China is such a large country and so homogeneous that China outsiders often forget that there is more to China than the Han majority. In fact, people living in China, both Chinese and foreign, often forget that China itself has (debatably) 55 minority groups living within its borders. In fact, I, too, was guilty of this omission while I was living in Beijing, surrounded by an abundance of Han Chinese that I was.
Thus it was, that in the summer of 2009, as my first year of school in Beijing ended, and my friends and fellow classmates were preparing to return home and resume their “normal” hum drum lives, that five of us resolved to travel down to Sichuan province. Each of us went down with our own private agendas: to photograph the unparallelled scenery at Jiuzhaigou; to savour the mouthwatering spiciness of Sichuan hotpot in Chengdu; to examine the curious mineral structures in Huanglong Valley; to see first hand the effects of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Those plans garnered unanimous agreement from all of us. However, our friend Lina wanted to add another trip into our already packed agenda: a trip to visit a Qiang village called Taoping (桃坪).
Resistance came from various fronts. Firstly, we only had 7 days to accomplish everything we wanted to do, and that included the round-trip train ride from Beijing to Chengdu (one day each way) and 12 hour bus ride from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou. Secondly, other than Lina, our resident minorities-in-China expert (she was doing graduate work in Chinese minorities at her home university and was also studying Tibetan), nobody else was interested in the Qiang. For that matter, none of us had ever heard of the Qiang. We’d heard about the Tibetans, of course, and there were many Tibetan women lining the sides of the road in Beijing, selling Tibetan silver and turquoise jewellery. We knew of the Uyghurs, and had even eaten Uyghur cuisine in the varied restaurants around town. Of course we knew about the Hui, a predominantly muslim minority group in China, and eaten their delicious Nan bread. But the Qiang? Really?
However, Lina was persistent, and she finally got her way while we were in Sichuan province, and she opened my eyes to a beautiful, tragic world that I’d never even expected to see.
We went to Sichuan in late June 2009, just over a year after the major earthquake in 2008. As we toured the region, we saw the terrible destruction that earthquake had left in its wake. The bus ride from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou took 14 hours instead of the expected 12 hours, because the original road had been destroyed. At one point, we saw a portion of the original road we would have taken just over a year ago: a portion of a bridge, still standing on the other side of a raging river, the rest of it simply gone. All the tourist attractions we went to see were largely devoid of people, a feat of unimaginable proportions in China. Prices everywhere were dirt cheap, as people around the region scrambled to make some money in the aftermath of a terrible economic year. We drove past endless rows of blue-roofed temporary housing structures that were stifling hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. Most of the earthquake rubble had been removed, though there were many buildings still in disrepair. Construction projects littered the countryside, with construction crews hailing from all over China. Bright red banners were hung up all over, with comrades from around the country exhorting their hard-hit Sichuanese countrymen to “soldier onward” and “bravely face all troubles” as their country stood steadfast behind them.
The tiny village of Taoping, less than 50 miles away from the epicenter of the quake, had been equally hard hit. The driver we hired to take us out there was baffled that we’d even want to go, but we persisted. When we arrived, it was like being in a ghost town, so few people were left. Our driver took us to what he assured us was the best guesthouse in town, and it clearly had seen better days. Prior to the earthquake, it had been a thriving business. There was a lovely pond and pleasure garden, and I’m sure it had once been a lovely place to stay. However, the earthquake had left behind its indelible mark. The room I shared had a crack in the wall that stretched from the floor all the way up to the ceiling, in the other room we rented for the night, the crack was so large, you could actually see that the walls weren’t lying plumb any more, and we could actually look out through the crack for a clear view of the outdoors.
We spent the afternoon walking around the village exploring the unique architecture of the Qiang: beautifully square buildings with a tower that stood tall, acting as lookouts against invaders of all kinds. Each building had been put together with intricate stonework, and the craftsmanship in the delicate woodwork that made up their windows and doorways and balconies lent it all a beautifully mystical air. Long strings of bright red chili peppers and vibrant yellow corn cobs, essential parts of their diet hung from balconies and rooftops, drying in the sun, providing bright pops of colour against the sober grey and brown of wood and stone. Pots of vibrant green plants lined rooftop gardens, and lent a lived-in air to the place. Yet, even as we wandered the narrow alleyways and took in the unique architecture of the village, the effects of the earthquake a year gone past overshadowed our every move. There were piles of rubble in random places, scaffolding all over the place and around all the tall watchtowers we had come to see. There were huge cracks in walls, doors that did not hang quite right, and spiderwebs and dust everywhere. Above all, the village was largely empty.
That evening, while we waited for our evening meal, we spoke with the guesthouse proprietor, who took little nudging before he expounded at great length about the village’s plight. Almost all the families there had left, he said. Their houses weren’t safe, many of them were simply too dangerous for anybody to live in them at all. Some more stubborn families had remained, but they were barely scraping by. Tourists, the village’s major source of income, hardly came by any more. He pointed at the pond in his yard. It had once held a large number of fish that he would use to feed his guests for dinner, but he’d fed the village out of the pond after the earthquake, and there was no more fish left. The whole village had been waiting an entire year for the government to step in and help repair the damage that the earthquake had done, but other than a few trucks rolling in to put up the scaffolding in the month after the earthquake, nothing else had been done. All he heard was empty promises. One year out, the whole village was still waiting for the structural damage to be repaired. It was the local government’s fault, he declared. They were a minority group and discriminated against. The local government was corrupt, and the village had no connections there. He was quick to assure us that the national government wasn’t corrupt, and that the Communist Party elite in Beijing were beacons of respectability, before returning to his pitiless castigation of the hapless provicial bureaucrats. It was an enlightening discussion, cut short by a visiting friend.
Bemused and thoughtful, we headed into the dining hall for dinner. We were the only ones there, and a veritable feast had been laid out before us. We had ten different dishes and a soup, each of them traditional Qiang dishes we had no names for. As we ate, we discussed what we had learned from the proprietor, and what we had seen as we’d wandered around the village. It was a lovely meal, prepared with the warm hospitality of the Qiang people, yet set against a backdrop of neglect and tragedy.
When we left Taoping the next day, I apologized to Lina for objecting so strenuously to her wish to visit the village. It had been a unique experience all its own, a mix of appreciation for a unique minority group, and an understanding their place in Han-dominated China. In that time and in that place, I also got to see all this in the aftermath of one of the greatest natural disasters in China in modern times. It was an experience I will never forget. When I wrote this post, I looked up Taoping to see how it is doing at present, and if the reviews on TripAdvisor are to be believed, the village has since been repaired or rebuilt, and tourists continue to go and visit it. I highly recommend a visit there. It is a place vastly different from the China one sees in Beijing and Shanghai.