Qiang - Orientation

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.

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