In ancient China, Qiang was usually used as a generic term for the non-Han peoples in the northwest. These peoples were frequently at war with the inhabitants of the Yellow River valley, the ancestors of ethnic Hans. Not until the rise of the state of Qin under Duke Mu was the Qiang expansion effectively checked.
The structure of the graph 羌 also reflects this view. It was composed of two elements: 人 (man) and 羊 (sheep), suggesting a sheep-herding people. During the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) and Wei-Jin periods (221-419), Qiang were widely distributed along the mountainous fringes of the northern and eastern Tibetan Plateau, from the Kunlun Mountains (崑崙山) in Xinjiang province, and eastern Qinghai area, to southern Gansu, western Sichuan, and northern Yunnan.
Later, the Chinese restricted the term Qiang min 羌民 (Qiang people registered with the Chinese government) to refer to sinicized non-Han living in the Min River valley in Sichuan and used the term Fan Qiang 番羌 (barbarian Qiang) to refer to less sinicized non-Han living in the vicinity.
The Qiang today are mountain dwellers. A fortress village, zhai 寨, composed of 30 to 100 households, in general is the basic social unit beyond the household. An average of two to five fortress villages in a small valley along a mountain stream, known in local Chinese as gou 溝, make up a village cluster (cun 村). The inhabitants of fortress village or village cluster have close contact in social life. In these small valleys, people cultivate narrow fluvial plains along creeks or mountain terraces, hunt animals or collect mushrooms and herbs (for food or medicine) in the neighboring woods, and herd yaks and horses on the mountain-top pastures. In the past, warfare between villages was common.
From the linguistic point of view, all modern Qiang people speak one of two Qiang languages, which are members of the Qiangic sub-family of Tibeto-Burman. However, dialects are so different that communication between different Qiang groups is often in Chinese. Lacking a script of their own, the Qiang also use Chinese characters.
Romantic love is considered important, and sexual freedom is prevalent, as the Qiang find marriages important. In the past, marriages were organized by the parents, with approval from the children. It still is not unusual for brides to live in their parents' houses for a year or so after the marriage, and the children were usually separated from their parents after marriage, except for the first son and his family. However, such habits have been gradually discarded with the coming of liberation.
The Qiang also have a rigid taboo system in their birth and death. Prior to the birth of a baby, a pregnant woman is not allowed to go near the riverside or well, be at a wedding ceremony, or stand in the watchtower.
Upon a delivery, a Duangong shaman is invited to help the delivery procedure, and strangers are not allowed to wail or enter the house. This is prevented by hanging up a flail on the gate for a week upon the birth of a boy, and a bamboo basket upon the birth of a girl.
After she has delivered her child, a woman is not allowed into the kitchen for one month thereafter. It would be considered a sinful action against the kitchen and family gods. A woman is also not allowed to leave her home, or meet any strangers on the first forty days after delivery. It is believed that danger of an evil spirits coming into the house would harm the mother. An initiation ceremony of cattle sacrifice would be conducted on the home altar, where the baby would be given a name.
Stillborn or premature babies are not considered as human beings by the Qiang. Instead, it was considered as a demon which caused a woman to become pregnant, as it was believed that the deceased would cause problems for the family. Their bodies are thrown in a hole in the ground and then covered with dirt.
Both the menfolk and womenfolk wear gowns made of gunny cloth, cotton and silk with sleeveless wool jackets. Following age-old Chinese traditions, their hair and legs are bounded. The womenfolk wear laced clothing with decorated collars, consisting of plum-shaped silver ornaments. Sharp-pointed and embroidered shoes, embroidered girdles and earrings, neck rings, hairpins and silver badges are also popular.
Millet, highland barley, potatoes, winter wheat and buckwheat serve as the staple food of the Qiang. Consumption of wine and smoking of orchid leaves are also popular among the Qiang.
The Qiang live in granite stone houses generally consisting of two to three stories. The first floor is meant for keeping livestock and poultry, while the second floor is meant for the living quarters, and the third floor for grain storage. If the third floor does not exist, the grains will be kept on the first or second floor instead.
Skilled in construction of roads and bamboo bridges, the Qiang can build them on the rockiest cliffs and swiftest rivers. Using only wooden boards and piers, these bridges can stretch up to 100 meters. Others who are excellent masons are good at digging wells. Especially during poor farming seasons, they will visit neighboring places to do chiseling and digging.
Embroidery and drawn work are done extemporaneously without any designs. Traditional songs related to topics such as wine and the mountains are accompanied by dances and the music of traditional instruments such as leather drums.
The majority of the Qiang adhere to a polytheist religion, known as Rujiao, a religion that involves belief in the White Stones that were worshipped as the sun god, who will bring good luck to their daily aspects of life. Others, who live near the Tibetans follow Tibetan Buddhism. Small minorities of Muslims and Taoists exist as well.
The Qiang worship five major gods, twelve lesser gods, some tree gods, numerous stones worshiped as gods. A special god is worshippeed as well in every village and locality, who are mentioned by name in the sacred chants of the Qiang priests. Mubyasei, also known Abba Chi, is known as the god of heaven is also considered as the supreme god. This term is also used to refer to a male ancestor god, Abba Sei. In certain places, Shan Wang, the mountain god, is considered to worshipped the supreme god. The Qiang people have also adopted many practices of the Taoist gods as well.
For the Polytheists, most White Stones were placed on the corners of their roofs or towers, as a good luck symbol for the sun. A square stone pagoda, which is located on the edge of many Qiang villages and on the top of a nearby hill as well. The pagoda is usually over two meters high and its uppermost part is inlaid with a circle of small white stones. A larger white stone is also placed at the pinnacle as well.
A small pagoda is also sometimes built on the roof of a house, with a pottery jar that contained five varieties of grain is placed within the pagoda. On top of the pagoda, a white stone is placed together with ox and sheep horns. By tradition, the door of a Qiang house is supposed to face south and the pagoda is built on the northern end of the roof in line with the door. Every morning, the Qiang family will burn incense sticks or cedar twigs in the pagoda and kowtow to it, praying for the protection of the family by the god of the white stone.
However, with the encouragement of atheism, worship of the White Stones is not nearly as common as it used to be. There are several legends that explain the origin of this stone worship.
Upon arriving at the territory of the local Geji people, the Qiang fought a losing battle. Jirpol, witnessing the condition that they were in, instructed the Qiang to find a strong white stone and attach it to rattan sticks and fight with this weapon, tying some sheep wool to the neck of the stick as well. Victory was on their side, and the Qiangs began to look upon the white stones as gods to be worshipped.
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