New Lives, New Ethnic Identity For Chinese Villagers Residents of a village in Sichuan province are building new lives amid the rubble of the massive earthquake that struck in May. A government plan to boost tourism means that for some, these new lives will be based on a new ethnicity.
NPR logo

New Lives, New Ethnic Identity For Chinese Villagers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
New Lives, New Ethnic Identity For Chinese Villagers

New Lives, New Ethnic Identity For Chinese Villagers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. China's massive earthquake in May was a disaster for the Qiang minority people, killing 30,000 Qiang or a tenth of the population. Now the government has vowed to invest $1.5 billion in Qiang culture, including building the model village that we heard about yesterday. Is the government going too far? In the third part of our series, NPR's Louisa Lim reports in how the Qiang village's inhabitants aren't what they might seem.

LOUISA LIM: As this new village is built, its inhabitants are building new lives, for some based on a new ethnicity. This hamlet, rechristened the Jina Qiang village will showcase the culture of the Qiang ethnic group, an ancient minority related to Tibetans.

There's just one hitch, many of the villagers aren't actually Qiang. One villager openly admitted he actually belonged to the Han ethnic majority but was changing to be Qiang on orders from above. An article in the widely respected Southern Metropolis Weekly magazine confirms this practice. It says all the villagers in the first and second districts are Han Chinese, all will become Qiang. And this has apparently been happening for more than a decade. Residents of the third district who didn't want to be named said they'd originally Han but have been ordered to become Qiang.

Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: We changed 11 or 12 years ago, they tell me. It was a government decision. We only did what we were told. Before, only part of the village were Qiang, they add, but officials made everybody change ethnicity to become Qiang. What they're talking about is changing the ethnic group recorded on their identity cards. Normally this can only be done to follow a parent's ethnicity. For example, if one parent is Tibetan, you can become Tibetan to gain the benefits given to ethnic minorities.

But some of those I talked to said both parents have been Han Chinese. Now Beichuan county claims its population is 56 percent Qiang. Up in 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, in a pre-fab. Jiang Wie, a local government official in a Mao suit, is overseeing the class.

Mr. JIANG WIE (Local Official, Jin Qiang Village): (Through translator) 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.

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

Ms. LIU GUIFENG: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: Can you speak Qiang language? I asked her.

Ms. GUIFENG: (Qiang spoken)

LIM: Welcome to Beichuan, she replies in Qiang as she consults a document. Did you just learn that, I ask? Yes, she grants.

Ms. JIANG CUNHONG: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: Sitting next to her is Jiang Cunhong(ph). I asked her what the difference is between the Han and the Qiang. There was so many differences, she says, we don't really know what they are. That's why we're studying them. When I asked her what ethnicity is on her identity card, she is downright evasive.

Ms. CUNHONG: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: I don't know, she answers. I lost my card in the quake. She goes on, I think it should have said I was Qiang.

Could the government be fabricating a culture to attract tourists? I took my doubts to the tourism and culture director for Beichuan county, Lin Chuan who is himself Qiang. His response, many Qiang have become thoroughly sinicized(ph) and forgotten their own customs.

Mr. LIN CHUAN (Director, Tourism and Culture, Beichuan county): (Through translator) It is not fake. It is not fabrication. Before there was discrimination against minority groups. 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.

LIM: Back at the refugee camps, 68-year-old Ama Shuaishuai(ph) stands by his pre-fab. He's dressed in a long maroon silk tunic with embroidered borders and chunky amber beads. He sees things rather differently and praises the new investment in Qiang culture.

Mr. AMA SHUAISHUAI: (Through translator) 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.

(Soundbite of women singing)

LIM: Meanwhile, in the cultural center the beaming women are learning a new Qiang song. After the deaths and heartbreak caused by the earthquake, they're just hoping the new skills they learn here will equip them to rebuild a better future. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Leigu refugee camp, Beichuan county, China.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.