views updated Jun 27 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Buzhuang, Bunong, Buyang, Butu, Buyue, Buman, Gaolan
POPULATION: 16.2 million
RELIGION: Polytheistic; ancestor worship, Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


The Zhuang developed as a branch of the ancient Baiyue people. They are historically linked with the Xi'ou and Luoyue people of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States (475-221 BC) during the Zhou Dynasty (1121- 221 BC); with the Liao, Li, and Wuhu of the Han (206 BC-AC 220) and Tang dynasties (618-907); and with the Zhuang, Liang, and Tu of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), as recorded in ancient Chinese books. After unifying China, the First Emperor of Qin (221-207 BC) sent an army half a million strong to Lingnan (present Guangxi and Guangdong). Having conquered the Xi'ou, he set up three command posts and ordered the local population to dig a canal connecting the Xiangjiang and Lijiang rivers, thus linking the Yangzi River system with the Zhujiang River system. A great number of Chinese moved from the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River to the south to live together with the Xi'ou and the Luoyue. After the fall of the imperial Qin in 207 BC, Zhao Tuo, an ex-general of Qin, proclaimed himself King of South Yue. The rebellion was put down by Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 7). After the fall of the Han Dynasty in ad 220, there appeared in present Guangxi large clans, such as Lu, Xian, Ning, etc., each of whom had large numbers of slaves, extensive property and great political power. The imperial Tang Dynasty appointed local hereditary chieftains as its officials. Thereafter, the ancestors of the Zhuang, despite sporadic restlessness and rebellions, submitted to the rule of the central government.


Zhuang is the largest national minority of China. Their population was 16.2 million in 2000. More than 90% of them live in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. There are also compact Zhuang communities in Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (in southeast Yunnan) and smaller groups in Guangdong, Hunan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces. The Guangxi landscape is typical of southern China. In its central portion, a chain of undulating hills formed by eroded limestone of an ancient uplifted seabed casts a spell on Chinese and foreigners alike. Strings of jadeite-green peaks seem suspended from the blue sky. A number of grottoes have been found inside those hills. Some of them are large enough to accommodate thousands of people. It is also in those hills that one finds the famous "gorge paintings"; there are more than 60 gorges stretching over some 125 mi. The largest one is 130 ft high and more than 325 ft long. In all, more than 1,300 images can be seen. The largest drawings exceed 10 ft, while the small ones are only 12 in.


Zhuang is classified as belonging to the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family, Zhuang-Dong group, Zhuang-Dai branch. A writing system was created on the basis of the Chinese script as early as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) but had only a limited use, recording genealogies, contracts, scriptures, and popular stories; it nevertheless contributed greatly to the knowledge of traditional Zhuang society and culture. A new alphabetical system based on Latin was put in use in 1955 and revised in 1982.

The Zhuang call themselves Buzhuang. "Bu" means "man." Other self-given names include Bunong, Buyang, Butu, Buyue, Buman, Gaolan, etc., as many as 20 and more. Zhuang has now become the unified name of all these groups.


The Zhuang have a rich mythology, revolving in good part around the question of origins. In one story, it is said that there were no seeds of grains in ancient times, so people had to allay their hunger with wild herbs. Because of the multiplication of mankind, their demand far exceeded supply. Actually, there were seeds of grains in the heavens, but people living there were not willing to give them to people living on earth. The latter had no choice but to send a dog to look for seeds in Heaven. In those days, a dog had nine tails. On arriving on the threshing ground, the dog put its tails on the floor so that many seeds stuck themselves onto the hairs. Unfortunately, the dog was discovered by a guard, who chopped off eight out of its nine tails; but, the dog was able run away. The seeds stuck on the remaining tail of the dog brought great benefits to mankind. For this reason, dogs are kept at home and fed with rice. Today, dogs have only one tail, but the grains have nine spikes reminding people that dogs formerly had nine tails.

Another story concerning the origins of the Zhuang relates that human beings were few in ancient times. A Carpenter God came to a large forest and made men and women from wood; they were able to talk and move, like real people. There were three groups: the "wooden" Yao were located beside a stream; the "wooden" Zhuang, halfway up the hill; and the "wooden" Miao, on the hilltop. The Carpenter God's wife did the cooking and his son took the meal to his father in the forest. One day, the Carpenter God wanted to know which of the two sexes was cleverer. When the son called his father to lunch in the forest, the wooden men all responded. The child could not tell who his father was. When he went back, his mother taught him to find the man with sweat on his nose due to manual labor. The child returned to the forest and found his father easily without calling. When the Carpenter God realized that his wife had outwitted him, he made a wooden stick of even thickness for his wife, which was delivered by the child. His wife had to guess which end was the original root and which was the tip. His wife hung the stick by the middle. The weighty end was marked as the root. The Carpenter God was astonished by her wisdom and became so angry that he burned the wooden people on the spot. The wooden Yao were charred and became black. That is why the Yao wear black clothes. The wooden Zhuang halfway up the hill were not seriously burnt, so they wear blue clothes. The wooden Miao were caught unawares by the fire and fled in turmoil. Some of them escaped; some had burns over different parts of the body. Therefore, there are Flowery Miao, White Miao, and Black Miao today.


