Qiang and China, Made and Unmade

PhotographerMenglan Chen
PrizeHonorable Mention
Entry Description

On May 12th, 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.0 Ms hit the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sihuan Province in Southwestern China. Radish Village, just forty miles from the epicenter and at an elevation of around 2000 kilometers was shaken to the ground. During the post-earthquake reconstruction, cities and villages were rebuilt with modern materials at modern speed. Religious sites were left in ruins. Highways cut through long-planted walnut tree orchards. Dams flooded ancestral farmlands. Public squares, cultural museums, and ethnic villages were constructed to define for the Qiang people what is “Qiangness”. The fate of Radish Village is a microcosm of the negotiation between local cultural fluidity and imposed Han cultural hegemony. The making of the “Qiang” ethnic minority stands upon the unmaking of deposed Qiang customs and memories. The making of China, similarly, is at the expense of the unmaking of many possible Chinas.


III. A Concrete Present and a Muddy Past Ma remembers when his dad started building his family house. He was fourteen; the house was finished when he was seventeen. In the first year, people built the basic structure, with mud walls and the thickest timbers. In the second year, people dragged more timbers back from the other side of the mountain and built the second layer of the rooftop. In the last year, people topped the house with a third layer of timbers, bamboo shoots, and mud to fill in any gaps. When it rained, water leaked through the muddy rooftop. People would fill a basket with mud, climb to the rooftop, and fill in any fissures with more mud. After years of casual repairs by spreading layers of mud on top of each other, the roof eventually becomes very heavy. Ma believed that this was the main reason why the muddy houses did not survive the 2008 earthquake. After the earthquake, the government relocated the village to an adjacent mountaintop and assigned concrete houses to every family. Since then, construction has not stopped. Every family has built some sort of expansion to make their houses taller, larger, and nicer to host more tourists. Instead of taking three years, a four-floor concrete building is now easily built in three months. Modernization is the transition from muddy paths to concrete driveways, muddy rooftops to concrete ceilings, and a muddy past to a concrete future.