Konrad Lawson of Muninn has a fascinating post about the construction of the Qiang (K’iang) nationality out of an ancient catchall term.

The Qiang, which are now one of 55 recognized “nationalities” in China, with a population of about 220,000, have connected themselves historically to the much broader Han historical category which until very recently referred to a broad range of ethnic groups classified as barbarians on China’s periphery. While I can think of a few other potential examples, this is a nice twist on a common theme in the formation of national identity. Instead of linking itself to an empire, a language, an island, etc. that could help the newborn Qiang nationality to distinguish itself from some Other, the Qiang nationality was born out [of] Han China’s own “Other.” The fact that there was no linguistically, culturally, or even geographically consistent historical community which corresponded to what the Han called the Qiang is, like all formations of national identity from Norwegians to Japanese, pretty much irrelevant.

According to Wang, from the late Han to the Ming periods, the concept of the Qiang was something close to “those people in the west who are not one of us” and included a huge range of people along [the] eastern edges of [the] Tibetan Plateau. Over time, the Chinese empires would come to classify these peoples into smaller and smaller distinct groups and those who were called the Qiang by the Han shifted (linguistically, not physically) further and further to the West until this bumped into Tibetan cultural communities that the Chinese categorized as the Fan 番. Ultimately, the Qiang ended up being the small group of mountain dwellers in the small geographic area they occupy today (the upper Min River Valley).

Anyone at all interested in ethnicity and the “invention of tradition” should read it.

Lawson also has an excellent post on the history of Chinese character reform movements in Taiwan. Like him, I had thought the story of character reform was “the mainland Communist regime pointing to their characters as ‘progressive’ and a contribution to increased literacy through simplification,… the Taiwanese, with their more complicated characters boasting that they alone preserve China’s written culture with its beautiful and semantically rich characters.” But it turns out that there was a movement for character reform in Taiwan as well—supported by Chiang Kai-shek! A survey by “the Taiwanese newspaper 聯合報 from April 1954” showed that “a solid majority of Taiwanese supported the reform movement, which collapsed shortly thereafter.” I’d like to know more about that episode, which has been pretty much forgotten (at least nobody mentioned it when I lived in Taiwan in the ’70s).

Update. See Joel’s Far Outliers entry on why alphabetization, which Mao favored, never happened on the mainland:

The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, represents the climax of China’s disillusionment with its traditions. But, ironically, the upheaval helped protect the characters. When the chaos finally ended, the Chinese no longer had an appetite for radical cultural change, and both the public and the government rejected further attempts at writing reform.


  1. Xiexie ni, Lao Maozi. I’ve added another angle to the writing reform story and added Muninn to my slowly expanding blogroll.

  2. Thanks for the mention. Also thanks Joel for adding more on this from the New Yorker article. I updated the article to include the links and will be reading you!

  3. The Ch’iang were a major factor as far back as the Shang dynasty and figure, mostly as enemies, in early inscriptions. In the Book of History some Ch’iang were allies of the Chou when they overthrew Shang, and I believe that the Chou dynasty was intermarried with them.
    In the West Scythian, Turk, and Hun were used more or less interchangeably, with archaic forms often used for sake of good literary style.
    Chinese are still referred to as Kitai (= Cathay) in Russian and after the non-Chinese founders of the Liao dynasaty (ca. 900-1100 AD). For centuries China was referred to as Taugast or Tabgatch after the non-Chinese founders of the Toba Northern Wei dynasty (ended ca 600 AD).

  4. zizka / John Emerson wrote:
    Chinese are still referred to as Kitai (= Cathay) in Russian and after the non-Chinese founders of the Liao dynasaty (ca. 900-1100 AD).
    That is probably off topic, but the usual commercial translation of Cathay in Chinese (many companies and brands other than Cathay Pacific use it) is a beautiful example of a successfully seductive and suggestive fake etymology through phonetical similarity: Guotai 國泰, as in the sentence you find carved and written (on lamps, pilars, steles, etc.) in every taoist (or even buddhist) temple: Guotai min’an 國泰民安 (lousy tr. “peace of the country and serenity of the people”).
    Somehow, Guotai hangkong 航空 (Cathay Pacific=Peaceful Country airlines) sounds and looks better than Qidan 契丹 (Khitan or Khitai) hangkong.

  5. That’s great! And I urge everyone to rid themselves of the idea that comment threads here are supposed to be “on topic.” Anarchy rules here at LH: if it’s interesting and/or funny, post it. I can always post a new entry if a sufficiently popular theme emerges.

  6. Interesting bit about the Qiang. I’m not sure I’m getting the nuances — did the Qiang define themselves as the “otherwise unclassifiable other” or was that classification thrust upon them?
    It also makes me wonder how the concept of Qiang differs from the “none of the above” category in the Indian subcontinent, the “tribals”? (For some ripping yarns about life among several tribal groups before Hindu assimilation spoiled things — essentially, before they had to wear clothes and keep up a pretense of premarital chastity — see The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin.)

  7. I think the idea is that qiang was a catchall term for ‘Western barbarians’ until they were eventually “defined down” to a small enough remnant group that it coalesced into an actual ethnic unit, which was then projected back in time so that people said “The Qiang have existed since…”

  8. bathrobe says

    I visited a hotel in Jiuzhaigou in late 2003. In the evening there was a magnificent musical and visual extravaganza put on by the local Qiang, who are great singers and dancers. I was told that they wrote the show themselves. (I don’t think the comment was patronising).
    However, I was also told by the manager of the project of which the hotel was part that “the Qiang are close to being finished as an ethnic group” – the young people are rapidly being assimilated by Han culture.

Speak Your Mind