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 618–907) 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.