Other Customs of Zhuang Ethnic Minority

The Zhuang have a rich literary tradition, both written and unwritten. Folk stories often take the form of songs and are passed down orally. They can be myths, legends, historical poems or even simply chants. The Zhuang have a written language known as Sawndip or Old Zhuang Script, which they use to transcribe their literature and other important documents such as contracts. Most of these folk tales are written in verse and some of them are over a thousand years old!

One of these ancient legends has garnered much attention in recent years and is known as “Dahgyax Dahbengz” or “The Orphan Girl and the Rich Girl”. This is essentially an early version of the Cinderella story and has been found in old Zhuang opera scripts. Several written versions of the story date back to the 9th century, although it could be even older! Songs like these are often refined over a period of several years. For example, the “Song to Tell Others”, which is a philosophy on life, originated during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) but its final form wasn’t set until the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Many of these songs have their roots in superstition, such as the “house raising” song which is sang after a new house is built. This song consists of two parts; the first describes the construction of a traditional stilt house; and the second is customarily believed to ward off evil spirits from the new home. Like many ethnic minorities, they are a deeply superstitious people and their customs reflect this. For example, in some Zhuang communities they love to eat dog meat, while in others there is a taboo on eating dog meat because, according to legend, the dog helped mankind in their time of need.

The legend states that long ago there were no grains and the people were forced to eat wild plants. The only grain seeds were in Heaven but it was forbidden to bring them to earth. One day, a trusty dog decided he would go to heaven and procure the seeds for his beloved masters. Back in ancient times, dogs had nine tails so when the dog got to heaven he placed his tails on the ground and many of the seeds stuck in his fur. However, while he was collecting the seeds he was spotted by a guard. Before the dog could get away, the guard managed to chop off eight of his tails. He managed to get back to earth with one of his tails still intact and he gave the seeds to his human masters, allowing them to grow grain. In other versions of the legend, the dog is replaced by an ox and this may explain why some Zhuang communities happily eat dogs.

These superstitions play a focal role in Zhuang funerals, as they believe that the souls of the deceased enter the netherworld but continue to assist the living. Ancestor worship is common and their burial rites are particularly unusual, as the dead are buried twice. The deceased is first wrapped in white cloth and, after three days, they are buried in a coffin along with a few of their favourite things. A Taoist priest or local shaman will preside over the funeral, depending on the family’s beliefs. Families will sometimes even arrange what is known as a “spirit marriage” to appease the souls of those who died unmarried!

After three years, the deceased is disinterred and the bones are cleaned. They are then placed in a pottery urn and sprinkled with a red mineral called cinnabar. The urn is deposited in a cave or grotto until an appropriate burial site has been chosen in the clan cemetery. Once this has been done, the deceased is officially classed as an ancestor and can be worshipped at the ancestral shrine.

However, the Zhuang believe that anyone who died a violent, untimely or accidental death could become an evil spirit if not buried properly. They must be cremated while a local necromancer or Taoist priest chants scripture. The remains are carried over a fire pit, which the necromancer or priest must jump over! It is believed that this process “changes” the ashes from those of an evil spirit into a benevolent ancestor spirit.



The Architecture of Mongol Ethnic Group

Nowadays, most Mongols live in modern apartment blocks or fixed residences. However, you’ll still find plenty of Mongol people maintaining their nomadic heritage and living on the grasslands in a type of portable domed tent known as a ger or yurt. Some people even alternate between the two; living in urban housing for part of the year and then shifting to a ger in order to tend to their livestock. The use of these unusual abodes dates back to the time of the mighty Genghis Khan, roughly around about the 12th century. With their bright white exteriors and perfectly rounded shape, these magnificent gers look like glittering pearls scattered across the jade-hued grasslands.

They are made by first erecting a series of wooden lattice frames into a circular shape and then securing them with rope. This forms a self-supporting cylinder that is approximately head height. A door frame is then fitted at the front, while roof poles are used to give extra support. Finally, a canvas typically made from sheep’s wool is drawn across the wooden skeleton and the ger is complete. To give the ger additional stability during inclement weather, a heavy weight is suspended from the centre roof pole.

