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.

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