The Customs of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

Even something as commonplace as building a house is imbued with symbolic customs in Bouyei culture. First, a specialist will be invited to select an auspicious place to build, ideally a location beside a mountain and a river. However, the house should not only back onto mountains but should also face them, and the shape of these mountains is particularly important.

The mountains behind the house should look like guarding lions, defensive dragons, or nobleman riding on horses, while the mountains in front ideally must look like dragons fighting over jewellery, dragons playing with pearls, a thousand horses returning to their stables, or the God of Longevity rising up. Luckily, the area where the Bouyei live is surrounded by strangely shaped Karst mountains so, even if your chosen mountain doesn’t exactly look like two dragons arguing over a silver necklace, you can just say it does!

bouyei dragonA propitious day will then be chosen to erect the house and one month before this day a carpenter will prepare the house’s structure. When the day finally comes, a sacrifice will be made to Lu Ban, the God of Carpentry. The main beam, which is decorated with red silk, will then be carried from the father-in-law’s house to the building site and accompanied by an orchestra, as well as a team of acrobats. In other words, this beam gets a grander entrance than most celebrities! Once the beam has been fixed, a singing and dancing ceremony will take place, followed by a feast. After the festivities, a shrine dedicated to the family’s ancestors and the Kitchen God will be positioned in a central part of the new house.

In some Bouyei communities, an annual ceremony known as “inviting the dragon” is still practised. Before the ceremony, villagers will gather offerings for the dragon in the form of food and wine. Then a local priest, known as a Bumo, will sit down and recite the appropriate prayers. Once he has finished, the village chief will carry two eggs and bury them at the foot of two posts. In Bouyei culture, the yolk of an egg symbolises gold and the white signifies silver, so overall the egg represents wealth. Thus, while the eggs are being buried, the villagers all sing: “Keep the gold and silver that we bury, and don’t let anyone take it”. It may not be the most spectacular gift in the world, but at least the dragon can have a decent omelette!

bouyei funeralFunerals in Bouyei communities are notoriously complicated procedures. Once a person has died, their relatives bath them, comb their hair, and dress them. The corpse is then placed on a bed, where friends and relatives can pay their last respects. The funeral begins with a priest performing a ritual where he asks the dragon to help the deceased’s soul on its way to the underworld. Then a bull is slaughtered and its meat is shared by everyone except relatives of the deceased. The Bouyei believe that this bull will help the soul of the deceased plough fields in the underworld, although we dread to think what kinds of crops they grow down there!

Finally the priest will conduct an “opening the way” ceremony, where he indicates the passage that the soul must follow in order to reach its ancestors. The priest will then lead the funeral procession to the grave site accompanied by the sound of horns and drums. Paper money and incense is burned in honour of the deceased before they are buried and the burial is punctuated by the sound of a bronze drum, which will be beaten three times a day after the burial. The Bouyei believe that this will help carry the soul to its ancestors, as the belief that the bronze drum can communicate with the underworld is widely spread throughout China and Asia. After three years, the person’s remains are disinterred and the bones are placed in a clay urn for reburial.

There are also a number of taboos in Bouyei culture. For example, the first time thunder is heard each year, it is forbidden to do any type of farm work for several days; a woman must never return to her parents’ home to give birth; and the corpse of anyone who has died outside must not be carried back into their home.

Marriage Customs of the Bouyei Ethnic Minority


bouyei wedding 01

Under the feudal system of the past, a Bouyei youth’s love life entirely depended on the discretion of their parents as almost all marriages were arranged. Fortunes appear to have changed for the Bouyei, as now they are largely allowed to marry for love! Nowadays fairs and festivals provide the perfect opportunity for unmarried men and women to mingle, sing songs together, and find a suitable partner.

If a woman is attracted to a man, she will often throw a ball to him made of silk strips, which she will have embroidered herself. This indicates that the man is free to pursue her and, if the man returns her affections, he will ask her on a date. Bouyei men are no strangers to romance, as these dates are almost exclusively spent singing love songs! After several of these songful dates, the couple will usually announce their engagement.