The ger is ideal for both warm summers and harsh winters, since it is spacious, well-ventilated, but also well-insulated. Its conical roof is perfect for shedding rain, its white exterior is designed to reflect the sunlight during the peak of summer, and its ground-hugging base protects it against strong winds. Smaller gers are typically designed to accommodate up to 10 people, while larger ones can house over 20! Skilled Mongols can erect a ger within half an hour and dismantle it just as quickly, making it the ideal home for the wandering nomad. Once packed up on the back of a yak or camel, it can be easily transported to the next destination. In short, it’s the original mobile-home!

According to tradition, the door to the ger should typically face south and the interior layout should be separated into approximately eight sections: the north, northwest, west, southwest, northeast, east, southeast, and centre. In the northern quarters, there is usually an eight-legged table that is used for keeping cosy quilts, exquisite rugs, and other clothing items. Men’s clothes must be placed above women’s clothes and it is considered taboo to put the neck of any piece of clothing facing the doorway, as this is a practice reserved for the deceased.

The northwest is a holy area reserved solely for Buddha. It is resplendent with shrines and niches, all containing Buddhist statues that have been safely locked away. During religious festivals, the occupants of the ger will light candles and make offerings to these statues while praying for wealth, longevity, and good fortune. The wild western quarter is designated as the man’s private kingdom, full of guns, knives, saddles, and wrestling gear.

The southwest is where yoghurt tanks and more saddles are kept, while the northeast houses cases of women’s clothes and jewellery. The eastern quarter acts as a sort of makeshift pantry, with meat, vegetables, fruits, and cooking utensils arranged into tiers on a special rack to keep them separate. The southeast is a much more flexible area, as it can be utilised in a number of ways depending on the season. In spring, it is filled with water buckets and dried cow’s dung, which is burned as fuel. During summer and autumn, a yoghurt tank and various clay utensils are added for the making of milk products. Under emergency circumstances, it is sometimes even used as a shelter for newly-born calves!

Finally the centre, arguably the most significant section of the ger, is reserved for the fire stove. After a ger has been erected, the first thing that the occupants must do is decide on the position of the stove. Fire is the lifeblood of any Mongolian household, as it provides the means to boil water for tea, cook family meals, or simply keep the ger warm. For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the stove is positioned correctly within the ger.

If you happen to be visiting a ger, there are a number of customs and taboos that you should be aware of. One must not approach a ger by automobile or on horseback within a certain radius. Touching the entryway or the centre roof poles of the ger is deemed impolite. Never step on or over a saddle, as the Mongols’ have a deep-rooted reverence for the horse and damaging or disregarding a saddle is considered highly disrespectful. Similarly, you shouldn’t sit in front of or near Buddhist shrines out of respect for the Buddha. Lastly, you should only take a seat after being invited to do so by your host, with male and female guests sitting separately. Remember, while the Mongols are renowned for their warm-hearted nature, these are the descendants of Genghis Khan, so the last thing you want to do is offend them!

Other Customs of Uyghur Ethnic Minority

The customs and taboos of the Uyghur ethnic minority have been informed primarily by their rich history and their pious belief in Islam. When receiving guests, the host will typically offer them the best seats, treat them to some tea or milk, and then provide them with some small snacks, such as dried fruit or sweetmeats. If you are offered a drink, be sure to take the cup with both hands as this is a sign of courtesy. The same applies if you are being offered a gift.

When dinner is ready to be served, the host will bring a kettle of water and invite the guests to wash their hands. This is because many Uyghur signature dishes, such as zhuafan or “hand rice”, are eaten with the hands or using a piece of naan bread rather than with cutlery. It is important to note that you should never place the naan bread upside down while eating it. According to their Islamic faith, Uyghurs are forbidden from eating pork and they also cannot eat any animal that has not been killed by a butcher in the traditional halal way.