The Zhuang are polytheistic. They worship their ancestors and revere big stones, large trees, snakes, birds, and the earth. There are part-time shamans (daogong) in the rural areas, frequently solicited by Zhuang people to chase ghosts away. The Zhuang offer sacrifices to the Mountain God, the Water God, the Kitchen God, the Sun God, and so on. For example, they offer glutinous rice and colored boiled eggs to the Crop God beside the fields prior to sowing grain. The third day of lunar March (Western calendar, between March 26 and April 24) is regarded as the birthday of Shennong (Divine Farmer), who is said to have invented agriculture; on that occasion, pigs are butchered for sacrificial offerings. The second day of lunar June (Western calendar, between June 23 and July 23) is the birthday of the great King Muyi, who saved the Zhuang from disasters; not only do they offer a sacrifice every year, but they also hold a grand ceremony in his honor every six years. The numerous sacrifices offered by the Zhuang all aim at receiving the blessings of the gods: well-being of the family, healthy livestock, and abundant crops. The Zhuang were influenced by organized Buddhism and Taoism since the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Since the beginning of this century, a small number have adopted Christian beliefs and practices.


There are dozens of holidays among the Zhuang, all according to the lunar calendar. On the Lunar New Year's Eve (Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20), the whole family reunites at the dinner table. They talk cheerfully all night long. On the first day of the New Year, a lot of things will be done. They all dress up. Firecrackers are kindled. The women draw water from the wells or rivers and then boil it with brown sugar, bamboo leaves, shallot, and ginger to concoct a beverage for the family. In some areas, the sacrificial rites to the ancestors are performed in the morning. Then, the children should study seriously for a while, for the day is believed to be propitious for rapid advance in their studies. The lady of the house will place a little fertilizer and seeds in the field and drop some chicken feathers on the village road to beckon a flourishing year for the crops and the livestock. In other areas, the Zhuang offer a sacrifice in a tiny temple housing the Village God. Wooden swords and spears included among the offerings are expected to be used by the god to protect the village. In small towns, sporting and recreational events, such as "tossing an embroidered ball" (a kind of ball game for children), Lion Dance, Dragon Dance, and Zhuang drama will be held. The same festive activities will be repeated on January 30 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between February 19 and March 18), the "Late New Year." It is said that a long time ago the local people had to fight against an invading army on a lunar New Year and during the whole month of January, obtaining victory only on January 30.

The eighth of April (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between May 2 and May 30) is the birthday of Buffalo God. People clean the pen, wash and brush the buffalo at the riverside, feed it with multicolored glutinous rice, and give it a day off.


Huapo (flower woman) is the goddess of reproduction and also the patron saint of babies. Right after childbirth, a holy tablet dedicated to Huapo and a bouquet of wild flowers are placed by the wall along the bedside. It is said that all babies are flowers cultivated by the goddess. If the baby falls ill, the mother makes offerings to Huapo and abundantly waters the wild flowers, which symbolize her baby.

The Zhuang's funerary rites are unique. The coffin is made of thin plank and buried about 2 ft from the surface to hasten the decaying of the corpse. Three to five years later (never even-numbered years), the coffin is opened, the bones are cleansed of any remnants of soft tissue; the skeleton is then placed in a sitting posture inside an earthen jar, sprinkled with cinnabar. The name of the deceased and his or her dates of birth and death are written on the inside of the lid, and the sealed jar is finally buried in the clan graveyard.


A straw hat hung on a door is a warning that there is a lying-in woman inside and that no entrance is allowed unless authorized. The guest should pay attention to this warning. Th is custom is quite common among the national minorities.

Zhuang youngsters enjoy full freedom in dating. Antiphonal singing parties are a popular way to choose partners of the opposite sex; they are held on all festivals. The lyrics include astronomy, geography, history, social life, productive labor, ethics, and, of course, passions. Someone adept in antiphonal singing is much admired and will be the "target" of the opposite sex.


Most of the Zhuang houses are now similar to those of the local Chinese. Some areas, however, still retain traditional "stilt dwelling" housing. The house is built on stilts, keeping the family above the damp earth and away from animals. Th is type of house is not much different from that of the ancient Baiyue more than 1,000 years ago. It is well adapted to the climate and environment of south China. In Guangxi the house and stilts are made of bamboo and wood. The size of the house may vary from three to seven rooms. Livestock and stored goods are placed on the ground floor.

A number of infectious diseases prevalent in bygone days, including schistosomiasis (a parasitic disease), are now completely eradicated.


The Zhuang family is patrilineal, monogamous, and relatively small in size. The women's position is somewhat lower than that of men. The custom of "not living in the husband's house" has been prevalent since remote antiquity. Right after the wedding ceremony, the bride, accompanied by her bridesmaids, goes back to her own family. She will only return to her husband during festivals; in the busy agricultural seasons, she will only visit her husband when invited by him. If she gets pregnant, she will then move to her husband's house; otherwise, she will move three to five years after the wedding.

Among the Zhuang living in compact communities in north Guangdong, the bride and her bridesmaids all wear black. They hold black umbrellas while accompanying the bride from her home family to her husband's house. The dresses are prepared by the bridegroom's side and delivered to the bride's family by the matchmaker. According to tradition black costumes are joyous and auspicious.


Nowadays, the Zhuang's clothes are, by and large, the same as those of the local Chinese. In some rural areas, however, they preserve ancient traditions. For example, in northwest Guangxi, the aged women still wear a collarless, trimmed garment with buttons down the left side and trimmed loose trousers, with an embroidered apron on their waist. Some of them wear wax-printed straight skirts in dark navy, with embroidered shoes and an embroidered kerchief wrapped around the head. Zhuang peasants put on dark navy blue cloth pants and upper garments.

Zhuang women are fond of wearing gold or silver hair clasps, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. Most of them have abandoned the tradition of tattooing their faces.


The staple foods of the Zhuang are rice and corn. They like salted and sour dishes. Raw fish fillets are one of their delicacies. On festivals, they make various dishes from glutinous rice, such as cakes, rice-flour noodles, and pyramid-shaped dump-lings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. Women like to chew areca, especially those in Longzhou near the Vietnam border. In some districts, they do not eat beef because they follow the old custom handed down from their ancestors, who regarded the buffalo as their savior.


About 95% of school-age children are registered in state schools. There are 17 universities in Guangxi. One-quarter of the college students are from the national minorities, the vast majority being from the Zhuang people. The cultural and educational level of the Zhuang is higher than the average for the national minorities but still lower than the average for China as a whole.


A large part of Zhuang popular culture revolves around singing. For instance, singing is the main activity during festivals. Singing parties are organized on different scales. A grand gathering during a major festival may attract more than 10,000 participants. They form small groups of boys and girls within the larger gathering and engage in antiphonal singing. Song, thus, has a very important social function. Dance is also important but is performed independently from singing. There are a variety of dances, such as the Bronze Drum Dance, the Tea-Leaves Collecting Dance, the Shoulder Pole Dance, the Buffalo Dance, and so on.

Studies of the Zhuang nationality have developed rapidly since the 1960s. The researchers, mainly Zhuang, collected 1,000 ancient Zhuang books concerning ancient writings, literature, art, history, and religions. A dictionary of ancient Zhuang language, an epic relating the origin of the Zhuang, a collection of their folk songs and love songs, a general history of the Zhuang, an encyclopedia on the Zhuang, and books concerning Zhuang culture were published in the past decade.


The Zhuang have traditionally engaged in agriculture and in forestry. The land is fertile and the climate propitious both for wet crops and dry crops. Besides the labor-intensive cultivation of rice and other grains, the Zhuang of Guangxi produce commercial quantities of sugarcane, banana, longan, litchi, pineapple, shaddock, and mango. The coastal area they inhabit abounds in quality pearls.


The Zhuang are renowned as outstanding athletes in different fields of gymnastics. Intensive training for young boys and girls is provided on a voluntary basis after school hours.

"Tossing the embroidered ball" is a traditional game. The ball is a cloth bag padded with rice husks or cottonseed, about 1 lb in weight and variable in size. A colored string is attached to it. In a match, youngsters are divided into two teams of opposing sex. They are separated by a paling. The method of tossing the ball is to hold the string in one hand, swing the ball in circles, then release it; it resembles the hammer throw. The opposite side should catch the ball; if not, one member of the opposite team is captured. Whenever the commander (usually the last team member) is captured, the game is over.


Television has become a very popular pastime for the urban Zhuang. Most of the small towns are now provided with television broadcasting stations; rural families with a television set are thus able to watch a wide variety of television programs at home. Guangxi set up its own film studio decades ago.

There are many recreational festivals during the year. A grand fair is held annually in the spring; in addition to the interflow of commodities, a number of recreational activities are held. Commemorative feasts for the ancestors are celebrated twice a year, in spring and autumn; they now contain many recreational elements, such as singing parties, dancing performances, and Zhuang opera.


