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The Zhuang ethnic group has 18 million members and is the largest of China's 55 official minorities. Most of them inhabit Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where they are almost a third of the population, and Yunnan Province.
In history, they are known as a people who sometimes made alliances and carved out kingdoms and empires of their own around Guangxi and Yunnan.
Tourists like to visit their beautiful terraced rice fields, tribal villages and towns and to stay to experience their agrarian culture.
Most Zhuang live in Guangxi, and more than a million live in adjacent areas of Yunnan Province, both of which border Vietnam. Some live in neighboring Guangdong, Hunan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces. The 18 million Zhuang live among other ethnic groups such as the Dong and the Yao.
Most Zhuang speak Mandarin Chinese, but they have their own spoken languages that are related to Thai. They have two main dialect divisions: northern dialects and southern dialects, and there numerous local dialects. Ethnologists count the Zhuang as several people groups due to their mutually unintelligible dialects (and localized cultures).
They also have a traditional written language called Sawndip, but few Zhuang can read it.
The Zhuang people originated in Sichuan and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River Basin. When the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) and Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) empires invaded southwards, they moved southwards and westwards to Guangxi, Yunnan, Laos, Burma, and Thailand.
The ones who lived around Guangxi and Yunnan sometimes made alliances to defend themselves against Han expansion and carved out kingdoms and empires of their own. They supported the Nanzhao Kingdom in Yunnan against the Tang Dynasty (618–907). While the Nanzhao lasted, the Zhuang had control in western Guangxi and Yunnan.
The Song Dynasty (960–1279) and then the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) conquered them and they became increasingly "Hanized". That is, they became more and more like the (Chinese majority) Han people who conquered them.
The Bouyei (or Buyi) were once the same people as the Zhuang, but after the Han Chinese took over Zhuang territory in the Tang era, they retreated to the remote mountainsides of Guizhou Province, while the "Zhuang" migrated south to Yunnan and Guangxi. The Bouyei consider themselves to be Zhuang. The Zhuang/Bouyei government distinction seems to be somewhat arbitrarily based on geographical region mainly.
The Zhuang were originally animistic and practiced sorcery and ancestor worship, but during the Song Dynasty, both Buddhism and Taoism were introduced and temples of these religions were built. Protestantism was introduced later. They largely follow their ancient religion nowadays.
Grains: Like the Thais to the south, the Zhuang are traditionally rice farmers and lived valleys where they could create rice paddies. When corn was introduced after 1500, they adapted that as a staple grain too.
Dishes: Zhuang people eat all kinds of meat. Meat and vegetables are cooked medium well in order to retain the fresh taste. Home-made pickled dishes of many kinds such as pickled cabbage and pickled vegetables and pork lend salty and sour flavors to a typical meal. They like to boil many kinds of vegetables to make soups and to stir-fry vegetable mixtures.
Beverages: A common Zhuang drink is oil tea that is made by frying tea leaves (and other foods) in oil and then brewing the mass. They like to drink it with peanuts and puffed rice. Home-made rice wine is served for festivals and entertaining guests. Their rice wine is "mild" and contains a relatively low amount of alcohol (10–20%).
Five-colored glutinous rice is a special festival treat that is served during Tomb-Sweeping Day (April 4–6) and their Singing Festival (see below). People use the sap of five different plants to soak and color the glutinous rice so that the rice takes on five colors (black, red, yellow, purple and white), and then they steam the rice. The finished rice is colorful, fragrant and nutritious. You can learn more about their food on Longsheng Food.
Traditional costumes are worn in ethnic areas or for special occasions. Dexterous Zhuang women use hand-woven fabric to make clothes of various styles. Usually, girls wear a blue-and-black collarless jacket and baggy trousers or batik skirts. A delicately embroidered apron is fastened on the waist. Boys dressed in black front-opening coats with cloth-wrapped buttons, and they wear a belts. Zhuang people fancy silver accessories for jewelry and clothing decorations.
Xiuqiu (embroidery ball) making is a traditional handicraft. These are symbols of love and happiness. The balls are made of silk cloth and have twelve connected petals. Each petal represents a month and has an image of flowers, plants, or birds on it.
