In most studies of the Qiang, especially those written in China, there is an assumption that the people classified by the present Chinese government as the Qiang living in northern Sichuan can be equated with the Qiang mentioned in Chinese texts dating back to the oracle bone inscriptions written 3,000 years ago. A more careful view would be that the ancient “Qiang” were the ancestors of all or almost all of the modern Tibeto-Burman speakers, and the modern “Qiang” (who call themselves /ʐme/ in their own language, written RRmea in the Qiang orthography), are but one small branch of the ancient “Qiang”. They in fact did not think of themselves as "Qiang" (a Chinese exonym) until the early 20th century.
It is clear that the culture of the stone watchtowers, which can be identified with the modern Qiang people, has been in northern Sichuan since at least the beginning of the present era. Being in this area, the Qiang people are between the Han Chinese to the east and south and the Tibetans to the west and north. In the past fighting between these two larger groups often took place in the Qiang area, and the Qiang would come under the domination of one group or the other. At times there was also fighting between different Qiang villages. The construction of the watchtowers and the traditional design of their houses give testimony to the constant threat of attack.
The majority of Qiang speakers, roughly eighty thousand people, are members of the Qiang ethnicity, and the rest, approximately fifty thousand people, are a subgroup of the Tibetan ethnicity. These ethnic designations are what they call themselves in Chinese. In Qiang they all call themselves /ʐme/or a dialect variant of this word. Not all members of the Qiang ethnicity speak Qiang, and as just mentioned, not all of those who speak Qiang are considered members of the Qiang ethnicity.
The traditional Qiang house is a permanent one built of piled stones and has three stories. Generally one nuclear family will live in one house. The lowest floor houses the family’s animals, and straw is used as a ground covering. When the straw becomes somewhat rotted and full of manure and urine, it is used for fertilizer. A steep wooden ladder leads to the second floor from the back of the first floor. On the second floor is the fireplace and sleeping quarters. Beds are wooden platforms with mats made of straw as mattresses. The third floor has more rooms for sleeping and/or is used for storage. A ladder also leads from there to the roof, which is used for drying fungi, corn or other items, and also for some religious practices, as a white stone (flint) is placed on the roof and invested with a spirit. The fireplace, which is the central point of the main room on the second floor, originally had three stones set in a circle for resting pots on, but now most homes have large circular three or four-legged iron potholders. In some areas, particularly to the north, enclosed stoves are replacing the old open fires. On the side of the fireplace across from the ladder leading to the second floor there is an altar to the house gods. This is also the side of the fireplace where the elders and honored guests sit.
Nowadays one often finds pictures of Mao Zedong and/or Deng Xiaoping in the altar, as the Qiang are thankful for the improved life they have since the founding of the People’s Republic and particularly since the reforms instituted by Deng in the late 1970’s and after.6 Traditionally the Qiang relied on spring water, and had to go out to the spring to get it. In recent years pipes have been run into many of the houses, so there is a more convenient supply of water, though it is not like the concept of “running water” in the West. There are no bathrooms inside the house, though in some villages (e.g. Weicheng) a small enclosed balcony that has a hole in the floor has been added to the house to function as a second story outhouse. Many villages now have electricity, at least a few hours every night, and so a TV (relying on a large but inexpensive satellite dish) and in some cases a VCD player can be found in the house. All TV and VCD programs are in Chinese, and so the spread of electricity has facilitated the spread of bilingualism.
In the past each village had one or more watchtowers, six or seven story-high six- or eight-sided structures made of piled stones. The outside walls were smooth and the inside had ladders going up to the upper levels. These allowed early warning in the case of attack, and were a fallback position for fighting. In some villages underground passages were also dug between structures for use when they were attacked. In most villages the towers have been taken down and the stones used to build new houses.
