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    The Race for 57th Place: China’s Unrecognized Ethnic Minority

    Chuanqing people struggle to sustain their distinctive culture while caught in an official limbo.

    This is the third in a series of articles about ethnic identity in China today. You can find articles one and two here.

    The notion of 56 ethnic groups underpins the story that China tells about itself as a modern, multiethnic nation. From geography textbooks to pop ensembles, the government likes to represent the country as a sprawling extended family, resplendent in colorful traditions and harmoniously united under one flag. But the Chuanqing people say they fall outside this established order.

    Though some provincial and national policies acknowledge the Chuanqing as a distinct ethnic group, they haven’t been recognized in the government’s official schema, which first emerged in the 1950s shortly after the Communist Party came to power.

    The omission affects more than 670,000 people who identify as Chuanqing, according to the national census of 2000, when the data was last made public. Where other minorities have been entitled to affirmative action in education, more liberal family planning measures, and a degree of local self-determination, the Chuanqing have had inconsistent access to such rights.

    In Shaowo, a quiet town that sits 1,800 meters above sea level in the mist-shrouded forests of the southwestern province of Guizhou, the majority of the population is Chuanqing. By appearance alone, visitors can’t distinguish the residents from the Han people, who make up more than 90 percent of the country’s population. But a mandrill monkey totem at the center of the town square and a constellation of blue and pale green houses hint at their unique heritage.

    For 62-year-old Zhang Maoqing, who has lived in the town his whole life, Shaowo in Nayong County is not merely his home. The town also serves as an indispensable shelter for his culture as it struggles to survive in contemporary times. 

    The Chuanqing language is now only spoken by a few octogenarians in remote areas, and their traditional embroidered cotton clothing can only be seen in museums or photographs. But in Shaowo, almost every family still sets a ceramic jar on top of their roof’s crossbeam to honor the god Wu Xian. The life and death of a Chuanqing person is bound up with the little jar full of sacred grains and treasures.

    “The only heritage we Chuanqing people have now is the worship of Wu Xian,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone, taking a long drag on his cigarette.

    Zhang earns his living as a farmer, but he has also trained as a Nuo opera performer, following in his father’s footsteps. Though Zhang’s troupe of 10 members only sees a handful of bookings each year, the Nuo style of opera plays an important role in Chuanqing culture and religion. 

    Every year, after Wu Xian’s birthday on Sept. 28 in the lunar calendar, the deep hum of an ox horn breaks the town’s usual tranquility, calling residents to gather for festivities. Zhang’s troupe will put on ferocious masks to play roles in a three-day ceremony that celebrates the year’s harvest and the life cycle of Chuanqing people.

    But Nuo opera is declining in popularity, and Zhang worries about whether he will have any successors willing to carry on the tradition. Of Zhang’s five children, only one son, 36-year-old Zhang Gang, still lives with him in Shaowo, and his attitude toward learning Nuo is unenthusiastic.

    Zhang Gang echoes his father as he sings from a yellowing, handwritten score repaired with tape, but he rarely joins the troupe for performances. “We are doing it for Chuanqing people, not for ourselves,” the elder Zhang explains, disappointed in his son’s reluctance.

    But his son explains his side of the story: Nuo opera is complex, and performers have to memorize volumes of music and libretti. They barely rest during the three-day harvest performance.

    “[Nuo] takes at least 20 years of persistent learning before you can master it,” Zhang Gang says, “but it can’t feed your family as a full-time job.”

    Zhang Gang is now a plasterer, but he used to work in a factory in Guangdong province, China’s manufacturing hub in the country’s south. Most of his generation have left the mountains to pursue education or employment in bigger cities, and many experience diminishing attachment to Chuanqing identity after years away from the cradle of their culture in Guizhou province.

    For others, being away from the heartland has intensified their sense of identity. Li Yuzhi, now 46, remembers being met with curiosity and confusion when he moved to Beijing for medical school in 2002. None of his fellow students had heard of Chuanqing. He was happy to tell them about his people, but his experiences around the country led him to believe that Chuanqing people should campaign for national recognition.

