Zhuang villages and clusters of villages tend to be group by clan or people that believe they have a common ancestor. Houses are often grouped in accordance with surname with newcomers living on the outskirts of the village. Zhuang typically set up their villages on a mountain slope facing a river and live either in one-story or two-story brick houses with Chinese style roofs. The two-story houses have a living area upstairs and pens for animals and storage areas downstairs. Some Zhuang as well as Dai and Lis live in ganlan wooden houses with railings. Ganlan means “balustrade.” [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]
The Zhuang grow patty rice, glutinous rice, yams, and maize as their staples, with double and triple crops the norms in most years. They also raise tropical fruits such as mangos, bananas, lichees, pineapple, oranges and sugar cane. Most of their protein comes from fish, pigs and chicken. Oxen and water buffalo serve as plow animals. Where possible they hunt and collect forest plants. The Zhuang earn money from collecting medical herbs, tung oil, tea, cinnamon, anise and a kind of ginseng.
Markets have traditionally been the center of economic life. These are held every three to seven days. Both sexes participate in the trading. Some Zhuang work as shopkeepers or long-distance traders. Many are craftsmen or skilled workers, making things like embroidery, clothing, bamboo mats, batiks and furniture.
Zhuang Marriage and Family
Marriages are between partners with different surnames. Boys are encouraged to marry their mother’s brother’s daughter. In the old days marriages were often arranged when the couple were still children with the wedding taking place when they were teenagers. A bride price was paid and in many cases the bride continued to live with her family until her first child was born.
Young male and female Zhuang are permitted to enjoy a "golden period of life" in which premarital sex is allowed and even encouraged. Groups of teenage boys and girls participate in singing parties and boys serenade girls at their homes. In many cases young people are allowed to chose their own partners and “elopement” marriages are set up to help them escape from their arranged marriages.
Zhuang society is organized around three-generation households and patrilineal clans with a common surname and common ancestor, from which they descend. Each clan has a headman. Men have traditionally done the heavy agricultural work such as plowing and make crafts. Women have traditionally done the agricultural field work. Children usually take care of feeding the animals while elderly people do the household chores.
In many places Han Chinese customs about marriage, weddings and married life are strong. The youngest son is expected to live with the parents and take care of them in old age. In return they inherit the family’s property. Zhuang and Yao conduct "singing before the building" ceremonies during their weddings.
Zhuang Marriage Customs
There are two forms of getting marriages among the Zhuang: 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, their love affairs and marriages are often interfered with by their parents. Both men and women are the labor force of the family, but only men have the right to inherit the family property.
The Zhuangs have a strange marriage custom -- the wife stays away from the husband's home after marriage. At the wedding, the bride is taken to the bridegroom's home by a dozen girls of the same age. She returns to live with her parents the next day and visits her husband only occasionally during holidays or the busy farming seasons. The woman move permanently to the man's home two or three years later or after having a child. This convention, which is supposed to ease the suffering of lost labor among the bride’s family but often impairs the harmony between husband and wife, has been going out of existence but is still practiced by some branches of the Zhuang. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
In ancient times during their separation, the young newlywed had the freedom to enjoy sexual relations with other. But later, under the influence of Confucius culture, free sexual life during the separation period was considered unacceptable and was forbidden. These days such actions can result in a forced divorce or punishment of money or property.
