ZHUANG CULTURE AND ART

ZHUANG CULTURE AND ART

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Festival game
The culture and art of the Zhuang Ethnic group are rich and colorful, consisting of folk stories, Zhuang opera, music, dance, and especially the numerous folk songs. Almost every Zhuang can sing well. Many places hold regular mountain song festivals. Different places have different songfest dates, but the songfest on March 3rd in the lunar calendar is the most biggest and grandest one. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Two-thousand-year-old frescoes have been found at more than 50 spots on the precipices hanging over the Zuojiang River running through southwest Guangxi. The best known of them is the Huashan fresco in Ningming County which is over 100 meters long and 40 meters wide, featuring 1,300 figures. Drawn in rugged and vigorous lines, it reflects the life of the Zhuangs' ancestors. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

Bronze drum, a special relic of minority groups in central south and southwest China, dates back well over two millennia. Guangxi alone has unearthed more than 500 of such drums, which are in different designs and sizes. The largest exceeds one meter in diameter and the heaviest weighs over half a ton while the lightest several dozen kilograms. The tops and sides of the drums are decorated with designs done in relief. However, explanations are diverse in so far as the use of these drums is concerned. Some people believe that they were meant for military music, others argue that they were for folk music, and still others think they were for religious rites or to symbolize power and wealth. *|*

Legends, fairy tales, stories and ballads frame the folk literature of the Zhuangs who have also been reputed for their singing. Sweet songs can be heard wherever you go in the Zhuang area. Extemporaneous melodies and lyrics and clever use of metaphors, riddles and cross-examinations add charm to their songs. It is said that, in the Tang Dynasty, a Zhuang woman singer called Third Sister Liu became known not just for her beautiful singing but especially for the courageous exposure in her songs of the crudeness of local tyrants. Today her name is a household word throughout China thanks to a successful film about her made in the 1950s. In the old days, every Zhuang community held its regular songfests at given venues. On those occasions, young people from nearby villages would come together in their holiday best to meet each other and choose their lovers through songs. *|*

Common Zhuang musical instruments include suona (Chinese cornet), bronze drum, cymbal, gong, sheng (Chinese wind pipe), xiao (vertical bamboo flute), di (Chinese flute) and huqin (a stringed instrument) made of horse bones. Zhuang dances are characterized by distinct themes, forceful and nimble steps, jocular and humorous gestures and true-to-life emotions. The Rice-Husking Dance, Silk-Ball Dance, Shrimp-Catching Dance, Tea-Picking Dance, Shoulder-Pole Dance and Bronze-Drum Dance not only vividly depict the Zhuangs' life and work, but also display their straightforward, unbending nature. Yet what combines the Zhuangs' folk literature, music, dance and other forms of art is the Zhuang Opera, which first originated from religious rites in the Tang Dynasty. *|*

Zhuang Cliff-Side Frescoes

On the banks of the long Zoujiang River stand strangely-shaped mountains and precipices. These mountains are reflected in the water, forming marvelous natural scenery. In 1956, on the area’s dangerous precipices, people found many dark red images of humans, animals, bronze drums and boats — the Huashan frescos. These pictures are roughly drawn, half-hidden, with crude lines, but still are regarded as marvelous works of art and have survived for centuries in rain and wind. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The oldest ones date to the Spring and Autumn period (770 -476 B.C.). Others date to the Warring States (481 - 221 B.C.) and the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25 - 220). They believed to be to have been made the Luoyue people, perhaps ancestors of the Zhuang. The meaning of the Huashan frescos is a matter of debate. Scholars have diverse explanations. Some think the pictures are the scenes of victory celebration of the soldiers returning from the battlefield. Others think they depict the guardian god of the Zhuang - Frog God and a grand ceremony held in his name. ~

The Huashan frescos are found in seven counties, Ningming, Pingxiang, Longzhou, Chongzuo, Futuo, Daxin, and Tiandeng along the the Zuojiang River and its tributaries: the Mingjiang River, Heishuihe River, and Shuikouhe River. So far, 183 spots with 287 picture groups have been found in 84 places. This giant gallery extends over 200 kilometers. On Huashan Mountain in Ningming County, on a 200-meter-wide, 40-meter-high cliff more than 1,800 images are visible, some of them surprisingly bright and colorful. Because of the large number of paintings found here, people use the mountain’s name to describe all the frescos in the area. ~