There is also a popular folk tale in Bouyei literature about how women should choose which man to marry. First a young woman must sew seven bags, each about ten inches long, with large fabric handles. She must then fill each bag with a different grain; one with long grain rice, one with glutinous rice, one with millet, one with rice bran, and so on. After preparing all these bags, one could even say the woman had become a cereal filler!

At an appropriate time, the girl would then pitch the bags out to her suitors, or suitor if she wasn’t all that lucky, and ask them to pick one up. The man who selected the bag full of rice bran was the one she should marry, as this was the gods’ way of indicating he was a diligent and honest man. Though this custom isn’t taken seriously, it is sometimes still practised today as a bit of fun.

bouyei wedding02Bouyei weddings are two or three day affairs with much singing, dancing, and delicious food. The Bouyei often marry very young and it is commonplace for children as young as twelve to already be married! However, directly after the wedding the wife will return to her parents’ home and this arrangement usually carries on for 3 to 5 years, but can be extended to 7 or 8 years!

The wife will only go to live with her husband on one of three conditions; when her parents decide; when she becomes pregnant with her first child; or when she elects to wear a special hat known as a jiagu[1]. Customarily, once the jiagu has been worn, the wife must return to her husband’s home, so women are sometimes the target of sneaky hat attacks!

In the area near Mount Biandan, Guizhou province, they practice a custom every year during April, August or September where the man’s mother and sister, or two of his female relatives, will bring a chicken and a jiagu to his wife’s home. While they are there, they will sneakily try to unclasp her hair and put the jiagu on her head! If they are successful, she must return with them to her husband’s home. If not, they have to try again another time. In some cases, it is also acceptable for the husband to simply creep up on his wife and un-braid her hair. We’re not sure how all of these sneaky customs came to be, but we can’t imagine it inspires much trust between husbands and wives!


[1] Jiagu: A special headdress made by wrapping decorative fabric around a bamboo shell-shaped frame.


Festivals of Bouyei Ethnic Minority


Like many of China’s ethnic minorities, the Bouyei celebrate several of the traditional Chinese festivals, including Spring Festival. They also follow a few of the Zhuang’s festivals, such as the Ox Soul Festival, but have a few festivals of their own, which normally revolve around their religious beliefs and may differ depending on where you are.

The Sanyuesan Festival

The Sanyuesan Festival bouyeiThough the Zhuang ethnic minority also celebrate the Sanyuesan Festival, the two versions of this festival have vastly different origins. The name “Sanyuesan” literally means “March 3rd” so it’s unsurprising that the festival is held on the 3rd day of the 3rd month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, although it usually falls sometime during April in our calendar. The festival honours the God of the Mountain and on this day villagers will make sacrifices to him in the hopes that he will protect their livestock and provide them with a good harvest in the coming year.

As with all good festivals, they celebrate by singing, dancing and having a feast. Five-coloured rice is the feature dish and it is made using rice that has been coloured red, black, purple, white and yellow using natural plant dyes. In fact, this rice looks so marvellous that it’s hard to tell whether you’re meant to eat it or appreciate it as a work of art! In the Bouyei villages near Guiyang they normally hold a song contest and they believe that the winner will be blessed by the gods with a golden throat, which endows the singer with the ability to scare off harmful pests and birds from their crops when they sing!

The June 6th Festival

The June 6th Festival bouyeiLike the Sanyuesan Festival, this festival revolves around a particular date, namely the 6th day of the 6th lunar month. However it actually falls sometime during July according to our Gregorian calendar. It is a time for the Bouyei people to worship the God of the Fields, the God of Land, and the God of the Mountain as well as the legendary Pangu, who created the earth according to Chinese mythology and supposedly died on June 6th. Typical offerings to the gods include paper figures, paper horses, wine, meat, and a type of rice dumpling known as zongzi. In some regions, the plough, rake and other farm implements will be placed in a shrine in the hopes that they will be blessed. Along with making sacrifices, people celebrate by dressing in their traditional outfits, singing in antiphonal style and dancing to the rhythm of several instruments.

