Zhuang People & Language

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

China is a big place, and home to a great number of people. In this lesson, we are going to talk about one of those groups of people, China's largest ethnic minority group.

Ethnicity in China

What does it mean to be an ethnic minority? In some places, this carries negative stigmas of prejudice and oppression, but technically all it means is that one groups has numerically fewer people than another. That's it. Minority status is completely respective to the overall population and when you're talking about a population of roughly 1.3 billion people, even a percentage of that is actually a pretty big group. That's the situation in China. Most people in China ethnically identify as Han Chinese, about 92% in fact. That other 8% of Chinese society is actually a compilation of roughly 55 distinct recognized ethnic minorities. The largest of these minority groups are the Zhuang people. The Zhuang make up less than 2% of China's total population, but considering that China's total population is massive, this still equates to around 16-18 million people. That's roughly the population of Austria and Switzerland put together. So, we're not talking about a small group of people. We're just talking about a statistical minority.

A Zhuang village surrounded by rice fields
Zhuang village

History and Traditional Zhuang Culture

The Zhuang people are native to Southern China, roughly the territory bordering China and Vietnam. Despite being in the southernmost part of the Chinese region, the Zhuang have been pretty connected to central China since at least the 3rd century BCE, when ancient Chinese emperors formally incorporated Southern China into their empire. Modern Zhuang people are descendants of these original Southern groups, as well as the many central Chinese administrators, soldiers, merchants, and farmers who moved into the region.

Traditionally, the Zhuang were an agricultural people who relied very heavily on rice farming, which actually originated in Southern China and later worked its way into the central provinces. This had some dramatic impacts on their culture. Living in fertile flood plains where rice grows meant that the Zhuang lived near water, and as a result they developed a characteristic style of architecture, defined by houses built on pillars. Most houses were two-storied, with the bottom holding the pillar supports and the top being the living quarters. This system is actually also a way to deal with humidity, as humid air is trapped on the ground floor leaving the upper floors cooler and drier. Likely thanks to a strong agricultural tradition, the Zhuang people also developed a native religion that mixed common Chinese practices of ancestor worship with a distinct form of nature worship that recognized spiritual powers residing within rocks, trees, and other features of the natural world. The frog actually holds a prominent place in this system, and are something like a totem, a spiritual representative and guardian of the Zhuang people.

The frog has been a long-standing symbol of the Zhuang people

The Zhuang also had their own language, which belongs to the overarching Chinese-Tibetan language family, but is distinct from Han Chinese. Many centuries ago, the language was formalized with its own set of Chinese-style characters, and later in the 20th century actually re-codified using Latin characters. For the most part, however the Zhuang language has been, and still is, written using traditional Chinese characters.

The Zhuang Today

So, what does it mean to be Zhuang today? Well, nearly all of the Zhuang people live in a specific region, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. This is a province in Southern China that is formally part of the Chinese state, but is essentially self-governed. China has several autonomous regions, each home to a different ethnic minority group, and the autonomous status does give them some greater political freedom to practice their own traditions.

The Guangxi province

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