The main subjects of Huashan frescos are human beings, animals and various objects. Human figures are front-faced or presented from the side. They all have upright hands, bent elbows and two parting feet in a half squat posture. Their height ranges between 30 centimeters and three meters. Most of the animals are dogs. There are a small number of birds. The objects include round-head knives, long swords, clocks, drums, bells, and masks. The basic arrangement of a picture is like this: a high front-faced man carrying a sword on the waist in the middle, with other figures, animals, and tools set in an orderly way around him. These frescos are painted not drawn, therefore it is hard to distinguish the countenances. The lines are rugged, vigorous, simple but vivid. ~

Liu Sanjie (Third Sister Liu)

Liu Sanjie (Third Sister Liu) is arguably the most prominent figure in Zhuang folklore. According to legend, she was a Zhuang girl who sang extraordinarily well and lived during the Tang dynasty. A local landlord fancied her but after realizing was impossible to win her heart had her abducted. After Third Sister Liu refused to sing for him the landlord had her tied up and thrown into a river. Miraculously, she survived. After some time, she married a hunter and taught the art of singing to the Zhuang. News of her new life reached the evil landlord, who ordered his thugs to murder both Third Sister Liu and her husband and throwtheir bodies into a pond. The people arrived at the pond just in time to see them flying into the air, singing while riding on a fish. In that way she became a goddess.

Liu Sanjie appears in many Zhuang's folk stories. The earliest story about her can be found in Volume 98 San Mei Shan of Yu Di Ji Sheng by Wang Xiangzhi in the Southern Song Dynasty. Many legends and folk songs about her appeared in the Ming and Qing dynasties. More can be found in Zhuang people's oral folk tales and ballads. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

In another variation of her story, Liu Sanjie was a Zhuang peasant's daughter who displayed a genius in childhood and was viewed as a fairy. She was familiar with the canons at the age of twelve and good at improvising songs. Her songs were melodious and touching, and she was called Song Fairy. At the age of fifteen, she was engaged to a man named Lin whom she didn’t like. Instead of marrying him she eloped with her lover Zhang Wei and disappeared and became a celestial with Zhang Wei. According to the folk tale popular with the Yishan Zhuang of Guangxi, Liu Sanjie was born in 703 and was extraordinary bright and sang well when she was a small kid. She improvised nice songs at the age of twelve, and became well-known in Zhuang communities. Later she taught singing in neighboring villages. Numerous people claimed they were better singers and tried to outperform her but all were defeated and forced to leave in shame. Her talent aroused envy and jealousy and group the local rascals killed her, afterwards, it is said, she rode off to heaven on the back of a carp. In another version she turned into a stone after seven days and nights of antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) with a young fellow riding a while crane in West Mountain in Gui Xian.

The Zhuang have great admiration for Liu Sanjie hundreds of years. Statues of her and temples honoring her can be found in many places in Guangxi. For a long time, after a new Zhuang song collection was published, it was presented in front of her statue. Songfests in some places begin with procession carrying her statue. Zhuang people worship her as the Song Fairy. A Zhuang saying goes: “the prosperity of songs in Guangxi is attributed to Liu Sanjie.”

Zhuang Songs

Zhuang people are reputed for singing. Both males or females start to learn singing at the age of four or five. Usually fathers teach the sons and the daughters learn from their mothers, forming the pattern of learning songs in childhood, singing them in adulthood, and teaching in old age. In the countryside, people sing at any time and any place, whether laboring in the field, cutting firewood in the mountains, when courting, and at weddings, funerals and festivals. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Songs have traditionally been used to express feelings. In some places, people even sing when they are having an ordinary conversation or quarreling with a family member. The homeland where Zhuang people live is sometimes called "the sea of songs” or "the land covered by the piano keys". Famous Zhuang historical figures include the Song Fairy and Song King— Liu Sanjie and Huang Sandi. ~