When it comes to dining etiquette, it is considered extremely rude for a guest to fiddle with the food in their dish, put back any food that they’ve taken, or leave some food in their bowl. If any food is dropped during the meal, the guest should quietly pick it up and wrap it in a tissue. Once the meal is finished, the elderly members of the household will lead the group in a profound act of worship known as a Dua[1]. Guests should remain in their seats and try to stay as still as possible during the Dua.

[1]Dua: The term “dua” is an Arabic word that roughly translates to mean “supplication” or “invocation”. Within the Islamic faith, it is an act of worship whereby the worshipper calls out to Allah and expresses their devotedness to him.

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The Tibetan Customs

Much like the environment in which they live, the customs of the Tibetan ethnic minority are marked by their elegance, solemnity, and deep spirituality. This is most often seen in the traditions surrounding a ceremonial white scarf, known as a hada[1]. The hada features in both traditional Tibetan and Mongolian culture, but plays a vastly different role in each. In Tibet, it evolved out of the ancient custom of adorning statues of deities with clothes. The white hada symbolises purity, faithfulness, and respect to the receiver. It is a common courtesy afforded to everyone, no matter their rank or background.

The hada itself is made of loosely woven silk and features a range of patterns, which have auspicious or symbolic meanings. They can be as short as 50 centimetres (20 in) and as long as 4 metres (13 ft.). While most hada are white, there is a special version that is made up of five different colours: blue to represent the air; white to symbolise water; yellow to signify the earth; green to denote nature; and red to indicate fire. This five-coloured hada is considered to be the cloth of the Buddha and, as such, it must only be given on exceedingly important occasions. It is a highly valued gift that is exclusively offered to statues of the Buddha, eminent monks, or intimate relatives.

The white hada is customarily offered during a variety of occasions, from regular greetings and temple visits to marriage ceremonies and funerals. In some cases, Tibetans will even leave behind a hada near their seat in a temple to signify that, although they have physically left, their heart remains. When presenting a hada, the giver typically takes the scarf in both hands, lifts it to the shoulder height of the recipient, extends their arms, bends over, and passes it to the recipient, taking care to ensure that their head is level with the hada. To show respect, the recipient should accept the hada with both hands. It is also considered acceptable to place the hada around someone’s neck if they are your social peers or juniors, but seniors or elders should have the hada placed in front of their seats or at their feet as a mark of deference.

The practice of giving hada is so centric to Tibetan culture that, whenever a person leaves the house, they will carry several hada with them in case an opportunity arises where they might be expected to offer one. When writing letters, they will even enclose a miniature hada in the envelope! In most contexts, the hada is designed to extend good wishes and respect, but its significance may change slightly depending on the context. During festivals, a hada is exchanged to wish the recipient a happy holiday. At weddings, the bride and groom are presented with hada in the hopes that they will have everlasting harmony and a bright future together. At funerals, the family present hada to the guests so that the Buddha may bless them and the guests offer hada to the grieving relatives in order to express their condolences.

Aside from the hada, there is a strict etiquette in Tibetan culture surrounding the act of greeting. When visiting relatives, it is customary for the visitor to carry a basket filled with gifts, a thermos flask of buttered tea, and a bucket full of chang[2]. The basket should be covered with a cloth to ensure that no one can see inside. When the guest arrives, the host and hostess will welcome them warmly before enjoying a drink of the butter tea and the chang they have brought.

After a long time spent chatting and catching up, the guest will finally present the host with their gift-basket. It is considered polite for the host to leave some of the gifts, such as food, within the basket for the guest to take back home, as this shows modesty and restraint. Not only that, but the host will be expected to add some inexpensive items to the basket, such as fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, or new clothes for the guest’s children. Most importantly of all, the host will take note of what the guest has brought so that, when they pay a visit, they can bring a gift-basket of similar value. Unlike most people, who give so that they can later receive, the Tibetans receive so that they can give!

