IDENTITY: After a powerful earthquake displaces them, China's Qiang ethnic minority search for gods, spirits and ancestry in their new and old homes.
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 14, 2020

On 12 May 2008, an 8 grade Richter scale earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province. Almost 70,000 people lost their lives, of which almost half were Qiang, a Tibetan ethnic group that lives off the land. In its aftermath, the Chinese government decided some of the Qiang communities needed to relocate in order to prevent further disaster. Qiang’s Journey tells the touching story the group’s traditions and beliefs in the light of the displacement process that follows. By capturing the heartbreak of their village departure, Tunzi Gao’s film gives a nuanced and subtle insight into the core of this unique culture, and the deep connection these people feel with their ancestors, their gods, and the place they inhabit.

Of gods and ancestors

From the beginning, for someone unaccustomed to Chinese names, keeping track of characters and their relation to each other might prove challenging. Gao maps the villagers’ links to each other, but soon enough it becomes clear that this mapping is, and at the same time isn’t, important. Each individual story blends into a collective narrative, of a community that lives in harmony with the past, the earth, the gods, and each other.

The only necessary distinction has nothing to do with family lines. The true divide is a generational one, between the young, looking forward to moving to a more developed place, and the old, deeply attached to the spirits they share their land with. What for the young generation means excitement and perspective, for the elderly, is a tragedy. Their parents and grandparents are buried in the village, their gods live in the mountains around it, and their existence has meaning in the context of tradition and magic that has its roots and coordinates only there.

Each individual story blends into a collective narrative, of a community that lives in harmony with the past, the earth, the gods, and each other.

One doesn’t have to share Qiang’s beliefs in Gods and ancestors to feel for them. Bearing witness to them saying goodbye to their land, with the despair and sorrow that brings, is enough to see that their heartbreak goes beyond basic attachment to a place they call home. This departure touches on the existential. What they leave behind is not only what they know, but their entire sense of identity, and the raw bond with nature, the supernatural, and the people that were there before them. Once moved away, to a …

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