According to China Statistical Almanac 2021, the population of the Zhuang ethnic group in China is 19,568,546. The Zhuang are the most populous of all the ethnic minorities in China. Nearly 90% of Zhuang people can be found in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with smaller constituencies in the provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou, and Hunan. Compared to Mandarin Chinese, which only has 4 tones, their indigenous language has a staggering 8 tones and is closely related to the languages of the Dong, Bouyei and Dai ethnic minorities, as well as the standard Thai of Thailand and the standard Lao of Laos. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, they also boast two different writing systems!
Though nowadays many Zhuang people use the Romanised script that was created in 1957, some locals still use an ancient writing system known as Sawndip or Old Zhuang Script. This system uses Chinese characters but only for their sound value and in some cases new characters have been created by adding or removing strokes from existing Chinese characters. Sawndip was mainly used by shamans to write anything from folktales and myths to songs and medical prescriptions and has become an invaluable academic resource for people researching Zhuang history. Their most famous literary work, Baeu Rodo, is an epic poem about the creation of the world. It is over 10,000 lines long and phenomenally has been transmitted orally for over 1,000 years!
Nowadays most Zhuang villagers live in stilted wooden houses known as diaojiaolou. These are two-storey dwellings that are suspended on stilts, with the ground floor being used for storage and the upper floors being used as living spaces. The key difference between the Zhuang diaojiaolou and those of other ethnic minorities is the incorporation of a central room where an ancestral shrine is kept. This shrine is used to worship the family’s ancestors, as well as deities such as the Kitchen God and the God of Wealth. If you want to get to know the Zhuang first-hand, we recommend visiting Ping’an Village or Longji Ancient Zhuang Village in Guangxi.
Apparel of the Zhuang ethnic group
The Zhuang women have become particularly self-sufficient when it comes to making their own clothes. They grow and harvest cotton, which they then spin into thread and weave into cloth. They dye the cloth using locally sourced plants or vegetables and embroider it with great skill. At this rate, they could practically start their own clothing range!
Since the Zhuang population is so widespread and diverse, their traditional dress varies greatly from region to region but tends to be characterized by the use of muted colors such as black, blue and brown. Throughout Guangxi, the men typically wear a collarless jacket that either buttons up the center or the right side. They wear loose trousers that are sometimes embroidered at the hem and occasionally will don a round cap or formal hat.
The women in northwest Guangxi tend to wear collarless, embroidered jackets that button along the left side with either wide trousers or pleated skirts. Married women will wear embroidered belts or will have a band embroidered around their jackets. In southwest Guangxi, the women also wear collarless jackets that button up the left side but prefer to wear black square headbands and loose trousers. Most women will complement their outfits with silver jewelry and some wear a variety of beautiful turbans or headscarves on festival occasions. These vibrant headscarves can be so large that they practically dwarf the wearer and look like colorful fans atop the women’s heads.
Festivals of the Zhuang ethnic group
The Zhuang people celebrate many of the traditional Chinese festivals, such as the Spring Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival, but they do have a few of their own! The Singing Festival, the Ox Soul Festival, and the Ghost Festival are considered the most significant, although other smaller festivals, such as the Frog Festival, have their own quaint charm.
The Singing Festival
The Singing Festival, also known as “Sam Nyied Sam” in Zhuang and “San Yue San” in Chinese, takes place on the 3rd day of the 3rd month according to the Chinese lunar calendar and falls sometime during April. Before the festival takes place, offerings will be made to the ancestors and the clan cemetery is cleaned. It is then that the Zhuang youths embark on a 3 day-long trial of almost continuous singing!
As the name suggests, this festival is all about singing and people from nearby villages will gather, sometimes in their thousands, simply to serenade one another. Some songs are predetermined, but many of them will be improvised and are designed to make people laugh. Choirs will even challenge each other to sing matches, where participants try to think of innovative lyrics that their competitors can’t match. Zhuang girls will also compete in a game known as the Bamboo Pole Dance.
The festival is sometimes referred to as Zhuang Valentine’s Day because it’s one of the few times in the year when unmarried youths can mingle freely. Thus it is often seen as the perfect opportunity for men and women to meet their future partners. Five-colored rice is a festival specialty and is prepared by first dyeing rice using locally sourced plants to turn it black, red, yellow, purple and white, and then steaming it until it is fragrant and perfectly cooked. Don’t let the vibrant colors put you off; this rice is a real treat!
The festival commemorates a legendary girl called Sanjie Liu, who lived sometime during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). She was an extraordinarily competent singer and no one could match her in singing competitions. Although in the original legend, she might be a Han girl who was only renowned for her singing, the legend was changed in 1949 to suit political purposes and was popularised by the 1960 film Liu Sanjie.
