In the upper-Min River area, mountain-god worship is the most common form of religion. Generally speaking, every zhaizi has its own mountain god, and at the same time shares a mountain god with several of its neighboring zhaizi. From a broader view, the residents of several valleys will share an even larger mountain god.
The various mountain gods with different degrees of power and status are believed to protect the various units of village people in the competition for and sharing of resources.
The closer to the north and west the village is located, the more deeply it is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, to the point that such villages’ mountain gods are assimilated into the Tibetan Buddhism deity system.
The northernmost Qiang village, the Aiqi Village of Songpan’s Xiaoxinggou, is a good example of a Tibetanized village.
Each of the three local villages has its own mountain god, and the residents of two of these villages also share a mountain god with the people of the other village. In addition, the three villages also collectively worship a mountain god called “Gerinangcuo.”
The temple gathering at Longtou Temple (which is affiliated with Tibetan Buddhism) brings together all the Qiangs and Tibetans in Xiaoxinggou.
Ultimately, the mountain-god bodhisattva on the “Xuebao Peak” in Songpan (which is affiliated with both Tibetan Buddhism and mountain god worship) brings together all the Qiangs and Tibetans in the entire Xiaoxinggou and neighboring regions.
In the villages in the eastern and southern counties of Wenchuan and Li, mountain gods have eventually been replaced by various types of Han temples, including those dedicated to the Jade Emperor, Guanyin, Dongyue, Chuanzhu, Bull King, and Erlang.
The mountain-god belief system has diminished layer by layer, and in the end people only worship the mountain god within their own community, which is no longer ruled by a mountain god of a higher ranking, but a hierarchy of Han temples instead.
For example, in a big zhaizi and little zhaizi in Ganmuruo Village of Mao County’s Yonghegou, there live four families with Han surnames—Li, Xie, Xu, and Bai.
Each of the families worships its own mountain god, and together two villages worship at the temple of Chuanzhu, Earth Mother, or Bull King.
All the villagers in Yonghegou worship the Guanyin Temple on Baihu Mountain (Buddhism), or the Yinguo Zhushi Temple on Weimen’s Yunding Mountain.
Children of Abamubi and the Jade Emperor
In the more sinicized villages of Li County and Wenchuan County, in addition to mountain gods and various forms of Taoist and Buddhist deities, the local people also worship the Heavenly God “Abamubi” (or “Mubita”).
In the “Battle between the Qiang and Ge” described in a duangong scripture, Abamubi is the god that helped the Qiangs defeat the Ge people;
in a scripture called “Mujiezhu and Douanzhu,” Abamubi is the father of the fairy Mujiezhu, who got married to a man-monkey in the human world, and brought with her crops and livestock.
The magical powers of the duangong (shaman) allow him to heat up a pot and walk barefoot on a scorching hot hoe, and his spells include the Snow Mountain Chant and Dissolving Chant.
These show a close relation with the Han people’s Taoist practices. Therefore, the duangong often say “Jade Emperor in the place of “Abamubi.”
The villagers, like the duangong, are influenced by Taoism, and therefore they too equate their heavenly god with the Jade Emperor, and the man-monkey in the story of “Mujiezhu and Douanzhu” with Sun Wukong the Monkey King.
Abamubi-related legends contain many Tibetan elements.
The previously mentioned “monkey transforming into human” theme not only exists in many Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, but also has been passed around among the people who believe in Tibetan Buddhism.
Tales of how human beings originated from monkeys are popular among the Jiarong and Heishui Tibetans, who live close to the Qiangs.
Some villagers who are influenced by both Han and Tibetan religions believe that Abamubi is the “Western Buddha” in charge of the heavens, and that the Jade Emperor is the god in charge of the human world.
The Children of Jehovah
In the 1920s, when British missionary Thomas Torrance entered the Qiang region to spread the Christian faith, he was surprised to find himself among people who reminded him of Israelis.
The Qiangs that he saw were physically similar, wore white robes, and lived in stone houses just like Israelis. He also noticed that the Qiangs were monotheists who believed in their only god Abamubi.
