You have probably heard little or nothing about the Zhuang minority (Zhuàngzú, 壮族). With their name once written as 獞 (the same character refers to a type of wild dog) and known for centuries as the Bai Yue (Bǎi Yuè, 百越) or simply "those barbarians in the south," the Zhuang are China's second largest ethnic group and the original inhabitants of the southern half of China, centered in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, but spilling out across Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangdong and Hainan.
According to many official accounts, the Zhuang were more passive than other minorities when it came to assimilation, preferring to move south and help found Tai/Thai civilization in southeast Asia instead of going to war. Other scholars argue that the Zhuang were extremely warlike and continuously fought for their lands and rights in the face of invading peoples form the north and the south.
The Zhuang did fight running battles against Han domination and against the Yao, Miao and other minorities who also gradually moved farther south to escape Han encroachment, but those battles were also split by periods of relative peace. The most peaceful and stable period for the Zhuang minority is now, post 1949, after the Communist Party helped preserve their language, customs and territory in Guangxi, in part for fierce Zhuang resistance to Japanese invaders.
History of the Zhuang Minority
The history of the Zhuang people is intertwined with the legends of other southern peoples, including the Vietnamese—both claim a relationship to the Trung Sisters who rose up briefly agains the Han Dynasty rule in the 1st century AD. The Han Dynasty referred to the Zhuang as "southern barbarians" and usually left the hinterlands (in this case western Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan) alone, instead focusing imperial strength along the coastal areas of Guangdong and eastern Guangxi.
After the fall of the Han, chaos and warfare led to massive migrations of peoples south, away from the theater of war, leading to conflict between the Zhuang and other minorities looking for a safe haven. Re-establishment of central control over the "wild" lands south of the Yangtze River did not happen until the Tang and Song dynasties.
The Tang Dynasty exerted loose control over the southern reaches, with the Zhuang allowed to live their lives alongside their Han, Dai, Bai and other neighbors with a base in eastern Guangxi. That situation ended with the arrival of the Song Dynasty.
The Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties all attempted to force assimilation of the Zhuang into the greater empire with varying degrees of success and failure. The Zhuang resented Han domination, but did not have the strength to rebel and win—similar to virtually all of the southern minorities including the Yi, Miao and others. Over time the situation solidified into a status quo in which the Han ruled the roads, cities and ports, leaving the countryside to the minorities.
The Zhuang managed to maintain a hold on their Guangxi base, despite repeated incursions from migrants and armies to the north. They relied on the difficult countryside, their own passive attitude toward assimilation coupled with periodic rebellions and the Chinese empire's preoccupations with other more dangerous neighbors to the north to do so.
Zhuang Culture and Identity
The Zhuang are not the first Chinese minority you would name if asked to, although their numbers, status and language point to an unbroken culture that is disparate but also stable.
The Zhuang have their own language. A close relative to the southeast Asian Tai languages, it reflects their heritage as a southern people and is closely related to Cantonese, Laotian and even Vietnamese, though more remotely related to their northern neighbors, the Han. The Zhuang language is recognized by the government as an official language, although many dialects and permutations exist that are often mutually unintelligible. This phenomenon is a function of Guangxi's landscape, which makes for isolated valley and mountain communities that, although closely related, developed independently for centuries.
Because of this, it is hard to distinguish what is "Zhuang" and what is basically southern Chinese. The word Zhuang is an invented title for a wide, related group of people who share linguistic ties with the Vietnamese, the Thai and to a lesser extent with Chinese and Tibetans. Even if you were to pose the question to a member of the Zhuang ethnicity, he/she might respond with a localized title or ethnicity, reflecting the fractured nature of southern China's original societies.
Huang Xian Fan (Chinese only), who lectured at Guangxi Normal University (Guǎngxī Shīfàn Dàxué, 广西师范大学), devoted his life to the study of ethnic minorities and the Zhuang in particular. His work was designed to obliterate the notion of Han superiority and instead raise minorities up to equal status with the ruling Han. He is credited with founding Zhuang studies, which has helped to keep the Zhuang way of life alive in modern times.
In his work, The Zhuang: A Longitudinal Study of Their History and Their Culture, Jeffrey Barlow refers to the Zhuang as the "Bai Yue", which assumes that all the "southern tribes" were of Zhuang origin. Barlow also characterizes the Zhuang as a fierce people who violently resisted imperial rule.
But for both Huang and Barlow, the title "Zhuang" means so much more than a particular people, apart from other southern tribes, peoples and kingdoms—Zhuang, in effect, is a way to describe the Bai Yue (southern barbarian) peoples that formed the core of Cantonese, Vietnamese and Thai civilizations. This would make a lot of the customs of the neighboring peoples in Yunnan, to the south in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and even to the east and north, essentially Zhuang customs, including:
Worshiping or paying ceremonial respect to one's ancestors, animism, tendency toward matriarchal societies, the idea of free love (i.e. freely choosing one's partner as opposed to arranged marriages) between men and women combined with a separate habitation of the sexes after marriage, singing festivals, water festivals—all the "quaint rites" that distinguish an "aboriginal land-based society" from a "modern industrialized society".
The key to Zhuang identity is not in the customs or the dress (which vary only slightly across the south), but the language. Speakers of the standardized Zhuang language are based around Nanning, Guangxi's capital, but speakers of related tongues live as far a apart as Guizhou and northern Vietnam.
China's southern and western borders have only been assimilated into the modern state for around 100 years, so the terms the central government uses to label minorities here—Dai, Bai, Miao and Zhuang to name a few—are usually over-simplifications meant to help with organization and rule. To find the true Bai Yue people, you will have to jump on a flight to Nanning and set out to experience the culture for yourself.