“Did you hit the button? … Okay, good. Looks like we can get started,” Bai Jianqiong says in Qiang to her cousin, Bai Xiangyun. Jianqiong is sitting across from Xiangyun who is operating the camera and microphone. Together they are recording a traditional Qiang-language folk song sung by cultural expert Mr. Wang Xinguo from Black Tiger Valley.
Jianqiong is a native speaker of Qiang, a minoritized language of Sichuan, China. Both Jianqiong and Xiangyun are from the Yonghe Valley of Mao County, about thirty miles south of Black Tiger. “We are all Qiang, but our dialects, traditions, folklore, and beliefs vary widely by valley or even by village,” Jianqiong explains. “As far as Black Tiger goes, it’s pretty different. I can understand about thirty percent of the words, but it is hard to follow.”
Minoritized languages of western Sichuan, including Qiang, are only distantly related to Chinese and Tibetan. In fact, linguists are largely unsure of where most of these languages would fit on existing language family trees. One thing is clear: the communities who speak these languages are shifting toward using languages of wider communication, such as Mandarin or Standard Tibetan, in pursuit of education and economic advancement.
The folk song they are recording is about the origin of the name of the Black Tiger Valley. According to tradition, there was once a great and courageous general who died in battle while defending the valley from invaders. In an act of honoring the general, residents of the valley renamed the valley after General Black Tiger, and women of the valley took a pledge to wear a white funerary cloth on their heads for 10,000 years as an outward sign of their piety and respect.
“If you look at the headwear that women in Black Tiger valley wear, it is indeed very similar to what we in Yonghe Valley wear during funerals,” Jianqiong points out. “I wanted to learn more about the history behind the traditions in Black Tiger folk songs through this process.”
This is not Jianqiong’s first time recording Qiang folktales. Although her educational background is in accounting, since 2017, she has been involved in local initiatives focused on Qiang language documentation and revitalization, including those sponsored by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, Firebird Foundation. This current project is part of a workshop entitled “The Himalayan Languages of Sichuan,” co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The online workshop was focused on languages spoken by relatively small populations of farmers and herders in the remote western regions of Sichuan Province, along the high mountain ranges and deep valleys where the Sichuan basin meets the easternmost portion of the Tibetan Plateau.
The vision behind the workshop was to provide a platform for information and resource sharing for speakers of minoritized languages in Sichuan, to build their social networks, and to improve their fundraising skills to support linguistic documentation. The workshop consisted of three parts: an asynchronous set of video lectures, a live discussion, and a mock grant application process to allow participants to develop pilot projects with the help of a panel of local scholars. Jianqiong was one of fifty participants in The Himalayan Languages of Sichuan workshop, and her pilot project proposal was one of four sponsored by the workshop in the summer of 2020.
“After the workshop, I see speaking Qiang is not merely a way to communicate, “Jianqiong reflects. “It is not a language of no significance. I saw how much I have changed. I now pay more attention to how I am using the language, and I consult the elders if I don’t know how to express certain things. I hope more people can join the family of people who contribute to the use of Qiang. Starting from ourselves, we can contribute to the sustainable development of our own ethnic group.”
In addition to a collection of folksongs sung by Mr. Wang, Jianqiong’s team worked with two nationally recognized Qiang intangible cultural heritage specialists from Black Tiger. The first was Mr. He Wanquan, who demonstrated how to build and play Qiang flutes.
“Qiang music is such an important part of our cultural identity. Some aspects of Qiang musical culture, such as polyphonic singing, are more widely known, but some traditional instruments such as the Qiang flute, are less well known.”
The other expert was Mr. Yu Youcheng, a shibi, or religious practitioner. Mr. Yu is recognized widely as an expert on all aspects of Black Tiger traditional culture. “He was generous enough to let us record ritual language and certain ceremonial chants.”
“Things are different now,” Jianqiong says. “Traditionally, women do not participate in religious ceremonies or learn about ritual language. But now, the degree of endangerment is so great that the need to protect these parts of our culture is more important than keeping things exactly the same as before.”
In addition to folk music and religious traditions, Jianqiong’s 2020 project also documented the traditions of embroidery in Black Tiger Valley. Qiang embroidery is a symbol of local tradition and cultural heritage and has also become a symbol of Qiang resilience after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Although the symbolic importance of embroidery has grown, the knowledge and practice of embroidery is still endangered.
“There were once many embroidery techniques among the Qiang people, but in recent years, young people have ceased learning Qiang embroidery craftsmanship, instead purchasing machine-made substitutes for these objects in the county seat,” Jianqiong reports. “These objects include daily wear, ceremonial clothing, and traditional hats for children. Today, the continuation of these traditional crafts requires renewed interest on the part of young people.
Although her project is broad and encompasses different aspects of culture including, folk music, religious traditions, and embroidery, Jianqiong always comes back to the central issues of community involvement and cultural representation. She notes, “Many people have not realized that the language is endangered. Even if some people have realized that, they do not have an organization to help them take actions. In order to promote Qiang language and culture, it is imperative to have organizers.”
Jianqiong mentions the work of David Crockett Graham, an American anthropologist who wrote The Customs and Religion of the Ch’iang, published by the Smithsonian in 1958. Graham’s work was one of the first outsider descriptions of Qiang religious tradition and folklore. Jianqiong’s attitude is one of inclusion and appreciation, while still emphasizing the importance of local involvement.
“It is good that Graham and people like him wrote about Qiang culture for others to read, and that there is some interest in these things, but it is ultimately more valuable for us to be able to record what is important to us and to have a say in how we present ourselves.”
The Language Vitality Initiative at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage supports community-driven language reclamation efforts. The team promotes language use in new and traditional contexts and strengthens engagement in cultural heritage wellness.