Their custom of sacrificing sheep reflected, moreover, the famous Biblical act of the ancient Israelis.
Torrance believed that in the context of the evolution of human civilization, monotheism is more sophisticated than the Han’s and Tibetans’ polytheistic religions, and therefore concluded that the Qiangs must be descendants of the Israelis.
In Journal of the West China Border Research Society, which was published in English, other Western scholars and missionaries shared similar “discoveries.”
They believed that many ethnic groups in southwestern China were the descendants of Indo-Europeans and Western Asians who had migrated eastward. Up to this day, some Western academics and groups still believe that the Qiangs are descendants of the Israelis.
In order to back up this view, Torrance provided religious and cultural evidence.
For example, Torrance believed that the Qiang people’s love of the color white was the same as an ancient Jewish notion of white’s being spiritually and morally pure.
He also pointed out that the fact that the Qiang people do not worship idols, but instead use white paper and white stones to represent their god, something comparable to the Jews’ relationship with the Ten Commandments.
Furthermore, the ceremonies that the Qiangs hold in the mountains, worshipping holy forest and using altars built of stones, were seen by him as practices of the Bible.
Torrance also thought that the Qiangs believed God to be perfect, while humans burdened by sin. Humans need to rid themselves of sin before they can approach God, and therefore God sent sinned apostles into the world of humans to help in absolution.
He likens duangong to the sin-combating apostles, and says that their custom of “huanyuan” is the same as praying for redemption.
At the time, Torrance had a local assistant, Gou Pingshan of Wenchuan County’s Mushan Village, who, after himself becoming Christian, helped spread the theory that “all Qiang people are subjects of God and descendants of the Israelis.”
In his “Message to My Fellow Qiangs on the History of Goat Sacrifice” he proclaimed that after hearing Torrance’s explanation and reading the Old Testament, he realized that the Qiang people’s custom of presenting their god with goat sacrifices is related to the sacrificial rituals of the ancient Israelis.
Believers of the Zhou People’s God
Twenty years later, in the 1930s and 1940s, when American scholar David Crockett Graham was conducting a field study at the upper reaches of the Min River, he noticed that many Qiang people called themselves descendants of the Israelis, claiming that their god was the Christian god Jehovah.
Graham refuted this in his work on the Qiang people by pointing out that the Qiangs are in fact polytheists, and that the phenomenon of “Israeli descent” was a result of the intrusions of Thomas Torrance and his Qiang assistant.
Graham pointed out that the Qiangs are not monotheists, and each household worships as many as five major deities.
The types of deities as well as their titles differ from region to region. Moreover, the twelve secondary deities that are generally worshipped in the household also vary according to the region.
Besides household deities, every village and region has its local deities, and therefore it can be assumed that there are as many different deities as there are place names. Graham also did not think that “white stones” symbolize a single god. He pointed out that in many places white stones are considered to represent various local deities.
For example, In Wenchuan’s Keku Village, white stones are recognized by some as the deity of grain, and the deity representing Cangjie by others. Han deities such as Chuanzhu, the Jade Emperor, Guanyu, Guanyin, Wuchang, Meishan, and earth gods are also worshipped by the Qiang as their own.
Graham particularly noted that in Puxigou, the duangong are categorized by the color of their outfit—red duangong worship Sun Wu-Kong and Sha Wu-Jing,
and specialize in driving away demons, curing illnesses, and granting wishes, while white duangong are dedicated to the Buddha of the Western Skies, and specialize in praying for offspring, rain, and worshiping mountains in hopes of an abundant harvest.
Graham himself believed that the definition of “mubashe” (abamuba) is tian (heaven), which is the god worshipped by the Zhou people in ancient Chinese history.
Historically the Qiangs (or the people surnamed Jiang) was an ally of the Zhou people.
Apparently, judging from this explanation, Graham viewed contemporary Qiangs as the descendants of the Qiang (or Jiang) people of the Shang(1600-1046 B.C.) and Zhou Dynasty(1122-256 B.C.).
