Page last updated at 16:40 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 17:40 UK

Saving Sichuan's 'people in the clouds'

The devastating earthquake in Sichuan province has seriously endangered the 3,000 year-old customs of the Qiang people, writes the BBC's Nick Mackie.

Zhou Guangrong, the Zhou family grandmother, above the village
The Qiang live high in the mountains of Sichuan, in southern China

It is a precarious drive some 10 km up a narrow, winding mountain trail to catch a glimpse of Zengtou and its fortress-like dwellings.

From about a kilometre downhill, the damage seems slight.

Surprisingly so, for this area is close to the epicentre of May's powerful earthquake. To the east, the huge Longmenshan range - the quake fault line - fills the skyline.

After China's choking, chaotic cities, the final climb past hillside blossoms towards this village in the clouds seems idyllic.

But on the rock-strewn path between high stone walls that serves as Zengtou's main street, the picture is different.

At the home of 60-year-old Zhou Libin the quake damage is clear.

Sections of the roof have caved in and supporting walls have collapsed. Huge cracks run down stonework that is still standing and the floor is dangerously unstable.

“We've no idea how to continue,” she says, crying. “We cannot harvest our plants, our peppercorns. We used to dry them on the roof, now we've either no roof or it's too dangerous.”

'Too dangerous'

The authorities face many big reconstruction decisions across the earthquake zone. But the plight of the Qiang people is particularly dire because their very culture is endangered.

Residents talk about their threatened village

The main Qiang city of Beichuan was totally destroyed. The military is trying to salvage thousands of relics and artefacts from its rubble.

Throughout the region, hillside hamlets are in ruins. An estimated 10% of the Qiang population perished on 12 May - and many of them were the elders, responsible for preserving the ancient traditions.

Come sunset, the Zhou family sit down to dinner next to their tent - potatoes, eggs and green vegetables cooked over a wood burning stove, washed down with rice wine. The electricity in Zengtou is still out, so candles and lanterns are lit.

The conversation flows between how they make a living - growing and selling medicinal herbs, peppercorns and honey - to the uniqueness of the Qiang way of life.

They believe everything in nature, from mountains to trees, has a spirit, so it is important to live among what you believe in.

But experts will soon decide if villages like Zengtou are safe to rebuild. There is talk that the mountain people may, reluctantly, relocate to the valley.

“If they say that it's too dangerous to stay, we will move - even though we don't really want to go. Even the most traditional thinking among us will move,” said 61-year-old Zhou Daoshan, the family patriarch.

'Warrior people'

Even further up the mountain lives the county's only surviving shibi, or spiritual leader.

Spiritual leader Yang Maoshan
Mr Yang is one of very few remaining Qiang spiritual leaders

On the way there are several tower-like structures, now partially in ruins. These are special to the Qiang people - they would shelter in them from attacks by bandits and even the Chinese army.

Yang Maoshan sits in the shade outside his quake-shaken home. The 88-year-old sets out what it means to be Qiang.

“Traditionally, we're warriors. We've lived high in the mountains as it is difficult for your enemy to get the better of you,” he says.

The wellbeing of Mr Yang and the other surviving shibi is now more important than ever.

These elders are the only people fluent in the Qiang language - which is just spoken as there are no written characters. They are the authorities on ceremonies and the many gods that govern the Qiang way of life.

“I have learned well about these things,” Mr Yang says. “From the moon, the sun, stars to the trees, to the underworld - I know them well.”

Of course, the Qiang people have faced several threats to their way of life in recent years.

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960-70s, they came under attack because the traditional social order and complex belief system countered the Mao doctrine, Mr Yang says. New shibis could not be trained.

And with the economic reforms of the 1980s, many Qiang left their villages to seek better paid work in the cities.

Zhou Liejia, in special Qiang dress
Young people like Zhou Liejia often leave for the city in search of work

Thirteen-year-old Zhou Liejia went to see the shibi with her father, sporting a bright, multi-coloured Qiang dress in honour of the occasion.

Back in her tent, she returns to her schoolwork: English assignments to be completed over the summer break.

The teenager is ambitious. Her elder sister is at university in the provincial capital, Chengdu, and she wants to follow.

“We live in the poor west among the mountains,” she says. “I want to go out of the mountains to study and work, and then give something back to my hometown.”

That is if, in the future, there is a hometown left.

The government is committed to preserving the Qiang traditions and culture. But there is a dilemma.

If the people have to establish new communities elsewhere, notably in the valleys, much of the essence of what it is to be Qiang could be left behind.

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