In the new version of the legend, she is described as a courageous Zhuang girl who confronted the local landlords and exposed their baseness in her songs. Her rebellious attitude eventually led to her being kidnapped and drowned in a pond by the landlords. However, she emerged from the pond riding on the back of a carp and ascended to heaven, where she became the Goddess of Singing. Regardless of the political propaganda that surrounds this legend, the date of the festival is largely believed to coincide with that of Sanjie Liu’s death. The show Impression Sanjie Liu in Yangshuo is loosely based on her legend.
The Ox Soul Festival
The Ox Soul Festival takes place on the 8th day of the 4th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, falling sometime during May, and is dedicated to worshipping the Ox King. It is believed to coincide with the Ox King’s birthday and, on this day, he supposedly descends from heaven to protect his subjects from illness. Not only are oxen indispensable to the Zhuang as draft animals, but they strongly believe that the ox was sent from heaven to help them, so many Zhuang communities regard them as holy animals.
On the day of the festival, all manner of sacrifices will be made to the Ox King, from glutinous rice to whole chickens. No one is allowed to work their ox that day and farmers must go to the cattle barns to free the animals from their yoke. The oxen are then bathed, which is accompanied by the beating of drums. Finally, oxen are fed with five-colored rice while the owners sing folk songs. The Zhuang believe that all of the whipping and hard work during the plowing season causes the oxen to lose their souls, so this festival is designed to summon their souls back. It reflects the love and respect that the Zhuang have for their work animals. After all, everyone needs a little TLC now and then!
The Ghost Festival
The Ghost Festival is celebrated over a period of several days and starts on the 14th day of the 7th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, or sometime during August. At the start of the festival, families will stop working and clean their homes rigorously. They then prepare an offering of duck, pork, and good wine, along with some candies and fruits, and welcome the ghosts of their ancestors into the house. When the festival ends, the family will say goodbye to the ghosts and burn objects that they think the ghosts will need in the afterlife. The Zhuang people worship their ancestors like gods and so this somber festival is designed to honor them.
The Frog Festival
The Frog Festival is held throughout the 1st month according to the Chinese lunar calendar and commemorates an ancient deity known as Mother Frog. This deity is the daughter of the Thunder God and is the carrier of rain, so during this festival, people pray for rain and a good harvest in the coming year. The highlight of this festival is a special Frog Dance, where performers don frog-headed hats and dance like the frogs found in the famous Rock Paintings of Mount Hua.
Religions of the Zhuang ethnic group
The Zhuang ethnic minority has their own indigenous religion known as Moism or Shigongism, which is an animist faith based on their prehistoric beliefs. The polytheistic nature of the religion means they worship many things, from giant rocks and old trees to dragons and birds, although the main focus is on ancestor worship. And, when it comes to Moism, three is the magic number!
They believe that the universe is tripartite, with all things being composed of three elements; heaven, earth, and water. People are believed to have three souls after they have died; one that goes to Heaven, one that goes to the cemetery, and one that comes back to protect the deceased’s family. A complete family is seen to have three parts: the descendants, the clan graveyard, and the spirits of the ancestors. With all these ancestral spirits flying around, three is never a crowd for the Zhuang!
Furthermore, this means that the souls of the dead can enter the netherworld but can continue to assist the living. The ancestral spirits are believed to protect the family but also have the capacity to punish them, so most Zhuang families will have an ancestral shrine at the center of their home where they can worship their ancestors as well as other deities.
Buluotuo, the God of Morality, is one of their shared ancestors and is believed to have created the world, as well as being responsible for the establishment of moral order. In the Zhuang language, “bu” is the epithet for honored elders, “luo” means “to know a lot”, and “tuo” means “to create many things”. He is married to a goddess known as Huapo or the Flower Mother, although some Zhuang communities believe that she is his mother. At least no one thinks she’s both! She was born out of a flower at the beginning of the world and is the Goddess of Reproduction. She is usually depicted guarding a large garden full of golden and silver flowers, with the golden flowers representing boys and the silver ones representing girls.
Upstanding moral villagers will be rewarded with good flowers (i.e. good children), while those who are immoral will receive withered flowers (i.e. bad children). When a baby is born, a plaque in Huapo’s honor and a bunch of wildflowers will be placed near the baby’s bed. If the baby becomes sick, the mother will offer gifts to Huapo and water the wildflowers. The goddess’ birthday takes place on February 29th according to the peasants’ almanac and on this date women will pick flowers and pray to her for conception.
The Zhuang epic Baeu Rodo is a poem about how Buluotuo created the world. It is a staggering 10,000 lines long and over 1,000 years old! Originally it was passed down orally but was transcribed sometime during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The epic is split into four sections, all of which can be read independently. The first is an introduction; the second is about the creation of the world; the third is about the creation of leaders; and the fourth is about the establishment of morals and ethics. The Zhuang people will often sing it at worshipping ceremonies and it is widely regarded as a religious text.