Superstition is also a prominent feature of Tibetan culture, with numerous taboos and omens being observed. A traveller who passes by a funeral procession, a source of running water, or a person carrying a pitcher of water is said to have good luck coming their way. A vulture or owl perched on a rooftop is a sign that death or misfortune will soon befall the inhabitants. Snowfall during a wedding is believed to be a sign that the newlyweds will face many difficulties in their marriage. By contrast, snowfall during a funeral means that the family will not suffer another death for a long time. In short, don’t dream of a white wedding, wish for a white funeral!

[1] Hada: A hada is a narrow strip of silk or cotton that is used by Mongolian and Tibetan people as a greeting gift. Although it has little monetary value, in a nomadic culture it carries deep symbolic value, as everything must be carried on one’s person and therefore must be deemed worthy to take up precious limited space.

[2] Chang: Chang is an alcoholic beverage brewed from highland barley, millet, or rice grains. It is popular among the Tibetan and Nepalese people. Although its alcohol content is low, it produces a warming sensation that is ideal in the frozen climes of Tibet and Nepal.

The Tibetan Ethnic Minority

Long ago, when the earth was in its infancy, there roamed a mythical monkey known as Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa. Even his name was imbued with deep significance, with “pha” meaning “father”, “trelgen” meaning “old monkey”, “changchup” translating to “enlightenment”, and “sempa” meaning “intention”. He settled on Mount Gongori in Tibet, where he vowed to immerse himself in meditation and pursue a life of asceticism. One day, while he sat deep in thought, he was approached by a rock ogress named Ma Drag Sinmo. She begged the monkey to marry her and made every attempt to seduce him, but he refused, as his religious discipline meant he could not yield to temptation.

In her desperation, the ogress then resorted to threats. She told the monkey that, if he would not marry her, then she would marry a demon and produce a multitude of smaller monsters, which would overrun the earth and destroy all other living creatures. Evidently she didn’t take rejection very well! The monkey despaired and, not knowing what to do, he consulted the bodhisattva[1] Avalokiteśvara. Avalokiteśvara told the monkey that this was an auspicious sign and that he was destined to marry the ogress, so he gave the couple his blessing and the two were married.

Within a few months, the ogress gave birth to six small monkeys and the elder monkey left his six children to grow up in the forest. After three years, he returned and, to his dismay, he found that they had multiplied to five hundred monkeys. The fruits of the forest were no longer enough to sustain them, and they beseeched their father to help them find food. At a loss once again, the elder monkey went back to Avalokiteśvara. The bodhisattva travelled to the sacred Mount Meru, but from here the story diverges. Some say he collected a handful of barley on the mountain, while others believe he plucked the five cereals from his own body and offered them to the elder monkey.

Regardless of how it transpired, the elder monkey planted the cereals and, after a bumper harvest, he was able to feed all of his children. As they continued to engage in agriculture and move away from the forest, the monkeys gradually lost their tails and most of their hair. They began to use tools made from bone and stone, then wove their own clothes and built their own houses. Eventually they formed a venerable civilisation, from which the Tibetan people supposedly descended. So the next time you question your own family tree, imagine how strange it would be to have a monkey and an ogress as your ancestors!

Living primarily in isolated locations throughout India, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the Tibetan people have maintained an air of mystery that has captured the curiosity of people throughout the world. They embody a culture defined by spirituality, communion with nature, and rigid discipline. Even their language is highly stylised, with honorific and ordinary versions for most words, which are used to address superiors or inferiors respectively. The indisputable importance that religion holds for Tibetans is reflected in this language, as there is a set of higher honorific terms that are only to be used when addressing the highest sect of Buddhist lamas.

According to historical records, it is estimated that the ancestors of the Tibetan people began settling along the Yarlung Tsangpo River sometime before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). The expansive grasslands and lush pastures allowed them to easily raise and support herds of sheep, goat, and yak, which became their primary source of income. However, the harsh climate meant they could only grow certain hardier varieties of grain, such as highland barley. Thus they evolved into an ethnic group primarily composed of farmers and pastoral nomads, with a clear distinction between peasantry and the elite landowning class.