Sha Zhuang Pregnancy and Birth Customs
The Sha are one of the branches of the Zhuang. They live in Yunnan province. For them the birth of a new child is accompanied by rituals that are significantly different from those of other branches of the Zhuang. When a woman is pregnant, she receives a great amount of attention from friends and relatives. This is particularly true if it is her first pregnancy. Everybody is happy about the arrival of a new member into the family. When the expecting mother reaches five months of her pregnancy a woman shaman is invited to call the small soul. Upon completion of eight months of pregnancy a male shaman is invited to call the soul once again. It is done in this way because, for the Zhuang, there is a difference between the small soul that is manifested in the first months of the pregnancy, and that of the human being about to be born. Both are relatively simple ceremonies; only close relatives attend. During the eighth month it is also necessary to carry out the ceremony called "liberated from the ties" in which evil spirits are caste out of the home, to create a tranquil and safe environment for mother and child. During this time a goat is sacrificed as an offering. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com\*\, Zhuang zu wenhua lun (Discussion about the Zhuang culture). Yunnan Nationalities Press]
There are several taboos associated with pregnant women: 1) When a Zhuang couple gets married, pregnant women are not welcome to attend the wedding ceremony. What’s more, a pregnant women should never look at a bride. 2) Pregnant women are not allowed to enter other pregnant women’s houses. 3) If there is a pregnant woman in a house, the family should hang a cloth, a branch of trees, or a knife on the gate to tell others that there is a pregnant woman in the house. If anybody enters the courtyard of this family’s house, they should say a baby’s name, or offer a suit of clothes, a chicken or something else as a gift and agree to become the new baby’s godfather or godmother. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com ]
At the moment of birth it has traditionally been forbidden for any man to be present in the house or place of birth, including the husband or even a doctor. Birth have traditionally been performed by midwives with mother's aunts assisting. They deliver the baby, cut the umbilical cord, and wash the baby. They also kill a chicken and cook some eggs for the mother to restore her vital forces. They then place some branches over the door: to the left, if the newborn is a boy; to the right, if it is a girl. It is said that these branches have three functions: 1) to communicate the happiness of the birth, 2) to let people know that a child has been born and 3) to make sure nobody enters and disturbs the mother and child. The mother doesn't leave the house during the first three days after the birth of her child. No man is allowed to enter the natal house during these three days. The mother’s husband cannot enter the house, nor can he leave the village. \*\
After three days a small party is held. The new parents invite the neighbors, relatives and friends to eat and drink. Guests bring gifts for the newly born: red eggs, candies, fruit, and rice of five colors. All express their happiness for the parents. From the time of the first party, when the newborn is formally presented, until the infant is one month old, relatives and friends come by and admire the child, bringing chicken, eggs, rice or candied fruits with them. \*\
When the child is one month old a naming party is held. Again, friends and relatives come to eat and drink and some ceremonies are performed. A chicken is killed or some meat is bought. An offering is made to the ancestors, requesting they protect the child. The name that is given in this ceremony is the called "name of milk". It is usually a simple name, an affectionate term of endearment, an animal's name, or characteristic that the child has already presented. \*\
Zhuang Etiquette and Taboos
The Zhuang are very hospitable and amicable to foreign guests, who are sometimes welcomed by the whole village not just one family. Different families invite the guests to their home for one by one for a meal, with the guest obliged eat with five or six families. As an alternative to this, one family kills a pig, and invites one person from each family in the village to come to the dinner. While treating a guest, there must be some wine on the table. The custom “Union of Wine Cups”—in which the guest and the host lock hands and drink from each other’s ceramic soup spoons—is used for toasting. When guests come, the host family must do everything they can to provide the best food and accommodation possible and are especially hospitable to the elderly and new guests. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Respecting the elderly is a tradition among the Zhuang. When meeting an old person a younger person should greet them warmly and give way to them. If the old person is carrying heavy things, on the way, one should give the way to him, if he is an old person, one should help him carry the load and send him back home. It is impolite to sit cross-legged in front of an old person. When eating chickens, the heads and wings should be offered to the old people first. While having dinner, all people should wait until the eldest person comes and sits down at the table. Young people are not supposed to taste any dishes that haven’t been tasted by their seniors first. When serving tea or food to seniors or the guests, one should use both hands. The person who finishes eating first should tell the guests or seniors to take their time or wish them a nice meal before departing from the table. It is considered impolite for juniors to keep eating when all others have finished. \=/
Zhuang Taboos: 1) The Zhuang people do not kill animals on the first day of the first lunar month, and in some areas the young women do not eat beef or dog meat. 2) When a baby is born, strangers are not allowed to enter the courtyard of the family for first three days in some places, for seven days in others. 2) A woman who has just given birth to a baby and if the baby is less than one month old, this woman is not welcome to visit other families. 3) People should take off their shoes before entering a house and not wear a bamboo hat or carry a hoe when entering a home. 4) The fire pit and the kitchen stove are the most sacred and holy places in the Zhuang house. As a result it is not allowed to walk over the tripod in the firepit or do anything disrespectful to the kitchen stove. \=/