Zhuang songs are rich both in quantity and kinds. Based on the content and style, they can be classified as ancient songs, narrative long songs, life songs, labor songs, political songs, rite songs, love songs and kid songs and so on. When singing Zhuang songs, people often follow certain established rules and etiquette, especially for political songs, rite songs and love songs. For instance, love songs are allowed to be sung freely in the the wild songfests, but are forbidden at home or in the presence of parents. Different rite songs are sung on different occasions. Different kinds of guests receive different welcome songs. ~

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Festival dance

Zhuang Song Festivals and Courting Songs

In addition to singing casually for fun, Zhuang have regular songfests, called Ge Wei or Ge Jie. The third day of the third lunar month has traditionally been the day of the biggest and most important songfest. Songfests are also held during the spring festival (Chinese New Year), the eights day of the forth lunar month, Mid-autumn day, weddings, a baby's one-month birthday, or the day marking the completion of a new house. A songfest can be held even on a road or at a market. There are two kinds of songfests: daytime ones and evening ones. Daytime songfests are held in the fields, mainly for young people to court. Evening songfests are inside villages. These have traditionally revolved around singing songs aimed at teaching about life and passing on knowledge, such as season songs, question songs and history songs. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Songfests have multi-functions. Traditionally, they have mainly served young people to court lovers. On songfest days, young people dressed in their holiday best, gather at the songfest place. Through singing, they display their talent, reveal their feelings, exchange their thoughts and seek out love partners. At the songfests, singing in an antiphonal style is the major activity. In one-to-one singing matches, two singers are often surrounded by their friends. Sometimes, song masters nearby to give a hand. The procedure of antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) is very complicated and strict. Generally speaking, from the start of antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) to the final confirmation of love, singers sing prescribed songs for each step of the courting process: introductory songs, first meeting songs, self-boasting songs, first question songs, questioning songs, eulogizing songs, pursuit songs, first love songs, friend making songs, love confirmation songs, gift-presenting songs and parting songs and so on. Every song group is relatively independent yet closely related. The songs in each link are rather long and rich in content. A good singer can keep on singing for several days and nights.

Zhuang Songfest Courting Songs

Some examples of Zhuang courting songs sung at song festivals include: 1) First meeting songs: The female sings: “A beginner in singing is like a sparrow learning to fly./ Fly to the twig, and look up to the highest place, yet afraid to fly.” The male responds: “I sing well. You are an oriole and I am a thrush./ We live in the same wood, why not singing in pair?

2) Pursuit songs: The male sings: “Green willows on the roadside touch my heart./ I ask the willow why she does not shield me from the sunheat?” The female responds: “White gourd has neither heart nor mouth, teapot has a mouth yet no heart./ Bottle gourd is always half in water, I am afraid you are of the three.”

3) Parting songs: The male sings: “Sunset, birds are singing back to the mountains in pairs./ I want to stay longer with you, yet the sun envies me.” The female sings: “I accompany you back to sugarcane field, and sent you a sugarcane./ You eat one end and I the other, it breaks in the middle.” The male responds to this by singing: “Leave and return, telling my darling./ I give you the key, yet don't open the garden for others.” The Female finally sings: “Leave and return, telling my darling. I will wait for you here for ten years, yet don't plant your flower elsewhere.”

Songs sung at a songfest are regarded as the first step in the courting process. After getting acquainted at the songfests, young people still have a long way to go before getting married.

