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Documentary on Unique Cultural Traditions of the Qiang People

China Radio International [July 28, 2011]

Qiang people at a celebration

Following the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, the ancient village of A’er, home to the Qiang ethnic people of China, was in danger of being wiped out after nearly a thousand years.

Now, not only has their tangible heritage – the village stupa and temple – been restored, but also their intangible heritage thanks to a comprehensive documentary film about Qiang culture produced by the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center.

Nillah Nyakoa attended the premier screening of the documentary to bring us this report.

The Qiang people are an ethnic minority group in China with a small population. One-tenth of the group was lost in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

Following this devastating event, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center initiated a project called “The A’er Village Qiang Minority Cultural Revitalization Project” to let villagers and volunteers record and preserve the unique and rich Qiang culture.

The project’s objectives were to encourage self-preservation and restore the Qiang people’s dignity.

Wu Qiong is the project director.

“We wanted to motivate villagers in A-er Village to record and pass on their own culture by making them recognize the significance of their culture. After a year, of collecting the materials needed, the project was finally finished. The film is being screened today for the first time.

The premiere screening of this documentary showcases the major village traditions and lifestyle as well as the outcomes of the project.”

The Qiang People came into the spotlight only after the 2008 earthquake which caused a major obstacle to their further development. Their culture used to be quite well preserved in A-er Village but during the disaster, 98 percent of the buildings were damaged, and many villagers left the area. We therefore think culture-rebuilding for this community is important especially when it is threatened enormously and rapidly by other cultures. So it’s urgent to save Qiang culture.

The Qiang people are also known as the “people above the clouds.”

They are among China’s oldest minority groups, with written oracle-bone records dating back to the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th centuries BCE).

Before the Sichuan earthquake, the community’s population totaled around 300,000. Afterwards, 30,000 Qiang accounting for 10 percent of the population were reported either killed or missing.

Like any other community in China, the Qiang have a unique heritage with their own traditions and customs.

The most unique feature is the Shibi culture based on a primitive belief in Shibi, the guardian of the ancient Qiang. This culture plays a very important role in Qiang people’s lives. They believe that each creature in nature has its own spirit. Each household has a scripture about the White Stone God on their roof, because they believe that the White Stone God blesses and protects them.

The daily community life of the Qiang is closely connected with Shibi, who are either priests or custodians of their traditions and culture. The Shibi are responsible for conducting marriage ceremonies, funerals, festivals and presenting newborns to the community.

The most crucial component of Qiang culture is knowledge of religious text and sacrificial rituals passed down orally by the Shibi.

Qiang people love music and dance. They have a deep love of art. They sing and dance when they get together. They all have beautiful voices. Another special thing is their language. They don’t have a written language – only a spoken one. This is one of the reasons why their culture is easy influenced (by the outside) and fading away.

A’er Village is a small mountainous community of around 500 residents. It is considered instrumental to Qiang cultural preservation, as the community retains a strong identification with its cultural heritage.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center says at least six to seven people in the village are able to perform regular rituals, and some of the elders in their 70s and 80s can perform the full set of Shibi rituals. Roughly 90 percent of the villagers speak the Qiang dialect very well, and many families still celebrate all the major Qiang festivals. Likewise, many of the local women still make traditional Qiang embroidery and sell it to make money.

Despite the misunderstandings and difficulties that so often plague ethnic minority culture initiatives, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center hopes to aid the Qiang and other minority groups in preserving their traditions while also assisting with their modernization efforts.

The documentary seeks to help restore the dignity of the Qiang people and show them the true value of their culture and traditions in the twenty-first century.

For CRI I am Nillah Nyakoa.

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