The Performance of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

From fairy tales and fables to folk songs and poems, the Bouyei are well-known for their rich tapestry of literature. Their works have been passed down orally for hundreds of years and contain invaluable information about their religion, customs, culture, and history. These stories go by fanciful names, such as “Killing Tigers and Shooting Eagles”, “Legend of the Huangguoshu Waterfall” and the undeniably curious “Fight with the Rhinoceros over the Pearl”. What a rhinoceros would want with a pearl we do not know, but what we do know is that this plethora of literary work has helped inform their unique style of singing, dancing and opera. 

Their folk songs can be split into two categories: big songs and small songs. Big songs are those sung at funerals and weddings while small songs are usually sung at festivals or when serenading a lover. Supposedly there are so many songs in the Bouyei canon that they could sing for 7 days straight without ever repeating one! Singing competitions are a popular form of entertainment during festivals and can involve dozens of singers from both genders, who sing musical dialogue in an antiphonal style. 

Their fondness for singing has stretched into a deep love of opera and they even have their own style, known as Bouyei Opera, as well as practising other styles such as the Ground Opera and the Stool Opera. Bouyei Opera is over 200 years old and is more of an umbrella term for all native operas of the Bouyei people. It originated from a style of singing where the performer would use only eight tones and sit on a stool. As riveting as watching someone sing on a stool must be, the Bouyei soon developed the practice and it finally took shape as a true opera form during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Nowadays Bouyei opera troupes are about 30 people strong and consist of the main actors, main actresses, and stock characters such as kings and warriors. 

All of the singing, monologues and dialogues are performed in the Bouyei language but the prologue, final poem, and self-introductions will be done in Chinese. The content of these operas draws from the Bouyei’s rich mythology and features many of the Bouyei’s legends, as well as transplanting stories from the history of the Han people. Before the opera begins, the performers will join in a ceremony to honour the God of Opera and then sweep the stage meticulously. 

It is a heavily stylised form of opera and there are certain conventions that must be adhered to, such as officials must always wave fans and warriors must carry a sword. Fortunately there are no warrior officials, or the performers would all be dodging a waving sword! The make-up used is minimal while the costumes depend on the content of opera. For example, Bouyei legends necessitate wearing traditional dress while stories of Chinese history require outfits that imitate ancient Chinese dress.

The Ground Opera received its unusual name because unsurprisingly it’s performed on the ground, with no stage or backdrop. Opera troupes are formed solely of local farmers from one village and these small groups only perform during slack farming seasons. After all, singing won’t pay the bills! The costumes for this style of opera are opulent and beautifully designed. Warriors wear a headdress made of chicken feathers and have small flags jutting out of their backs. Many of the performers will wear specially carved wooden masks while others will have vivid beards painted on their faces. 

This style of opera is sung exclusively in the Bouyei language and the stories are normally adapted from historical fiction, such as “Talking about the Tang Dynasty” and “The Warriors of the Yang Family”. It is sometimes referred to as Nuo Opera because it is believed to have originated from the ancient Nuo people, making it a “living fossil” of operatic art!

The Bouyei are also known for several styles of dance, including the Weaving Dance, which is meant to imitate a Bouyei girl’s diligence while working, and the Dragon Lantern Dance, which is intended to express their reverence for dragons. All of their singing, dancing, and opera performances will be accompanied by instruments such as the suona, the xiao, the yueqin, and the bronze drum, as they are accomplished musicians.   

The Agriculture and Craftwork of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

The plains where the Bouyei live are blessed with fertile land and a mild climate, making it an ideal place for farming various crops. They predominantly farm rice, wheat, maize, millet, and potatoes, although some cash crops such as cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, and tea are also grown to supplement their income. Unsurprisingly their diet is richly varied so, if you happen upon a Bouyei village, be sure to try the local food!

Like many people living in south China, rice is their staple food and is complemented by vegetables, pork, fish, or chicken, although they have an unfortunate preference for dog meat. They also have a fondness for pickled vegetables, sausages, and a type of curd made from pig’s blood. Sour and spicy flavours are integral to their cuisine, so much so that a local proverb states: “anyone who has not eaten a sour dish in three days will not be able to walk”. We’re not sure quite how true this theory is, particularly since no Bouyei person has ever risked testing it! 