The main staple foods are corn, potatoes, wheat, and highland barley, supplemented with buckwheat, naked oats, and rice. Wheat, barley and buckwheat are made into noodles. Noodles are handmade. Among the favorite delicacies of the Qiang are buckwheat noodles cooked with pickled vegetables. Because potatoes are abundant in the area, the Qiang have developed many ways of cooking potatoes. The easiest ways to cook them is by boiling or baking (that is, placing the potatoes into the ashes around the fire). The more complicated and more special ways of preparing them involve pounding boiled potatoes in a stone mortal and then shaping the mashed potatoes and frying them to become potato fritters or boiling them with pickled vegetables. The latter is eaten like noodle soup, the same way as noodles made of buckwheat flour are eaten. Since corn is also quite abundant in the area, the Qiang have also developed different ways of eating corn. Corn flour is cooked with vegetables to become a delicious corn porridge. Corn flour mixed with water without yeast and then left in the fire to bake is the Qiang style of corn bread. This bread is often eaten with honey. Honey is a delicacy in the Qiang area. It is not easy to come by as they have to raise the bees in order to collect honey. Another important item is salt. Because the Qiang live in the highlands, salt was traditionally difficult to come by, so when you are invited to eat in a Qiang family, the host will always try to offer you more salt or will see to it that the dishes get enough salt.
The Qiang also grow walnuts, red and green chili peppers, bunge prickly ash peel (pericarpium zanthoxyli), several varieties of hyacinth bean, apples, pears, scallions, turnips, cabbage, and some rape. Crops are rotated to preserve the quality of the fields, some of which are on the mountain sides and some of which may be on the side of the stream found at the bottom of many of the gorges between the mountains. Qiang fields are of the dry type and generally do not have any sort of irrigation system. Aside from what they grow, they are also able to collect many varieties of wild vegetables, fruit, and fungi, as well as pine nuts. They now eat rice, but as they do not grow rice themselves, they exchange other crops for rice. Many types of pickled vegetables are made as a way of preserving the vegetables, and these are often cooked with buckwheat noodles or potato noodles in a type of soup. Vegetables are also salted or dried in order to preserve them.
While grain is the main subsistence food, the Qiang eat meat when they can, especially cured pork. In the past they generally ate meat only on special occasions and when entertaining guests. Now their economic circumstances allow them to eat meat more frequently. They raise pigs, two kinds of sheep, cows, horses, and dogs, though they do not eat the horses or dogs. Generally there is only one time per year when the animals are slaughtered (in mid-winter), and then the meat is preserved and hung from the rafters in the house. The amount of meat hanging in one’s house is a sign of one’s wealth. As there are no large fish in the streams and rivers, the Qiang generally do not eat fish. In the past they would hunt wild oxen, wild boars, several types of mountain goat, bears, wolves (for the skin), marmots, badgers, sparrows, rabbits, and musk deer (and sell the musk). They used small cross-bows, bows and arrows, pit traps, wire traps, and more recently flint-lock rifles to hunt. Now there are not many animals left in the mountains, and many that are there are endangered species, and so can no longer be hunted. The low-alcohol liquor made out of highland barley (similar to Tibetan “chang”) or occasionally corn or other grains, called /ɕi/ in Qiang, is one of the favorite beverages of the Qiang. It plays a very important role in the daily activities of the Qiang. It is an indispensable drink for use on all occasions. It is generally drunk from large casks placed on the ground using long bamboo straws. For this reason it is called zājiŭ ‘sucked liquor’ in Chinese. Opening a cask of /ɕi/ is an important part of hosting an honored guest.
At present only a few of the older Qiang men still wear the traditional Qiang clothing except on particular ceremonial occasions. One item of traditional clothing still popularly worn by men and women is the handmade embroidered shoes. These are made of cloth, shaped like a boat, with the shoe face intricately embroidered. The sole is made of thickly woven hemp. It is very durable and quite practical for climbing in the mountains. In the summer men often wear a sandal version of these shoes with a large pomp on the toe. These shoes are an obligatory item of a Qiang woman’s dowry when she gets married. In many villages, embroidered shoe soles or shoe pads are still a popular engagement gift of a woman to her lover. Recently some women have taken to selling them as tourist souvenirs as well.
