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ETHNONYMS: Di, Manzi, Rong, Rma, "Stone Tower" Culture; Subgroups: Baima, Ersu, Jiarong, Muya, Muyami, Namuyi, Pumi, Qiang (including Heisuhui Qiang and Boluozu)


Identification. This article is concerned with the distinctive culture shared by speakers of languages belonging to the Qiang Language Branch (QLB) of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family, including, but not limited to, the Qiang of northwestern Sichuan, one of China's officially recognized minority nationalities or minzu, and concentrating on two groups in particular, the Qiang and their Jiarong neighbors. Historically, the term "Qiang" has been used to refer to a number of groups (including Tibetans), usually characterized as acephalous, warlike, and matrilineal and/or matriarchal, who inhabited extensive areas on China's western frontier. Today's Qiang were given that name (they call themselves the "Rma") because of supposed cultural affinities and historical ties with the historical group. Self-identity, in the sense of being a minzu, is foreign to most of these peoples, an exception being the Qiang themselves. Most QLB speakers, including Jiarong, are officially classified as Tibetan, an artifact of the "United Front" period following Liberation (1949), when the new government was anxious to enlist the support of the Tibetanized ruling class. Today, the idea of being a minzu is taking hold. In 1960 the Pumi were recognized as a separate minzu, and now other groups are asking for similar recognition.

Location. Speakers of QLB languages are found in the mountain corridor separating the Tibetan highlands from the Chinese lowlands to the east. They are distributed in an arc stretching from Nanping in northwestern Sichuan Province (34° N and 105° E) to Lijiang in northern Yunnan Province (27° N and 101° E). The Qiang are situated on the eastern edge of the corridor, while the Jiarong are located to their west, both groups being distributed between 30° and 32.5° N. The distribution of QLB speakers was probably continuous in the past, although groups are now frequently separated by intrusions of Han Chinese, Yi, and Tibetans.

The mountain corridor is a section of the Central Asian plateau that has been deeply dissected by river valleys. Because rivers cut deeper as they approach the lowlands, valley walls tend to be steeper and the relative height of mountains greater in areas adjacent to the lowlands, while higher areas to the west have more gentle slopes. In most areas, the mountain tops tend to be relatively level. Rainfall is plentiful at higher elevations, whereas lower slopes are semiarid and fields below 1,500 meters usually require irrigation. Middle elevations (above 2,500 meters) are forested, and wet meadows cover slopes above treeline; together, forest and high pasture cover about 90 percent of the area. At lower elevations the climate is mild, double cropping being possible below about 2,000 meters.

Demography. Today, there are more than 550,000 speakers of QLB languages, the largest group being the Qiang themselves, with an estimated population of 220,000. In Maowen Xian, where the Qiang comprise over 78 percent of the population, their average density is about 23 square kilometers (effective concentrations being much higher). The Jiarong, who comprise the second largest group with a population of 180,000, have a much lower population density (about 4 square kilometers). Population growth is rapid (4.2 percent per year for the Qiang, compared with 2.1 percent for China as a whole). Population planning is enforced (a limit of 2 children per family being typical), although most families are willing and able to pay the fines imposed for additional children. In the past, the area suffered from endemic population decline; the population of some areas had fallen by well over 50 percent in the 200 years prior to Liberation, apparently a result of high levels of internal warfare. Mechanisms of recruitment (e.g., raiding the lowland for slaves or migration from the plateau) may have been necessary to maintain the population. Individual mobility is high, especially among males.

Linguistic Affiliation. QLB languages were once considered archaic dialects of Tibetan; today there is an emerging consensus that they should be considered a separate branch of the Tibeto-Burmese Family. There is some dispute as to which languages should be included in this group; this is to be expected, given the complex history of the area and degree of linguistic diversity. QLB languages are basically monosyllabic, although complex words may be built through affixation. Tones exist, but are often not phonemic. QLB languages are more complex than Tibetan languages; some Qiang dialects have 42 or more simple consonants (occurring in clusters of 2 and 3) and 30 simple vowels. Affixation is used with verbs to express person, number, and tense, and pronouns may display case. QLB languages make liberal use of directional prefixes, each utterance tending to fix the position of the speaker with regard to his or her audience. No Qiang language has a true written script, although in several areas simple pictographs are found in conjunction with the shamanic tradition. Tibetan or Chinese is used for written communication, although in 1989 an initiative was begun, at the insistence of the Qiang people, to create a written script for their minzu. Surprisingly, it is the Qiang who are most in danger of losing their language; today most speak Chinese at home.

