From the Qiang Barbarians to the Qiang Nationality

I recently enjoyed reading an essay by Ming-ke Wang of Academia Sinica in a collection of essays called Imagining China: Regional Division and National Unity on the development of the ethnic identity of the Qiang 羌 people. In the essay, “From the Qiang Barbarians to the Qiang Nationality: The Making of a New Chinese Boundary” Wang “shows how the Qiang people developed into an ethnic identity but also how the geographical and ethnic concept of Qiang changed in the eyes of the Han peoples as a part of their changing ethnic boundaries throughout their history.” This may sound rather dull but Wang’s makes a fascinating move in showing how these two processes overlapped. The Qiang, which are now one of 55 recognized “nationalities” in China, with a population of about 220,000, have connected themselves historically to the much broader Han historical category which until very recently referred to a broad range of ethnic groups classified as barbarians on China’s periphery. While I can think of a few other potential examples, this is a nice twist on a common theme in the formation of national identity. Instead of linking itself to an empire, a language, an island, etc. that could help the newborn Qiang nationality to distinguish itself from some Other, the Qiang nationality was born out Han China’s own “Other.” The fact that there was no linguistically, culturally, or even geographically consistent historical community which corresponded to what the Han called the Qiang is, like all formations of national identity from Norwegians to Japanese, pretty much irrelevant.

According to Wang, from the late Han to the Ming periods, the concept of the Qiang was something close to “those people in the west who are not one of us” and included a huge range of people along eastern edges of Tibetan Plateau. Over time, the Chinese empires would come to classify these peoples into smaller and smaller distinct groups and those who were called the Qiang by the the Han shifted (linguistically, not physically) further and further to the West until this bumped into Tibetan cultural communities that the Chinese categorized as the Fan 番. Ultimately, the Qiang ended up being the small group of mountain dwellers in the small geographic area they occupy today (the upper Min River Valley).

While the group of people who ended up being called the Qiang mostly speak (or now identify with) a language in the Tibeto-Burman language family, like Chinese, their dialects are very varied (Wang notes their proverb, “our language cannot go far.”) Until very recently, this group of people, which in Chinese terms stabilized linguistically in the late-Qing, mostly didn’t know they had been classified as the Qiang. Apparently, before the 1950s they only knew that people down-river called them Manzi 蛮子 (barbarians). Wang also notes that while many of these communities had almost identical “ways of subsistence, daily life, religion, and language. (Chinese of Sichuan dialect)” before the 1970s they would classify themselves as Han and people upstream as Manzi.

Meanwhile, however, the Chinese and foreign visiting anthropologists of the 20th century were busy searching for the essence of the Qiang people. Some Reverend named Thomas Torrance thought the Qiang were monotheists and descendants of the Israelites. (60) Chinese scholars later joined in but, “Even though they failed to find a normative Qiang culture, their attempts to do so, and the data they recorded in these quests, have reinforced the concept of the Qiang nationality both for the Han and the natives.” In more recent times, especially into the 1980s, the benefits of being one of China’s declared minority nationalities meant that many would jump at the opportunity to identify themselves as Qiang while they earlier would have whipped out genealogical records to prove their Han ancestry. With government approval, they designed a writing system, compiled a dictionary, and embroidery, which they probably picked up from the Han or Tibetans, was proclaimed their national hallmark. (69) A linear history of their people, based on the Han definition of the Qiang as it shifted over time was adopted, and “Qiang literati built up their self-image as the strongest opponents of the Han….a historical role as the Han’s brother and savior has also been constructed.” (71)

Wang says, “In the study of history of nations, explanations for the formation of a nation usually take one of two forms: “how did the past create the present?” or “how did the present create the past?” (73) to which his own interesting story of the Qiang shows how the two can overlap. “My own opinion falls in between because the meaning of the history of the Qiang is twofold: it is a history of a minority nationality, and also a history of the Chinese in respect to boundary formation and changes….if we consider the history of the Qiang as a process of formation, expansion and change of Chinese boundaries…this chapter illustrates how the past created the present, and underlines the continuity of this history. However, the most important past that created the present Han-Qiang relations is obviously not what really happened on the Qiang side, but how Chinese thought about their ethnic boundaries through the concept of the Qiang.”

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