Another item still popular among the Qiang men and women as well is the goat-skin vest. The vest is reversible; in the winter it is normally worn with the fur inside for warmth, and when worn with the fur out, it serves as a raincoat. It also acts as padding when carrying things on the back.
Qiang men often carry a lighter (traditionally it would be flint and steel) and knives on a belt around their waist. The belt has a triangular pouch in front. There are two types of these triangular pouches: one is made of cloth and intricately embroidered, another is made of leather (the skin of a musk deer). Men sometimes will also wear a piece of apron-like cloth (also embroidered with a floral pattern) over their buttocks, to be used as seat pad.
The majority of Qiang women in the villages still wear traditional clothing. Qiang women’s clothing is very colorful, and also varies from village to village. The differences are mainly manifested in the color and styles of their robes and headdresses. Headdresses are worn from about the age of twelve. Women in the Sanlong area wear a square headdress embroidered with various floral patterns in wintertime. In the spring, they wear a headband embroidered with colorful floral patterns, and wear a long robe (traditionally made of hemp fiber) with fancily embroidered borders, and tie a black sheep-leather belt around the waist. Women of the Heihu area wear a white headdress, and are fond of wearing blue or light green robes (the borders are also embroidered with floral patterns). Women from the Weimen area wear a black headdress and a long robe. The border of the robe is embroidered with colorful floral patterns. They also often wear an embroidered apron (full front or from the waist down) and an embroidered cloth belt. The headdress worn by women of Mao county and the Muka area of Li county is a block-like rectangle of folded cloth, with embroidered patterns on the part that faces backwards when worn. Women in Puxi village of Li county wear plain black headdresses, oblong in shape with the two sides wider than the front. In the Chibusu district of Mao counry women wear brick-shaped headdresses wrapped in braided hair. They braid their hair, and at the tip of their braid sometimes add a piece of blue fake hair braid in order to make the braid longer (if necessary), and then coil the braid around the headdress to hold it in place.
Clothing of those living near the Tibetan areas bear the influence of the Tibetan ways of clothing.
Other than the headdresses and the robes, Qiang women are also fond of wearing big earrings, ornamental hairpins, bracelets, and other silver jewelry. Jewelry pieces of those who are wealthier are inlaid with precious stones like jade, agate, and coral. They often hang a needle and thread box and sometimes a mouth harp from their belt.
Babies wear special embroidered hats with silver ornaments and bronze and silver bells, and a small fragrance bag.
Although in the Qiang language traditionally there are no surnames, for several hundred years the Qiang have been using Han Chinese surnames. The clans or surname groups form the lowest level of organization within the village above the nuclear family. In one village there may be only a few different surnames. The village will have a village leader, and this is now an official political post with a small salary. Many of the traditional “natural” villages have now been organized into “administrative” villages comprised of several “natural” villages. Before 1949 (as early as the Yuan dynasty—13-14th century), above the village level there was a local leader (called t«us—î in Chinese) who was enfiefed by the central government to control the Qiang and collect taxes. This leader could also write his own laws and demand his own taxes and servitude from the Qiang people. The Qiang had to work for this local leader for free, and also give a part of their food to him. His position was hereditary, and many of these leaders were terrible tyrants and exploiters of the people. Some of the Qiang traditional stories are of overthrowing such tyrants.
