In ancient Chinese history, Qiang is usually a generic term for the non-Han people in the west. The structure of the graph 羌 also reflects this view. Anciently, it was composed of two elements: 人 (man) and 羊 (sheep), suggesting a sheep-herding people. During the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) and Wei-Jin periods (221-419), Qiang were widely distributed along the mountainous fringes of the northern and eastern Tibetan Plateau, from the Kunlun Mountains (崑崙山) in Xinjiang province (East Turkestan), and eastern Qinghai area, to southern Gansu, western Sichuan, and northern Yunnan.
Later, the Chinese restricted the term Qiang min 羌民 (Qiang people registered with the Chinese government) to refer to sinicized non-Han living in the Min River valley in Sichuan and used the term Fan Qiang 番羌 (barbarian Qiang) to refer to less sinicized non-Han living in the vicinity. At present, the Qiang have a self-identity, referring to themselves as Qiang zu (羌族) and erma or rma (爾瑪).
The Qiang today are mountain dwellers. A fortress village, zhai 寨, composed of 30 to 100 households, in general is the basic social unit beyond the household. An average of two to five fortress villages in a small valley along a mountain stream, known in local Chinese as gou 溝, make up a village cluster (cun 村). The inhabitants of fortress village or village cluster have close contact in social life. In these small valleys, people cultivate narrow fluvial plains along creeks or mountain terraces, hunt animals or collect mushrooms and herbs (for food or medicine) in the neighboring woods, and herd yaks and horses on the mountain-top pastures. In the past, warfare between villages was common.
From the linguistic point of view, all modern Qiang people speak the Qiang language, which is a member of the Tibeto-Burman language family. However, dialects are so different that communication between different Qiang groups is often in Chinese.