History and Cultural Relations

The Zhou, who unified China in the twelfth century b.c., themselves came from the western plains at the foot of the mountains; their earliest records identify the Qiang as close allies with whom they may have exchanged women. During this period of early contact, the culture of the lowlands and mountains appears to have been relatively undifferentiated. It was not until the sixth century b.c., with the rise of intensive agriculture in the east, that the two cultures began to diverge. The Qiang gave way before the Chinese; subsequent records tell of mass migrations from the original points of contact in Gansu south through the mountain corridor. There are accounts of Qiang states in the western part of the corridor during the fifth and sixth centuries; these were overrun with the rise of the Tibetan Empire in the eighth century and were replaced with Tibetanized states. The passage of Mongol armies through the area in the thirteenth century resulted in the tusi system. Under this system, local sovereigns (called "tusi" in Chinese) were given charters in return for nominal recognition of imperial authority. Eventually, this system spread through most of the corridor as less powerful headmen, often brought in from other minority areas, were given charters of their own. Beginning in the eighteenth century, some of the tusi were deposed in an attempt to bring the area under Chinese control. Most Qiang areas were under direct government control by the end of the nineteenth century. However, most states in the Jiarong area managed to maintain their autonomy until Liberation. Other areas, including areas inhabited by Jiarong and Qiang under Jiarong headmen, were able to retain varying degrees of autonomy.


Most QLB peoples live in flat-roofed, multistory dwellings built of unwrought stone. The ground floor is reserved for livestock and the collection of compost, while the second story, which contains the hearth, functions as the main living/sleeping space. The hearth, a square section in the middle of the floor equipped with a three-legged cooking frame, is sacred, and is associated with a rigid seating order. The third story contains a large open area used as a threshing ground and meeting place; it usually also contains storage rooms, extra sleeping quarters, and an altar. There are no chimneys. Smoke from the hearth escapes through a hole in the roof. In Qiang settlements, which are fairly typical of areas on the eastern rim of the corridor, houses are built in close defensive groups on the mountainsides, often in conjunction with stone towers 30-50 meters high. Villages vary considerably in size, averaging around twenty households; they may occur in clusters of two or three, surrounded by fields. Separate clusters are distributed at intervals of 1.5 to 2 kilometers along the valley walls below treeline, frequently above steep cliffs, with valley bottoms often being relegated to Han Chinese settlements. Jiarong villages are higher (2,000-3,400 meters), more widely separated, larger, and more diffuse, often stretching from the valley bottoms up the slopes. Houses may be separate and are sometimes clustered in small, named neighborhoods of three to eight households. Jiarong villages typically contain a fortress with tower and a Lamaist temple.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence is based on hillside agriculture supplemented by pastoralism, hunting, and gathering. Fields are sometimes terraced, but often are not. The plow, drawn by a double team of cattle, is widely used, although hoe agriculture is found in some areas. Fields are fertilized by animal manure and compost. Swidden agriculture is used on marginal land. Principal crops include barley, buckwheat, potatoes, and beans. In areas below 2,000 meters, maize has replaced barley as the main staple. Today, apples, walnuts, pepper, and rapeseed have replaced opium as the main cash crops. Other sources of cash include cutting firewood and digging medicinal herbs on the mountain tops. The area is cash-rich; an enterprising youth can earn more in one summer by digging herbs than a worker in the city can in one year. These sources of income are important because many areas must import food.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, crafts such as carpentry and blacksmithing were done by Han Chinese. Locals also tend to hire itinerant Han Chinese for odd jobs.

Trade. Trade was traditionally managed by Han Chinese living in the valley bottoms, or by itinerant Hui peddlers. Today truck driving has become the occupation of choice for local men, whereas in some areas women may open up shops.