Kinship relations are quite complex, and while generally patrilineal, the women have a rather high status, supposedly a remnant of a matriarchal past. Only men can inherit the wealth of the parents, but women are given a large dowry. Marriages are monogamous, and can be with someone of the same surname, but not within the same family for at least three generations. The general practice is to marry someone of the same village but it can also be with someone outside the village. Increasingly Qiang women are marrying out of the villages to Chinese or Qiang living in the plains to have an easier life, and many of the young men who go out to study or work marry Han Chinese women. In the past marriages were decided by the parents of the bride and groom, although now the young people generally have free choice. The traditional form of marriage in the village is characterized by a series of rituals focused around drinking and eating. It is consists of three main stages: engagement, preparation for the wedding, and the wedding ceremony. The rituals start when the parents of a boy have a girl in mind for their son. The parents will start the “courtship” by asking a relative or someone who knows the girl’s family to find out whether she is available or not. If the girl is available, they will move on to the next step, that is, to ask a matchmaker to carry a package of gifts (containing sugar, wine, noodles, and cured meat) to the girl’s family. This is only to convey their intention to propose a marriage. If the girl’s parents accepted the gift, the boy’s parents will proceed to the next step, asking the matchmaker to bring some more gifts to the girl’s parents and “officially” propose. If the girl’s parents agree, then a date will be set to bring the “engagement wine” to the girl’s family. On that day, the girl’s parents and all the siblings will join in to drink and sing the “engagement song”. Once this is done, the couples are considered to be engaged, and there should be no backing out. After being engaged, the girl should avoid having any contact with members of the groom’s family. Before the wedding, a member from the groom’s family will be accompanied by the matchmaker to the bride’s family, carrying with them some wine which they will offer to the bride’s family members and relatives of the same surname, to have a drink and decide on the date of the wedding. Once the wedding date has been set, the groom, accompanied by the matchmaker and carrying some more wine, personally goes to the bride’s family to have a drink with the bride’s uncles, aunts and other family members.
The wedding ceremony itself takes three days, and is traditionally hosted by the oldest brothers of the mothers of the bride and groom. On the first day, the groom’s family sends an entire entourage to the bride’s place to fetch the bride. The entourage usually consists of relatives of the groom and some boys and girls from the village whose parents are both still living, with two people playing the trumpet. They carry with them a sedan chair, horses (in some cases), clothing and jewelry for the bride. The entourage has to arrive in the bride’s village before sunset. They stay there overnight. The next day, the bride has to leave with the group to go to the groom’s family. Before stepping out of her family door, she has to cry to show how sad she is leaving her parents and family members. One of her brothers will carry her on his back to the sedan chair. Once the bride steps out of her parents’ house she should not turn her head to look back. She is accompanied by her aunts (wife of her uncle from her mother’s side, and wife of her uncle from her father’s side), sisters and other relatives. Before the bride enters the groom’s house she has to step over a small fire or a red cloth (this part of the ceremony varies among areas). The bride enters the house and the actual wedding ceremony starts. The couple will be led to the front of the family altar, and, just like the wedding practice of the Chinese, the couple will first make vows to heaven and earth, the family ancestors, the groom’s parents, the other relatives, and finally vows to each other. There is a speech by the hosting uncles, and the opening of a cask of highland barley wine. There will then be dancing and drinking. As the cask is drunk, hot water is added to the top with a water scoop, and each drinker is expected to drink one scoop’s equivalent of liquor. If the drinker fails to drink the required amount, he or she may be tossed up into the air by the others in the party.
Before the couple enter the room where they are to live, two small children (whose parents are both still living) will be sent in to run around and play on the couple’s bed, as a way of blessing the couple to soon have children.
On the third day the bride returns to her parents’ home. When she leaves her newlywed husband’s village, relatives of the husband wait at their doorways or at the main entrance to the village to offer her wine. The bride’s family will also prepare wine and food to welcome the newlywed couple. The groom has to visit and pay respects to all of the bride’s relatives. The bride then stays at her parents’ house for a year or so, until the birth of the first child or at least until around the time of the Qiang New Year. The groom will visit her there and may live in the woman’s house. She returns to her husband’s family to celebrate the birth or the New Year, and stays there permanently. In recent years there has been movement away from traditional style marriage ceremonies towards more Han Chinese style or Chinese- Western-Qiang mixed style marriage ceremonies.