Other deities in the Zhuang canon have been borrowed or adapted from Han Chinese folklore. These include Tudigong, who protects the village boundaries; She Shen, who protects the village itself; the Mountain Spirit, who resides on a sacred mountain that is not to be farmed; the Dragon King, who protects the village during natural disasters; the Land God, who controls drought, flood, pestilence and disease; and a number of other spirits, such as the Kitchen God, the Water God, the Rice God, and the Sun God. In fact, there’s pretty much a god for everything! They sacrifice to these deities on a regular basis as they believe this will protect their livestock, their crops, and their families.
There are two types of religious figures in Moism: female diviners and male shamans or necromancers. The female diviners treat the sick and can communicate with the spirit world when in a trance. They have no teachers or students, nor do they read from any scriptures or religious texts. They are normally asked by families to contact the spirit world and pass on messages to deceased relatives. They also contact spirits or even deities to inquire about the future, particularly with relevance to fortunes and disasters. While they are divining, they will use a special ladle called a “ding” as a musical instrument and may also shake small bells.
The male shaman or necromancers serve at an altar and are able to read and write Sawndip, the Zhuang’s writing system. Thus they are the only members of the community that can read certain texts, which usually relate to mythology, history, geography, and astronomy. They are sometimes called great masters and can take on students. Their primary function is to dispel ghosts, pray to spirits, help people choose an auspicious time or place to do something important and tell people’s fortunes. They are often employed to perform at funerals, local festivals, and in times of crisis. Sometimes a Taoist priest will take the place of a shaman, although he will chant in Chinese instead of the Zhuang language.
Buddhism in Zhuang communities has been heavily influenced both by Taoism and Moism, so Buddhist priests are allowed to marry and are only semi-vegetarian. Their main function is to write horoscopes, act as geomancers, and exorcise ghosts, although they will also help in times of crisis by chanting sutras. In other words, when it comes to religion the Zhuang have all their bases covered!
Customs and Taboos of the Zhuang ethnic group
The Zhuang have a rich literary tradition, both written and unwritten. Folk stories often take the form of songs and are passed down orally. They can be myths, legends, historical poems, or even simply chants. The Zhuang have a written language known as Sawndip or Old Zhuang Script, which they use to transcribe their literature and other important documents such as contracts. Most of these folk tales are written in verse and some of them are over a thousand years old!
One of these ancient legends has garnered much attention in recent years and is known as “Dahgyax Dahbengz” or “The Orphan Girl and the Rich Girl”. This is essentially an early version of the Cinderella story and has been found in old Zhuang opera scripts. Several written versions of the story date back to the 9th century, although it could be even older! Songs like these are often refined for several years. For example, the “Song to Tell Others”, which is a philosophy on life, originated during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) but its final form wasn’t set until the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Many of these songs have their roots in superstition, such as the “house raising” song which is sang after a new house is built. This song consists of two parts; the first describes the construction of a traditional stilt house; and the second is customarily believed to ward off evil spirits from the new home. Like many ethnic minorities, they are deeply superstitious people and their customs reflect this. For example, in some Zhuang communities they love to eat dog meat, while in others there is a taboo on eating dog meat because, according to legend, the dog helped mankind in their time of need.
The legend states that long ago there were no grains and the people were forced to eat wild plants. The only grain seeds were in Heaven but it was forbidden to bring them to earth. One day, a trusty dog decided he would go to heaven and procure the seeds for his beloved masters. Back in ancient times, dogs had nine tails so when the dog got to heaven he placed his tails on the ground and many of the seeds stuck in his fur. However, while he was collecting the seeds he was spotted by a guard. Before the dog could get away, the guard managed to chop off eight of his tails. He managed to get back to earth with one of his tails still intact and he gave the seeds to his human masters, allowing them to grow grain. In other versions of the legend, the dog is replaced by an ox and this may explain why some Zhuang communities happily eat dogs.
These superstitions play a focal role in Zhuang funerals, as they believe that the souls of the deceased enter the netherworld but continue to assist the living. Ancestor worship is common and their burial rites are particularly unusual, as the dead are buried twice. The deceased is first wrapped in white cloth and, after three days, they are buried in a coffin along with a few of their favorite things. A Taoist priest or local shaman will preside over the funeral, depending on the family’s beliefs. Families will sometimes even arrange what is known as a “spirit marriage” to appease the souls of those who died unmarried!
After three years, the deceased is disinterred and the bones are cleaned. They are then placed in a pottery urn and sprinkled with a red mineral called cinnabar. The urn is deposited in a cave or grotto until an appropriate burial site has been chosen in the clan cemetery. Once this has been done, the deceased is officially classed as an ancestor and can be worshipped at the ancestral shrine.
However, the Zhuang believe that anyone who died a violent, untimely, or accidental death could become an evil spirit if not buried properly. They must be cremated while a local necromancer or Taoist priest chants scripture. The remains are carried over a fire pit, which the necromancer or priest must jump over! It is believed that this process “changes” the ashes from those of an evil spirit into a benevolent ancestor spirit.