    However, the official classification hasn’t changed in decades. In 1953, the central government carried out its first population census after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. After respondents self-reported more than 400 different ethnicities, the government sent researchers far and wide in an effort to survey China’s ethnic groups and determine which should be entitled to political representation as minorities.

    Sociologist Fei Xiaotong led a team to Guizhou in 1955, but based on genealogy and cultural practices, his study concluded that Chuanqing people were a subset of the Han — much to the chagrin of the local Chuanqing intelligentsia. Most still registered themselves as Chuanqing, which was permitted within Guizhou province, but some later changed to Han so they wouldn’t run into bureaucratic hurdles when studying or working outside the province.

    In the 1980s, Guizhou province commissioned a second study as part of China’s new reforms. Zhang Chengkun, a Chuanqing man, was the propaganda director of Zhijin County and led the investigation. His team reached the consensus that Chuanqing people were an independent ethnic group, but the State Ethnic Affairs Commission once again classified his people as Han. No new ethnic groups have been added to the official classification since 1979.

    Zhang was angry at the result, but following his study, the provincial government made a concession in 1986, recognizing Chuanqing within Guizhou’s local guidelines. Then in 2003, a national policy allowed Chuanqing people to identify as such on their second-generation national ID cards, which were officially recognized beginning the following year.

    Some Chuanqing people have classified themselves as part of the Tujia minority, a pragmatic move that entitles them to a higher level of government support and affirmative action in education. For the older generation, it’s a reasonable compromise that meets the community’s immediate needs.

    “We don’t have hope that Chuanqing will be recognized,” Zhang Chengkun, now 76, explains. To him, Tujia culture is the most similar to Chuanqing in terms of religious and artistic practices, so identifying himself as Tujia is a roundabout way of acknowledging his roots.

    But Li and others won’t be satisfied until the Chuanqing are officially recognized as China’s 57th ethnic group. Without full recognition, Chuanqing people will still encounter problems when dealing with bureaucracy outside of Guizhou province, as extra paperwork is required to process registrations outside of the national schema. 

    Recognition would also allow Chuanqing-majority areas to apply for “regional ethnic autonomy,” meaning some official positions would be reserved for Chuanqing, and the area would enjoy more self-determination. However, as many Chuanqing people already hold leadership positions in local government, the change would not be a drastic one.

    Now working as a doctor in Zunyi, in northern Guizhou province, Li recognizes that his stable professional life enables him to pursue his interest in cultural identity. “First you need to make a living,” he says. “If you can’t fulfill your basic needs, how can you care about ethnicity?”

    Although the benefit would be largely symbolic, Li believes that official recognition would encourage more Chuanqing people to take an interest in their culture and strengthen their sense of identity. In 2010, Li set up an online chat group for sharing Chuanqing culture. It now has more than 1,000 members, with many actively studying the culture.

    Collaboration between Chuanqing people and local government has paid off: In 2015, Guizhou province included Nuo opera on a list of “intangible cultural heritage” elements worth safeguarding. Shaowo Town authorities have invested millions in renovating Chuanqing houses, emphasizing the unique culture to develop the area’s budding tourist trade, which has grown since a highway running through the county opened last year.

    But the Zhang family knows that the intangible aspects of heritage are harder to transmit — and harder to restore — than the physical facade of the town. The Chuanqing could lose their last links to their ancestral culture if the Nuo operatic tradition and faith in Wu Xian aren’t handed down to the next generation.

    Zhang Gang thinks most of the younger generation have had to succumb to reality the way he has done. “After all, the most important thing is this,” he says, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money.

    But his father is adamant that remembering one’s roots is more important than material gains, such as the affirmative action measures that Chuanqing people now benefit from, like extra marks in college entrance exams, or gaokao.

    “Compared to the preservation of one’s ethnic identity and culture, an extra 20 points means very little,” says Zhang Maoqing. 

    (Header image: Children look curiously at Zhang Maoqing as he walks down the street dressed in his Nuo opera costume in Shaowo Town, Guizhou province, June 14, 2016. Li Kun/Sixth Tone)