The 2008 earthquake in China's Sichaun Province caused massive damage and held the world's attention for weeks. But little attention was paid to the region's Indigenous Peoples. Here is a look at how they are coping in the wake of the quake and their attempts to survive the recovery effort.
I awoke to the sound of the rooster call on a cold November morning in Jing Jia Cun, a small mountainside village in Beichuan County. Stepping out from the blue government-issued emergency tent, I looked out on fog lingering in the valley, forming an eerie haze over the leveled remains of what was once the county’s capital city, destroyed by last year’s devastating earthquake. Dui “Aiyi” is cooking a breakfast of rice porridge alongside spicy vegetable dishes, which would fuel us for the first four hours of cutting bricks. Our task was to chisel away bits of housing material and mortar from the brick rubble of the Dui family’s former home. Too poor to buy new building materials, the Dui family, like millions of others in northwestern Sichuan, has to rebuild their home from the pieces of what the earthquake left behind. The cling, cling, cling, of my chisel echoed, sometimes in sync but often times in discord, with a sudden clang:metal against stone, metal against plaster, metal against concrete: the sound of progress, rebuilding homes and reclaiming culture.
The magnitude 8.0 earthquake that struck on May 12, 2008, devastated this part of Sichuan province. The Chinese Communist Party reported the official death toll at around 70,000, but most people believe the actual number to be over 100,000. The official tally for those displaced was set at 4.8 million, although outside estimates suggest twice as many. According to independent reports, nearly 30 percent of the population of the Indigenous Qiang (pronounced “Chi’iang”) perished in this geological disaster.
The epicenter of the quake was in Wenchuan County, part of the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, located 50 miles northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. The environment comprises steep mountains, thick forests, deep river valleys, and grasslands.
The Ngawa Prefecture is renowned for the picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Site called Jiuzhaigou, or “Valley of Nine Villages,” and the Wolong National Panda Reserve, home to 150 endangered giant pandas. Adjacent to Ngawa Prefecture is Mianyang Prefecture, which contains Beichuan County. The municipal city of Beichuan bore one of the highest number of fatalities in last year’s quake. Its location in a mountain valley made for a death trap: earthquake-induced landslides and flooding entombed 20,000 people, including 1,000 students who were attending class at Beichuan Regional High School.
There was an overwhelming amount of support in the direct aftermath of the earthquake. Chinese Premier Wen Jinbao flew to the earthquake area within 90 minutes to lead rescue operations. Fifty thousand soldiers were dispatched to dig out survivors, distribute relief aid, and battle the rising water level of “quake lakes” that formed after landslides dammed large rivers. Intergovernmental organizations and NGOs made haste to set up programs in the disaster zone. Concerned Chinese citizens flocked from provinces near and far to lend a hand in the relief effort. The Chinese Communist Party officially declared a three-day period of mourning; candlelight vigils and acts of solidarity and compassion were held throughout the nation as well as in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some surrounding Asian countries. The Chinese Army, under the supervision of government engineers, carried out the construction of temporary housing, schools, and field hospitals. These buildings were made of reinforced sheet aluminum, long, white, one-story structures with blue metal roofs. Red banners with white characters adorned the sides of these buildings with government slogans expressing support and hope in the reconstruction effort.
Overall the Chinese government handled rescue and reconstruction and provided for the immediate needs of the earthquake survivors with precision and dignity. But in terms of efforts aimed to preserve Indigenous culture, there is room for critique.
The first archaeological evidence of the Qiang people dates back to the Shang Dynasty (16th-11 centuries BC). From AD 221-419, the Qiang peoples covered a broad geography across the present day Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, including parts of the Kunlun Mountains of Xinjiang, southern Gansu, eastern Qinghai, western Sichuan, and northern Yunnan provinces. But assimilation pressure from Tibetans and Han Chinese alike caused the Qiang to migrate towards the Minjiang River in Northwestern Sichuan, where they live today. The Qiang language lacks a written script, so they use Chinese characters. With the growth of trade and tourism and attendant needs for mainstream communication, many Qiang today have taken up the Sichuanese dialect of Mandarin Chinese.
