You see this hole in the wall here? Whenever the enemy attacked the village, the local warriors would fire arrows from it and then escape through secret tunnels.” My almost toothless Qiang guide, Li Xia, is recounting the action in a heavy Sichuanese accent, as we prepare to climb a steep wooden ladder to the top of a centuries-old watchtower in Taoping Qiang Village.
Set in Sichuan’s Li County, the village is just 160km northwest of the city of Chengdu, but the differences in their landscape and culture are dramatic. Built primarily from stone, the settlement is bound by hulking walls and dotted with watchtowers that stretch towards the sky. Ensconced deep in a valley blanketed with hardy shrubs and fringed by sand-coloured rocks, it’s an age-old site that has long been home to the Qiang people.
According to Shang dynasty inscriptions, the Qiang are an ancient tribe that moved to the mountains of West Sichuan and the upper Min River region over 2,000 years ago. Encircled by the Tibetans to the west and north, and the Han Chinese to the east and south, the Qiang lands once served as a battleground in clashes between these larger ethnic groups. Coupled with occasional infighting with other Qiang villages, each settlement was under constant threat of invasion. To protect themselves, the people utilised the natural resources of the valley to construct hamlets with thick walls, small windows and watchtowers that reach up to seven stories high.
These watchtowers haven’t just protected the villagers from enemies. Remarkably, their distinctive architecture has also helped them to weather the region’s renowned seismic activity. And the fact that they continue to look out over the valley undisturbed, despite three major earthquakes over the last century, is testament to the skills of the ancient builders.
I have been drawn here not just by the architecture, but also by tales of the tribe’s fascinating culture and deep affinity with nature. In the early days, the Qiang, feeling the earth shake beneath their feet and observing the movement of the stars, feared and revered natural phenomena. This gave rise to their animistic worldview – the belief that everything in nature possesses a spirit. To this day, they maintain their customs through elaborate festivals and their visually striking traditional dress.
Yet times are changing, and the Taoping Qiang Village is no longer as sequestered as it once was. A few years ago, a new “village” was constructed to function as a staging area for tourists, including stores selling souvenirs such as sculptures and embroidery.
Fortunately, the Qiang still reside in the old village higher on the hill, in squat stone houses framed by ears of corn. Every morning, they continue to cook their breakfasts of corn porridge over open fires. Then they descend into the new village to work as operations staff, journey to other towns to sell traditional goods, or tend the fields of corn and potato spread across the the valley. The women can often be spotted in their distinctive floral-patterned garb, leading tours of the watchtowers.
As Li Xia leads me through a labyrinth of dark hallways, I can’t help staring at the intricate embroidery of her headdress. Shaped like a square black pillow, it’s fastened to her head by a multi-coloured tassel. As her head bobs with every step, the pink, green and yellow patterns swirl together to create an almost psychedelic effect. Hypnotised, I follow her past trapdoors, through traditional Qiang homes and up and down ladders.
Soon, we find ourselves in front of a large rock jutting out of a wall. “The rocks in each building were all carefully shaped to fit together,” she tells me, placing a hand on the boulder reverentially. “This one will bear the full force of any earthquake and keep this house from collapsing.”
The settlement has weathered the ravages of time and nature
The settlement may have weathered the ravages of time and nature, but modernity has presented new threats to Qiang culture. At the end of my visit, I enlist a local to drive me to our next destination, Wenchuan County. Curious, I ask if he can speak his native language.
“Me? No. I can only speak Mandarin. There is no one in my family who can still speak the Qiang language,” he says wistfully, between puffs of his cigar.
The Qiang have been intertwined with the Han Chinese for centuries, but in the past, only the men who ventured out of the villages to work would learn Mandarin. Yet more and more tribespeople are now losing the ability to speak their native tongue. Even as my driver picks up a villager and her daughter dressed in traditional garb, they discuss the fare in Mandarin.
The Qiang have no written language: they depend solely on the spoken word to pass down their traditions. Their legends, ceremonies and histories are carried by shibis, village shamans who diffuse their teachings through storytelling. As the few shamans grow older by the day, coupled with a lack of interest from the next generation, Qiang culture is under threat.
Yet in a strange twist of fate, the aftermath of the devastating Great Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 may have been a catalyst for renewed cultural awareness. The disaster left more than 80,000 people dead, and saw the Qiang losing about 10 per cent of their population, including a number of prominent shibis. The government responded emphatically, rolling out reconstruction efforts to repair the region’s damaged infrastructure and preserve Qiang culture.
In nearby Wenchuan, the epicentre of the earthquake and one of the hardest-hit areas, these policies are in full effect. The town square has been rebuilt to emulate the architecture of the stone villages, and an earthquake memorial museum has been erected behind it.
Along the main street, Qiang women in vividly coloured dresses sell piles of vegetables, dried yak meat and embroidery. The men are ruddy faced and simply clad, shuttling tourists to and from the village in their minibuses. Then at a local noodle shop, I get a real sense of the region’s rich history. My bowl of spicy noodles is a literal melting pot, coalescing Chinese, Tibetan and Qiang elements in a single dish. Its soup base is made with mala (Sichuan pepper), while the usual beef has been replaced with the Tibetan staple of yak meat. The Qiang influence comes through with the addition of half a cob of corn.
My belly full, I head to the town’s earthquake museum, which remembers one of China’s deadliest natural disasters. As I study pictures of the landslides that once laid the surroundings to waste, I’m awed that the Taoping Qiang Village and its sturdy watchtowers survived it all.
For over two millennia, the Qiang have been battered by the relentless tides of change. Yet despite the barrage, their resilience is remarkable. Back in the town square, I come across a large group of Qiang dancing to the beat of a sheepskin drum.
Forming a circle, they step in and out gracefully, twirling their hands towards the heavens. They are moving with absolute certainty – almost as if in a trance – as they recreate the dance steps of their ancestors. Watching them, I can only hope that this deep sense of tradition will carry them sure-footed into the future.
The Qiang’s festivals reaffirm their connection with all living things, the land, and their ancestors.
Mountain Worship Festival
Also known as the Sacrificial Rite to the Holy Mountains, this festival is celebrated during harvest time, usually between the months of March and June. Three animals – which differ according to village legend – are sacrificed to the spirits of the mountains, trees and sky.
Qiang New Year
Celebrated on the first day of the tenth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar (normally early October) each year, this ceremony pays tribute to the spirit of Heaven. The sacrifice of a goat under the direction of the local shamans is followed by a whirl of communal dancing, drinking and storytelling.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine