China’s ethnic Zhuang people and their costumes, Guangnan County, Yunnan Province. PHOTO BY JIALIANG GAO.
The Zhuang (or Bouxcueng) tribal people of the southeast have contributed greatly to the history of southern China. They now are the largest of China’s fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minority groups.
The Zhuang is the largest officially recognized minority ethnic group in China. (The Chinese government recognizes one majority group, the Han, and fifty-five minority groups.) They are very tribal and locality-oriented and traditionally have not considered themselves as one nationality. According to the 2000 census of the People’s Republic of China, the Zhuang population was about 18 million.
More than 90 percent of the Zhuang people live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in the southeast, bordering Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin. The remainder live in Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou, and Hunan provinces and often reside in areas populated with other south Chinese minority groups. A small population of Zhuang also lives in Vietnam. The tourist city of Guilin, with its famous nearby karst limestone landscape, is in a Zhuang-inhabited area. The Zhuang live in hamlets of twenty to thirty households, in brick and wood houses, often on stilts, in rain-forested mountainous regions known for straight high peaks, grottoes, and subterranean rivers.
The climate of Guangxi is mild in winter and tropical in summer. The mountains of Guangxi are heavily forested and rich in tea plantations. Minerals such as iron, coal, gold, copper, aluminum, zinc, and petroleum are abundant. Abundant rainfall flows through traditional bamboo pipes to nurture Zhuang rice paddies that can rise 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). The Zhuang also raise yams, corn, sugar cane, mangos, bananas, mushrooms, special medicinal plants, and fennel.
The Zhuang have a long recorded history, although the name “Zhuang” appeared only about 1,000 years ago. Their community sites came under Han Chinese control in 221 BCE under the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). Frescoes dating back more than 2,000 years have been discovered on numerous cliffs over the Zuojiang River in southwest Guangxi, which portray scenes in the life of the early Zhuang people. Powerful land-owning clans emerged in Zhuang areas of Guangxi and established Chinese-influenced kingdoms called Nan Yue (south) and Nan Han.
During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and Song dynasty (960–1279), irrigated rice paddies, animal raising, and cloth manufacturing spread to the Zhuang people. Zhuang social classes included heredity landowners, tenant farmers, and servants, all ruled by headmen. Known for their martial spirit, they repulsed the Annamese (Vietnamese) invasions of south China in the 1070s and also defeated Japanese pirates in the sixteenth century.
Throughout the last thousand years the Zhuang and Yao minorities often fought each other. When the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) peasant uprising broke out in southwest China, many Zhuang became important leaders in its army. Zhuang and Han Chinese forces in Guangxi combined to stop invading French armies near Hanoi, Vietnam, in 1873 and in 1882.
Ethnic Zhuang played key roles in Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary organization in the early twentieth century, but Zhuang efforts to become autonomous were crushed under Chiang Kai-shek in 1929. Zhuang guerrillas fought along side the communists against the Japanese in World War II, but after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Zhuang land was confiscated from traditional property owners and redistributed.
Under the communists, handicraft cooperatives were established and timber output increased greatly. More than twenty universities and colleges were established in Zhuang regions; the most famous is Guangxi Ethnic Institute. Infectious diseases that used to be rampant among the Zhuang—such as malaria, cholera, smallpox, and snail fever—have been wiped out.
Culture and Customs
The Zhuang language belongs to the Thai group of the Sino-Tibetan language family and has two main dialects. (Mandarin, the best known Chinese language, belongs to the Sinitic branch of Sino-Tibetan family. Zhuang and Mandarin are only distantly related, and speakers of one language do not understand speakers from the other.) The Zhuang developed their own written characters during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), but later Han Chinese characters were used for writing until in 1957, when the government helped to create a new writing system based on the Latin alphabet.
The Zhuang are polytheists, worshipping and making sacrifices to giant rocks, old trees, mountains, animals, and their human ancestors. Since the Tang dynasty, Daoism has strongly influenced their religious rites.
The Zhuang have a rich folk literature of legends, fairy tales, stories, and songs. Songfests are a common feature of social life and a means of choosing marriage partners. Common Zhuang musical instruments include the double-reed oboe (suona) bronze drum, cymbal, gong, Chinese windpipe (sheng), vertical bamboo flute, and horse-bone fiddle. Typical bronze drums of unclear purpose but reflecting skill in relief decorations have been unearthed and date back over 2,000 years. Zhuang dances are full of forceful and quick steps with humorous gestures. Their dance forms include dancing on wooden stilts, masked dances, and dancing with horse images. Zhuang opera, which combines folk literature, music, and dance, originated from Tang dynasty religious rituals. The Zhuang people also have their own form of puppet dramas.
Zhuang brocade originated in the Tang dynasty and is noted for its beautiful, colorful velour designs and tie-dyeing. There are regional clothing customs but, in general, men wear clothing similar to Han Chinese. However, the women in northwest Guangxi wear collarless, blue or black embroidered jackets buttoned to the left, with loose, wide trousers or pleated skirts with embroidered belts. Zhuang women in southwest Guangxi wear black collarless jackets buttoned to the left, with black square scarf headbands and loose black trousers. Women wear several large silver loop necklaces and other silver ornaments.
Tattooing on the face is still in practice among the Zhuang. Chewing betel nuts and drinking homemade wines remain common. Zhuang also make lacquerware similar to that found in Burma.
The Zhuang have three special festivals. On the Devil Festival, usually in August, every family prepares chicken, duck, wine, candy, and five-colored glutinous rice to offer as sacrifices to ancestors and ghosts. During the Cattle Soul Festival, after spring plowing, families carry a basket of steamed five-colored glutinous rice and a fresh grass bundle to the previously bathed cattle. They feed this mixture to the cattle to restore the souls they lost when whipped during the plowing. The Feasting Festival is celebrated by Zhuang near the Vietnamese border. It pays tribute to the Zhuang soldiers who gave up their traditional Spring Festival to repel the French invaders in the nineteenth century.
Many of the Zhuang people are surnamed Wei and trace their descent from a Han dynasty general, Han Xing. After the general’s execution, a close friend took his son to south China and revised the writing of his surname Han to create the new name of Wei. Zhuang descendants of t
his Wei ancestor include Wei Baqun, who in 1894 led peasant uprisings in western Guanxi Province against the Manchus. These guerrilla activities developed into the Communist-inspired Baise uprising in the 1920s, which later was praised by Mao Zedong as an attempt to establish Soviet-style control in Zhuang territory. The most powerful leader in Guanxi after the communist revolution was the Zhuang tribal boss, Wei Guoqing, who was attacked and removed in the Cultural Revolution. Another famous Zhuang historical figure was Nong Zhigao, who is remembered for his declaration of independence from the Song Dynasty (960–1279) for his Zhuang clan in 1041.
Fan Qix & Qin Naicheng. (Eds.). (1993), Zhuangzu baike cidian [Zhuang Encyclopedia]. Nanning, China: Guangxi renmin chubanshe.
Palmer Kaup, K. (2000). Creating the Zhuang: Ethnic politics in China. Boulder, CO: Lynne Riennner.
Mackerras, C. (1994). China’s minorities: Integration and modernization in the twentieth century. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
Source: Campi, Alicia. (2009). Zhuang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2656–2658. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Zhuang (Zhuàngzú ??)|Zhuàngzú ?? (Zhuang)