The Zhuang are internationally famous for the antiquity and beauty of their bronze drums. The size of the drums varies considerably. The drums are hollow and bottomless with a flat surface. Artistic figures and designs decorate the drums. They were used as percussion instruments, both in religious and governmental rituals. They became a sign of power and wealth. They are considered as a national treasure by the Zhuang.

Brocade is also a well-known traditional art form of the Zhuang. The brocade is woven with cotton and multicolored silk to form beautiful, sophisticated, and durable designs. Wall hangings, table cloth, cushions, and curtains made of Zhuang brocade are highly appreciated both in China and abroad. Zhuang girls are particularly fond of brocaded knapsacks.


Although Guangxi is an area of fertile soil, warm climate and abundant rainfall, the Zhuang are far from wealthy. The rich mineral resources, coastal areas, and tourism potential of Guangxi are not yet fully tapped. For this reason, large numbers of surplus rural labor of the Zhuang and other nationalities move from Guangxi to its neighboring province Guangdong, which is more developed economically. Th is population movement poses serious problems both to Guangdong and to Guangxi.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, Zhuang women's status is regarded as somewhat lower than that of Zhuang men. A wife does not live with her husband until the couple has been married at least three years. For the first three years of marriage, the wife only visits the husband when he invites her. However, if the wife becomes pregnant, she moves into her husband's house.

China has strict family planning laws, and it is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age, 22 for men, and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests, and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.

Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China nvolving between 1.7 and five million women. It involved organized crime, businessmen, the police and government workers, so prosecution against prostitution has limited success. In 2002, the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, and though it is still a taboo topic, homosexuality is increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.


Chiao, Chien, Nicholas Tapp, and Kam-yin Ho, ed. "Special Issue on Ethnic Groups in China." New Asia Bulletin no 8 (1989).

Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Heberer, Th omas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Lebar, Frank, et al. Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.

Lemoine, Jacques. "Les Chouang." In Ethnologie régionale II (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade). Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.

Miller, Lucien, ed. South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Wiens, Harold J. Han Chinese Expansion in South China. New Haven: The Shoestring Press, 1967.

—by C. Le Blanc


views updated May 29 2018


ETHNONYMS: Buban, Budai, Budong, Bulong, Buman, Bumin, Buna, Bunong, Bupian, Bushuang, Butu, Buyang, Buyue, Gaolan Nongan, Tulao


Identification. The Zhuang are the largest of China's minority peoples. Their autonomous region covers the entire province of Guangxi. They are a highly Sinicized agricultural people and are closely related culturally and linguistically to the Bouyei, Maonan, and Mulam, who are recognized by the state as separate ethnicities.

Location. Most Zhuang live in Guangxi, where they constitute about 33 percent of the population. They are concentrated in the western two-thirds of the province and neighboring regions of Guizhou and Yunnan, with a smaller group in Lianshan in northern Guangdong. For the most part, villages are in the mountainous areas of Guangxi. Numerous streams and rivers provide irrigation, transportation, and more recently, hydroelectric power. Much of the province is subtropical, with temperatures averaging 20° C, reaching 24 to 28° C in July and lows between 8 and 12° C in January. During the rainy season, from May to November, annual rainfall averages 150 centimeters.

Demography. According to the 1982 census, the Zhuang population was 13,378,000. The 1990 census reports 15,489,000. According to 1982 figures, 12.3 million Zhuang lived in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, with another 900,000 in adjacent areas of Yunnan (mainly in the Wenshan Zhuang-Miao Autonomous Prefecture), 333,000 in Guangdong, and a small number in Hunan. At least 10 percent of the Zhuang are urban. Elsewhere, population density ranges from 100 to 161 persons per square kilometer. The reported birth rate in recent years is 2.1, which is in line with China's family-planning policies.

linguistic Affiliation. The Zhuang language belongs to the Zhuang Dai Branch of the Tai (Zhuang-Dong) Language Family, which includes Bouyei and Dai and is closely related to the standard Thai language of Thailand and the Standard Lao of Laos. The eight-tone system resembles that of the Yue (Cantonese) dialects of the Guangdong-Guangxi area. There are also many loanwords from Chinese. Zhuang consists of two closely related "dialects," which are termed "northern" and "southern": the geographical dividing line is the Xiang River in southern Guangxi. Northern Zhuang is more widely used and is the base for the standard Zhuang encouraged by the Chinese government since the 1950s. A romanized script was introduced in 1957 for newspapers, magazines, books, and other publications. Prior to that, literate Zhuang used Chinese characters and wrote in Chinese. There was also Zhuang writing that used Chinese characters for their sound value only, or in compound forms that indicated sound and meaning, or created new ideographs by adding or deleting strokes from standard ones. These were used by shamans, Daoist priests, and merchants, but were not widely known.

