"Once the culture of a nationality is destroyed, the nationality ceases to exist."
The sentence written in Jia Dechun's proposals on the protection of southwest China's Qiang nationality is a constant reminder of the urgency of his task since the devastating May 12 earthquake.
The Qiang, a minority of just 300,000 people living in Sichuan Province, are trapped in a dilemma: to return to the mountains where many of their people died and reclaim their culture, or to abandon their past for the security of modern life in cities.
Unfortunately, their homes are in the worst hit parts of the quake zone.
"The quake destroyed our houses and fields. Most of us cannot return to the mountains," sighs Jia Dechun, a Qiang official in Qushan Town, Beichuan County.
Jia and his fellow villagers live in temporary shelters where they can see the mountains through their windows.
Yang Zhicheng, in his 60s, points out one of the mountains: "I used to live there." He now lives in one of the 1,300-odd white shelters with his family. The 5,000 Qiang celebrated their New Year on Oct. 28.
The Qiang, who call themselves "Ermea", literally "native people", are also known as the "people in the white clouds" because they usually live in ornately decorated stone houses in the upper reaches of the mountains, herding sheep and growing crops such as corn and cherries.
"We have a strong yearning for the mountains, even if they are dangerous," says Jia, who was a school teacher before the quake.
But the government is now looking for safer places for them to live.
A new Beichuan county will be built within three years, according to the reconstruction plan. It will strongly reflect the Qiang culture, says Yang Qingying, head of the county reconstruction committee.
Yang will lead a team to collect and restore Qiang cultural items, and discuss the reconstruction details with designers and engineers from east Shandong Province, who have come to offer assistance.
However, Feng Jicai, chairman of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society, fears the mass relocation will be the death knell of the culture.
"The culture of a nationality exists in its carriers -- the people and their living environment," Feng says.
One in ten Qiang people died in the quake, including more than 40 official "cultural carriers" and all six Qiang music and dance experts.
Feng came to Beichuan to assess Qiang culture a month after the quake.
"The quake was fatal to their culture. The nationality lost its written language to record its culture and the long history," he said.
More than 400 cultural relics were buried in the ruins of Beichuan when two Qiang museums were destroyed.
In addition, all the houses in the oldest Qiang village of Luobo, Wenchuan County, were toppled, while hundreds of Qiang-style houses and bridges in Beichuan, Maoxian and Lixian were leveled.
"We cannot wait any more. A culture with a history of 3,000 years is going to disappear," Feng says.
The Qiang people have a unique culture that can be traced to the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.-1046 B.C.), and was recorded in oracle bone inscriptions.
It is a nomad nationality, who worship sheep and the sky. The religious culture is carried by wizards called "xu" or "shibi".
"Shibi are the most enigmatic people of the Qiang people, who believe they can communicate with the sky and ancestors," Jia Dechun said. Their teachings were never recorded in order to keep them secret.
But many of shibi died in the quake. Four of the 10 shibi in Longxi Village, Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, were killed, says village head Zhou Guanghui. "With them gone, much Qiang history will be buried."
The Qiang people also have their own language, cuisine, wine, festivals, clothes, songs and dances, which also face extinction.
Gui Yiping, an 11-year-old Qiang student at the Project Hope Primary School of Qushan Town, has learnt the dance from her family, but she could not sing in the Qiang language.
"The songs are beautiful," she says in Mandarin with a Sichuan accent. She cannot understand the lyrics, just their Mandarin pronunciation. "I can't speak a word of Qiang, neither can anyone in my family."
The language began to disappear when the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911) forced the people to speak Chinese. The written language was lost much earlier. The Chinese government launched a project in the 1950s to record the Qiang language in pinyin, the phonetic transcription of Mandarin, a task that was accomplished in 1991.
However, none of the teachers in Gui's school can speak Qiang.
Music teacher Li Sufang says she had to add Qiang songs to her lessons as none were mentioned in the unified provincial textbooks.
But the songs are taught in Chinese. Qiang music, played with unique musical instruments, was famous in ancient times, Li says.
The government plans to invest about 10 billion yuan (1.5 billion U.S. dollars) to protect Qiang culture by boosting tourism in Qiang areas, repairing cultural relics, and rebuilding museums.
It also plans to establish a Qiang culture protection zone, and collect Qiang songs and tales, says Sichuan vice governor Huang Xiaoxiang.
The Chinese character for "Qiang" is a combination of a sheep head and a cat head. The cat is sacred because in the oldest Qiang legend it led the people out of a dense fog and defeated their enemies, says Jia Dechun.
"In Qiang tradition, the cat will lead us out of crises," says Jia. "We are now in the fog, but I believe there is a way out."
(Xinhua News Agency November 15, 2008)