The Chabai Singing Festival

This festival takes place on the 21st day of the 6th lunar month and so usually falls sometime during July. It’s a huge event where tens of thousands of people will gather from neighbour villages, counties and even provinces to engage in a series of singing competitions. Just when you thought X-Factor was an original idea, it seems the Bouyei have been doing it for years! During the day, the contests will be held in an arena but in the evening they will be performed in the courtyards and homes of the local villagers.

The festival dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is celebrated in remembrance of two young lovers named Chalang and Baimei, whose names are combined in the festival’s title. Chalang and Baimei fell in love at first sight but a local landlord, who coveted the beautiful Baimei, killed Chalang and kidnapped the girl against her will. The landlord forced her to marry him but, during the wedding, she set fire to the landlord’s house and threw herself upon the flames. Baimei’s devotion to her lover Chalang even after death is a testament worth honouring, but probably not repeating!

Fang Ji or “To Visit Several Houses”

This is more of an annual ceremony than a festival and it takes place on the 1st day of the 6th lunar month, so it also falls sometime in July. Before the ceremony, all of the villagers will contribute some money to pay for the wine, pigs, and chickens that will be used as sacrifices. A bumo or local shaman presides over the ceremony and performs invocations asking the gods to protect the village and its people.

The bumo will visit every house in the village and at each house he will ask “Does the demon leave, or not?” To which another bumo will reply “He leaves”. So, if you ever have a demon squatting in your house, don’t call in an exorcist, just politely ask him to leave! Once the bumo have cleansed every house, they will place a talisman at the village gate which will prevent evil from entering. In the evening, all of the villagers will gather at the temple of the God of the Village and take part in a sumptuous banquet, where they will eat, drink, sing and dance late into the night.



Bouyei Ethnic Minority

Bouyei Ethnic Minority

From the thundering waters of the Huangguoshu Waterfall to the sparkling stalactites of the Dragon Palace Cave, the Bouyei people’s ancestors were wise enough to settle the fertile plains of Guizhou over 2,000 years ago! There are currently nearly 3 million Bouyei people living in China, making them the 11th most populous of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities. Though they predominantly live in Guizhou province, small communities can be found in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan and the country of Vietnam.

The Bouyei language is of Tai origin and is very closely related to that of the standard Zhuang language. It was originally accompanied by a writing system that incorporated and adapted Chinese characters. Tragically this writing system has since been lost, but a new writing system was developed in 1985 that uses the Latin alphabet. So even if you don’t understand the Bouyei words, at least you’ll recognise the letters!

The Zhuang and Bouyei both trace their ancestry back to the ancient Luoyue people and their language, behaviour and customs are very similar to that of the Luoyue. Before the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Zhuang and Bouyei were classed together under the term “alien barbarians” and appeared to be the same ethnic group. However, over time they migrated to different parts of China, developed their own unique cultures and, by the year 900 AD, they were recognised as separate ethnic groups.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the Bouyei and several other ethnic minorities suffered greatly under a landownership system that gave power and wealth to landlords but deprived the working class. Eventually this led to the Nanlong Rebellion in 1797, which resulted in many Bouyei people immigrating to Vietnam.

Bouyei villageNowadays Bouyei people traditionally live in settlements near mountains and rivers. As a rule, most villages will have no more than 100 households and the village entrance is usually flanked by a banyan or camphor tree, as they are considered to be sacred. The Bouyei believe that these trees protect the village and bring the villagers good fortune. So next time you’re a bit down on your luck, you may want to consider planting a tree!

In many Bouyei communities the people live in a style of wooden building known as a Diaojiaolou. These are two-storey dwellings that are suspended on stilts, with the ground floor being used for storage and the upper floors being used as living spaces. However, the Bouyei villages near the Huangguoshu Waterfall, particularly Chengguan Town in Zhenning County, are particularly famous for an ingenious style of stone house.

These stone dwellings are made without using cement and are built by simply layering specially cut flagstones in such a way that they create a natural, stable framework. In some cases even the roof will be made out of carefully placed stone sheets! Only the rafters will be made from wood and oftentimes-even furnishings, such as tables, stools, bowls, and cisterns, will be carved from stone. So you could say the Bouyei never made it out of the Stone Age!