History and Cultural Relations

The Sinicization of the Tai-speaking peoples of the Lingnan (Guangdong and Guangxi) has been a long process. Chinese forces first penetrated the area in 211 b.c., sparking local resistance and the creation of the Nan-Yue Kingdom, which expanded its rule to what is now northern Vietnam. In 111 b.c., Nan-Yue was integrated into the Han dynasty domain but not until the Tang (c. 600 a.d.) was state control established. Military farm colonies opened the way for further Han Chinese settlement. The indigenous Tai peoples either assimilated or were pushed westward or into the uplands, whereas the newcomers settled in the lowlands and interior river valleys. The crushing of a major Zhuang uprising in Guangdong during the Song led to further assimilation or dispersement of the ancestors of the current-day Zhuang. From the incoming Han settlers, the Zhuang adopted new agricultural techniques, where applicable, such as the iron plow, application of manure fertilizer, triple-cropping of rice, and more sophisticated irrigation systems. In the western part of Guangxi, the Zhuang remained in control of much of the area suitable for wet-field rice agriculture, as well as holding sway in the uplands where the introduction of Chinese technology was less feasible. From Tang onward, successive dynasties, landlord officials, and state-appointed local landlords ruled a large part of the Zhuang area, with most of the population reduced to tenancy and owing feudal service. This system continued into the nineteenth century, despite a number of major peasant uprisings. In the 1850s Guangxi was the origin point for the Taiping Rebellion, and Zhuang played an active role in the Taiping army and leadership. In 1927, the predominantly Zhuang area near Pai-se (Bose) was one of the earliest soviets. In 1949, the Zhuang of western Guangxi, who regarded themselves as oppressed by former Chinese governments, were warmly receptive to the Liberation army and new government. In 1952, a Zhuang autonomous region was organized in western Guangxi: By 1958, all of Guangxi became a Zhuang autonomous region, shared with the Han and with other ethnicities such as Yao, Miao, Maonan, Dong, Mulam, Jing, and Hui (Chinese Muslims). Soon after, the government organized the Zhuang-Miao Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Yunnan and the Lianshan Zhuang-Yao Autonomous County in Guangdong. In 1984, Zhuang together with other minority people accounted for about one-third of the cadres (government employees and officials) in these areas.


Some Zhuang areas in Guangxi are relatively homogenous, while elsewhere Zhuang villages are scattered between villages of other nationalities. Zhuang villages range in size from 20 to 2,000 persons, with a few larger communities that are traditional marketing centers located along riverways or a crossroad. Often, a village or cluster of villages traces its descent from a common male ancestor. In multilineal villages, houses tend to group according to surname (patrilineage). Newcomers to the area live on the outskirts, often at a considerable distance. Typical villages are located on a mountain slope facing a river. Under Han influence, most Zhuang have adopted the one-story brick house, but some retain the wooden-pile house common to other ethnic groups in the area: a two-story structure, with living quarters upstairs, and the lower floor serving as stables and storage rooms. Both styles nowadays have tiled roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Paddy rice, dry-field uplands rice, glutinous rice, yams, and maize are staples, with double- or triple-cropping in most areas. Many tropical fruits (pineapple, banana, orange, sugarcane, litchi, mango) are grown, as well as a number of vegetables. River fisheries add protein to the diet, and most households raise pigs and chickens. Oxen and water buffalo serve as draft animals but are also eaten. Hunting and trapping are a very minor part of the economy, and gathering activities focus on mushrooms, medicinal plants, and fodder for the livestock. There is additional income in some areas from tung oil, tea and tea oil, cinnamon and anise, and a variety of ginseng. During the agricultural slack seasons, there are now increased opportunities to find construction work or other kinds of temporary jobs in the towns.

Industrial Arts. Most villages have always had some craft specialists skilled in carpentry, masonry, house building, tailoring, and the weaving of bamboo mats. Brocades, embroidered works, and batiks made by Zhuang women are famous throughout China and were mentioned as early as the Tang dynasty. Ordinarily, the Zhuang tend to dress like their Han neighbors, but ethnic dress has reemerged and is now encouraged by the state.

Trade. Households are heavily dependent on local markets for obtaining daily necessities and luxury goods and for selling their own products such as vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, furniture, herbs, and spices. Participation in the market is also a social pastime. Both sexes participate in market trading. These periodic markets, held every three, five, or ten days, are now the site of township, district, and county governments. A small number of Zhuang are shopkeepers in a village or market town, and with the recent reforms some now are long-distance traders, bringing clothing from Guangdong Province for resale on the local markets.

