The Qiang Language

The Qiang language belongs to the Qiangic branch of the Tibeto- Burman family of the Sino-Tibetan stock. Some of the characteristics of the Qiangic branch include having a cognate set of direction marking prefixes; quite degenerate, though clearly cognate person marking paradigms; and radical loss of syllable final consonants, but preservation of complex initials and clusters. Sun (1981a:177-78) divides the Qiang language into two major dialects, Northern Qiang and Southern Qiang (see Wen 1941 for an earlier classification into eight dialects). Qiang speakers living in Heishui County and the Chibusu district of Mao County, including those designated by the Chinese government as Tibetans, are said to be speakers of the Northern dialect. Sun further subdivides the Northern dialect into the Luhua, Mawo, Cimulin, Weigu, and Yadu subdialects. Qiang speakers living in Li County, Wenchuan County, parts of Mao County other than Chibusu, and Songpan County are said to be Southern dialect speakers. The Southern dialect is also subdivided by Sun into the Daqishan, Taoping, Longxi, Mianchi, and Heihu subdialects. Liu (1998b:17) adds Sanlong and Jiaochang to the list of Southern subdialects. Recent fieldwork as part of the Qiang Dialect Map Project (funded by City University of Hong Kong and the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong) has called into question some aspects of this classification. In particular, dialects in Songpan County and the Sanlong area of Mao County are now considered to be within the Northern dialect area. The dialect situation should become clearer with the completion of the Qiang Dialect Atlas Project.

Until recently there was no writing system for the language. The Qiang carved marks on wood to remember events or communicate. In the late 1980’s a team of Qiang specialists from several different organizations developed a writing system for the Qiang language, based on the Qugu variety of the Yadu subdialect of the Northern dialect. In 1993 the government officially acknowledged the writing system.

The writing system uses 26 Roman letters to represent the 42 consonants and eight vowels in that variety of Qiang. Twenty of the consonants are represented by single Roman letters while the remaining 22 consonants are represented by double Roman letters (the letter r is not used as a single consonant). Five of the vowels are represented by single letters while the other three are represented by double letters. The promulgation of the writing system has not been successful, and one of the main reasons is the complexity of the Qiang sound system and the concomitant complexity of the writing system. It is quite difficult for adult villagers, especially the illiterate peasants, to remember all of the letters and combinations representing different types of consonants and vowels. Another factor is the diversity of Qiang dialects. As the writing system is based on the Qugu variety of the Yadu subdialect of the Northern dialect, those who are not Northern dialect speakers resent learning another variety of the Qiang language in order to read and write (ideally they would eventually be able to write their own dialect, but would learn the script using the Qugu dialect). A third and very important factor is the fact that even if somebody masters the sound system and is able to read and write using the writing system, there are no reading materials available to make what they have learned useful.

Education in the Qiang areas is all in Chinese, though in recent years there has been a movement to implement bilingual education. Many of the children now can go to school, but the children often have to travel great distances to get to school. They will often live at the school, either for one week at a time, if the school is relatively close, or for months at a time, if it is farther away. Local educators have noticed that even with the opportunity for free education offered by the central government, there has been a continuously high drop-out rate among children from remote villages. One reason, they believe, is that most of the children from the remote villages cannot cope with the school education because teaching in the schools is all in Chinese and they cannot speak Chinese. The call for a bilingual approach in education mainly refers to the use of spoken Qiang as a medium of instruction in the lower grades alongside Mandarin in order to facilitate the learning of Chinese. Another reason for the high drop-out rate is the fact that while schooling is technically free, the schools charge various fees and the cost of room and board, so it can be prohibitively expensive for the villagers.

In general, Chinese has been the main language of education and communication with non-Qiang people. The spoken form of Chinese used is the Western Sichuan subdialect of Southwest Mandarin, while the written form used is that of Standard Modern Chinese. The Qiang have been in contact with the Han Chinese for centuries (see Sun 1998). However, in the past, only the men who left the Qiang area to trade or work or had to deal with Han Chinese on a regular basis would learn Chinese. Children below the age of fifteen rarely spoke Chinese, but now with more universal access to Chinese schooling and to TV (which is all in Standard Modern Chinese), even small children in remote villages can speak some Chinese. Now very few Qiang people cannot speak Chinese, but there are many Qiang who cannot speak the Qiang language. In many villages by the main roads, and in some whole counties in the east of Aba Prefecture (where contact with the Han Chinese has historically been most intense), the entire population is monolingual in Chinese. The tendency toward becoming monolingual in Chinese is becoming more prevalent now than ever before due to strong economic and social pressure to assimilate, and to the popularization of free primary and secondary education in Chinese. The number of fluent Qiang speakers becomes smaller day by day. Qiang is therefore very much an endangered language. The culture of the Qiang people is also in jeopardy of disappearing. This loss of the Qiang language and culture was noted as early as the 1940’s (Graham 1958; see also Sun 1988), and accelerated greatly after 1949.