Nearly wiped out by quake, China's Qiang minority lives on

Chengdu (China) (AFP) –


Ten years ago, a powerful earthquake destroyed Er Ma's village deep in the mountains of southwestern China. It nearly took his people's culture with it.

Today, the 29-year-old entrepreneur works from a sleek office in Sichuan province's bustling capital of Chengdu, where he is using a combination of mobile phone apps and internet-era marketing savvy to save the language and traditions of his native ethnic group, the Qiang.

The May 12, 2008, earthquake left 87,000 people dead or missing across Sichuan. Over 30,000 of them were Qiang -- 10 percent of the group's population.

At the time, specialists on the group's culture feared the tragedy would obliterate the local language and traditions, already severely attenuated by the Cultural Revolution and decades of economic migration.

But instead, the decade since the earthquake has seen a resurgence of interest in Qiang culture, which gained national exposure as a result of the disaster.

Over the centuries, the Qiang had largely settled in northwest Sichuan after surviving repeated wars with both the neighbouring Tibetans and the dominant Han Chinese.

Here they built elaborate defensive slate castles, constructed on top of winding mazes and tunnels that include running water and huge fire places.

While some Qiang still live in tiny villages, most had long since moved down the mountain into the cities of Beichuan, Yingxiu and Wenchuan -- where the bulk of the earthquake's casualties were concentrated.

After the disaster, the government poured money into the region and instituted policies to help preserve the group's way of life.

The reconstruction that followed "gave the Qiang an opportunity to... boost their culture and to find ways to protect it," said Zhang Qiaoyun, a scholar at the Netherlands' International Institute for Asian Studies.

The renewed attention to the once marginalised group also catalysed a cultural awakening among young Qiang like Er Ma.

- Preserving tradition -

Now, he runs two companies devoted to his culture: a non-profit to help preserve it, and a for-profit to help farmers bring their goods -- from fruit and locally produced honey to ducks -- to market, mostly through online merchants.

The ventures have benefited from government policies towards the Qiang, including his space in the business incubator, which he shares with young people working on a variety of high-tech projects.

His non-profit has hired 12 experts on Qiang culture to codify and pass down their knowledge of everything from playing traditional instruments to conducting the shamanistic rituals that are the basis of the group's religious practises.

"First, we want to take this culture and strengthen it," he said,

The next step, he said, was to raise people's consciousness of the Qiang brand.

"We want to make... people around the world, know the Qiang people's excellent culture," he said.

Even before the disaster, their lives there had largely taken on the texture of the Han majority group.

Few speak the Qiang's language or observe their customs. Even their names are Han, although Er Ma prefers to use a native name professionally.

Their language mostly endures in villages clinging to mountainsides only accessible by narrow roads with treacherous switchbacks.

"If it wasn't for the earthquake, the Qiang's current situation would be even worse than now," said Zi La, a 22-year-old student at a Chengdu university who helps run a website devoted to the promotion of Qiang culture.

But even he admits that with such a small population, the Qiang language is "not that practical."

"When I speak with my friends, we all use Sichuan dialect or Mandarin," he said with a laugh.

- Fruits and tourists -

For those clinging to village life, the local government has encouraged a combination of culture-based tourism and high-value agriculture.

In Kuapo, weathered men and women in the group's traditional blue robes tend to fruit orchards -- carrying buckets of manure and pesticides on their backs to the cherry and lychee trees that have underwritten their recent prosperity.

They began growing cherries, which sell for around 80 yuan ($12) a kilo in Beijing, in the late 90s, but the business took off after the earthquake when the government massively increased its investment in infrastructure, making the once remote villages accessible by public roads.

Many Qiang, who had formerly migrated to urban areas in search of work, were able to return home and make a tidy living selling fruits.

In the nearby village of Longxi, residents run "nongjia le" -- literally "rural pleasure" -- guest houses where tourists can experience Qiang culture and pick their own produce to bring home.

But Qiang culture will inevitably change as it becomes more about tourism than an organic part of the local landscape, said Randy LaPolla, an expert on the Qiang language at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Despite good-faith efforts to preserve the group's way of life, "I'm afraid there won't be much left of the original language and culture after another generation or so," he said, adding it would become a "recreated culture."

Er Ma agrees, but he believes it can't be helped.

"We grew up in a very closed environment," he said. "People's thinking was very simple. They were very easy to satisfy."

But now things are different: "It's the trend of the times," he said.

"If you want to keep up with the development of society, you have to accept it."