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Heritage Trail project

A’er village visit

By Carla Nayton

I am a cultural anthropologist currently doing my masters in social work and social policy at the University of Western Australia. My relationship with CHP goes back to 2008 when I did 9 months volunteer work with the organisation under the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program. I am currently doing 4 months fieldwork with CHP, researching their current minority cultural heritage projects.

In April-May 2010, my interpreter, Ren Zhengyu and I went to A’er village for 2 weeks field research. My purpose was to find out the perspectives of the local participants, so I can perform an independent evaluation of the progress of the cultural heritage revitalisation projects for CHP. Through this fieldwork, I wanted to investigate, ‘how can this project help to protect Qiang minority culture?’

Early in the morning on April 25 2010, I took the bus from Chengdu to Wenchuan, setting out to visit the remote village of A’er in Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Travelling on the bus to Wenchuan, the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake was still painfully apparent. The further we drove along the brand new Sichuan Federal Highway towards Wenchuan, the more devastation we saw. On the side of the highway, large billboards depicted the magnitude of the quake. Parts of the old Federal highway were visible, covered in mountains of rubble. More shocking was the occasional abandoned wreck of a car poking out from the debris. It was a sobering experience.

From Wenchuan, the local project director, Gao Rongjin helped Ren Zhengyu and I to find a minivan to go up the mountain.  The road was unsealed and bumpy. Construction trucks were driving up the mountain to build the new road, which made the drive up the mountain very slow, and we were in a traffic jam for more than an hour.

On arriving at A’er village, we went to the house of Yang Junqing, who was to be our host for the 2 weeks that we were in the village. We had dinner with our host, Gao Rongjin and two of the key project participants – the school headmaster and the doctor. Before we began to eat, Yang Junqing explained it was Qiang tradition to sing a song before they eat with guests, so they would like to sing for me first in Qiang, and then sing a translated version in Chinese. It was wonderful – I couldn’t stop smiling. Then we sat down to a delicious meal of smoked meat, shredded potato and wild vegetables, and talked about the protection of Qiang culture.

For the first few days of my fieldwork, my interpreter and I initially spent our time developing rapport with our host family and other villagers. This was achieved through many general conversations with the people we met, not just to do with Qiang cultural protection but to do with the daily lives of the residents: their children, personal achievements, farming, and the local environment. We enjoyed participating in their daily activities. I helped our host family with washing the dishes and clothes, and helped them to collect wild herbs from the mountain. Ren Zhengyu and I wanted to give something back to the community we were staying with, and be useful wherever possible – so we helped Yang Junqing and his wife with carrying soil to make a flowerbed at the front of the primary school. I feel that our own participation helped us to build a good relationship with the villagers in a relatively short amount of time.

The villagers were very busy, as the weather was getting warmer and it was the right season for seedlings of crops of corn and cabbage to start to grow. There was a great deal of building taking place in A’er Cun. Families were continuing to rebuild their homes following the earthquake, and a cultural center was being built which will be a good venue for community events. Many of the villagers expressed their happiness about both the cultural center and the road being built. The cultural center would be a good venue for having community meetings, and provide a venue for traditional dancing, singing and festivities which the community currently lacks. Several of the villagers also expressed that they were very pleased about the new road was being built. Many of them hoped that this road would help to bring cultural tourism to A’er Cun.

My interpreter and I did a social survey of people we encountered walking around the village to find out if they knew anything about the CHP A’er village cultural revitalisation project. Then, we interviewed the core participants involved in the project to find out their perspectives and experiences of participating in the project.

From our conversations with the people of A’er Cun, these are some of the key observations that I made:

  • Some of the older villagers were very wary of outside influence because they had been repeatedly culturally misrepresented, and even exploited by outsiders. Researchers and people who have come to record and document their culture took the recordings away and hadn’t given anything back to the community. One the challenges of this project is to maintain the trust of the villagers. It is vitally important, given the history of cultural exploitation they have experienced, that the participants do not feel like they have been misrepresented or exploited at any stage. CHP is already aware of this and is striving to keep channels of communication very open so the local villagers feel confident that their perspectives are being heard and decision making is kept at the community level.
  • I was very pleased to report that the participants in the project who we interviewed had a very good understanding of how CHP’s project was different and offered the chance for them to have ownership of the project. It was very positive to see how proud they were and their motivation towards the project was very strong.
  • One participant explained to me why he thought that the project was so important: the footage they recorded was all authentic. He said it was very important that they were filming real cultural events – they filmed an actual wedding, an actual funeral. If they were performing these cultural events for the camera he wouldn’t feel comfortable about it – the footage would be fake and there was no cultural value to it. He explained to me he ‘…wouldn’t be proud showing such (inauthentic) footage to my children’. The same participant made the point that although he was not a professional film maker, he was Qiang and knew what was important to capture in the recordings. Although a professional film maker would know all the best camera techniques to do a better job of the filming, as an outsider he wouldn’t know what is significant to film, so it would lack validity.

Another participant told me why he believed this project was so important. He said that he he had read accounts of Qiang history that were written by non-Qiang people and he found them to be inaccurate. He said ‘it is far better that I, as a Qiang member of this community, go to interview all the shibi and the old people to collect the history of A’er village’.
I feel that these two quotes are important as they capture the real meaning of what the project is trying to achieve. The Qiang participants are aware of how this project will be different from the projects that have happened in the past. CHP’s project is special because it is striving to be genuinely community-led.

Following my two weeks fieldwork in A’er Cun, I reflected on my original question: How can this project help to protect Qiang minority culture?

I believe that one of the most important aspects of this project is that it respects that the Qiang people are the rightful owners of their local heritage, and the ones responsible for the protection and continuation of their own culture. As the ‘culture bearers’ they are the authorities in matters concerning their own culture, and therefore they should be the decision makers about everything that concerns the documentation and representation of their local culture.  If an outsider tried to represent it, it will not be accurate. For CHP to ensure that this project stays faithful to this concept, it is essential that the villagers are involved at every stage of the project process – and not just at the data collection stage. It is just as important to make sure that at the later stages of the project the Qiang people make the decisions about the content of the book, CD and documentary.

The second key reason that I feel this project is so important is because it seeks to maximise community participation. The process of participation is beneficial to community identity and sense of self-worth. The A’er residents are empowered by the process of participating in this protection project. It is good for their sense of pride, self-worth and identity as minority Qiang people, and encourages self-determination – all of which are important for a community that is still healing from the 2008 earthquake.

The villagers are very proud of their cultural heritage and will do whatever it takes to advance the protection of their culture, which is very encouraging. I believe that as members of a dominant majority culture we have a responsibility to support minority cultures and to enable them to make decisions concerning the way they want to live their lives. Projects such as these are complicated – we are still learning what methods are best to enhance minority self-determination. But it is far better to do something in collaboration with people than to not do it at all. Everyone has the right to be respected, and their voices heard and understood.

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