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Searching for Qiang Culture in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

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This paper critically examines attempts by western missionaries, scholars and Chinese intellectuals during the first half of the twentieth century at defining the ‘Qiang culture’, for the purpose of delineating the ethnic boundaries of the ‘Qiang nationality’, in western China. I start by introducing a long historical process, in respect of boundary-formation, from the Shang to the later Qing period, which finally turned the habitants of the Upper Min River valley into a cultural and ethnic mix of hybrids between the Han and the Tibetan. Then, I explore how these outside observers – western missionaries/scholars and Chinese intellectuals – had attempted to find the exemplar of the Qiang culture that could fit in with the ‘history’ of the ‘Qiang people’ each of these authors bore in mind. Even though these attempts produced many confusing aspects, possible misunderstandings and debatable results, nonetheless the works produced and the ethnographical data contained have become important sources for the Han Chinese to later construct the ethnic category of the Qiang in the scheme of the Chinese nation, and also for the Qiang natives to build their own culture and history. I argue that the modern Qiang nationality was not necessarily the product of the ethno/cultural-centralism of the Han Chinese, but was produced after a battle between many centrisms, and that the modern attempt by the Han to define ‘the Qiang’ through their history and culture is not necessarily a new ‘invention’ but only the newest attempt at defining the western ethnic boundary of the Han Chinese, which had been defined, persisted and then was re-defined periodically for more than two thousand years.


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