Global Learning Blog Posts

  • Parkin Fellows
Preserving Culture

By Sonya Hammer 

In America, a major issue we are still combating is racism, but in many other countries it is not racism but the struggle between different ethnicities, which doesn’t depend on skin color. In China there are 56 minorities recognized by the government, and I had the fortune of working with the Qiang minority. Most of the Qiang minority lives in the western part of the Sichuan province. In 2008, there was a huge earthquake centered in the city of Beichuan, and the Qiang population was greatly compromised. Many of the elderly members of their society passed away, and their folk traditions, which were already beginning to deteriorate, decayed faster. My fascination in the Qiang’s folk culture was rooted in their unique polyphonic music. Traditional Chinese music is hypothesized by most musicologists to be monophonic (consisting of one, unaccompanied melody), but the Qiang, among other other minorities, developed their music separately from the Han majority. However, because of the dominance of the Han ethnicity, many Qiangs are leaving their hometowns in pursuit of jobs in bigger cities, thus loosing much of their cultural heritage. 

While on my trip, I met some amazing members of the Qiang ethnicity who were still in touch with their heritage, and they allowed me to record their powerful voices (click here to listen). With me were a group of government officials, all of whom I could not understand because they refused to speak standard Mandarin. Instead, they spoke their local dialect which was significantly different from the standard dialect. The Qiang singers actually spoke better Chinese than the government officials. My host father, a government official, arranged this meeting. These Qiang women had international awards for their folk songs, yet they are not well known in their region of China. In fact, most of the other men there had never heard of the Qiang’s vocal traditions even though they lived less than fifteen minutes away.

Because so many locals had never heard of the Qiang traditions, I wanted to find someway to preserve it and promote it. I translated signs, transcribed their polyphonic music into the Chinese music notation (jianpu), and had conversations with my students about how to preserve culture and promote understanding. Just outside of Mianyang, the city which I lived in, there was the small city of Beichuan, one totally obliterated by the earthquake. Beichuan had a museum dedicated to preserving the culture of the Qiang ethnicity. Within the museum, there were already translated signs, but many of them were poorly translated. I worked with some locals to try to maintain the essence of the original Chinese writing in the English translation.

In addition to the Qiang cultural museum, there was a former nuclear research center in the area. Though many foreigners are not allowed access to it, my host father made arrangements and I was given a tour of the facilities. Through the tour, I encountered many signs which were translated significantly worse than the ones in the Qiang museum. Although my translations will likely not be seen by many foreigners, I still tried to translate the signs in the nuclear research center to the best of my ability. These signs were harder to translate because the Chinese was rather poetic and there were no exact English translations.

As I approached the end of my time in China, I reflected back on what one of my teachers, Ms. Daisy Wu, told me: it was my job as a member of both the American and Chinese community to extend understanding and tolerance of other cultures. China and America currently have a complicated relationship, and I encountered many people who approached me with hostility simply because I was American. Many Chinese in America have the same unfortunate experience where either intentionally or unintentionally, they are treated differently simply because of their race. Understanding cannot be spread universally by one person, but the collaboration of different cultures and communities working towards the same cause can combat problems in race and ethnicity.