The Zhuang have a long history of rice civilization and they love and respect frogs very much. In some places they even have a Frog-worshipping Rite. Consequently, when visiting a Zhuang, one should never kill , cook or eat frogs. Whenever there is a flood or any other disaster, Zhuang perform ceremonies in which they pray to the dragon and their ancestors for help ending of the disaster as well as a good harvest. When the worshipping ceremony is over, a tablet is erected in front of the village and strangers are not allowed to see it. \=/
Most Zhuangs now live in one-story houses the same as the Hans. But some have kept their traditional two-story structures with the upper story serving as the living quarters and the lower as stables and storerooms. Traditionally, the Zhuang that resided in river plains and urban lived in brick or wooden houses, with whitewashed walls and eaves decorated with various patterns or pictures, while those who resided in the countryside or mountain areas lived in wooden or mud-brick buildings, with some living in bamboo and straw-roof houses. There two styles of these buildings: 1) Ganlan style, built off the ground with pillars supporting them; and 2) Quanju style, built entirely built in the ground. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
A typical Ganlan style buildings is used by Miao, Dong, Yao and other ethnic group as well as the Zhuang. Usually there are two stories in the building. On the second floor, which is supported by several wooden pillars, there are usually three or five rooms, in which the family members live. The first floor can be used to store tools and fire wood. Sometimes bamboo or wooden walls are also built between the pillars, and animals can be raise in these. More complicated residences have attics and subsidiary buildings. Ganlan style houses are ideally flanked by hills on one side and water on the opposite side and faces farm land and receives enough sunshine here. \=/
Houses in Zhuang villages in Longji Town of Longsheng County, Guangxi have a shrine in the center. Behind the shrine is the room of the patriarch of the family and the left side is the room of his wife, with a small door connecting it to the room of the patriarch (grandfather). The room for the hostess is on the right side while the husband’s room is on the right side of the hall. The guest room is on the left side of the front hall. Girls live near the staircases, making it easier for them to slip and see their boyfriends. The main characteristic of this design is that the husband and wife live in different rooms, a custom with a long history. Modern Ganlan style buildings have structures or designs that are a little different from olden times . However the main structure has not changed much. \=/
Rice and corn are the staple foods of the Zhuang people. They are fond of sour and sour and pickled food. Glutinous rice is particularly favored by those in south Guangxi. In most areas, Zhuang have three meals a day, but in some places Zhuang have four meals a day, with one more big snack between lunch and supper. Breakfast and lunch are both very simple, usually porridge. Supper is the most formal meal, with several dishes besides rice. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Among the vegetables consumed by Zhuang are leafy green vegetables, young melon plants, leaves of melons, cabbages, little cabbages, rapeseed plants, mustard, lettuce, celery, spinach, Chinese kale, water spinach and radishes. They also eat the leaves of soybeans, leaves of sweet potatoes, young pumpkin plants, flowers of pumpkins, and young pea plants. Typically vegetables are boiled with lard, salt, and scallions. The Zhuang also like pickling vegetables and bamboos. Salty radish and pickled kohlrabi are favorites. \=/
For meat, Zhuang eat pork, beef, mutton, chicken, duck and goose. In some places people frown on eating dogs, but in other places Zhuang people love to eat dogs. When cooking pork, they first boil a big piece of it in hot water, and then cut it into small pieces and mix it with condiments. The Zhuang like to put fresh chickens, ducks, fish and vegetables into boiling water until they are seventy or eighty percent cooked, then sauté them in a hot pan , which keeps the fresh flavor. \=/
The Zhuang have a tradition of cooking wild animals and insects and are also quite experienced in cooking healthy foods with curative and therapeutic qualities. They often make dishes using the flowers, leaves and roots of Sanqi Flower , which is a herbal plant is widely used in traditional Chinese medical science. The Zhuang are adept at baking, frying, stewing, pickling and salting different food. Flaky and spicy vegetables are specialty. The special dishes and snacks associated with Zhuang include spicy pork and blood, torch meat, roast duck, salty chicken livers, crispy bees, spiced soybean insects, fried sandworms, powers of animal livers and skins, wild rabbit meat with fresh ginger, sauteed wild frog with Sanqi flower, horse hoof meat slices , fish, roast sucking pig, colorful sticky rice food, rice dumplings from Ningming County, No 1 Scholar Meat, sliced dog meat, flaky and spicy chicken, boiled broken dog face, small intense and blood of pigs and Bahang chicken. \=/
The Zhuang love alcohol. Families also make rice wines, sweet potatoes wines, and cassava wines themselves, usually with a low degree of alcohol. Rice wine is the main beverage for treating guests or celebrating important festivals. In some places people also mix rice wine with chicken gall bladders, chicken giblets or pig livers to make special wines. When drinking wines with chicken giblets or pig livers, people have to drink it up at one time, then chew the giblets or livers in the mouth slowly, which alleviate the effects of alcohol and serves as food. \=/
Zhuang Clothes, Hairstyles and Tattoos
The clothes of the Zhuang nationality mainly come in three colors: blue, black and brown. Zhuang women have a tradition of planting their own cotton and spinning, weaving and dyeing their own cloth. Daqing, a kind of local bush herb, can be used to dye the cloth in blue or green colors. Plants from the bottom of fish ponds are used to dye the cloth black color and dye yam are used to make the cloth brown.
