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The Reflections of the A’er Village Qiang Minority Cultural Revitalization Project by Wang Yunxia

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Editor’s note:

The A’er Village Qiang Minority Cultural Revitalization Project (A’er Archive) is CHP’s third ethnic minority project. The project educated A’er villagers in how to protect their own culture and strengthen their sense of self-respect. Located in the epicenter of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, CHP recognized the severe need to restore the villagers’ cultural pride and their tangible heritage. Thanks to the support from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the Switzerland Embassy in China, and the work of our dedicated volunteers, the project is now satisfactorily completed. Our “Project Reflections” hopes to facilitate understanding of this project. Images, audio recordings and video footage will be posted on our website later.

Looking over the collection of writings, photos and records in the A’er Village Qiang Minority Cultural Revitalization Project (A’er Archive), I was overwhelmed by respect of the people who had collected all of these wonderful materials. The people who did all of this hard work weren’t experts with a long list of degrees in anthropology, but the masters of Qiang culture – the villagers of A’er themselves. They all shared one thing in common, the devoted passion for the Qiang culture and the desire to present their unique culture to the world.

What moved me even more was the determined spirits of Qiang villagers. Many of the local project volunteers had lost relatives and homes in the earthquake, and plenty of them were still living in temporary housing after the earthquake. Although they were so busy rebuilding their houses and continuing with their agricultural work, villagers managed to find time to work on the project and maintain a positive life outlook. None of us so-called experts could have imagined this optimism and active involvement before we arrived A’er.

The remote A’er Village is located on the Tibetan Plateau near the upper reaches of the Min River in a deep valley. Due to its isolation, the village has become one of the last major repositories of traditional Qiang culture. The earthquake, therefore, not only brought grave destruction of property and lives, but also threatened the future of Qiang culture.

Recognizing the urgency and necessity of reviving Qiang’s culture, CHP launched the A’er Village Qiang Minority Cultural Revitalization Project in 2009, less than one year after the earthquake. Building off the success of the Mengma Archive and the Congjiang Archive, CHP sought to document and record as much of the local minority culture as possible. But we also hoped to expand the project to include participation from even more local residents than any project previously had.

The result of the project is to document all aspects of Qiang culture through various mediums, including photographs, videos, and even an introductory textbook to the Qiang language. At the time of writing, CHP is also in a process of putting together a documentary on the project and will show it around the country once it is completed.

The A’er Archive team was made up of the following people:

  • Luo Jihua (Qiang ethnicity) | Post-doctoral researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Minority and Anthropology Research Center.
  • Liu Jianhua | Beijing Agriculture Institute, associate professor of IP law.
  • Mu Yongqiang | Professor of Law at Lanzhou Polytechnic University and Renmin University PhD student in Cultural Heritage Preservation Law
  • Gao Wei | Beijing Film Academy masters student in directing
  • Guo Ping | Renmin University PhD student in Cultural Heritage Preservation Law.
  • Gao Rongjin, of the Wenchuan County Culture Center to be the local program director who was in charge of coordinating local efforts on the ground.
  • Wang Yunxia (writer) | Renmin University Professor of Law

After forming the project team, we set forth our plan for the project. Luo Jihua, Gao Wei and I would be the first to go to A’er to conduct field research and talk with local shibi (Qiang shamans), party secretary, the village head, and other cadres.

After returning from A’er, we began the project in full force. Luo Jihua and Gao Rongjin drafted the first report on the status of the village. We consulted with several experts in Qiang culture and by November 2009, we had a working draft that we were able to discuss with the shibi. Gao Rongjin also designed a special badge for the local volunteers to wear. By mid-November, the project team, along with Gao Rongjin, went to A’er with all the equipment needed for the project—video recorders, cameras, hard-drives, recorders, notebook computers, etc.

This trip left us with memories that we would never forget. Not only because the harshest snowfall in 50 years made it all the more difficult to travel between villages in the A’er area, but to see so many villagers risked the cold and attended our meetings, which we held late into the night. We underestimated the number of local volunteers and were surprised to see how quickly the 160 volunteer badges that we had brought ran out. In fact, we had to request CHP to produce another batch shortly after. One of the things that moved us most was our experience to the Qiang Calendar New Year celebration, which was revived after decades of being ignored. Thanks to the old shibi, who led the ceremony, we reveled in the pomp of the Qiang New Year festival. This wasn’t just for our benefit – the villagers were happy to have their tradition back.

In the year that followed, the village volunteers went about recording every aspect of the Qiang culture according to our plan. The older villagers who cannot read or write, were able to orally record their stories and through the help of younger volunteers. Villagers who were getting married also graciously invited volunteers to record the ceremony.

Two volunteers in particular made special contributions to the project. Yu Zhengguo was born into a shibi family and he generously opened his house to our field researchers, giving us rare access to observe the daily life of a Qiang. He also painstakingly corrected any errors that our project or previous research projects had made in recording the lives and ways of the Qiang people.

As a long-time educator, Zhu Jinyong, A’er Primary School’s principal, felt very responsible toward passing down his culture. He was always the first to turn in his articles and we were always impressed by his research, which reflected his hopes for his culture’s future as much as his respect for its past.

This project would have been impossible without Gao Rongjin, the head of the Wenchuan County Culture Center. Despite the constant earthquake aftershocks, Gao went into rural Qiang country three days after the earthquake to make sure that everyone was safe and nobody was left behind.

Gao Rongjin is a polymath. He was involved in the entire documenting project; from editing and filming, to recording and designing pamphlets. Without his contribution, this project wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.

Our volunteer project team was also one of the main reasons why the project ran so smoothly. All members worked well together and engaged in good communications throughout the project. While all research volunteers faced living conditions far below what we were used to, one volunteer, Luo Jihua, managed it all with a smile. She lost her older brother in the earthquake, but dedicated herself in a new role and managed to keep her positive outlook “I have to do something for Qiang culture,” said the Ph.D.

As Luo was the first Qiang minority in the history to receive a Ph.D. degree, many villagers came to rely on her for help just as our team did. She spent over a month in the village compiling and double-checking all the records done the villagers. Unfortunately, since she couldn’t put any of her own thoughts into the book, Luo Jihua would only ever remain an unnamed hero.

Our project, however, was not perfect. As Australian cultural anthropologist Carla Nayton pointed out, villager participation was weaker than it should have been. Of the over 700 villagers, only 185 signed up to be volunteers, and far less actually participated in recording the culture. Many villagers were busy rebuilding their towns or moved to bigger cities to work and therefore were unable to participate.

Our documentary recording also ran into some problems. Several unexpected events that led the documentary awry and in future we will have to be more prepared for changes in schedules and other accidents that could derail shooting. We also were not as effective as we hoped when it came to attracting the local government’s attention. As we continue our publicity efforts following the conclusion of the project, we hope that this deficiency can still be made up for.

Finally, I would like to thank CHP on behalf of our A’er Archive project team and the local villagers for supporting ethnic minority cultural revitalization projects. Without CHP’s planning and organization, this project would never have been launched and we wouldn’t be able to present this archive. I would also like to thank the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the Switzerland Embassy in China once again for the continued help.

Wang Yunxia

Renmin University Professor of Law

January 28, 2011

CHP would like to thank our volunteer translator, Michele Scrimenti, for the outstanding translation of this article.

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