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First Look: The Qiang People of



Two Stories

The first holy man in the Qiang people’s history, whose name was AbaMullah,
came down from heaven and stopped to rest on the top of the snowy mountain.
He laid his holy book down and while he slept, a sheep ate the pages of the
book. When he awoke, he had forgotten all the sacred sutras contained in the
holy book. A monkey appeared and instructed him to kill the sheep and use the
hide to make a drum. The holy man complied and made a one-sided sheepskin
drum. The monkey told him to play the drum and in this way, the holy man
would remember the holy scriptures.

This story explains why all Qiang holy men — to the present day —
play a sheepskin drum, why there is no written holy book among the Qiang,
and why the Qiang worship a monkey skull, also called the AbaMullah, as
a way to memorialize the first priest.
The Qiang people are one of the 56 ethnic categories living in China
today. Qiang is a name given by the ancient Han to the nomadic people in

Emma Zevik, Ph.D., is Research Associate at the Fairbank Center for East Asian
Research, Harvard University. She teaches in the Graduate School of Arts and
Social Sciences, Lesley University. From 1995 to 1997, she was Visiting
Professor, Composition and Musicology, at Sichuan Conservatory of Music in
China. She received her Ph.D. from The Union Institute University. Her e-mail
address is:
196 Emma Zevik

western China. Today, they inhabit the mountainous regions in the north-
western part of Sichuan Province. In their own language, they call them-
selves erma people, meaning “ourself.” The Qiang are recognized as a
“first ancestor” culture due to their ancient roots; evidence from bones and
tortoise shells shows that the Qiang were living in communities in north-
western China during the Shang Dynasty, c. 16th–11th centuries B.C.
Some Qiangs were assimilated by the Tibetans and some by the Han,
leaving a small number unassimilated. This group gradually moved to the
upper reaches of the Minjiang River and eventually became today’s Qiang
nationality, with a total population of over 198,000 (Zhang and Zeng
Qiang belief systems and traditions pre-date Taoism and certainly
Chinese Buddhism; it is no exaggeration to state that Qiang culture could
be considered the “first” culture of China. Certainly, Qiang culture of today
contains complex influences, including Tibetan, Han Chinese, Buddhist,
Taoist and even Christian. It would be impossible to sort out these tangled
strands to uncover the original religious practices; yet in examining the
stories, myths and legends, we can perhaps find a glimpse of some deeper
understanding of the human condition as experienced by the Qiang.
The focus of my work in the field was the traditions of the Qiang
shamans or duangongs.1 It is my best guess that there are perhaps today no
more than twenty living Qiang shamans who have had full and complete
initiations (gaigua). Those whom I learned from range in age from 62 to
82. This generation of shamans, of a virtually unknown and widely scat-
tered minority group, holds particularly poignant knowledge. Each one has
personally experienced the multiple turbulences of Liberation in 1949 and
the many movements since that time culminating in the Great Leap For-
ward and the Cultural Revolution. Although the recent “opening” policies
of China have certainly allowed economic improvements to trickle down to
villagers, day-to-day life in the countryside is harsh and difficult. These
shamans hold first-hand knowledge of both suffering and healing, as
individuals, and as community intellectuals.
“My father’s [shaman] tools disappeared during the Cultural Revolution. It’s a
pity. Disappeared. Tools disappeared.” Lao Beizhi explains the complexities
surrounding his career as a Qiang shaman. “After Liberation, my family was
identified as a rich peasant family. The rich peasant is not as good as the poor
peasant. This is one of the bad identifications. So, how could I carry on my
[shaman] duties at that moment?” Lao Beizhi, age 61, had completed seven
years of study as an apprentice shaman, then went off with the soldiers to liberate
First Look: The Qiang People of Sichuan 197

the countryside under the new government of communist China in 1950. When
he returned, the new government had discarded the feudal traditions and he
was not allowed to have his gaigua, the initiation-graduation ceremony in which
he would be crowned as a shaman and receive his own set of shaman tools.
Everyone in the village points to Lao Beizhi, exclaiming, “He is the
duangong [shaman].” Yet they also question his credentials, his authority, and
his abilities because everyone knows he never had a gaigua. No one can list
any specific deficiencies. Mr. Lao explains his situation quite clearly, “Oh, this
is the same as the examination system in the ancient system of China. You
know, if a student is qualified to pass, to be a scholar, he must take the
examination. But if the examination system is discarded, he couldn’t be a scholar
even though he’s qualified. I had completed all the courses at that moment, I
just didn’t have the gaigua. Of course, this is the same for qualified students
who couldn’t pass the examination to be a scholar. This is the same.”2