The balls are typically red, yellow or green. Originally, xiuqius were a romantic gift. Zhuang girls threw xiuqius to young men they admired to let them know that they were welcome to pursue them.
Zhuang brocade is one of the four famous Chinese brocades (the other three are Yun brocade from Nanjing, Shu brocade from Sichuan Province, and Song brocade from Suzhou). This splendid handicraft originated in the Song Dynasty (960–1276).
They are woven with cotton, silk or flax threads into colorful patterns. Images of flowers, plants and animals are mostly woven in. The brocade is very durable, and they are widely used in making quilt covers, handbags, aprons, tablecloths, scarves, wall hangings, cushions and etc.
Zhuang people are fond of singing, and Zhuang areas are also famed as ‘the ocean of songs.’ During slack farming seasons, holidays, festivals, or at weddings and funerals, Zhuang people will hold Gexu (singing fairs). On these occasions, young people from nearby villages will wear their finest costumes and come together at Gexu to sing songs and meet their possible lover.
Zhuang people are monogamous. There are two forms of marriages. One is free love, and the other is arranged marriage by parents. Normally, the young men and women have enough freedom to choose whom they love. However, interference from parents is often seen. Both men and women are the labor force of the family, but only men have the right to inherit the family's property.
There is one strange marriage custom among the Zhuang people – the wife stays away from her husband’s house after marriage. The wife will return to her parents’ house the day after the wedding, and only during important festivals or busy farming seasons will she live temporarily at her husband’s house.
After the woman gets pregnant, she lives permanently at her husband’s house. Before that, the couple might have to live separately for a couple of years or even longer. This custom is nowadays thought to impair the relationships between couples and is gradually disappearing.
Zhuang people like to inhabit and farm valley floors surrounded by mountains and waters, as they do around the spiky hills of Guilin. The houses there are traditionally mud brick with wooden trusses and tiles, located by a hill (to the south if possible), facing the farmland.
They also make mountainside rice terraces. Their mountainside houses are built on pilings similar to Thai houses. Houses are wooden with roofs made of tiles or thatch. Some other ethnic groups in South China such the Dong, Miao, and Yao share this architectural style.
Mountain houses are usually two-storied. The lower story has the pilings that support the house, and bamboo or wooden boards are erected between the pilings to form rooms for keeping livestock, storing farm tools, firewood, or other purposes. Family members live on the upper story that is divided into 3 or 5 rooms. Some houses are more elaborate with lofts or annexes.
Besides sharing many festivals with the Han people, Zhuang people also have their own festivals and celebrations. Among them, the Ghost Festival and Singing Festival are the most important ones.
The Ghost Festival is on the 14th or 15th day of the 7th lunar month (around August), and is considered the most important festival after the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). It is for commemorating ancestors and the late family members and appeasing angry and evil ghosts.
On this day, people don't work. They clean up the house and gather around to prepare sacrifices of duck meat and rice or ciba (glutinous rice cakes) and fruits among others. After the sacrifices, families will usually have a family dinner.
The Singing Festival, on the 3rd day of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar (March/April), is a traditional festival for commemoration of Liu Sanjie who was a legendary singer of the Zhuang in the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD). She was well-known not only because of her beautiful singing, but also her courage in confronting local tyrants. A 1960’s film depicting her stories made Liu Sanjie a household name across China. It is a public holiday in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
On this day, village people come together in an open space to celebrate this joyous occasion. Five-colored glutinous rice, dyed eggs, and many other dishes are eaten. This is also a good opportunity for the young people to find their partner.
Adult singers sing to each other and try to stump the other by creating lyrical lines that the other cannot match. If a girl and a boy fall in love, the girl throws an embroidery ball to the boy, and the boy presents her a gift in return.
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Outside Guilin, the Longji Rice Terraces are excellent for hiking and photography. While there, you'll also see Yao villages too. We can take you to visit with families and arrange accommodation and transportation, and our expert guides can translate for you.
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