qiang Region with Us
Many minority villages that are located in remote high valleys and mountainsides where some Qiang have retained their traditional cultures and lifestyles. Sichuan had for centuries remained isolated in the mountains, so the native people are still quite traditional compared to many other ethnic minorities. Some don't speak Mandarin well. But they are difficult places to access on your own.
So we suggest our private tour drivers and vehicles can be a big help. In the Qiang areas, there are also other ethnic groups to see, so having a knowledgeable local guide and interpreter is important for helping you find the best places such as at Taoping Village.
It is important to have local expert guide with local contacts and knowledge of the area and a driver. We can take you to visit with families and arrange accommodation. Our expert guides can translate for you too.
Here are sample itineraries for touring in ethnic minority areas of southern China. We can modify these so you can visit the Qiang and go to the regions that interest you the most.