One wonders how and why the implements, sacred and invaluable,
“disappeared” so easily and so casually. One wonders at the depth of
feeling about traditions and ceremonies discarded so simply. One wonders
about lives and professions so abruptly interrupted. These were among my
questions during my time with the Qiang people.
Although there is a growing urban class of professional, educated
Qiang, the shamans remain in the village, bilingual although most are
illiterate in Chinese. Clearly, they are community scholars, keepers of
Qiang history and culture, having memorized the epics as part of their
training. The Qiang shamans are distinctive in their professional dress and
implements, including monkeyskin hat, sheepskin drum, holy stick — used
to drive out devils — gongs and seals, and perhaps, most significantly, the
AbaMullah: a preserved monkey skull handed down, in some villages, for
over fifteen generations.
The world outside China now knows the details of recent modern
Chinese history, in large part through the work of gifted writers,
filmmakers, artists and musicians. These talented people had the possibil-
ity to overcome tremendous obstacles and find their way out. Yet, what
about the peasant intellectuals, these community scholars, particularly
minority duangongs: not sent down to the countryside but born into the
countryside with no possibilities? What were their experiences? What are
their reflections today?

The Qiang Today

Since the early 1980s, China has been opening to the outside world. In its
198 Emma Zevik

efforts to modernize, a result of economic development, enormous changes

are taking place for both individuals and within the social body. These
changes are influencing the ancient belief system and traditional customs
of Qiang culture. The Qiang people live in villages situated in difficult
topography. It is a harsh geography of steep mountains with crisscrossing
turbulent rivers, which effectively block homogeneity or unity among the
Qiang. Historically dominated by both the Tibetans and the Han Chinese,
the Qiang have never been a unified political entity. Consider even the
language: it is quite often the case that residents from villages twenty
kilometers apart have trouble understanding each other if they speak in the
Qiang language. Beyond language and geography, this intra-diversity
among the Qiang can also be seen in their customs, music and dance, and
in religious practices as well.
The Qiang live in stone-fortress homes built on the mountain cliffs.
There is also a growing number of urban Qiang residing in Chengdu, the
capital of Sichuan province: about 600 at present.3 More and more,
villagers, after obtaining changes in their household registrations — easier
to achieve now but still a rigorous process — are able to move to the county
town, where they pursue a variety of jobs, sell their crops in the free
markets, or perhaps open small shops. In the villages, they are primarily
farmers, raising crops such as corn, buckwheat, potatoes, vegetables,
apples, walnuts, tobacco, and hemp, and livestock such as pigs, chickens,
goats, yaks, oxen, mules, and dogs.
In Sichuan Province, the Qiang inhabit primarily the counties
Maoxian, Wenchuan, Lixian, Songpan, Beichuan and Heishui of the Aba
Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Region, an area interspersed heavily with
Tibetans and Hui (Moslems) as well as Han Chinese. Although this area
was opened to outsiders in the 1980s and tourism is being actively
developed, it is officially considered a minority area. Linguistically, the
Qiang language is part of the Tibetan-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibetan
family. The Qiang language is categorized into Northern and Southern
dialects, with five and four sub-dialects respectively (Yu 1997).
Although the Qiang people have their own language, most speak
Mandarin Chinese, and some few are even learning English in the hopes of
obtaining better jobs outside of their villages. Therefore, the Qiang lan-
guage could be considered an endangered species. The Qiang language has
no written form, but several years ago Chinese linguists developed a script
for it and a pilot program was launched in four village schools to teach this
standardized Qiang language.
First Look: The Qiang People of Sichuan 199