Their belief in and devotion to a higher power first manifested in the indigenous religion of Bön, which was gradually superseded by Buddhism during the 7th century. Eventually these two venerable faiths intermingled to form Tibetan Buddhism, the religion observed by the majority of Tibetans to this day. From the darkened corridors and elaborately decorated halls of the Potala Palace to the humble yurts on the craggy Tibetan Plateau, people from all walks of life carry prayer wheels, chant sutras[2], and prostrate themselves as a demonstration of their piety.

This extreme devoutness has given birth to countless stunning works of art, including intricate thangka paintings, elegant statuary, and the semi-spiritual Epic of King Gesar, which is considered to be the longest hero epic in the world. While this level of piousness might lead you to think that the Tibetan people are solemn, that’s far from the truth! Religious festivals, such as the Losar Festival and the Shoton Festival, are celebrated with lively performances of Tibetan Opera, singing, dancing, and bountiful feasts. With such a rich and vibrant culture, it’s easy to see how the lifestyle of this enigmatic ethnic group has captured the imaginations of people from across the globe.



[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.


Read more about Tibetan Ethnic Minority:

Traditional Dress       Other Customs


Tibetan Traditional Dress

In spite of the hostile environment in which they live, the traditional garments of the Tibetan people are defined by their bright colours and elaborate ornamentation. Like precious stones and glimmering jewels, they stand out on the barren plains of the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans typically don long-sleeved jackets made of silk or cloth, covered by a loose robe tied at the right by a band. Nomadic herdsmen and women working in colder climates eschew the jacket in favour of sheepskin robes fringed with fur. While women tend to wear skirts with a multi-coloured apron over top and men wear trousers, they both opt for leather long-boots to combat the rocky terrain and felt or fur hats to keep themselves warm. For the sake of mobility, many Tibetans leave one or both shoulders uncovered and tie the sleeves around their waist when they are working.

Both genders usually keep their hair long, with men coiling it into a single braid on the top of their head. Girls wear their hair in one braid until they turn seventeen, at which point they plait it into two braids or multiple smaller braids as part of a coming-of-age ceremony. Ornaments play an important role in Tibetan culture, so these braids will be dripping with finery. Historically and culturally speaking, jewellery was the tool used by Tibetans to distinguish the rich from the poor. Poorer nomads would only be able to afford simple jewellery, such as coral pieces, or none at all, while richer nomads would sport silver chains, gold teeth, and large coral earrings.

In contrast to this lavish decoration, the clothes of the Tibetan monks are modest and solemn in nature. They traditionally wear a sleeveless garment known as a kasaya, which translates to mean “colour that is not pure” in Sanskrit. This is thought to derive from the fact that the kasaya is purplish red in colour, rather than being a pure primary colour. It is approximately 2.5 times the length of the human body and is wrapped around the upper body with the right shoulder exposed.

The quality and colour of the cloth used to make the kasaya varies depending on the rank and importance of the wearer. The most eminent monks will have their garments fringed with yellow silk brocade or will wear clothes made from the finest yellow silks and satins. While the style of the kasaya worn by different Tibetan Buddhist sects rarely varies, they each wear different types of hats to distinguish themselves. In short, you should be able to tell them apart at the drop of a hat!

Dong Ethnic Performance


From dusk till dawn, the villages of the Dong people are saturated with the harmonious sound of singing. This ethnic group has become famous throughout China for polyphonic folk songs known as “Dage” or Grand Songs. While some of these folk songs are accompanied by the pipa[1], most are sung without any musical accompaniment. The Dong ethnic minority have no written language, so they use folk songs to narrate their daily life, express their feelings, and keep a record of their history. All of Dong culture is preserved in these magnificent folk songs. The more songs a Dong person knows, the better educated they are considered to be. Singing is so important to the Dong people that supposedly, in the past, if a man couldn’t sing then he would struggle to find a wife!

