-by Ernie Diaz
How Chinese is China, anyway? The more you look around the place, the less absolute the term “Chinese” becomes, until it becomes almost as vague a term as “Asian”. Consider this mini-map:
Surely this “Ngawa” place must be as Chinese as it gets, no? To the unseasoned, Ngawa Autonomous Prefecture is smack dab in the middle of China. In reality, most of the land to the north and west is classically Chinese the way Kazakhstan is classically Russian.
Many features of Ngawa are Chinese to the core, especially in PR terms. Here are the pandas, the incomparable turquoise pools of Huanglong, the serene forests of Jiuzhaigou, where much of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shot. Here was the epicenter of the 2008 Chinese earthquake that killed 20,000.
So to learn that Ngawa’s full name is “Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture” is to begin to learn how deep, diverse, and paradoxical China gets, for those who trouble to scratch the surface. After all, Ngawa sits in Sichuan, otherwise packed with Han, Han history, factories and farms and all that informs modern China. Ngawa itself, though, all 83,000 square km of it, stretches largely empty and untroubled by human hands. The humans there today are Chinese and yet are not, something less and something extra; “Mexican-American” serves as an analogous departure point.
“Tibet has always been part of China,” yakkety yak. However, for those unpatriotic enough to discern a noticeable difference between the two in culture and people, in fact for all fools who must think things through rather than apply “always” and “never”, the facts are a bit more tangled. Texas sits right next to Mexico the way Ngawa does to Tibet.
Like Texas, Ngawa was once part of its neighbor’s empire. Yes indeed, the Tibetans used to make war, not prayer wheels, and today’s Ngawa is a remnant of yesteryear’s Amdo. The Tibetan empire broke up more than a thousand years ago, though, then the Mongols flattened it, again in the 18th century for good measure, then the Qing made of Amdo a colony. Then the PLA liberated it extra hard for retribution against Muslim warlord Ma Qi and his stubborn alliance with the Kuomintang.
The Tibetans are not ones to dwell on history, however, invested deeply enough in faith to keep history in proper perspective as the past, and therefore largely illusion. Tibetan Buddhism holds sway over Ngawa as strongly as it does in Lhasa, with temples that have served to anchor the people to the spiritual heart of Tibet, no matter how the geopolitical lines waver.
Kirti Gompa was built two decades before Columbus got his venture capital. Temples to the Tibetans are like investment banks to us, turning all the various gears that keep our civilization crunching forward, so it’s sad news that Kirti Gompa’s monk population has dropped sharply due to recent government pressure, much sadder than if some divine plague started culling our banker and lawyer reserves. Nangzhik Gompa goes back to the beginning of the 12th century, and with some one thousand monks, is the center for the Bon sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Lots of Tibetan culture to soak up and still technically be in Sichuan.
But just stop right there if you’re thinking the Tibetans are the aboriginal claimants to the lands of Ngawa. No, that honor goes to the Qiang, entrenched in the foothills and mountains of the Qiang plateau since Huangdi wore short pants. Although only some 200,000 still call themselves the Qiang zu, or Erma (Ourselves), almost all in Ngawa, they are hardly a unified tribe. Theirs is the ancient territory of the forgotten watchtowers, today obsolete sentinels of a land once divided as jealously as a case of beer in a hobo camp. Although Qiang dialects all spring from the same Tibeto-Burman source, different Qiang clans must usually speak Chinese to each other if understanding is crucial.
The Qiang are anomalies right down the line – matrilineal progressives, among whom love and sexuality enjoy positively non-Asian levels of encouragement. They are also famed for the depth of their taboos, just as heavily invested in the pronouncements of their drum-beating shibi shamen as the Tibetans in the region are in their lamas. The Qiang were decimated by the 2008 earthquake, down to the foundations of their mountain fortress villages.
As to the land, what does it profit to assign national descriptions? Do the Grand Tetons derive more majesty from being called “American”? So yes, Ngawa has some of the most famous Chinese attractions, but they’d be no less inspiring, or cute, or sublime, if the Mongols were still in charge.
The Wolong Nature Reserve is protected from almost all threats to its chastity by the surrounding Qionglai Mountains. Thus is it still a haven for golden monkeys, white-lipped deer, and enough rare plants to stock a million Chinese medicine shops for a million years. Almost all threats, we said. The hundred thousand and more tourists who manage to tramp through each year are tearing an ever-wider swath, all in a lather to see the pandas. A good 150 live in the reserve, and no doubt tourist money pays for a lot of bamboo. The other threat, earthquake, offers no indemnities. Many pandas died in 2008, including nine-year-old Mao Mao, a mother of five who was crushed inside her enclosure. A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Statistically, Ngawa is a remote and underdeveloped part of China. But then there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.