New Lives, New Ethnic Identity For Chinese Villagers

The third of a three-part series.

Women at the Leigu refugee camp in Sichuan province learn Qiang embroidery. i i

Women at the Leigu refugee camp in Sichuan province learn Qiang embroidery. Few of them can speak the language of the ethnic minority, and many have only the sketchiest ideas about the differences between the majority Han and the Qiang. Philip He for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Philip He for NPR
Women at the Leigu refugee camp in Sichuan province learn Qiang embroidery.

Women at the Leigu refugee camp in Sichuan province learn Qiang embroidery. Few of them can speak the language of the ethnic minority, and many have only the sketchiest ideas about the differences between the majority Han and the Qiang.

Philip He for NPR
Amashuaishuai, an elder from the Qiang minority i i

Amashuaishuai, an elder from the Qiang minority, pictured with his wife, now lives in the Leigu refugee camp. He supports the government investment in Qiang culture. Philip He for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Philip He for NPR
Amashuaishuai, an elder from the Qiang minority

Amashuaishuai, an elder from the Qiang minority, pictured with his wife, now lives in the Leigu refugee camp. He supports the government investment in Qiang culture.

Philip He for NPR

In Depth

Map of the earthquake's reach. i i

A 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck China's Sichuan province on May 12. Alice Kreit/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alice Kreit/NPR
Map of the earthquake's reach.

A 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck China's Sichuan province on May 12.

Alice Kreit/NPR

Nestled at the foot of a mountain in China's southwestern Sichuan province, a new village is being built, and its inhabitants are building new lives amid the rubble of the massive earthquake that struck in May. For some, these new lives will be based on a new ethnicity.

This settlement, originally called Mao'ershi village, has been rechristened Jina Qiang village to reflect its new role showcasing the culture of the Qiang ethnic group, an ancient minority who have long lived in the region and are closely related to Tibetans.

The earthquake was catastrophic for this ancient ethnic group, killing 30,000 Qiang people, or about one-tenth of the Qiang population. Among the dead were 40 people officially designated cultural masters, including all six Qiang music and dance experts. Now the government has vowed to invest $1.5 billion in Qiang culture, including building the Jina Qiang village.

There is just one hitch: Many residents of the Jina Qiang village are not actually Qiang. One villager openly admitted to NPR that he actually belonged to the Han ethnic majority but was following orders from above to change his ethnic group to Qiang.

Villagers: 'We Only Did What We Were Told'

An article in the widely respected Southern Metropolis Weekly magazine confirms this practice. It says all the villagers in the first and second districts of the village are Han Chinese; all will become Qiang.

Apparently, this practice has been happening for more than a decade. Residents of Mao'ershi village's third district — who didn't want to be named — say they were Han but were ordered to become Qiang.

"We changed 11 or 12 years ago," one of them tells NPR. "It was a government decision; we only did what we were told."

The people who have gathered all agree on what happened: Before, only part of the village was Qiang ethnicity, they say, but officials made everybody change their ethnicity to Qiang.

They are referring to changing the ethnic group recorded on their identity cards. Normally, this can be done only to follow a parent's ethnic group: For example, if one parent is Qiang and one Han, their child can change ethnic group from Han to Qiang to gain the benefits given to ethnic minorities.

But some of those NPR talked to say both their parents are Han Chinese. In 2003, Beichuan county formally became China's first Qiang autonomous region. Now, it claims its population is 56 percent Qiang.

Learning To Be Qiang

At Leigu refugee camp, there are actually classes on how to become Qiang. Rows of shy, smiling women are learning the distinctive Qiang embroidery in a large Qiang cultural center. Jiang Wei, a local government official, says the class is preparing students for the future.

"This is necessary for the Jina Qiang village to become a tourist site. After the quake, the Qiang population suffered great losses. For these residents, spreading Qiang culture will help develop tourism here in the future," Jiang says.

But many of the women attending the class have only the sketchiest idea about Qiang culture. Some, like Liu Guifeng, who is trying to stitch a flower, say they were originally Qiang but have become completely assimilated over time.

When asked if she can speak the Qiang language, Liu consults a document and replies, "Welcome to Beichuan."

She grunts in assent when asked if she had just learned the phrase.

Sitting next to her is Jiang Cunhong. When asked what the difference is between the Han and Qiang, she answers shyly: "There are so many differences. We don't really know what they are; that's why we're studying them."

She is downright evasive when asked what ethnicity is on her identity card.

"I don't know," she answers, looking around for help. "I lost my card in the quake." She goes on, "I think it should have said I was Qiang."

Official: 'We Are Restoring The Qiang'

Could the government be fabricating a culture to attract tourists? Lin Chuan, tourism and culture director for Beichuan county, who is himself Qiang, denies this.

"It is not fake. It is not fabrication," he says, emphasizing that many Qiang have become thoroughly sinicized and have forgotten their own customs. In the past, there was discrimination against minority groups, he says.

"Now, we are restoring the Qiang. If people have Qiang lineage, they can recover their Qiang ethnicity. That is national policy. It is not fake," Lin says.

Saving A Culture

Back at the refugee camp, 68-year-old Amashuaishuai fears for the future of Qiang customs. He has been trying to keep them alive: On a recent day, he is dressed in traditional Qiang garb consisting of a long maroon silk tunic with embroidered borders and chunky amber beads.

"Historically, for various reasons, Qiang culture has been trampled underfoot," he says, explaining that as long as 300 years ago, many Qiang people in the area changed their ethnicity to take advantage of tax breaks given to Han settlers.

According to Amashuaishuai, who also goes by the Chinese name Mu Gunyuan, more than 60 percent of Qiang people could speak the Qiang language before 1949; now, very few Qiang speakers remain. The younger Qiang also have stopped wearing traditional clothes, further eroding traditions. He believes the government investment is necessary to save Qiang culture, and he says that given the historical context, the issue of faking a culture is irrelevant.

"Our culture is older than the Han. So historically, the Han bloodline comes from the ancient Qiang. And at least more than half of today's Han are descended from ethnic minorities. So they are fake Han. The Qiang is the only real and ancient ethnic group," Amashuaishuai says.

Meanwhile, in the cultural center, the beaming women are learning a new Qiang song. After the deaths and heartbreak caused by the earthquake, they just hope the skills they learn here will equip them to build a better future.