From the age of five, children in the village will be trained by one of the accomplished local singers free of charge. These singing teachers enjoy a special status as highly revered members of the community. In short, people are always singing their praises! Depending on age and gender, villagers are separated into different choirs, and each choir is distinguished by their particular style of singing and the topics of their songs. For example, choirs of young children will sound sweet and lively, while choirs of young girls sound innocent and full of passion, and choirs of men have a depth to their voices that sounds haunting and powerful. Female choirs incorporate sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos, and male choirs are comprised of countertenors, tenors, baritones, and basses.

The most talented singers in any Dong village make up what are called Kam Grand Choirs or Kgal Laox in the native Dong language. The Kam Grand Choir tradition is thought to have originated sometime during the Warring States Period (475BC-221 BC), making it over 2,500 years old! In 2009, it was made a World Class Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. A Kam Grand Choir is a polyphonic choir that sings without the help of a conductor or any accompanying orchestra. Most songs performed by these choirs consist of a prelude, a main body made up of several sections, and an ending.

These songs are designed to imitate the natural world, such as the chirping of insects, the gurgling of streams, the whistling of the wind, and other soothing natural sounds. The singing is meant to spur the soul and originate from the heart, while simultaneously promoting harmony between mankind and nature. The solo singing will be done by the sopranos and the bass section is sung by the rest of the choir. Depending on the style of song, the soprano section will be performed by between one and three individuals.

There are Male Choirs, Female Choirs, and Child Choirs, and each of these is further separated into four main categories based on their styles, melodies, and the content of their songs. In the Dong dialect, these four categories are called Gating, Gama, Gaxiang, and Gaji. Gating or “Choirs of Sound” perform songs that are characterised by an undulating melody and short lyrics, employing the use of several sopranos. This style of song is dedicated almost entirely to imitating the sounds of the natural world, with the famed “Cicada Song” being the finest example. Gama or “Romance Choirs” perform songs revolving around the theme of love and employ slow rhythms and soft voices to heighten their effect.

Gaxiang or “Morality Choirs” perform songs that are designed to educate, advise, or console the audience by praising virtues and condemning inappropriate behaviour. These songs have an even tune in order to draw focus to their lyrics. Finally, Gaji or “Narrative Choirs” perform songs that focus on dialogue and plot, and are characterised by slow, melancholy, or soothing tunes. The Gaji songs are some of the hardest to perform, as they require the performers to remember lengthy lyrics, complicated plots, and various key facial expressions. Usually these songs will be led by only one soprano.

Many folktales are preserved in Dong oral literature, usually in the form of songs. The focus of many popular tales re-count the leaders of past uprisings, such as Wu Mian, who led the 1378 rebellion against the Ming Dynasty during drought and famine, and Wu Jinyin, who revolted in 1740 because of a rise in grain taxes. Non-historical folktales include the two orphan brothers, Ding Lang and the dragon princess, the frog and the swallow, the dog, and the singing tree.

The best time to enjoy the singing of the Dong people is during their New Year festival, which is normally sometime between late October and early November every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The New Year celebrations are resplendent with lively singing competitions, joyous folk dances, and vibrant performances that are truly magnificent to behold.


[1] Pipa: A four-stringed plucking instrument that has a pear-shaped wooden body and anywhere from 12 to 26 frets. It is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.


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Zhuang Traditional Dress

Zhuang dress

The Zhuang women have become particularly self-sufficient when it comes to making their own clothes. They grow and harvest cotton, which they then spin into thread and weave into cloth. They dye the cloth using locally sourced plants or vegetables and embroider it with great skill. At this rate, they could practically start their own clothing range!

Since the Zhuang population is so widespread and diverse, their traditional dress varies greatly from region to region but tends to be characterised by the use of muted colours such as black, blue and brown. Throughout Guangxi the men typically wear a collarless jacket that either buttons up the centre or the right side. They wear loose trousers that are sometimes embroidered at the hem and occasionally will don a round cap or formal hat.