Contemporary Zhuang clothing is in general close to the wear of the Han people. But traditional dresses remain in many places or are worn for special occasions. The traditional Zhuang women's clothes include collarless, embroidered and trimmed jackets buttoned to the left together with baggy trousers or pleated skirts. They fancy silver ornaments and the colors blue and black. Sometimes they cover their heads with handkerchiefs or, for special occasions, fancy silver ornaments.
Different Zhuang branches have different clothing styles. The head wear of men, women and unmarried girls is often different from each other and each has its own features. In northwest Guangxi, elderly women like collarless, embroidered and trimmed jackets buttoned to the left together with baggy trousers, embroidered belts and shoes and pleated skirts. They fancy silver ornaments. Women of southwest Guangxi prefer collarless, left-buttoned jackets, square kerchieves and loose trousers -- all in black. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Front opening clothes referred to as leotard shirts are worn by the Zhuang people while doing farm work. Women’s sleeves are usually bigger than that of men. The coats are very long , usually covering the knees. The button for both men and women’s shirts are made of copper or cloth. The trousers for men and women have almost the same designs. The bottoms of the trousers, nicknamed Ox Head Trousers, are specially designed with embroidered borders. Married women wear embroidered belts on their coats or jackets, with small ear-shaped pocket attached to the belt, which is connected with keys. When while they are walking, the clinking of keys can clearly be heard. Middle-aged women like to wear the Cat Ear shoes, which look like straw sandals. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Unmarried women usually have long hair and comb their hair from the left side to the right side and fix it with a hair clip. Sometimes they just have long plaits, at the end of which are colorful bands used to bind the hair tightly. When working in the fields, they twist the braid into a bun and fix it on the top of the head. Married women usually have dragon and phoenix style chignons. They first comb their hair to the back of their head and make it look like the waist of a phoenix , then plug a silver or bone hairpin to fix it. In winter women often wear black wool hats, with patterns of the edge differing according to the age of the woman. \=/
Tattoo used to be an ancient Zhuang custom. A great writer of Tang Dynasty, Liu Zongyuan, mentioned it in his writings. Chewing betel nuts is a habit still popular among some Zhuang women. In places such as southwest Guangxi, betel nuts are a treat to guests. *|*
Zhuang brocade is a splendid handicraft which originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Woven in beautiful designs with natural cotton warp and dyed velour weft, the brocade is excellent for making quilt covers, table-clothes, braces, aprons and handbags. Winning national fame during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), Zhuang brocade has been steadily improved and at least 40 new designs have been developed in the past few decades. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
The Zhuang have a long history of producing textiles. As early as in the Han Dynasty, they wove Dongbu Cloth. It was written: “The thin brings coolness in summer while the thick creates warmth in winter". In the Tang Dynasty, Jiaobu Cloth, Zhuzibu Cloth, Jibeibu Cloth, Banbu Cloth and Sibu Cloth produced by the Zhuang were court tributes. In the Song dynasty, Zhuang brocade—a mixture of silk, fiber and cotton—appeared. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, Zhuang brocade was woven with colorful floss and widely used in Zhuang people's daily life. At that time, historians reported: "Every county produces Zhuang brocade. Zhuang people like colorful things, and they use five-color gloss to make clothes, and embroider flowers and birds onto them." "Brocade quilt-covers became an indispensable dowry item and the skill in which girls could weave them because a measure of their marriageability. Zhuang brocade is made with thick and durable five-color gloss, worth 5 liang of tael. Girls have traditionally begun to seriously learn how to weave when they became teenagers. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]
Zhuang brocade is woven on a manual loom, consisting of 1) a frame and supportive system, 2) a transmitter, 3) a dividing system and 4) a jacquard system, creating beautiful designs with natural cotton warps and dyed velour wefts. There are more than ten traditional designs. Most are the common things in life or decorative patterns indicating bliss and happiness. Among the common geometrical patterns are: squares, waves, clouds, weaving patterns and concentric circles. There are also various flower, plant, and animal images such as butterflies courting flowers, phoenix among peonies, two dragons playing in a pearl, lions playing with balls and crabs jumping in a dragon door. In recent years, new images have emerged: the karst hills and rivers in Guilin, grain harvests and sunflowers facing the sun. Since 1980s, most Zhuang brocade has been produced with machines in modern brocade factories. Some is exported to Europe, America and Southeast Asia.
