When Sichuan’s Qiang ethnic group moved away from earthquake rubble, they said goodbye to age-old traditions

By Zhang Yiqian in Qionglai Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/10 18:42:00

Life is much easier with new roads and smartphones, but village elders miss their wizards who take care of their souls

○ Following the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, a few ethnic Qiang villages in the mountains of Sichuan Province were destroyed

○ Some ethnic Qiang people, who lived a traditional farming and grazing lifestyle for centuries, were forced to move to a new location, where they no longer live off of the land and must resort to tourism for income

○ Even though their living conditions are now much better, complete with tap water and electricity, some worry they are losing their traditional culture

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

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When the sun is warm, 78-year-old Yang Shuisheng sits on a stone near his new home in Mucun village in Qionglai, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, sometimes for hours, just staring far off into the distance.

Mucun village, which consists of 249 ethnic Qiang people, is only two hours' drive from the provincial capital city of Chengdu and has been turned into a holiday resort.

Rows of two-story houses bearing the symbol of a goat's head - the totem of the ethnic Qiang people - stand side by side, ready to greet tourists. Next to the front gate sits a stone tablet bearing the words "Memorial of May 12 Relocation."

Yang is the shibi (wizard) of this particular Qiang tribe, who used to live 300 kilometers away in Xige village, Wenchuan county, atop a 3,000-meter-high mountain. On May 12, 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Wenchuan, claiming more than 80,000 lives in Sichuan province.

One year after the earthquake, the Xige villagers relocated to Qionglai, forsaking their 300-year-old home. Most of their houses were reduced to rubble in the natural disaster and they could no longer maintain their traditional secluded lifestyle.

For the first time in their lives, they had gas stoves, flushing toilets and, most startling, tourism. But some, such as Yang, mourn for their past lifestyle and fear the loss of their ancient customs and traditions.

An old man stands in front of the 512 relocation memorial at the new village in Qionglai. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Met with resistance

Yang Decheng, the village's former Party secretary, still tears up when he reminisces about the day of the earthquake 10 years ago.

He was visiting another village when the ground began shaking and he "couldn't see a thing." When he pulled himself together, he found that almost all of the houses around him had fallen down.

In the days following the quake, the villagers wanted to rebuild their home. But it soon proved 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 earthquake-struck rural villagers who could not rebuild their homes. They pondered whether to migrate, an idea that was instantly met with resistance from the elderly in the village.

Qiang is an ancient ethnicity dating back to before China's first dynasty. Presently, there are about 300,000 Qiang people in the mountains of Southwest China, where they lead a traditional agricultural lifestyle. Xige village ancestors settled there 300 years ago, escaping from warfare. Researchers say the tribe and its culture were well-preserved.

Earlier this week, this Global Times reporter followed Yang to Xige, climbing three hours on foot along a dirt road that wound snake-like uphill. 

Wang Longquan's home sits at the end of that road, atop a steppe decorated with dandelions. His home has no electricity and no mobile phone reception. He and his wife Yang Cuiyun drink water from a nearby creek and burn wood gathered from the forest for heating and cooking. Like others, they have some land to grow corn for their own consumption. They returned to live in Xige in order to make some money digging and selling chongcao (caterpillar fungus). They usually leave early in the morning and walk five hours deep into the forests; sometimes they walk all day without finding a single one.

Just like Wang, back in 2009, many locals wanted to resume their old lifestyles. But Chen, the village Party secretary, went from house to house, convincing people to move.

"We almost broke out into fights. Some of them even took out their knives," Chen said. "The Qiang people are traditionally fierce and were used to fighting back in the old days."

On May 8, 2009, the villagers were packed and ready to move. Most villagers had sold their livestock, bagged only their most valuable possessions, such as clothes, blankets and pots. Most were silent as they walked in a single-file line downhill. 

"We all knew life would be easier once we moved, but we also got by just fine in the past," Yang said. "Who wants to leave his hometown if he has a choice?"

Wang Longquan and his wife show the caterpillar fungus they dig from the mountains. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Forced to modernize

Life in the new village proved to be even more challenging.

At first, the villagers wanted to grow potatoes and corn, like they used to. 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 not raise livestock. They were forced to live on government allowances.

Chen then thought about developing tourism. He applied for funding from the Chengdu government to remodel their homes into the stony Qiang style. The villagers cook homegrown vegetables for the tourists and perform guozhuang, a traditional ethnic square dance around a bonfire, on weekends.

Last year, all 68 families in the village had earned about 2 million yuan ($314,539) from tourism, which is around 30,000 yuan per family. Not much, but better than the average 10,000 yuan per family they once earned by digging herbs.

Chen experienced personal changes as well. Back in Xige, he only had a few conferences per year and never dealt with paperwork. Now he has to write reports, speak official jargon and is required to sit in an office.

Above all, he constantly has to teach the villagers new things. He was the first to remodel his house and the first to use instant messaging app WeChat. He taught the villagers how to set up an account and QR code to receive digital payments from smartphone-wielding tourists. But he still has many concerns on his mind. 

"Right now, we still can't receive tourists in large numbers and we need more publicity," he said.

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


Losing tradition

Shibi Yang Shuisheng was among the last to move out of Xige.

In 2009, he migrated with others to the new village, but only stayed for a few months before insisting on moving back to his stony 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. Afterward, he moved permanently into 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. Furthermore, because the Qiang people have no written language, many shibi have memorized epic poems that tell of the Qiang history, an achievement some compare to that of Homer. 

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

But this all changed after their move. Today, Yang is just another old man sitting idly on his doorstep. Few ask him to do traditional ceremonies anymore.

"When people pass away, with just a phone call the funeral home comes for the body," Chen said. "Some old people are afraid of being cremated, but there's nothing we can do, because the town government will not allow burials and our ancestral burial ground is up in the mountains."

In the old days, when someone passed away, the shibi would host the ceremony. They knew what the deceased should wear, what to say to calm the spirits and what routes to take to the burial ground. "Now there's no use for shibi," Chen said.

Many young villagers move away to neighboring towns and cities for work, abandoning their heritage and traditions. Yang is a master without a student. "After me, there will be nobody," Yang said.

He had stashed away his ritual cap and goatskin drum. When the Global Times reporter asked whether he can show these instruments, he merely said, "They are at home."

Chen admits there are advantages. He appreciates the chance for better education for the young. Chen himself only graduated from elementary school, which still made him the more literate among the villagers. Since moving, many local children have finished high school, and a few were admitted into colleges this year.

In their free time, some villagers debate which is better, Xige or the new village. Yang Li, a woman in her 30s, told the Global Times that she does not want to go back to their old way of life. "The roads are better here and hosting tourists is easier. I used to have to walk around for hours to dig yams and herbs."

The earthquake changed things back home as well. When visiting Xige, the Global Times reporter saw a few pieces of land being cleared to build new houses. Yang Decheng said commercial developers from Chengdu have been visiting the area.

Yang Decheng spoke of this with a matter-of-fact tone, not showing preference either way. But one thing is for certain: if it wasn't for the 2008 earthquake, nobody would have ever left Xige. They would still be living the secluded traditional lifestyle they had followed for centuries.

"The developers never would have found out about us, had we not moved," he said.

Newspaper headline: Out of the mountains


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