Zhuang Bronze Drums

Symbolizing wealth, traditional, cultural bonding and power, bronze drum have been prized by numerous ethnic groups in southern China and Southeast Asia for a long time. The oldest ones—belonging to the ancient Baipu people of the mid-Yunnan area—date to 2700 B.C. in the Spring and Autumn Period. Today, they continue to be used by many ethnic minorities, including the Miao, Yao, Zhuang, Dong, Buyi, Shui, Gelao and Wa. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Zhuang are among the largest groups to be linked with ancient bronze drums. According to the records in the “Ling Biao Lu Yi” by Liuxun in the Tang Dynasty, “Gui Hai Yu Heng Zhi” by Fan Chengda and “Ling Wai Dai Da” by Zhou Qufei in the Song Dynasty, the bronze drums were unearthed in Zhuang areas south of the Five Ridges areas as early as the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty. The number of unearthed bronze drums has been on the rise recently. At present, the Chinese cultural relics protection institutions have a collection of over 1,500 bronze drums. Guangxi alone has unearthed more than 560 such drums, most of which are from the Zhuang area. One bronze drum unearthed in Beiliu is the largest of its kind, with a diameter of 165 centimeters. It has been hailed as the "king of bronze drum". In addition to all these, bronze drums continue to be collected and used among the people. ~

Bronze drum are believed to have been developed from bronze kettles. Hollow and bottomless, they look like round stumps, with flat surfaces and curled middle part.s Bronze drums are forged from copper and bronze and differ in size and weight. The largest one exceeds one meter in diameter while the smallest is only over 10 centimeters across. The heaviest weighs over a hundred kilograms while lightest weighs about a dozen kilograms. ~

Most bronze drum tops are engraved with lines simulating the sun, smoke plumes, clouds, combs and flags. Some of them images of frogs, tortoises, cattle and horses forged on their sides. The bodies of bronze drums are also decorated with many lines, drum ears and other adornments. According to their shapes, line decorations and forging craftsmanship, bronze drums can be classified into eight kinds: 1) Wanjiaba type, 2 Shizhaishan type, 3) Lengshuichong type, 4) Zunyi type, 5) Majiang type, 6) Beiliu type, 7) Lingshan type and 8) Ximeng type. Among them, Beiliu, Lingshan and Lengshuichong bronze drums, forged by the ancient Zhuang people, display the highest levels of skill and achievement of craftsmanship, smelting and foundry. ~

Bronze drums are the artistic treasure and are also considered as vehicles of magical power. The use and function of the drums can be diverse. In ancient times, they were mainly used for religious rites and many were hidden in caves or buried underground and were not allowed to be banged casually. Later they gradually became symbols of power of the rulers: used to gather people for a meetings or even to encourage the soldiers on the battlefield. It was thought that rulers could keep their power as long as the bronze drums were in their possession. Without them, the rulers would no longer hold power. In addition, these drums were also regarded as property that could distinguish the rich from the poor and humble. It was not until the Ming and Qing dynasties that the bronze drums began to be used as instruments. ~

Zhuang Dances

The Zhuang are regarded are good singers and dancers. Frescos on the cliffs of Flower Hill seem to depict ancient Zhuang people dancing. The Zhuang have a number of dances, originating from different periods of their history. It is thought that the older ones have a ritual origin, imitating the movements of shamans during their religious ceremonies. Most Zhuang dances are linked by true-to-life experiences such as working, love and life. Some famous Zhuang dances include the Shoulder-Pole Dance, Rice-Husking Dance, Tea-Picking Dance, Rice-Transplanting Dance, Shrimp-Catching Dance, Silk-Ball Dance, Bronze-Drum Dance, Water-Bailing Dance, Triumph Dance, Bee-Drum Dance and Board-Shoe Dance. In general their dances can be divided into four main types: 1) Religious dances; 2) Labor dances; 3) Animal dances; 4) Love dances. Love dances are generally performed in conjunction with courting songs at important festivals, where young people meet. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]

Labor dances in their origin form may have had a religious component, perhaps imitating rituals and asking the protection of the gods associated with different activities. The most popular are: 1) Dance of the Milling the Rice features dancers, with a sticks imitating the typical movements of milling rice. 2) Shoulder Pole Dance imitates movements of transporting things with a shoulder pole. 3) Dance of Catching the Tea features the usual movements of picking tea leaves. 4) Dance of Catching Shrimps has movements of fishing for shrimps. \*\