Division of Labor. Men are responsible for plowing and management of the draft animals, while women are primarily responsible for transplanting rice in the flooded fields, weeding, and harvesting. Young men are more likely to be educated and are encouraged to learn an artisan skill or seek an urban job. The development of forestry and industries in the area makes some wage labor available. With adult women engaged in agriculture, the tasks of child care, feeding of domestic animals, and some of the housework is taken on by the elderly members of the family.

Land Tenure. From the Tang through much of the Qing dynasty, a feudal landownership system was prevalent, in which households received land-use rights for their own subsistance in return for labor on the landowner's estates and other labor services. A more commercialized landlord system developed from the eighteenth century on into the twentieth, creating a large number of poor peasants. Under the current reforms, land is allocated on contract to households, according to the number of people registered as rural residents. A village administrative committee (formerly a production brigade or team under the socialist economy) oversees the allotments of arable land, particularly irrigated fields. The contract is usually for five years. All land now belongs to the state, but use rights and redistribution rest with the village. Conflicts over land boundaries between households, villages, or even townships and counties are not uncommon. Population density is now high relative to available land.


Kin Groups and Descent. Beyond the three-generation household, the significant group is the localized patrilineage, which shares a common surname and traces descent from a common ancestor. There is an elder recognized as the head, and households participate together at ancestral worship ceremonies, weddings, and funerals, with the lineage branch head directing. There are no reliable data on local variations of kinship terminology. The mother's brother plays an important role for his nieces and nephews, from choosing their name and participating in their marriage arrangements to playing a role in their parents' funerals.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are surname exogamous, and usually village exogamous as well. There is some preference for a boy to marry his mother's brother's daughter, whereas marriage with parallel cousins is forbidden. In the past there was also a preference for early engagements and for a girl to be five or six years older than her prospective groom. Perhaps because of the age difference, there was delayed transfer of the bride: after the marriage ceremony she remained with her parents, making frequent visits to her in-laws to assist with planting and harvest, but maintaining her social freedoms and natal residence until the birth of her first child. Only then did she move to her husband's village. Sinicized Zhuang utilize go-betweens, matching of horoscopes, sending of gifts to the girl's family, sending of a dowry, and the general patterns of Han marriage practice. However, older patterns or borrowings from neighboring ethnic groups also continue. Groups of unmarried boys visit to serenade eligible girls at their homes; there are singing parties for groups of unmarried youth (and those not yet living with their spouses); and there are other opportunities for young people to choose a spouse for themselves. In the past, there were "elopement" marriages, accepted by the family and community. Divorce is frowned upon, and if it occurs, fathers retain custody of their sons. Remarriage is permitted.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is monogamous and nuclear except for youngest sons, who are obliged to live with their parents. Residence is generally patrilocal: about 20 percent of marriages bring the groom to the wife's village.

Inheritance. The youngest son inherits a larger share of the parental property. Both sons and daughters inherit movables, and also parental debts. In the absence of surviving offspring, other lineage members inherit.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Prior to 1949, village organization was based on the patrilineage and on villagewide religious activities focused on gods and spirits who protected the community and assured the success of the crops and livestock. Ceremonies were led by recognized village elders.

Political Organization. Since 1949, various government-designated forms of organization have appeared. At present, villages are administered by a committee; and the next-highest level is the township government, which is responsible for a number of villages and which manages agriculture, local industry, and collection of taxes and required quota sales to the state. Within the village and township there are branches or groups of the Communist party, the Women's Federation, and the Youth League, all of which seek to ensure that party policy is carried out. While some problems are handled informally by family or community, some matters go through government courts at the township, district, or county level. About one-third of government employees in Guangxi are Zhuang.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ancestral worship differs from that of the Han in that it includes "kings" and mythic or historical heroes and heroines as well as actual ancestors in the patriline. The names of the ancestors, written on strips of red paper, are displayed on home altars together with the names of other spirits to be honored and receive special offerings at Spring Festival and at the Festival of the Dead in the seventh lunar month. In addition, there are a variety of local gods drawn from precontact religion or fused with gods from the Chinese folk tradition. These include Tudigong, who protects the village boundaries from his crossroads temple; She Shen, who is the village tutelary spirit; the Mountain Spirit (some mountains are sacred and should not be opened to farming); the Dragon King (Long Wang), who also protects the villages; and a number of spirits drawn from the pantheon of natural forces. Both Daoism and Buddhism or a fusion of the two are important in community life, particularly at the time of funerals. Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to the area in the late nineteenth century, but the number of followers is small and mostly limited to the urban areas.