They are incredibly fond of rice wine, which they brew en masse following the autumn harvest. This homemade hooch plays a focal role in festivals but is also drunk regularly as part of daily meals. While Bouyei men tend to drink alcohol, the women prefer tea and are known for mixing it with honeysuckle. In fact, they have fostered a tea drinking culture over several generations and the most precious of these homemade teas is called Guniang Cha or “Girl’s Tea”, which is made by unmarried girls and is rarely sold, instead being given as gifts to friends.

Food is not only an important part of their daily life, it is also symbolic. The Bouyei will always welcome their guests with tantalising dishes and fine wines. If pork is served, this means the host wishes the guest a good harvest in the coming year. Offering the guest a chicken’s head means good fortune, the wings symbolise success, and the legs represent freedom from anxiety. If only it was that simple, and I’m sure we’d be at KFC every day!

Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Bouyei women have been renowned for their particular skill at batik[1]. In 1953 a batik factory was even established in Anshun city to help cope with the national and international demand for this unique craftwork. Their work is colourful, beautifully patterned, and usually depicts motifs of flowers, waves, dragons, and snakes. 

The women learn this art from the tender age of 12 and use it predominantly to make their clothes. They are equally accomplished at embroidery and brocade, making their traditional costumes some of the most intricate in China. Wood carving is also a popular pastime in Bouyei communities, particularly in Anshun County where they carve opera masks from clove or poplar wood.    


[1] Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.

Traditional Dress of Bouyei Ethnic Minority

bouyei dress 04

From dragons and fish to mountains and rivers, the motifs embroidered on the Bouyei’s traditional dress are deeply symbolic and all harken back to their religious beliefs. Young Bouyei men tend to wear short, long-sleeved jackets that button down the front accompanied by long trousers, with scarves made of black or lattice cloth wrapped around their heads. Their clothes may seem somewhat underwhelming, but the Bouyei women’s superior fashion sense more than makes up for it!

bouyei 02Their traditional dress is incredibly varied and depends on what region they live in. In Guizhou they can roughly be split into four styles: Northwest, Southwest, Central, and Eastern. In the Northwest, the women prefer a short black jacket that is secured on the left side by a band rather than buttons. This jacket will be beautifully decorated at the cuffs and on the front with batik[1] patterns, and is complemented by a pleated skirt made of batik cloth. This is accompanied by a turban and glittering silver jewellery. And, if you want to know whether that pretty Bouyei girl is married or not, just look at her apron! Unmarried women will wear a plain apron, while married women wear aprons that have been embroidered with a floral pattern.

The Central-style is characterised by long, green trousers and an abundance of silver ornaments, including hairpins, earrings and bracelets. Women who live in the Southwest will either wear trousers with a long-sleeved blue jacket or a coat with a long, pleated batik skirt. The sleeves, front, and shoulders of the coat are normally bedecked with either batik or embroidery, making the Southwest-style the most elaborately decorated of them all!

bouyei dress03Finally, the long term contact in the East with the Han ethnic majority has meant the Eastern-style differs very little from the Han traditional dress. Here the women wear a dress and trousers, both trimmed in lace, accompanied by a turban. In Zhenning County, Guizhou province, the Bouyei women sometimes wear a special type of hat known as a jiagu. This hat is made by wrapping batik fabric around a bamboo shell-shaped frame but only certain women are allowed to wear it.

Unmarried women will braid their hair and then partially or fully cover it with a black, embroidered turban. However, only when a married woman has returned to her husband’s home and given birth to their first child will she wear the traditional jiagu. In Bouyei culture, husbands and wives can remain separated after their wedding for up to 8 years! So it’s unsurprising that this special hat means so much to them.

Once a married woman has put on the jiagu, she must officially leave her parent’s home and go to live with her husband. Many married girls enjoy continuing their free lifestyle and so refuse to wear the jiagu, much to the chagrin of their husbands. So these women are often the target of tricky surprise attacks!

bouyei dress 01Every year, during April, August or September, 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. So next time you’re looking for a date in a local bar, just try popping a hat on the girl’s head!