The Qiang people’s faith in tian is evidence of the historical continuity of this ethnic group.
Followers of Primitive Religions
The first Chinese scholar to study Qiang religions was Hu Jian-Min, working mostly in the 1930s.
He observed that Qiang culture was deeply influenced by Han and Tibetan culture, but “the most precious components of Qiang culture—the sorcery, rituals, history, legends, mythology, and music and dances, etc., are still presented again and again under the leadership of their priests and elders.” Therefore, he focused his research on the Qiang people’s religious beliefs.
First of all, Hu pointed out that the Qiang believe in spirits and deities, and that “their religious activities are still at the stage of worshiping spirits and objects.”
Therefore, he also disagreed with the idea that Qiang religion is monotheist.
Secondly, he conceived that what the Qiangs worshiped was not the white stones themselves, but the skies and the earth, the trees, the god of fire, and the twelve deities worshiped within the household.
He explained that these gods are different in every region. A few deities from Han folk religion are mixed in among them, including Guanyu, Jiang Ziya, earth gods, stove gods, and gods that bring wealth.
Households that are even more influenced by the Han only worship the five categories of people to be respected according to Confucian thought—heaven, earth, king, parents, and teachers.
At the same time Hu also noticed that each Qiang region has localized gods, as does every village.
This is where his view corresponds with Graham’s.
Hu also pointed out that Qiang shamans and magic are “just like that of many primitive tribes in the world.”
He described the various magical powers that the duangong are known to demonstrate, and concluded that “this type of magic is known in the context of studies of primitive religion as simulated magic,” and is “established upon a kind of primitive mentality.”
Finally, Hu used totemism to interpret Qiang legends and religions, believing that the Qiang people can be symbolically represented by the goat.
In his opinion, since Qiang culture is already mixed with many Han and Tibetan elements, religion has become the only aspect that can exhibit the uniqueness of Qiang culture.
However, it is also the aspect that shows how “backward” and “primitive” Qiang culture is. Quoting Hu, “References to the Di and Qiang first appeared during the Shang Period(1600-1046 B.C.).
It makes one wonder how such a mature ethnic group can be so backward in terms of religion.”
Hu’s “discovery” of the primitiveness of Qiang religion was, however, much the product of the contemporary rise of social Darwinism and nationalism, with its discrimination between the core and periphery of ethnic groups.
The above three Chinese and Western scholars all presented biased views regarding the people they observed due to the social cultural background of their time.
What they were looking at was the same cultural and religious phenomenon, and yet all three of them were wearing different glasses, they saw different things.
Due to his sense of Christian superiority Thomas Torrance saw the Qiangs as noble monotheists whose faith and customs could be traced back to ancient Israel.
Under the influence of Sino-centrism, Hu Jian-Min saw the Qiangs as backward and primitive people who believed in animism and worshipped objects—in other words, far behind the Han people in terms of evolution despite their long history.
David Crockett Graham agreed with the history of the Qiang people which was constructed by Chinese scholars, and therefore he viewed Qiang people’s faith in their “Heavenly God” as the cultural residue left over from centuries of Han and Tibetan influence since the Zhou Dynasty(1122-256 B.C.).
Abamubita as the Qiang People’s Heavenly God
Nowadays, no one in the Qiang people remembers the saying that “the Qiangs are descendants of the Israelis,” but a few Westerners are persistent in their quest to find descendants of the Israeli people.
Furthermore, after two stories in the duangong scriptures—“Mujiezhu and Douanzhu” and “The Great Battle of Qiang and Ge”—were published, Abamubita became the heavenly god of the Qiang people.
This particular social memory is circulated via print copies of Qiang Folk Tales, which are mainly read by Qiang intellectuals.
The villagers in Wenchuan and Li still believe that Mubita is the Jade Emperor or Great Buddha of the West, while the majority of villagers in Mao and Songpan does not recognize this deity at all.
Mountain Gods Worshipped by the Tibetans