The Shoulder-Pole Dance is a typical labor dance. It is usually composed of four parts: "rice-transplanting", "water-lifting by using waterwheels", "reaping and thrashing" and "rice husking". Shoulder-Pole dancers sing and dance up and down around a wooden groove. Simple as it is, the Shoulder-pole dance can be grand in style, strong in rhythm and create a jocular and convivial atmosphere. It depicts the main chores of farmers, from seedling planting to husking. Even today the Zhuang people still enjoy Shoulder-Pole Dance when the New Year comes. \*\

Animal dances mimic the movements of different animals. It is thought that person can take on some of the qualities of an animal by copying it movements in these dances. 1) The Turtledove's Dance is very common in the south of Yongning. Three men imitate doves moving their wings and picking for grain, gurgling with happiness when they find something. It is thought that this dance brings the promise of a good crop, in which people can feed as the doves. 2) Lion's Dance is similar to the Chinese lion dance. Before 1949 each village had teams of lion's dancer. Every year there were competitions that involved thousands of people in Guangxi Province. The winners were called "Guangxi Lion Kings" \*\

Zhuang Religious Dances

Dance of the Bronze Drum is possibly the most popular dance among the Zhuang. In most traditional Zhuang festivals, villages hold competitions of drums and dancing at the same time. In the Dance of the Bronze Drum, two drums are hung from the two ends of a pole, each banged by a young girl. A bigger drum is hung from the middle of the pole, which is beaten by an old teacher. The old man marks the rhythm to which people dance. At first some girls start to dance, but soon other people join in, with everybody eventually dancing around the bronze drum. The Zhuang have a festival called the Festival of the Bronze Drums. It takes place on the 1st, 15th and 30th days of the first lunar month. The main activity of the festival is a bronze drum competition between villages. It is considered an auspicious activity to begin the year as it is thought the sound of the drums drives away the demons. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]

Dance of the Traverse Drum is a dance carried out only by a shigong or shaman as part of their ceremonies of homage to the gods. The name is derived from the small chest drum made of pottery or wood, with goatskin or snakeskin, hanging of their chest. The dances imitate the activities of the gods, ascending to the sky or going down to the earth. They are divided in seven steps: 1) ascent to the horse, 2) walking the horse, 3) small jump, 4) great jump, 5) stop, 6) half turn and 7) double turn.

Dance of the Shigong is another ritual dance performed by shigong or shaman during Zhuang religious ceremonies. It is specially used for thanking to the gods, exorcizing bad spirits, and asking for rain. The shigong takes sword or a stick in his hand, and other ritual objects, and covers his face with a mask. The way he dances confers different meanings. The shaman usually has some musical instrument: a small drum, a plane drum, or some cymbals. The masks vary according to the deity to which is intended that ceremony.

Zhuang Opera and Kung Fu

Zhuang Opera, also called Zhuang drama, has a history of several hundred years and incorporates elements of Zhuang folk literature, music, dance and acrobatics. According to its style, it can be classified into South Zhuang Opera and North Zhuang Opera. It can be also classified into Shigong Opera, Guangnan Opera, Funing Opera, Longlin Opera, Tianlin Opera, Dejing Opera and Hanlong Opera according to its different areas, dialects, arias and acting arts. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Zhuang Operas are mostly written in the Zhuang dialect in four-lined verses with five or seven characters to each line. They can be also written with same rhythm structures as folk songs. The arias and melodies are often based on folk songs and folk melodies. The acting is diverse in style, and mainly includes dancing and singing with spoken parts serving as links. Zhuang Opera also has a whole set of obbligato, costumes and stage properties. The traditional list of plays for Zhuang Opera are: Pan Gu, Wen Long and Xiao Ni, Bu Ya, Nong Zhigao, Si Jie Decents to the World, Liu Er Beats Ghost, Unbinding Mortar, A Flower, Precious Calabash, Red Bronze Drum and One Hundred Birds Clothes. ~

The Zhuang have a long history and tradition of practicing kung fu and boxing. In the Ming Dynasty, Zhuang boys living in west Guangxi had to learn martial arts after ten years old. A local chieftain there encouraged all Zhuang people to practiced and enjoyed the martial arts. Every year in winter when there was no farm work, each Zhuang village invited a kung fu master to teach the villagers martial arts. This tradition lasted until the 1950s and is being revived today. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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