My concern with the issues surrounding the language reflects a direct

link between the language and the religion of the Qiang. The Qiang sutras
have no written form and were memorized by the shamans when they were
young boys. Since most children and young adults today cannot speak the
Qiang language, the shaman has also become a keeper of the language, and
in reciting the chants and songs, the words themselves are emblems of the
culture. Indeed, one of the most daunting aspects of the fieldwork for me
was the language issue. I would collect sutras and chants in one village, and
then begin working in a nearby village and realize that although I was
hearing the same chant, used in the same situation, the language was
almost completely different. I thus began to wonder about the influence of
the language itself on the movements and the procedures for each cer-
emony as presented in nearby villages. The language itself could be con-
sidered a social body, defining itself and imposing itself on the residents of
a particular locality, and by extension, influencing the rituals, ceremonies
and religious practices of that locality. Yet, as I have noted, it is the case
now that only elders know the Qiang language. As this emblem, the Qiang
language, fades out, the larger, stronger social body of the Chinese and
even the English language moves in, as a major constraint affecting the
individuals in the village and Qiang culture as a whole. Exploring the
fissures and pressures facing the language, we can gain a deeper under-
standing of the religion and its current practices, for both the social body as
a whole and the individuals who act within this social body.

Qiang Religious Practices

The Qiang people hold a polytheistic belief system based on animism;
basically, they worship gods of nature and spirits of the ancestors. They
offer sacrifices to the gods of nature, while spirits of the ancestors are
enshrined in the family house (Wang et al. 1992: 20). There are five great
deities and twelve lesser deities worshipped in each village (Graham 1958:
46) as well as a variety of other deities, such as mountain gods, tree gods,
door gods, the god of fire, the god of domestic animals, the god of wind
and rain, the god of births, occupational gods (hunter, stonemason,
blacksmith), the god blessing women in their work, and the god blessing
men in their work. Many, but not all, of the gods appear in male-female
pairs; for brevity and clarity in this report, I use the term “god” to cover
both genders or paired possibilities and I look forward in the future to
offering readers a more detailed article in which this intriguing aspect is
200 Emma Zevik

examined more fully. Many Qiang people believe Chinese gods to be real
deities and worship them regularly, such as kitchen gods and house gods.
According to Wang et al, there are up to 48 levels of deities:
All the gods, with the exception of Abamubita (God of Heaven), are of equal
rank and assume social functions and duties within certain limitations. For
instance, the god of a certain mountain can only govern this mountain; the god
of a certain place can only rule that place. There are no degrees of seniority
among the gods, nor are any statues of them given. People can choose any
god(s) to worship according to their needs. (1992: 14)

The religious practices of the Qiang are the most complex aspect of
Qiang culture. The religious customs encompass a diverse and vast array of
activities. Dress, food, residence, travel, marriage, funerals, festivals, daily
life etiquette, social contacts — all have strong links to religious customs.
Since, as earlier noted, the Qiang language has no written form, and its
spoken forms are quite numerous and distinct from each other, the reli-
gious customs vary greatly from locality to locality and even from village
to village. “For instance, every Qiang family enshrines gods, but the ways
of worshipping, the number of gods enshrined, and even the gods them-
selves in different households can be quite different” (Wang et al. 1992:
Without question, the most visible and distinctive element of Qiang
culture and religious practice is the white stone. Commonly found in all
areas where the Qiang reside, the quartz stones are enshrined on roofs,
towers, and mountains, in fire pits, fields and forests. Wang et al. state that
since the Qiang have no idols, the white stone, symbolizing all the gods,
bears a soul which [the stone] itself lacks but represents something mysterious
and powerful. Ancient people thought that enshrining and worshipping these
soul-bearing objects would help them acquire the protection of the gods these
objects represented. The worship of the white stone is a worship which focuses
on the gods represented, not on the object itself. A white stone on the roof
represents the god of heaven; a white stone beside the cooking stove represents
the god of fire; a white stone on the mountain represents the god of the mountain;
a white stone standing in the fields represents the god of crops and earth. (1992:

