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The Shibi: guardians of ancient Qiang culture

Wang Mingjie, the present Shibi in Luobo Village, holds a ceremony on relics. [File photo]
Wang Mingjie, the present Shibi in Luobo Village, holds a ceremony on relics. [File photo]

New houses in the reconstructed Luobo Village.

New houses in the reconstructed Luobo Village. [China.org.cn]


The village of Luobo, home to around 1,000 people from the Qiang ethnic minority, lies in the high mountains just 20 kilometers from Wenchuan, the epicenter of the May 12 Sichuan earthquake. The earthquake wrecked every house in the village and killed 44 villagers. But following the quake, the local authorities were partnered with Jiangmen, a city in the prosperous coastal province of Guangdong. The Jiangmen government has helped rebuild the village at a cost of 30 million yuan (US$4.39 million).

同时,政府也着力保护羌族传统文化的守护者——释比。 The authorities have also acted to protect the traditional shamans of the Qiang – the Shibi – who are the guardians of Qiang culture.


The Shibi are both priests and the custodians of tradition. They preside over ceremonies at marriages, funerals, festivals, when babies are named and when new houses are built. Shibi are always male and must undergo strict training. Most importantly, they have to learn by heart the entire history of the Qiang and all their scriptures, because the Qiang language has no written form.


Luobo's previous Shibi, a 92-year-old man, died in the earthquake. He was succeeded by his 69-year-old apprentice Wang Mingjie. Wang lives alone in a new house built by the Guangdong government. His four children have all left home to find work outside the village. His daily routine consists of doing his housework and performing ancient ceremonies for the villagers.

在王明杰眼里,那场地震依然历历在目;谈及地震中的景象,他满是恐惧。地震前几天猪突然不吃食了。512那天我去猪圈查看,刚进去就见所有东西都开始摇晃。没有办法咯,我就在门口这么站着, 喊着‘菩萨、菩萨’。我那个猪圈前面凸出来的椽子救了我,我没有被砸到。但是老释比被砸死了,象征羌族文化的神杖、师刀等法器也被深埋地下。”

Wang Mingjie's memories of the quake are still vivid and fear creeps into his voice as he recounts what happened. "My pigs didn't eat for several days before the quake came. On May 12 I went to check on them. As I stepped into the sty, everything began to shake. I stood stock still by the door frame reciting 'Buddha, Buddha.' Fortunately the door frame saved me and I was not hurt. But my master died and the instruments we use for our ceremonies were buried." Wang said.

老人家里的墙上挂着一块银色的牌子,上面写着“古羌释比文化传承人” 牌子是2006年汶川县人民政府颁发的。“这是我通过政府的考试得来的,考了许多羌族的文化知识。”王明杰告诉中国网。改革开放以后,国家开始重视保护羌族传统文化。王明杰就是那时开始跟随师父学习释比知识的。“逢年过节我就到师父家帮忙,一边干活一边背经文。”王明杰说:“现在我也有四个徒弟了。地震把他们的财产都毁了,为了挣钱,他们都在城市工作。只有春节的时候他们会回来跟我学习。”

A silver plaque hanging on the wall of Wang Mingjie’s new house says "The Inheritor of Qiang Shibi Culture." It was presented to Wang by the Wenchuan government in 2006. "I was given this title after passing an examination set by the government. I had to demonstrate my knowledge of our culture," Wang told China.org.cn. The government recognized the importance of protecting the Qiang cultural heritage after the start of the reform and opening-up policy. Wang Mingjie began to learn Shibi culture from his master around that time. "I helped my master with ceremonies during festivals and recited scriptures," Wang said. "Now I have four apprentices of my own. But they have gone to work in the cities because they lost everything they owned in the earthquake. The only chance I get to teach them is at Spring Festival."


(中国网 任仲希 /文)

The Qiang people's ancient culture is facing a bigger threat than the earthquake; from modernization and urbanization. Teenagers go to high school in big cities and end up speaking Mandarin rather than the Qiang language. The village elders try to pass on their own language and culture during the school holidays. For its part, the local government is planning to invest 1.5 million yuan (US$220,000) to build a new cultural center and provide income support to cultural guardians such as Wang Mingjie. Last November, Luobo Village applied to be designated a "State-Level Cultural Relic Protection Site." The result of its application will be known by April.

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