Division of Labor. The separateness of male and female realms is symbolized by formal segregation of the sexes in seating order, ritual, and sometimes even sleeping arrangements. Women are primarily responsible for the family's livelihood and frequently do most of the agricultural work, while men are responsible for warfare, plowing, housebuilding, and transport. Men monopolize spiritual pursuits, although women may have been shamans in the past. Despite this separation of roles, men and women share many everyday tasks, including housekeeping, cooking, and child rearing. In general, men and women share both power and prestige, exercised in different realms.

Land Tenure. Rights to pasture are associated with the community, houses with the family unit, fields and cattle with individuals. Emphasis on the individual is balanced by a strong sense of community; fields are tilled and houses built by groups of neighbors and kin. Under the tusi system, all land was owned by the local ruler; individuals were given the right to use, inherit, and rent land, but not to sell it. In return they handed over up to 50 percent of their crops. In 1958 all individual rights to land were abolished and communities were organized into production teams. Land was redistributed, rights to use the commune's land being given in exchange for payment of light taxes. Previously, swidden fields fell outside the tusi system. Today, swidden fields still fall outside the system and are not taxed. Because of this and because of incentives under the "responsibility system," swidden agriculture is undergoing a revival.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Villages, or clusters of villages, are largely endogamous groups of close kin who may sometimes think of themselves as descendants (rus ) of a common male or female ancestor. Exchanges of kin between villages may also occur, especially in the case of wealthier families. There are no lineages, even among elites; house names provide a sense of family continuity, although they may not be passed on to children leaving home. In a few QLB areas, personal names incorporate part of the name of the father or mother. Today many people (including virtually all of the Qiang in areas like Mauwen) have adopted Han surnames.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms reflect generation and sex, and with the exception of terms for key individuals (father, mother, mother's brother) are extended to all members of the community. In some areas, cousin terms reflect age level but not sex.

Marriage. Ties between men and women are weak, while sibling solidarity is strong. Romantic love is important and there is considerable sexual freedom. There are few rules; people tend not to have relationships with close neighbors/kin, although unions of siblings sometimes occur. Marriage, in the sense of a discrete event marking an individual's passage from one household to another, does not exist. A gradual transition may begin with a young man performing bride-service, dividing his residence between two households. A ritual may eventually be held to formalize this relationship, although the living arrangement remains unchanged. After there have been one or more children, the man may move in with his new family, although he continues to have rights in his natal household. The transition is not complete until he dies and his new family agrees to bury his ashes with their ancestors. There are several variations; the period of bride-service may be prolonged indefinitely (as in the azhu system of the Naxi), or a young woman may come to perform groom-service, or a family may resort to bride-theft (with prior consent of all parties). The ceremony, if held, has strong communal overtones; payment of token bride-wealth or groom-wealth is made, if possible, between representatives of neighborhoods or communities, not families. Today old traditions are changing rapidly, partly because of laws requiring registration of households and sanctions against unmarried parents, and partly because people are encouraged to view these old customs as backward. In many (especially Qiang) areas Han marriage customs have been adopted along with patrilineal ideology. In these areas there may still be a high frequency of uxorilocal marriage, and arranged marriage may lead to love suicide. The tradition of delaying the change of residence until a year or more after marriage is often preserved, along with rights in the natal family.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit centers around a woman and her children, men being viewed as somewhat peripheral. Households consist of one such unit, although units associated with siblings may share a single household before one takes up neolocal residence. Polygamy within the household is not found, although men may have relationships with more than one family. Both the sororate and the levirate are practiced.

Inheritance. In many areas land and cattle are divided equally among all members of the family, including those leaving home. Individuals taking up residence are expected to bring rights to land and cattle with them (thus family fields are widely dispersed). An heir, often a younger child, is selected while the parents are still living. At this time, the authority of parents is diminished and they may leave to set up a neolocal residence or take up residence with an older child. In "patrilineal" areas, fields may end up being inherited with the house.