Traditional Qiang villages are constructed of fortress-like multistoried stone buildings reinforced with massive logs, a testament to the legendary masonry skill of Qiang men. Stepping through Taoping Qiang village made me feel as if I was navigating an ancient castle: dark tunnels wound below buildings, and slits of sunlight leaked through, illuminating the way around ladders and stone stairways jutting towards the sky. White quartz stones flanked the roofs of these buildings, a reflection of the Qiang’s polytheistic religion.
White stones are used throughout Qiang culture to represent different gods. The white stones I saw on the roof represented the god of heaven. A white stone on a mountainside represents the god of that mountain, while a white stone standing in a field indicates the god of the earth and farm crops. A white stone in a kitchen signifies the god of fire.
The Qiang’s spiritual leader, known as a bi in the Qiang language, leads religious ceremonies and serves as the intermediary between the gods and the Qiang people. The sheepskin drum and monkey skull—representing elements of a Qiang traditional story—are essential tools of Qiang religion and culture, but these, like the language and other traditions, are fast disappearing. The earthquake has only hastened their departure.
The displacement of 5 million people required a gargantuan construction of refugee camps. The camp in Leigu, just outside of the ruins of Beichuan city, is typical. This camp was established as temporary housing for former residents of Beichuan city and surrounding rural areas. Yet the reality of the camp suggests something more permanent: it’s complete with Internet cafés, hair salons, family stores, street vendors, and even a small karaoke bar.
The hospital in Leigu was has state-of-the-art MRI, X-ray and emergency room medical equipment. In fact, this hospital on the outskirts of ruined Beichuan was better equipped than some of the hospitals I’d visited in Chengdu, where some of the X-Ray and EMG machines dated from the 1960s.
At first glance, one can easily recognize the new hospital, government building, and recreation center. While walking towards the new Beichuan regional high school I had to look closely at the Chinese characters, as it looked like no other school I’d seen before, and being a part-time English teacher, I’d seen several. The school and adjacent dormitories appeared to be a merger of modern cosmopolitan architecture with the stone masonry of the Qiang. The grayish-brown concrete buildings were adorned with large windows and stylish porches, and they also featured what looked like replicas of traditional Qiang towers. Was this a statement of cultural relativism, a stand in solidarity of Qiang culture, or was it a showing of the “fortress-like” construction of new schools to address criticism about the flimsy construction of older buildings that collapsed in the quake?
When I asked Qiang families about their children and education for them, they all gave similar answers; their children are attending school far away from home. Some are attending school in the Sichuan city of Mianyang, while others are as far away as the coastal province of Guangzhou. In May 2009, I spoke with a Qiang bubble-tea/hot-dog vendor at the Leigu refugee camp who spoke of his discontent with schooling policies. It was a Saturday night, and the locals had gathered for traditional Qiang dance in the town square. Folk music blared out of the government loudspeaker, and about 80 people danced in a wide circle, with smiling local girls eager to teach the dance to tourists and volunteers. It was a warm, festive night and spirits were high, which is probably why a man I spoke with was willing to share stories with me, though he asked to remain anonymous. He explained that shortly after the quake, he was told that his son would attend and board at a middle school in Mianyang free of charge.
Then, in the spring of 2009, he received notification that a fee of around $58 per month would be assessed. The man and his wife felt they had been deceived and do not believe it is right to have to pay for schooling, seeing that there is no public school available in Beichuan county. My conversation with them was in the Sichuan dialect of Chinese, but both the man and his wife claimed they knew the Qiang language. Their children, however, as well as their neighbor’s children, do not know the Qiang language, they said, and little opportunity exists for them to learn it. “When my son comes home,” the man said, “we have such little time together; he often wants to play with friends and he isn’t interested in more ‘learning.’ If schools don’t teach the language to our children, they probably will never learn it.”