The women in northwest Guangxi tend to wear collarless, embroidered jackets that button along the left side with either wide trousers or pleated skirts. Married women will wear embroidered belts or will have a band embroidered around their jacket. In southwest Guangxi the women also wear collarless jackets that button up the left side but prefer to wear black square headbands and loose trousers. Most women will complement their outfits with silver jewellery and some wear a variety of beautiful turbans or headscarves on festival occasions. These vibrant headscarves can be so large that they practically dwarf the wearer and look like colourful fans atop the women’s heads.


Zhuang Festivals

Zhuang New Tear

The Zhuang people celebrate many of the traditional Chinese festivals, such as Spring Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival, but they do have a few of their own! The Singing Festival, the Ox Soul Festival, and the Ghost Festival are considered the most significant, although other smaller festivals, such as the Frog Festival, have their own quaint charm.

The Singing Festival

The Singing Festival, also known as “Sam Nyied Sam” in Zhuang and “San Yue San” in Chinese, takes place on the 3rd day of the 3rd month according to the Chinese lunar calendar and falls sometime during April. Before the festival takes place, offerings will be made to the ancestors and the clan cemetery is cleaned. It is then that the Zhuang youths embark on a 3 day-long trial of almost continuous singing!

Zhuang SanyuejieAs the name suggests, this festival is all about singing and people from nearby villages will gather, sometimes in their thousands, simply to serenade one another. Some songs are predetermined, but many of them will be improvised and are designed to make people laugh. Choirs will even challenge each other to singing matches, where participants try to think of innovative lyrics that their competitors can’t match. Zhuang girls will also compete in a game known as the Bamboo Pole Dance.

The festival is sometimes referred to as the Zhuang Valentine’s Day because it’s one of the few times in the year when unmarried youths can mingle freely. Thus it is often seen as the perfect opportunity for men and women to meet their future partner. Five-coloured rice is a festival speciality and is prepared by first dyeing rice using locally sourced plants to turn it black, red, yellow, purple and white, and then steaming it until it is fragrant and perfectly cooked. Don’t let the vibrant colours put you off; this rice is a real treat!

The festival commemorates a legendary girl called Sanjie Liu, who lived sometime during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). She was an extraordinarily competent singer and no one could match her in singing competitions. Although in the original legend she might be a Han girl who was only renowned for her singing, the legend was changed in 1949 to suit political purposes and was popularised by the 1960 film Liu Sanjie.

In the new version of the legend, she is described as a courageous Zhuang girl who confronted the local landlords and exposed their baseness in her songs. Her rebellious attitude eventually led to her being kidnapped and drowned in a pond by the landlords. However, she emerged from the pond riding on the back of a carp and ascended to heaven, where she became the Goddess of Singing. Regardless of the political propaganda that surrounds this legend, the date of the festival is largely believed to coincide with that of Sanjie Liu’s death. The show Impression Sanjie Liu in Yangshuo is loosely based on her legend.

The Ox Soul Festival

Zhuang Ox Soul FestivalThe Ox Soul Festival takes place on the 8th day of the 4th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, falling sometime during May, and is dedicated to worshipping the Ox King. It is believed to coincide with the Ox King’s birthday and, on this day, he supposedly descends from heaven to protect his subjects from illness. Not only are oxen indispensible to the Zhuang as draft animals, but they strongly believe that the ox was sent from heaven to help them, so many Zhuang communities regard them as holy animals.

On the day of the festival, all manner of sacrifices will be made to the Ox King, from glutinous rice to whole chickens. No one is allowed to work their ox that day and farmers must go to the cattle barns to free the animals from their yoke. The oxen are then bathed, which is accompanied by the beating of drums. Finally, oxen are fed with five-coloured rice while the owners sing folk songs. The Zhuang believe that all of the whipping and hard work during the ploughing season causes the oxen to lose their souls, so this festival is designed to summon their souls back. It reflects the love and respect that the Zhuang have for their work animals. After all, everyone needs a little TLC now and then!

