The Maonan are speakers of the Dong-Shui Branch of the Zhuang-Dong Language Family of Sino-Tibetan. Many also speak Han or Zhuang. They live in the hilly north-central part of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in Huanjiang and Hechi counties. Their communities are interspersed with those of Yao, Zhuang, Miao, and Han. The total population is about 72,000 (1990 census). Eighty percent of the Maonan use the surname Tan and trace their ancestry to Hunan Province. The remainder, surnamed "Lu," "Meng," "Wei," and "Yan," claim Fujian and Shandong as their original home. The population is highly Sinicized, reflecting early intermarriage between Han settlers and local women. Since the late Ming dynasty, a separate ethnic identity has emerged. The small villages, with fewer than a hundred households, are ethnically homogeneous, and member families generally share the same surname.

Houses are two-storied, with livestock kept on the lower level. The main occupation is farming of maize, wheat, gaoliang (sorghum), sweet potato, soybeans, tobacco, and a small amount of paddy rice. Prior to 1949, landlord holdings were large; more than 50 percent of the households were either farm laborers on managerial estates or tenant farmers. Land reform in 1952 equalized holdings and more recent construction of irrigation systems and a major reservoir has expanded the amount of arable land. Before 1949, Maonan crafts specializations made up half of household income. These included stone carving, wood carving, weaving of bamboo hats and mattresses, and blacksmithing. Beef cattle, sold at interprovincial markets, also provided a large part of income. Presumably, with the development of the free market and economic reforms during the 1980s, these nonagricultural enterprises have revived.

Descent is patrilineal, kinship is recognized within five generations, and marriages are prohibited within this group. Otherwise, people of the same surname may marry. Before 1949, parents arranged engagements when the children were five or six years old or even before birth. Marriages took place at twelve or thirteen, after exchanges of gifts between the two households. A young bride remained with her parents till the birth of her first child. The youngest son remained with his parents after marriage, but all others set up new households. Levirate marriage was permitted. Sons and daughters shared in division of family property, and both married and unmarried daughters could inherit land. Under new laws, both marriage and inheritance have changed. Traditionally, custom permitted widow remarriage and divorce by mutual consent, which is upheld under current law.

Religious beliefs and practices are highly Sinicized or influenced by the neighboring Zhuang minority. Christianity made some converts before 1949. The Maonan celebrate the Chinese New Year's (Spring) Festival, Qingming, and Zhongyuan festival with minor modifications. For example, married-out daughters are expected to spend New Year's Eve, the second day of the New Year and Qingming with their natal families and to bring gifts of meat, wine, and noodles. Ancestral worship is important, but differs from Han practice by including a woman's parents on the same altar with her husband's ascendants. At Fenglong Festival, the most important indigenous festival, which honors local gods and ancestors, not only married-out daughters but also affines and friends living elsewhere are invited to the village celebrations. The various gods of the Daoist/Buddhist pantheon also have a place on the household altar, particularly the Lord of the Three Worlds and his wife, the Divine Mother. Most gods and spirits are seen as protective and benevolent, but a few, like General Meng, cause sickness and must be appeased with generous offerings of meat and wine. At least once, each generation in a family must sponsor a sacrificial ceremony to fulfill its vows to the gods and spirits for their assistance. The most elaborate of these required the sacrifice of thirty-six animals (including an ox and seven pigs) and continued for three days and nights under the direction of a group of Daoist priests and spirit mediums. These elaborate ceremonies are no longer permitted, and smaller sacrifices for births, illness, weddings, and funerals are strongly discouraged by the state. A modern medical care network now exists in the area; previously, illness was dealt with by shamans.


Fan Yumei, et al., eds. (1987). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu fengqinglu (Customs of China's national minorities). Chengdu: Sichuan Nationalities Press.

Ma Yin, ed. (1989). China's Minority Nationalities, 392-396. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Qin Guangguang, et al., eds. (1988). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu zongjiao gailan (An outline of the religions of China's national minorities). Beijing: Central Minorities Institute.


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