Qiang 羌 is the name of a people living in the western region of China, particularly the Gansu corridor, but in a wider sense also an ancient term for all pastoral nomads living in the west. This can be seen in the character 羌 that is composed of a sheep 羊 and a man 人. The Qiang were ethnically seen Tanguts, relatives to the Tibetans. Their name survives in the modern national minority of the Qiang 羌族.
During the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) the Qiang already delivered tributes to the royal court. They are mentioned in the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang. According to the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" the Qiang supported King Wu of Zhou 周武王 in the conquest of the Shang empire 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). Zhou period sources say that the Qiang were part of the western Rong 戎. During the reign of King Xuan 周宣王 (r. 827-782 BC) the Qiang several times defeated the royal army. The Rong of Shen 申戎 and the Rong of Jiang 姜戎 (i.e. Qiang) united with the "Dog" Rong Quanrong 犬戎, defeated King You 周幽王 (r. 781-771) and devastated the royal capital in Zongzhou 宗周 (near modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). The Zhou court was forced to flee to the east, where the Eastern Zhou period 東周 (770-221 BCE) was initiated.
During the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) the Qiang several times entered Chinese territory. They were also used by the dukes of Jin 晉 as good fighters against military enemies. During the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) the region of modern Gansu was inhabited by the Rong of Yiqu 義渠戎 which buried their death by cremation. It can be assumed that they were Qiang, too. They were a belligerent people and often attacked villages of the state of Qin 秦. King Zhaoxiang of Qin 秦昭襄王 (r. 307-251) finally forced the Qiang into submission and founded the commanderies (jun) of Longxi 隴西 and Beidi 北地.
Chinese sources say that the Qiang had never a united ruler but consisted of many tribes that lived of pastoral nomadism, but some groups also engaged in agricultural activities. In the late Warring States period the most important chieftain was called Yuanjian 爰劍 who had founded a dynasty. Under his descendant Ren 忍 the kingdom of Qin began to expand to the west. Ren's uncle Ang 卬 therefore moved his people farther to the southwest. These groups were known as the Qiang of Maoniu 牦牛, Baima 白馬 and Canlang 參狼 during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). Ren's descendants continued living in the Hehuang 河湟 area, the upper course of the Yellow River.
At the beginning of the Han period the northern steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 forced the Qiang into submission. They therefore asked the Han court to be allowed to migrate more eastwards. Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE) allowed the Qiang to settle down in Didao 狄道, Angu 安故, Lintao 臨洮, Didao 氐道 and Qiangdao 羌道 (all in the modern province of Gansu). Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) finally decided to engage the challenge by the Xiongnu militarily. He therefore dispatched an army that founded fortified garrisons, secured the foundation of regular districts (xian 縣) in the western commanderies, and checked the various Qiang tribes by initiating the post of a Commandant protector of the Qiang (hu Qiang xiaowei 護羌校尉).
In 61 BCE the commandant proved to be an extremely cruel person that ruthlessly suppresses the Qiang tribes, that thereupon rebelled against the colonisation of the Chinese. Emperor Xuan 漢宣帝 (r. 74-49 BCE) therefore sent out Zhao Chongguo 趙充國 who had a good hand at pacifying the Qiang without too much bloodshed. He had founded military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) in which the Qiang were settled down and founded towns, built streets and irrigation canals. These works were supported by the immigration by a lot of Chinese settlers whose presence accelerated the civilization of the Qiang. These measures did not only suppress rebellious thougts among the Qiang, but also prepared the logistics lines for the conquest of the Western Territories 西域 by the Han.
At the beginning of the Later Han period more and more Qiang people migrated to the west, and were sometimes even invited to settle down in China proper, like in 35 CE, when the Qiang of Xianling 先零羌 were welcomed in the commanderies of Tianshui 天水, Longxi and Fufeng 扶風, or in 58 CE, when the Qiang of Shaodang 燒當羌 settled down in the region of central modern Shaanxi. These groups of Qiang were called Eastern Qiang 東羌. The greatest part of them was made slaves by the large landowners. The Western Qiang had no better life under the Commandant protector and therefore more and more often rose in rebellion against the supremacy of the Han empire. The first large-scale rebellion took place in 106, the second one in 136, and a third insurrection began in 159 and could only put down ten years later. The military activities of the rebellious Qiang affected the western metropolitan region Hedong 河東, Henei 河内, and even the commandery of Shu 蜀 in Sichuan. They even influenced the decline of the grip of the central government on the local administration.
During the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280) some Qiang fought for the Wei empire 曹魏 (220-265), while others were used as troops by the empire of Shu 蜀 (221-263). A lot of Qiang therefore came into the regions of Shaanxi and Sichuan, where they remained thereafter and settled among the Chinese population. They worked as tenent farmers and also as private slaves of magnates. In 296 the Malan Qiang of Fengyu and Beidi joined in rebellion with Xiongnu and Di 氐 tribes, a large-scale insurrection against the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) and the Chinese gentry.
The Di chieftain Qi Wannian 齊萬年 adopted the title of emperor and defeated the Jin army at Liubai 六栢 (modern Qianxian 乾縣, Shaanxi). The courtier Jiang Tong 江統 therefore submitted a memorial in which he suggested moving all Qiang people back to the upper course of the Yellow River, in order to avoid further problems with the Chinese local administration, but his suggestion was not considered very practical. During the reign of Emperor Huai 晉懷帝 (r. 306-312) the chieftain of the Shaodang Qiang of Nan'an 南安, Yao Yizhong 姚弋仲, moved to the metropolitan region of Fufeng with several ten thousand people. His son Yao Chang 姚萇 usurped the throne of the Former Qin empire 前秦 (351-394), a foundation by the Di chieftain Fu Jian 苻健, and proclaimed the Later Qin empire 後秦 (384-417). In the century to follow the Qiang people more and more merged with the surrounding population, be it Chinese or non-Chinese. Around 600 they were indistinguishable from the Chinese.
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) the Qiang of Dangxiang 黨項 moved to the region of Xiazhou 夏州, where they would eventually found the empire of Western Xia 西夏 (1038-1227). They are known as the Tanguts proper and are called Dangxiang 黨項 in Chinese.
Another people of the Qiang, living in the upper course of River Min 岷江 in modern Qinghai, was during the Han period known as Ran 冉 or Mang 駹. It is believed that these people were the ancestors of the modern Qiang.