Religious Practitioners. Female divination specialists treat sickness and in trance can communicate with spirits and ghosts. A second kind of local shaman, who is male, differs in that he serves at an altar and is skilled in either the Zhuang writing system or a Zhuang reading of Chinese characters. His texts, which serve as a basis for performance (songs, chants), include myths, history and geography, astronomy, and tales. He performs at funerals, local festivals, and at times of crisis. The sacrifices of oxen, chickens, and other livestock are in part used to pay him for his service. Daoist priests, who are also part-time practitioners, perform at many of the same events as the shaman. They chant in Chinese and use Han texts. Buddhism in the Zhuang areas has been strongly influenced by Daoism and earlier traditional religion. The priests can marry and are semivegetarian. They cast horoscopes, serve as geomancers, and exorcise ghosts, as well as chanting sutras at life-crisis times.

Ceremonies. Honoring ancestors at home altars and in ancestral halls is of key importance. The Chinese Qingming Festival for sweeping ancestral graves (third lunar month) is often combined with an Ox Birthday Festival and ceremonies for the goddess who protects at birth and during infancy.

Arts. There is a rich repertoire of songs, dances, local opera, oral literature, and music. Hundreds of decorated bronze drums have been found in archaeological sites in the region, and there are frescoes dating back some 2,000 years at sites along the Zuo River.

Medicine. Divination, shamanistic healing, and herbal medicines from an older tradition are augmented by borrowings from Chinese traditional medicine (cupping, acupuncture) and the more recent introduction of clinics and health stations using both Chinese and Western medicine.

Death and Afterlife. Souls of the dead enter a netherworld but can continue to assist the living. Corpses are wrapped in white cloth and buried after three days, together with some of their favorite items of daily use. Daoist priests preside over the funeral: in some areas, two special singers are called upon to sing traditional mourning songs. The corpse is disinterred after three years and the bones are cleaned and placed in a pottery urn that is deposited in a cave or grotto. Those who died violent or untimely deaths are potentially evil spirits. Their bones are burned and a Daoist priest is called to transform the ashes into proper ancestors. Families arrange "spirit marriages" to appease the souls of those who died unmarried.


Gu Youzhi, and Lu Julie (1985). "Zhuangzu yuanshi zongjiao de fengjianhua" (The feudal transformation of early Zhuang religion). In Zhongguo shaoshu minzu zongjiao (Religions of China's national minorities), edited by Song Enchang, 301-315. Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.

Liang Tingwang (1986). Zhuangzu fengsu ji (Customs of the Zhuang). Beijing: Central Minorities Institute.

Ma Yin, ed. (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 371-379. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Song Enchang, ed. (1980). Yunnan shaoshu minzu shehui diaocha yanjiu (Social researches on Yunnan's minorities). Vol. 2. Kunming: Yunnan Peoples Press.



views updated May 18 2018



ALTERNATE NAMES: Buzhuang; Bunong; Buyang; Butu; Buyue; Buman; Gaolan


POPULATION: 15.6 million


RELIGION: Polytheistic; ancestor worship; Christianity


The Zhuang were once a branch of the ancient Baiyue people. They descended from clans in present-day Guangxi province after the fall of the Han Dynasty in ad 220. Each clan had many slaves, much property, and great political power. The Tang Dynasty (ad 618907) appointed local clan chieftains to govern for them. From then on, the Zhuang submitted to the rule of China's central government.


The Zhuang are the largest national minority of China. Their population was 15.6 million in 1990. More than 90 percent live in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. There are smaller numbers of Zhuang in Wenshan Zhuang, Miao Autonomous Prefecture (in southeast Yunnan), and other provinces. The hilly Guangxi landscape is like much of southern China. It has more than sixty gorges stretching over some 125 miles (201 kilometers).


Zhuang belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. A new alphabet based on Latin was adopted in 1955. The Zhuang call themselves Buzhuang. "Bu" means "man."


The Zhuang have a rich mythology, much of it concerned with their origins. One story claims that there were no grains long ago and people had to eat wild plants. In fact, there were grain seeds in heaven but no one on Earth could get any of them. A dog was sent to hunt for seeds in heaven. In those days, dogs had nine tails. When the dog got to where the seeds were, it put its tails on the floor. Many seeds stuck in the hairs. Then the dog was discovered by a guard, who chopped off eight of its nine tails. But the dog ran away, and the seeds stuck to the one tail that was left. These seeds brought great benefits to humanity. For this reason, dogs are kept at home and fed with rice.


The Zhuang are polytheistic (they believe in more than one god). They worship their ancestors and also pray to large stones and trees, snakes, birds, and the earth. They offer sacrifices to the Mountain God, the Water God, the Kitchen God, the Sun God, and others. Their many sacrifices are supposed to protect their livestock, their crops, and their families.