Socialization. Responsibility for child care is shared by all members of the family unit; if a woman moves out after bearing children, her children often remain behind in their natal home. Children are assigned simple tasks at an early age. Emphasis is placed on independence and self-reliance and physical punishment is rare.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The mountain corridor has been associated with matriarchy since the time of the Zhou. Before 1949 the area did have a high percentage of female rulers, at least partly because of the expendability of male elites. However, the classical pattern involves the sharing of power between male and female rulers, with women managing internal affairs while men took care of "foreign relations." In some areas, power was sometimes passed from mother to daughter. This power was, however, always shared with sons and consorts. QLB society has strongly egalitarian undercurrents, lacking native terms relating to government and class. Even under the tusi system, which was characterized by a hierarchy of strictly endogamous classes (including serfs and slaves), over 90 percent of the people were free farmers, owing, besides taxes for land use, only occasional military service and corvée. There was, however, a tendency to form unequal, binary relationships between communities (e.g., in some Qiang villages "black" villages are subservient to "white" villages, and among the Boluozu in Songpan Xian, "goat-head" villages are subservient to "yak-head" villages).

Political Organization. Prior to Liberation three types of organization were found: (1) autonomous Tibetanized states headed by tusi, (2) local areas ruled by less powerful headmen under the tusi system, and (3) the baojia system. The baojia system, found in areas under the direct control of the Chinese government, was designed for defense and extraction of taxes; other functions of government were often left to the people.

Social Control. In areas under the control of tusi or strong headmen, labor was allocated and disputes were settled by a resident elite who represented the lowest level of a hierarchy of nobility. In other areas, disputes were mediated by groups of kin or de facto headmen. In all areas fear of the blood feud was an important factor in social control. Parties to disputes often left the community to seek refuge elsewhere; this constrained the behavior of rulers who had to be concerned with recruiting and maintaining personnel. Today's system replicates some aspects of the tusi system, although the lowest levels of the party and state hierarchy are chosen democratically. A tradition of public debate seems to have been revived under the new system.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The area is characterized by shamanism and animistic beliefs. White stones are found on rooftops and altars throughout the corridor. In some areas, this practice has been elaborated into what has been called the "White Stone Religion." Elements of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism are found in many areas; other areas, especially those under the control of Tibetanized rulers, have been strongly influenced by Tibetan Lamaism. Many spirits are recognized, although the spirit of heaven is especially revered. There are many myths, which trace the origin of mankind to the union of a daughter of the heaven god (or goddess) with an earthly man/monkey.

Religious Practitioners. In many areas there is a distinctive and highly systematized tradition of shamanism associated with goatskin drums and the recitation of long oral texts. These specialists may also compete with Buddhist and Daoist practitioners. In Lamaist areas, monasticism is relatively unimportant; among the Jiarong, lay priests (tekben ) account for less than 10 percent of the adult male population. These individuals, who usually have no monastic training, are able to read scriptures and perform simple rituals.

Ceremonies. Major ceremonies are held, often three times a year, in sacred groves or pastures located above the villages. These usually start with the burning of juniper branches and the invocation of spirits, and may include blood sacrifice. These ceremonies often end in camp-fire outings, which are the scene of trysts. In some areas a springtime agricultural festival was attended only by women. Mountain people show great respect for the supernatural world; in many areas, juniper branches are burned daily on rooftop altars. Once suppressed, religion is experiencing a revival; in Li Xian, a Buddhist cult started by Qiang is starting to attract pilgrims from the lowlands.

Arts. Circular dances accompanied by exchanges of song between men and women are found, and the exchange of "mountain songs" is an important part of courtship. The mouth harp is traditionally played by women to serenade their lovers, while in some areas men play a double-barreled "Qiang flute." The best-known handicraft is embroidery, usually in the form of intricately patterned waistbands and cloth shoes.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to spirits, and is treated by exorcism and/or reading of scriptures. Traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine is also used.

Death and Afterlife. After death, the body is kept in the house for several days of mourning, after which it is removed, sometimes through a hole in the wall opposite the door. QLB people traditionally cremate the dead, burying their ashes in communal plots or placing them in caves. Bodies of children or people who die away from home are not mourned, but thrown into rivers. Earth burial is becoming popular in some (especially Qiang) areas, cremation being reserved for inauspicious deaths. Traditional beliefs about afterlife are unclear, although the spirits of ancestors are sometimes invoked.


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