The Ghost Festival

Zhuang Ghost FestivalThe Ghost Festival is celebrated over a period of several days and starts on the 14th day of the 7th month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, or sometime during August. At the start of the festival, families will stop work and clean their homes rigorously. They then prepare an offering of duck, pork, and good wine, along with some candies and fruits, and welcome the ghosts of their ancestors into the house. When the festival ends, the family will say goodbye to the ghosts and burn objects that they think the ghosts will need in the afterlife. The Zhuang people worship their ancestors like gods and so this sombre festival is designed to honour them.

The Frog Festival

Zhuang Frog FestivalThe Frog Festival is held throughout the 1st month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, and commemorates an ancient deity known as Mother Frog. This deity is the daughter of the Thunder God and is the carrier of rains, so during this festival people pray for rain and a good harvest in the coming year. The highlight of this festival is a special Frog Dance, where performers don frog-headed hats and dance like the frogs found in the famous Rock Paintings of Mount Hua.



Zhuang Ethnic Minority

zhuang minority 01

With an estimated population of approximately 18 million people, the Zhuang are the most populous of all the ethnic minorities in China. Nearly 90% of Zhuang people can be found in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with smaller constituencies in the provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou, and Hunan. Compared to Mandarin Chinese, which only has 4 tones, their indigenous language has a staggering 8 tones and is closely related to the languages of the Dong, Bouyei and Dai ethnic minorities, as well as the standard Thai of Thailand and the standard Lao of Laos. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, they also boast two different writing systems!

Though nowadays many Zhuang people use the Romanised script that was created in 1957, some locals still use an ancient writing system known as Sawndip or Old Zhuang Script. This system uses Chinese characters but only for their sound value and in some cases new characters have been created by adding or removing strokes from existing Chinese characters. Sawndip was mainly used by shamans to write anything from folktales and myths to songs and medical prescriptions, and has become an invaluable academic resource for people researching Zhuang history. Their most famous literary work, Baeu Rodo, is an epic poem about the creation of the world. It is over 10,000 lines long and phenomenally has been transmitted orally for over 1,000 years!

Now I don’t know how far you can trace your family back, but I’m willing to bet that the Zhuang have you beat! According to contemporary archaeological evidence, the Zhuang’s origins can be traced all the way back to the Palaeolithic Age, which occurred over 2.6 million years ago. They were initially conquered by the Han people in 214 BC, during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), and suffered from a tenuous relationship with the imperial government up until the abolishment of imperial rule in 1912.

Frequent peasant revolts broke out in Guangxi primarily because the Zhuang were mistreated by the government and subjugated into a landownership system that favoured the Han authorities but deprived the local Zhuang farmers. This system was abolished when the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) ended and the Zhuang have led a peaceful and largely uninterrupted existence ever since.

zhuang rock paintingThey are thought to be related to the ancient Luoyue people and the earliest indication of this connection can be found among the Rock Paintings of Mount Hua. While the Han people spent their time plotting their domination of China, evidently the Zhuang were far too busy painting! These paintings date back to the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC) and cover a colossal length of over 200 kilometres. They are made up of 287 groups of murals that are distributed throughout 183 different places.

The Mother Frog, an ancient deity who looks half-human and half-frog, is a common theme throughout these murals and is almost always painted red. Other motifs include running dogs, birds, bronze drums, the stars, and the sun. In Ningming County, there is one mural that is over 40 metres high and 170 metres wide, meaning it is 10 times as tall as an African elephant, over 3 times as long as an Olympic swimming pool, and the largest of its kind in the world!

Nowadays most Zhuang villagers live in stilted wooden houses known as 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. The key difference between the Zhuang diaojiaolou and those of other ethnic minorities is the incorporation of a central room where an ancestral shrine is kept. This shrine is used to worship the family’s ancestors, as well as deities such as the Kitchen God and the God of Wealth. If you want to get to known the Zhuang first-hand, we recommend visiting Ping’an Village or Longji Ancient Zhuang Village in Guangxi.

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