Many Qiang children and teenagers spend a significant amount of time surfing the Internet, watching television, and chatting on cell phones. Some of these young Qiang also perceive their rural cultural heritage as backwards and unappealing. The only children I met who spoke their own language lived in isolated areas like the highlands of Wenchuan County. Most of these children were quite young and followed their traditionally dressed mothers while they carried out household tasks and socialized with one another. The older children and teenagers were nowhere to be found.
While showing off her embroidery for my friend to photograph, a local matriarch explained that many teenagers were going to school as far as Guangzhou, a Cantonese-speaking province near Hong Kong. She was concerned that the children would catch a taste of life in the big cities and eagerly turn their backs on their impoverished hometowns.
She also noted a similar attitude of young women not showing interest in learning traditional Qiang embroidery and the prized needlework skills that have brought much fame to their culture. Qiang society is organized along matrilineal lines. Qiang women have wider jurisdiction over family and township affairs than men. Women are typically older than their husbands and lead agricultural activities and organize social events and village meetings. Their ornate embroidered flowers adorn traditional gowns (worn by men and women), handmade shoes, and tapestries. It was this skill that the woman saw waning. But, she said with a sigh, after seeing so much destruction and poverty, she wasn’t surprised that young women want to move on and experience what life has to offer away from the countryside.
Certainly the opportunities in this region are scarce. The earthquake demolished factories, eroded landscapes, and contaminated the ecosystem with industrial pollution. In June 2008, the World Bank provided $1.5 million to fund initial environmental impact statements, but few updates have been provided since then. In March 2009, the Chinese government and World Bank agreed upon the $710 million Wenchuan Earthquake Recovery Project Loan to pay for the reconstruction of roads, bridges, water works, solid-waste-treatment plants, and health facilities. The Qiang, however, still lack the economic opportunities to reclaim their former lives. The absence of industrial jobs and the devastation of 30,000 hectares of farmland has forced families to migrate to cities. For those Qiang who remain in their hometowns, the rise of “earthquake tourism” has sadly become the main source of employment. The sale of photos of the destruction, memorabilia, and local fruit currently serves as the economic lifeblood in Wenchuan and Beichuan. The earthquake memorial museum in Dayi displays children’s backpacks salvaged from the rubble, but it remains unclear how profits from the museum will be reinvested. Museum owner Fan Jianchuan told National Public Radio about his plan for building three earthquake simulators. “The room will shake,” he said, “The ceiling will collapse, TVs will come crashing down, the sounds of people screaming will come out of speakers. Just like a Hollywood movie. I’ve found that earthquakes happen every 30 years or so. When another one comes, I’ll be 80. It won’t matter if I die. But I want young people to learn how to protect themselves against the next one. Only then will our society have hope for the future.”
International NGOs flocked to Northwestern Sichuan in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Habitat for Humanity promotes housing; UNICEF protects children; and the International Red Cross focuses on basic needs and medical supplies. Dozens of other major organizations are also involved. Christian churches also have a large presence in
earthquake relief efforts. Missionaries operating under the guise of independent NGOs or small businesses maintain myriad projects in northwestern Sichuan that pose a threat to traditional Qiang culture.
The desperate pressures of life in a refugee camp surely exacerbate the people’s susceptibility to outsider influence. Some Qiang recognize this risk and choose to remain in ruined homes, with failing crops and a dwindling workforce. A villager back in Jing Jia Cun explained just what the Qiang face in the post-earthquake reality: “Only an old man stays here on the mountain. The rest of the family moved to the valley. They used to live in Beichuan. Now they live in temporary houses. Now, to get money, we think about selling our car and trying to do something else. The car is our main income source. We made 50,000 yuan [$7,000] this year, for four people. We planned to build the house but we did not. Tea does not bring a lot of money, only 200 yuan this year. Pear trees had no pears this year. Caring for the trees has been difficult since the earthquake. Our activities are very limited. There is not much land here. Young people leave to get work. But if the family needs them, they come back.”
The author is a teacher in China who has worked closely with the Qiang and is studying contemporary Indigenous issues in that country. “Anders Oskar” is a pseudonym used at the author’s request to protect him from government retribution.