[1] Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.


The Spirituality of the Bouyei Ethnic Minority


The Bouyei predominantly follow a polytheistic indigenous religion which incorporates features of shamanism[1], animism[2], and ancestor worship, as well as the Zhuang ethnic minority’s religion of Moism. Local priests or shamans are known as bumo and are often called upon to perform exorcisms, conduct funerals, or chant scripture at festivals. Yet these bumo do not making a living from religious activities, and will work primarily as farmers just like other members of the community. At least they know their crops will be blessed!

BOUYEI BUMOThere are also female shamans known as yaya, who carry out divination ceremonies and exorcisms. Unlike the bumo, the yaya are not formally trained and instead discover their unique abilities after suffering from a severe illness. It is only then that they are able to notice the demons that surround themselves and others, which probably comes as quite a shock after recovering from a major infection!

The dragon and the fish have a special place in the Bouyei’s folk religion as they are believed to be relatives of the Bouyei’s ancestors. And you thought your family was weird! According to one of their legends, the Bouyei people originated from a dragon woman who was impregnated by a man. In keeping with this legend, to give birth to a boy is known as “having a dragon” so many women will embroider dragons on their clothes in the hope that they will have sons. They believe that dragons are everywhere, and are always careful not to disturb them. For example, before they erect a new house, they will ask the dragon to leave first and only invite it to return once the house is built.

A rather more disturbing and less magical legend recounts the story of an ancient ancestor who impregnated a fish, hence why they regard fish as relatives. For many centuries the Bouyei did not eat fish because, according to another legend, a boy who once ignored his mother’s advice and ate a fish was then subject to numerous disasters; perhaps because that fish was his second cousin!

Regardless of whether you’re half fish, a quarter dragon or just a normal human being, family matters to the Bouyei people. In keeping with their tradition of ancestor worship, every house will have a tablet dedicated to the resident’s ancestors where offerings of food and wine will be made on any important family occasion or during festivals.

Totem Pole of bouyei minorityAll religious ceremonies revolve a sacred book known as the Mojing, which is a collection of songs. The longest ceremonial song is reserved only for funerals, where it will be sung by a bumo. Their most important religious ceremony is known as “bringing the souls of the dead out of purgatory”, which lasts seven days and seven nights and can draw crowds of more than 10,000 people! It is actually a sequence of several ceremonies designed to worship 36 of their deities.

A small pig will be sacrificed to each of the deities but other offerings depend on the specific deity’s importance. For example, some will have a whole chicken sacrificed to them while others may only receive an egg or a piece of meat. Some of the choicest offerings are reserved for the Mother Goddess, their fertility deity, and the Goddess of the Flower Forest, who distributes “flowers” or children to parents.

On top of this grand ceremony, there are other, simpler ceremonies throughout the year in honour of specific deities, such as the God of Water and the God of Fire. However, the most revered deities are the God of Land and the God of the Mountain, also known as the God of Insects. The God of Land controls the harvest while the God of the Mountain can punish people by sending pests or animal spirits to destroy their crops. Every Bouyei village will have temples dedicated to these gods and annual festivals are held in their honour.

bouyei culture 01The importance of children is tantamount and so there are a staggering twelve Mother Goddesses in the Bouyei pantheon. They are in charge of protecting children until they reach the age of twelve and each of the goddesses corresponds to a geographical location; for example, there is the Mother Goddess of the Bed, the Mother Goddess of the Fields, the Mother Goddess of the Rivers, and so on. Each goddess protects children in their designated location and it is believed that, if a child doesn’t worship these goddesses properly, they will become sick or the target of misfortune. In this instance, their parents will call a yaya, who will carry out the necessary appeasement ceremonies.

Every Bouyei village will also be flanked by a large banyan or camphor tree and a stone shrine dedicated to their ancient ancestor Baogendi. Both the tree and Baogendi are thought to protect the village and are thus honoured with a small ceremony during every festival. Sometimes people will place small animal figurines, such as horses, sheep, or pigs, inside Baogendi’s shrine as he supposedly has the power to bless people with livestock.



[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[2] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.