The Qiang native religion is a type of pantheism, with gods or spirits of many types. To this day when a cask of /ɕi/ (barley wine) is opened, a ritual is performed to honor the door god, the fireplace god, and the house god. Flint stone (called “white stone” in Qiang and Chinese) is highly valued, and when a house is built a piece of flint is placed on the roof of the house and a ceremony is held to invest the stone with a spirit.7 The fireplace at the center of the house is considered to be the place where the fireplace spirit lives. Before each meal, the Qiang will place some food near the iron potholder for the fireplace spirit. The iron potholder is treated by the Qiang people with great respect, and cannot be moved at random. One cannot rest one's feet on it, or hang food there to grill. Most important is that one cannot spit in front of the potholder. When the Qiang drink barley wine or tea, or eat meals, an elderly person who is present has to perform the ritual of honoring the god of the fireplace, that is by dipping his finger or the drinking straw into the barley wine and splashing the wine into the fireplace.
Every household has an altar in the corner of the main floor of the house facing the door. It is usually ornately carved, and its size reflects the financial status of the family. The altar and the area around the altar is considered to be sacred. One cannot hang clothes, nor spit, burp, expel flatuence, or say inauspicious words around the altar area. Pointing one’s foot toward the altar is strictly prohibited.
Other than believing in the spirits of the house and of the fireplace, the Qiang also believe in the spirits of all natural phenomena, such as heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, rivers, hills and mountains. Two of the biggest festivals in the Qiang area are related to their worship of these spirits: the Qiang New Year, which falls on the 24th day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar (now the festival date is fixed on October 1st), and the Mountain Sacrifice Festival, held between the second and sixth months of the lunar calendar. The former is focused on sacrifices to the god of Heaven, while the latter is to give sacrifice to the god of the mountain.
Religious ceremonies and healing rituals are performed by shamans known as /ɕpi/ in Qiang and Duān Gōng in Chinese. To become such a shaman takes many years of training with a teacher. The Duān Gōng also performs the initiation ceremony that young men go through when they are about eighteen years old. This ceremony, called “sitting on top of the mountain” in Qiang, involves the whole family going to the mountain top to sacrifice a sheep or cow and to plant three cypress trees. These shamans also pass on the traditional stories of the Qiang. The stories include the creation story, the history of the Qiang (particular famous battles and heroes), and other cultural knowledge. As there was no written language until recently, story telling was the only way that this knowledge was passed on. Very few such shamans are left, and little story telling is done now that many villages have access to TVs and VCD players.
Because the Qiang villages are generally high up on the mountains, and there often is no road to the village, only a steep narrow path (this is the case, for example, in Ronghong village, where the nearest road is hours away), travel has traditionally been by foot, though horses are sometimes used as pack animals where the path or road allows it. In the summer the horses are taken to remote pastures to prevent them from eating the crops near the villages. In some cases there is a road to the village large enough for vehicles to pass, but the condition of the road is usually quite bad, and as it runs along the very edge of the mountain, it can be quite dangerous. On every field trip we saw at least one car or truck that had just fallen off the side of a mountain. Because the condition of the road varies with the weather and there are sometimes landslides, before attempting to drive to (or near) a village, one has to try to find out if the road is actually passable. The streams and rivers are too shallow to navigate, and so the Qiang do not make boats.
In general it was the work of the men to hunt, weave baskets (large back baskets and small baskets), shepherd the cows, gather wild plants, and do some of the harder labor such as plowing the fields, getting wood, and building houses, and it was the work of the women to weave cloth, embroider, hoe the fields, spread seeds, cook most of the food, and do most of the housework. In the winter men often went down into the flatlands to dig wells for pay (this often involved a twelve-day walk down to the Chengdu area!). Any trading was also only done by men. In the past the Qiang traded opium, animal skins and medicinal plants in order to get gold, silver, coral, and ivory. These items were often made into jewelry for the women. Nowadays both men and women cook and gather wild plants, and it is common for men to leave the village for long periods of time to go out to work in the flatlands or to sell medicinal herbs, wood, vegetables, animal skins or other items in exchange for money or rice.
Although some ancient ceramics have been unearthed in the Qiang areas, in the recent past ceramics were not made by the Qiang. Most Qiang-made utensils were of wood, stone or iron. There were specialists in metalworking. Nowadays most such items are bought from outside the Qiang area.