You are here: Home» Sichuan Earthquake--One Year on» Latest News

One Step at a Time

Adjust font size:

As soon as he begins dancing, Wang Guanquan is a man transformed. Seeing him stand on his toes, flap his hands and contort his waist and hips into an "s", it's hard to believe this is someone in his late 50s.

The young women behind him can't help laughing as they follow Wang to raise their hands in flower-like gestures.

Wang is teaching dances of the Qiang minority to other survivors of last year's earthquake in hard-hit Beichuan County, Sichuan Province.

The ancient Qiang people once helped found the Xia Dynasty some 4,000 years ago. Da Yu, a legendary figure who led the Chinese to fight rampant floods, is said to have come from the Qiang minority in Beichuan.

The cultural heritage of the Qiang people is faced with grave challenges as some 30,000 Qiang, or one-tenth of the entire Qiang population, perished in the May 12 earthquake. Wang and his friends are trying to keep this heritage alive.

Since last September, Wang and his wife have been living in Shengli village, Leigu town, the scene of the biggest resettlement of quake survivors in Beichuan county. More than 12,000 survivors occupy a 3.9- sq-km area where some 6,000 plank houses have been built.

Every night at 7, Wang leads the group dance at the square. During the day, he teaches those who want to learn more at a cultural center, where some 100 women also learn to do traditional embroidery. When they tire of the needlework, they too join in the merry dancing.

Traditionally, the Qiang get together during festivals, marriages and harvests, to do the Salang group dance, believed to have been taught by a fairy called Sister Salang.

When men join in, Wang changes the steps to make the moves more vigorous. Typically in ancient times, after war, the Qiang men would stage dances with armor and swords to commemorate those who died in battle.

Wang was born in Leigu town with a Qiang name Sila Ge - Ge is the family name, while Sila means "fierce". But Wang was not exposed to traditional Qiang dances during his childhood. In the1970s, Qiang people living in the cities and towns neither spoke their language nor followed their customs.

After completing primary school in 1965, Wang joined the county's Sichuan Opera Troupe. In the 1970s, he joined the county's cultural center and often visited the countryside. It was during a visit to Qingpian township that he first saw the Qiang New Year celebrations of the first day of the fourth lunar month.

Numerous Qiang people joined hands and lined up, dancing and singing all the way along the winding mountain paths. Wang was fascinated by what he saw.

"Even today, I use some of the dance steps I learned then," Wang says.

He discovered that the Shibi shamans were masters of the Qiang culture. Without a written language, the Shibi followed all sorts of rituals that were a record of Qiang history.

The Shibi wear monkey-head caps and beat sheepskin drums when dancing. The white drums are used in dances that are meant as a tribute to heaven; yellow drums to drive away evil, and black drums for safety.

"We dance with sheepskin drums with a pious heart and communicate with the gods," a Shibi told Wang.

"Wang is a 'dance-maniac'," says Tang Hongmei, vice-director of the Beichuan Cultural and Tourism Bureau, who headed Beichuan's cultural center. "He doesn't mind anything as long as you ask him to dance."

Every year, the cultural center would ask Wang to gather hundreds of people to perform the sheepskin drum dance. "Wang would shout himself hoarse under the scorching sun, but still persisted. It was so touching," says Tang, who is working with Wang and other experts to preserve and pass on Qiang culture.

Wang says the dance he enjoyed most was when Beichuan became the nation's only Qiang autonomous county in 2003. All the people gathered at the county's central square, gulping down strong liquor and dancing through the night.

Wang continues to wear his traditional Qiang robe everyday at the resettlement, even though it is clearly not very convenient.

He proudly invites visitors to his temporary home. Behind a curtain that separates the 30-sq-m room, are kept his robes that have a freshly-laundered look.

At lunch, Wang and his wife surprise visitors with duck, bean jelly, vegetable soup and sweet potato steamed with rice. The Qiang people won't say how happy they are to see the guests, but bring the best delicacies that they've saved to the table, says Tang.

The same attitude can be seen in the way a Qiang man treats his wife: Instead of saying how much he loves her, he cooks for her. "I'm a certified high-level chef," Wang announces happily. "I've only two hobbies: cooking and dancing."

But tears well up when he talks about his old friends who didn't survive the killer quake. Wang was playing cards at home and ran out just before his house collapsed. He and his wife spent the night sitting on a cardboard box. The next day, they heard that all the other members of the cultural center had died.

The center and library lie buried in the debris along with some 400 priceless cultural relics that the center has been gathering since 2003. These included a huge bow with ivy string made in the Qing Dynasty, and ancient embroidery patterns seldom found today.

The earthquake brought unprecedented attention to Qiang culture. Wang was invited to Beijing last summer to introduce the ethnic group's songs and dances to urban audiences. When his small troupe of about 10 people put up a show in a residential community, it attracted a big crowd.

"Beijing people are kind-hearted. They all asked if we needed any help," Wang says. But he doesn't like to be pitied. When Xi Shuyou, head of Shengli village, invited him to teach dancing at the resettlement, he was very happy.

"When you work outside, you are earning money for yourself. Here, I'm passing on my cultural heritage," he says.

(China Daily / Sanlian Life Weekly May 18, 2009)

Related News & Photos