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Timeless Qiang Culture
Special> Aftermath of the Quake> Timeless Qiang Culture
UPDATED: July 14, 2008  
Fresh Hope for Lost Tribe
The quake has rekindled public interest in the Qiang culture. National meetings were held and notable scholars voiced concern about the fate of the old tradition

Shibi Wang Zhisheng beats goat skin drum at a burial ritual held for people died in the May 12 earthquake. Photos by Zhang Han

Wang Zhisheng feels old and tired. At 75, he has long been grieving for his lost wife and daughter and when the earthquake took away his home and friends on May 12, the lean, tall man with gray hair wanted to end it all.

Wang is a Shibi. For the Qiang minority, one of the oldest groups in Chinese history, Shibis are communicators between man and god. More importantly, for a minority with no written language, Shibis maintain a tradition which has lasted thousands of years.

When the earth trembled, Wang was watching TV. He ran out of the house and shouted "dog, dog, dog", a chant shared by every survivor in the Qiangfeng village of Mianchi town.

To Qiang people, dog is the mother of the God of Earth. By chanting "dog", the God of Earth would stop trembling.

Yet the mountains did not heed the call and huge chunks of slopes tumbled down, generating smoldering dust that enveloped the panicking humans.

The devastation to the Qiang culture is acutely felt. Of all the places that the 32,000 Qiang people live in southwestern China, Beichuan, the country's only autonomous county for the Qiang people in Sichuan province, was totally ruined. Wenchuan, the county where Wang lives, also suffered heavy losses as the epicenter of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake.

Wang is the younger of a Shibi's two sons. His brother was the one to whom the family heritage would be bequeathed. But his brother wasn't interested in the Shibi culture and preferred to do something else.

The father accepted the fact and decided to pass on his knowledge to Wang. After a hard day's work in the fields, the father and son would chant ancient scriptures while others chatted away the wintry days around the family hearth.

The religious seal handed down by Wang's ancestors.

"The most important attribute for a Shibi is a good memory," says Wang. There are hundreds of thousands of words for the Qiang scriptures and he is one of a dozen Shibis well versed in most of them.

To make a living, villagers used to carry packs of tea across mountains to Dujiangyan. At narrow mountain passes, bandits would rob them and even push victims down the cliff.

Life was easier for Shibis. A ceremony for a deity's blessing could bring the shaman 35 kg of corn and six big pancakes. He also had a share of the sacrificial items. They would hold a dozen such ceremonies in a year.

But being a Shibi always meant more about status than material gain. Wang treasures a hat made of monkey skin and a religious seal handed down the generations - both are symbols of his high status. Whenever a Shibi enters a house, the most honored seat is reserved for him and in the past, Shibi was the de facto village chief.

Wang recalls joining his father in his first Grand Ceremony to pay tribute to the God of the Mountain. Torches blazed throughout the village, everyone dressed up in holiday gear and three shots were fired to welcome the father and son.

He was only 13 but Wang clearly sensed everyone's reverence for him, as they instructed villagers to set up banners, tie three white goats at a holy tree and each family putting two cocks in the cage.

At the beat of the drum of goat skin, Wang followed his father to chant the birth of heaven and earth, the deeds of ancient kings and the long, treacherous exodus away from their ancestral homes. They kept singing until dawn.

However, Wang has one lifelong regret: He did not have a formal ceremony, called gai gua, to introduce him into the Shibi culture. More than 20 senior Shibis from far and wide would sit in a circle, each chanting a passage of scripture but leaving a few sentences for his neighbor to complete. In the presence of the whole village, the Shibi who failed to finish would be in disgrace.

When the chanting ended, a senior Shibi would lead the young shaman into the mountains. Legends say Shibis descended from heaven and must offer their gratitude. Before they reached the peak, the guide would leave the young to go on until he heard a sound that meant "the Jade Emperor had approved of him".

And what if nothing is heard?

"The mountain is big. How can there be no sound!" Wang laughs.

The tradition has suffered greatly in recent years. During the cultural revolution (1966-76), religious practices were banned as superstitions. Nowadays, Shibis are no longer held in high esteem in the Qiangfeng village, whose focus has shifted to the outside world, thanks to the advent of a cement road and TV. Instead of singing old mountain songs, the young hum pop songs, rejoice over football matches and watch sitcoms on TV.

Wang's hopes of a proper gai gua ceremony faded until one day in the 1980s, a relative, who was also a Shibi, brought him to the statue of the God of Shibi. He said: "Please forgive us for not being able to perform the ritual. He who stands behind me is now introduced to our sacred realm."

That humble ceremony is not his greatest regret, though. During the "cultural revolution", he wasn't able to carry out rituals for his deceased wife and was forced to bury her in a hurry. Then, last winter, his elder daughter died when she rolled down the snow-covered mountain while gathering firewood. Now, his own home has been crushed and he has to live with his younger daughter.

The Shibi culture has been dying out. Only when researchers come would he have a chance to sing those age-old tunes. The oral history of the brave Qiang people has become written tales filed away for academic interest.

Recently, the Teacher's Vocational School of Aba Tibetan and Yi autonomous prefecture invited Wang and other venerable Shibis to record the scriptures. Before the recording, they burned incense and paper to their god, asking for forgiveness. "Today we chant the scriptures for the interests of our nation. Please don't be angry," they said.

Sadly, the earthquake took away several masters who had joined Wang in the recording. The future looked bleaker than ever. Ironically, though, the quake has rekindled public interest in the Qiang culture. National meetings were held and notable scholars voiced concern about the fate of the old tradition. Survivors of Qiang villages were invited to Beijing to perform to the whole nation their folk songs and dances.

Still, Wang fears that once the Qiang people whose villages have been totally destroyed relocate to mingle with others, they will easily lose their cultural identity.

From his ruined house, Wang retrieves the goat skin drum. As he beats it on the fallen roof, his face turns solemn and sad. People who died in earthquake do not enjoy the same burial rituals - they are cremated and put to rest under a simple earthen mound, says the old man.

One of his grand-nieces once asked him: "Grandpa, you sing in Qiang language, do you feel embarrassed?"

Looking at the young girl, Wang replied slowly: "Do you feel embarrassed singing in Chinese? Don't be afraid of being laughed at, for we are the Qiang people."

This story first appeared in The Beijing News

(China Daily July 8, 2008)

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