The Zhuang observe dozens of holidays. New Year's Eve is celebrated with a family dinner and firecrackers. Women boil water with brown sugar, bamboo leaves, onions, and ginger to brew a special holiday drink. Sports and other activities are held in small towns. The Zhuang observe the same customs for the Late New Year at the end of the month.

The eighth of April is the birthday of the Buffalo God. People brush the buffalo, feed them colored sticky rice, and let them rest all day.


Huapo (flower woman) is the goddess of childbirth and also the patron saint of babies. Right after a child is born, a holy plaque in honor of Huapo and a bunch of wildflowers are placed by the wall near the baby's bed. If the baby gets sick, the mother offers gifts to Huapo and waters the wild-flowers.

The Zhuang's funeral rites are unusual. The dead person is buried in a coffin about two feet below ground level. Three or five years later, the coffin is opened. Any flesh that is left is cleaned off the bones. The skeleton is then placed sitting up inside a clay jar and sprinkled with cinnabar (a red powder). The dead person's name and dates of birth and death are written inside the lid. The sealed jar is then buried in the clan graveyard.


Young people may date freely. Singing parties are a popular way to meet people. They are held on all holidays.

A straw hat hung on a door means that there is a woman giving birth inside.


Most Zhuang houses are now similar to those of their Chinese neighbors. Some areas, though, still have traditional "stilt dwellings." The house is built on stilts to keep the family above the damp earth and away from animals. In Guangxi the houses and stilts are made of bamboo and wood. The size of the house may vary from three to seven rooms. Livestock and stored goods are placed on the ground floor.


The Zhuang family is small and the family name is carried on by males. The Zhuang are monogamous (they marry only one person). The women's position is somewhat lower than that of men. Right after the wedding, the bride, together with her bridesmaids, goes back to her own family. For the first three to five years of marriage, she will return to her husband only on holidays.

However, she will move to her husband's house if she gets pregnant.


In some rural areas, the Zhuang preserve their ancient traditions. Women wear a garment with no collar and buttons down the left side, loose trousers, and embroidered aprons. Some wear navy printed straight skirts with embroidered shoes and embroidered scarves on their heads. However, most Zhuang wear two-piece plain clothing in muted, dark colors.


The main foods of the Zhuang are rice and corn. They like salted and sour dishes. Raw boneless fish are considered a special treat. On holidays, they make dishes from sticky rice. These include cakes, noodles, and dumplings wrapped in leaves.


About 95 percent of school-age children attend school. There are seventeen universities in Guangxi province. One-quarter of the college students in the province belong to China's national minorities. The great majority of these are Zhuang.


Singing is an important part of Zhuang popular culture. It is the main activity at festivals. A singing event at a major festival may draw more than 10,000 people. Dance is also important. Zhuang dances include the Bronze Drum Dance, the Tea-Leaves Collecting Dance, the Shoulder Pole Dance, and the Buffalo Dance.


The Zhuang's traditional employment is farming and forestry. The Zhuang of Guangxi grow rice and other grains. They also produce sugarcane, bananas, pineapples, and mangoes for the food industry.


The Zhuang are known as top gymnasts. Intensive training for young boys and girls is provided on a voluntary basis after school hours.

A traditional ball-tossing game is played with a padded cloth bag weighing about one pound (half a kilogram). A colored string is tied to the bag. Boys and girls are divided into two teams. Members toss the ball to the opposing team by holding the string in one hand, swinging it in circles, and letting it go. If the other side misses the ball, one of its members is captured. When the last team member is captured, the game is over.


Television is a very popular pastime for the urban Zhuang. Most small towns now have television stations, and families can watch many kinds of television programs.

There are many festivals during the year, and a large fair is held every spring. Biannual commemorative feasts for the ancestors feature many recreational elements, such as singing parties, dance performances, and Zhuang opera.


The Zhuang are famous for their bronze drums. The drums are hollow and bottomless with a flat surface. They vary in size and are decorated with pictures and designs.

Brocade is another well-known art form of the Zhuang. It is woven from cotton and colored silk to form beautiful and lasting designs. Zhuang brocade is used in wall hangings, table cloths, cushions, and curtains. Zhuang girls like to wear brocaded knapsacks.


Guangxi has fertile soil, a warm climate, and a plentiful rainfall, but the Zhuang are not wealthy. The rich mineral resources and tourist sites of the region have not been fully tapped. Many rural workers, including the Zhuang, have migrated from Guangxi to the nearby province of Guangdong because its economy is more developed. This migration poses serious problems for both provinces.


Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Miller, Lucien, ed. South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.


Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.china-embassy.org/, 1998.

World Travel Guide. China. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/cn/gen.html, 1998.