At the center of Qiang culture stands the duangong, called bi in the

Qiang language. As earlier noted, the bi is the keeper of the culture, the
scholar of the community. Although there are several stories of female
duangongs in the past, and there is no limitation as to gender, there are no
First Look: The Qiang People of Sichuan 201

living female duangongs at this time. Among his many responsibilities, the
bi coordinates the relationships between human beings, spirits and deities
for the welfare of all the villagers. Like the Qiang language, the bi’s skills,
knowledge and wisdom, as well as his tools and implements and practices
traditionally transmitted orally from generation to generation, are
The Qiang’s belief system has been influenced by Taoism, Buddhism
and even Christianity (via missionaries). As noted earlier, there is great
variety in spiritual beliefs, even between villages within close proximity to
each other. Generally, there is belief in souls and in spirits, ghosts, and
demons. Some people have adopted the Chinese belief in three major souls
and seven lesser souls (Graham 1958: 43). There is belief in reincarnation
and fate as well as the regular practice of ancestor worship. The Qiang
believe in a large pantheon of gods; however, unlike the Chinese and the
Tibetans, both of whom make images of their numerous gods, the Qiang
have no holy images of their gods. There are possibly two exceptions:
AbaMullah, the original holy man now memorialized by a monkey skull,
and the King of Demons, often carved on the priest’s sacred staff. The
AbaMullah monkey skull is wrapped in bundles of white or brown paper.
Once each year, the statue is ceremoniously wrapped in another layer of

Duangong, Priest, Shaman?

During my time among the Qiang, I was able to complete a comprehensive
survey of all living duangongs of the Southern Qiang and a preliminary
exploration of Northern Qiang duangongs. Let me here outline the basic
tasks and responsibilities of duangongs. The duangong in fact lives an
ordinary everyday life, with family and work responsibilities no different
from anyone else in the village. However, the duangong tools and imple-
ments are an emblem of the spiritual place he both occupies and carries out
within the community. The duangong is believed to have regular contact
with the gods and spirits. It is believed that the duangong can prevent and
heal diseases. He also calculates (through divination and fortune telling)
the best dates for important events in community life, carries out rituals and
ceremonies, and conducts sacrifices and blessings.
The specific details of the ceremonies vary greatly among villages and
amongst individual duangongs. Among the ceremonies I observed and
documented were a funeral, a memorial service, blessings of all sorts,
202 Emma Zevik

healing rituals, and consultations of many kinds. In addition to these actual

ceremonies, I observed re-creations of certain ceremonies as directed by
individual duangongs as well as a huge re-created festival organized by the
local governmental office. Generally at such ceremonies there is recitation
of appropriate sutras from the Qiang holy book, preparation of a ritualized
feast from appropriately prepared goat/pig/chicken, the burning of incense
sticks and sometimes, paper money, and the preparation of holy flags,
stamps, seals, charms, and spells.
Is the duangong a shaman? In this essay, up to this point, I have used
this term interchangeably with other terms, such as holy man and priest. At
first glance, it would appear that he is a shaman, although Graham (1958:
43) labels him as priest. He performs typical shaman duties: he plays a
drum and is constantly sought out to heal the sick; and he is believed to
have mysterious powers to deal with the world of spirits, demons and
ghosts. Wang et al (1992) make a convincing argument that the duangong
carries out some functions of a shaman but that, at the same time, the
duangong is also quite different from a shaman. Briefly, their argument can
be summarized as follows. The duangong carries out several roles: presid-
ing over religious ceremonies, carrying out magic spells to relieve people
of evil spirits, acting as wizard, healer, doctor and psychologist treating
patients for their sicknesses, organizing and performing the Qiang epics,
myths and legends at festivals and major gatherings, and acting as the
community intellectual and scholar. The duangong is an ordinary member
of the village, never making his living as duangong professional. While
both shamans and duangongs deal with the spirit world, using magic and
special chants and the drum, duangongs deal with a wide range of spirits
and have the supreme AbaMullah god in common, while shamans often
deal with a much smaller number of gods and have a personal protector
god, quite individual to each shaman. Shamans generally have been chosen
by the spirits to become shamans (often after a test or life-threatening
event), whereas anyone can become a duangong as long as they complete
the training and education. Often shamans receive the spirits in trance or
possession; duangongs never do. Possession and trance does occur during
some rituals, but this happens with other people, often called tongzi, while
the duangong chants and beats the drum (Wang 1992: 78).