Dark Cloth Zhuang
The Dark Cloth Zhuang branch of the Zhuang ethnic group has been characterized for centuries by their namesake sable (dark) clothing and taboos against marrying outsiders. But that's changing as relentless waves of modernization wash over this remote mountainous swath of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.[Source: Sun Li, China Daily, January 28, 2012]
The Dark Cloth Zhuang came to be as a people when they sought refuge in the secluded mountains as war refugees. According to legend, the chief was critically injured while battling invaders and treated himself with indigo. After surviving to lead the victory, the chief ordered his people to grow indigo and use it to dye their clothes black.
Chief of Napo county's Gonghe village Liang Jincai believes the taboos surrounding marrying outsiders likely originated from longtime cultural seclusion and a desire for ethnic purity. "The rule was so strict that if a Dark Cloth Zhuang man was living anywhere else in the world and never planned to return, he still had to find a Dark Cloth Zhuang woman to marry," he recalls.
Few Dark Cloth Zhuang Wear Their Traditional Clothing Anymore
Chief of Napo county's Gonghe village Liang Jincai says the more than 51,800 locals used to wear black clothes year-round. "They used to always wear their black kerchiefs, long-sleeved black shirts and wide-legged black trousers - no matter what," the 72-year-old says. "But now, only old men wear black clothes all the time. The youth only wear them on important days, such as weddings and Spring Festival."
"It's a tragedy our time-honored veneration of black is fading," 72-year-old villager Wang Meifeng says.One reason is the black clothes are difficult and time-consuming to make, she explains."You have to first grow cotton, get rid of the seeds and spin it before using indigo to dye it," Wang says. "Sometimes, it takes a whole year."
Clothing from outside markets is cheaper, more convenient to get and more aesthetically intriguing to many, she explains. "Clothes from outside come in all sorts of shapes and colors, and cost about 100 yuan, while traditional clothes cost about 300 yuan when you add up the materials, time and everything else," Wang says. "So, why wouldn't we wear clothes from outside?"
Changing Dark Cloth Zhuang Customs
The transformation began in the 1980s, when many community members became migrant workers in other provinces, 50-year-old Gonghe villager Liang Xiuzhen says. Gonghe villager Ma Wengying says the outflow of migrant workers from the community came about because of the hardships of subsisting on corn and cattle. By and large, the only people left in the village are children and the elderly, the 42-year-old says.
Liang Xiuzhen recalls feeling awkward wearing traditional garb in the cities. "When I went outside our county wearing my black outfit, people would stare at me like I was a weirdo - even in Guangxi," she recalls. "I could only imagine how people would look at me if I went to other provinces. So we have to wear other clothes when we step out of our community. And many people return with jeans, shirts and jackets that make the Dark Cloth Zhuang people look like anyone in any city."
Nuptial customs also liberalized with the 1980s' outflow of villagers seeking work outside. Liang Yunzhong is among the youth who are violating the nuptial restrictions.The 22-year-old married a 19-year-old colleague from Hubei's provincial capital Wuhan, whom he met while working at a paper mill in Guangdong's provincial capital Guangzhou.
"I left home alone and didn't know where other Dark Cloth Zhuang are in Guangzhou," Liang Yunzhong says. "If I hadn't married a woman from another ethnic group, I would have been a leftover man (middle-aged bachelor)." He says his is one of several similar cases in the village. And his parents approve. "They understand the situation and are not zealous about traditional purity," Liang Yunzhong says. "And my wife has adapted to our different environment and customs since coming here."
Liang Jincai, the village leader, expresses mixed feelings about the transformations. "I believe more people from other ethnic groups will join our community," he says. "The Dark Cloth Zhuang will no longer be called as such, as fewer people wear black clothes in the future. Our traditional attire and marriage customs will become only memories. But that doesn't mean our people will fade away."
Image Sources: Mostlly Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Zhuang section, Travelpod Shane
Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015