Closing Thoughts
Duangongs are the scholars, the historians and keepers of the Qiang
First Look: The Qiang People of Sichuan 203

culture. The duangong is the central axis around which the Qiang village
revolves. The hat and the sheepskin drum are his tools for carrying out
rituals and ceremonies; more importantly, these are also vital signs, tan-
gible and visible, by which the villagers recognize the duangong’s
authority, competence and respected position in the social body. The
duangong’s tools are the mark of his authority, but the duangong himself
is the most important sign for the community at large. He is the symbol of
the community’s heritage and culture. The duangong of today has become
a living museum — a container of Qiang history, displaying the Qiang
language, dress, beliefs, customs, epics, songs, and dances.
Of the 11 duangongs I worked with in the Southern Qiang area, not
one had a complete set of duangong tools. At various times during their
lives, the tools were hidden, in hopes of salvaging them from Chinese
government search teams intent on destroying these items left over from
the feudal era. Qiang shaman tools and dress were routed out and destroyed
by the army and, at the same time, concealed by the Qiang in attempts to
gain some measure of control and protection; but they could not fully
succeed in preserving their cultural icons. In this report, I have made the
case that among the Qiang people their indigenous language is one of the
emblems of their religion, just as are their tools and dress; and just as the
Qiang tools are endangered, so too is the Qiang language and culture itself
as embodied in the duangong.

1. This fieldwork was made possible with a grant from the Asian Cultural
Council. My work was carried out from October 1995 to September 1997 as
Visiting Professor, Composition and Musicology at Sichuan Conservatory of
Music in Chengdu under the Visiting Scholar China program of the United
Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. I thank my students and
colleagues at the Conservatory, who provided a first look at the Qiang villages
on National Day, October 1, 1995. I offer special thanks to Mr. Li Zhongyong,
President Emeritus. I also thank Mr. Zou Xiangping for providing introduc-
tions and encouragement. I am grateful to the Foreign Affairs Departments of
Sichuan Province and Sichuan Conservatory of Music as well as to Wenchuan
County Foreign Affairs and Tourism Bureau. Finally, I offer many thanks to
Ms. Tian Liyuan, Ms. Yao Xiaoyao, and Mr. Mao Yao, research assistants, and
to Mr. Chen Zhong, interpreter. Last but not least, I thank Mr. Zhang Wei and
Mr. Tang Qinquan for their translations.
2. It is my privilege to know Mr. Lao Beizhi as colleague and teacher, as well as
204 Emma Zevik

the other duangongs who graced me with their life stories. I look forward to
continuing to learn from them with enthusiasm and gratitude.
3. There are a variety of Qiang professional urbanites, born in the villages, who
have been able to pass the examination and pursue higher education, usually at
the Minority College. Among those particularly helpful to this work was Mr.
Yu Yaoming, a journalist.

References Cited
Graham, David Crockett. 1958. The Customs and Religion of the Ch’iang.
Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution.
Lao Beizhi. 1995–1996. Personal interviews.
Wang Kang, Li Jiangzhong, and Wang Qingyu. 1992. Shenmi de baishi chongbai
— qiang zu de xinyang he lisu (Mysterious White Stone Worship — Beliefs
and Social Customs of Qiang Nationality). Chengdu, China: Sichuan
Nationalities Publishing House. Tang Qinquan has written an unpublished
translation of this manuscript.
Yu Yaoming. 1996–1997. Personal interviews.
Zevik, Emma. 2001. “Lao BeiZhi Never Had a Gaigua” [initiation or coronation].
In Shaman, Vol. 9, No. 1. Budapest: Molnar & Kelemen Oriental Publisher.
Zevik, Emma. (forthcoming). “Qiang Shamanism.” In Encyclopedia of Shaman-
ism. Oxford: ABC-CLIO.
Zhang Weiwen and Zeng, Qingnan. 1993. In Search of China’s Minorities.
Beijing: New World Press.
First Look: The Qiang People of Sichuan 205

Fig. 1. Lao Beizhi 1995. Photograph by

Emma Zevik.

Fig. 2. Duangong displaying

holystick 1996. Photograph by
Mao Yao.
206 Emma Zevik

Fig. 3. Two duangongs with family and

Emma Zevik 1996. Photograph by Zhang

Fig. 4. Qiang village with watch towers 1996. Photograph by Yu Yaoming.