A hidden minority revealed

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From S. Robert Ramsey:

Zhuang women posed for a photograph

The Zhuang are China’s largest minority by far–over 18 million at last count. That being the case, why aren’t they more prominent? What has happened to this minority reveals a lot about shifts in China’s policies toward its non-Han nationalities.

In the early years of the People’s Republic, in the 1950s, China prided itself on the ethnic diversity found within its borders. China was a “Republic of many nationalities,” the new government declared. As evidence of its good faith with minorities, the Communist Party created “autonomous” regions, including one for the Zhuang in Guangxi Province even though the Zhuang only comprised 33% of the population there. There was a need to “apologize,” Zhou Enlai explained.

The Zhuang are a Tai people (closely related to the Thai of Thailand), but they had long mixed with Cantonese, and before the Communist takeover, the Kuomintang had been content to let them remain anonymous. Yes, Zhuang spoke a Tai language at home, but otherwise they were indistinguishable as a nationality. They were fluent, often native, in Chinese. Now, though, Beijing was determined to raise their ethnic consciousness. The Zhuang had hidden their identity out of fear of government suppression, Beijing claimed. Their language had been “insulted, ridiculed, and even banned by the reactionary ruling classes,” it proclaimed, but now the dignity of these people would be restored. Thus, in the first surveys of its minorities, the PRC found many millions of hidden Zhuang, almost none of whom admitted to a non-Han origin. Those with the surname Zhao claimed ancestry that stemmed from the palace retinue of the Song court. Those with the surname Wei said their lineage went back to a Han general. Yet, in spite of such attempts to conceal their identity, they were registered as Zhuang. Families and clans were brought protesting out of the Chinese closet!

Today, more than a half century later, we hear little about such issues. The PRC under Xi Jinping has effectively abandoned its image as a “Republic of many nationalities,” and instead, China is portrayed as one nation. The question is, in this new China, will the Zhuang once again be indistinguishable from Han Chinese?

VHM notes:


The Zhuang languages (/ˈwæŋˈwɒŋ/autonymVahcuengh, pre-1982: VaƅcueŋƅSawndip: 話僮, from vah, 'language' and Cuengh, 'Zhuang'; simplified Chinese壮语traditional Chinese壯語pinyinZhuàngyǔ) are any of more than a dozen Tai languages spoken by the Zhuang people of Southern China in the province of Guangxi and adjacent parts of Yunnan and Guangdong. The Zhuang languages do not form a monophyletic linguistic unit, as northern and southern Zhuang languages are more closely related to other Tai languages than to each other. Northern Zhuang languages form a dialect continuum with Northern Tai varieties across the provincial border in Guizhou, which are designated as Bouyei, whereas Southern Zhuang languages form another dialect continuum with Central Tai varieties such as NungTay and Caolan in VietnamStandard Zhuang is based on the Northern Zhuang dialect of Wuming.

The Tai languages are believed to have been originally spoken in what is now southern China, with speakers of the Southwestern Tai languages (which include ThaiLao and Shan) having emigrated in the face of Chinese expansion. Noting that both the Zhuang and Thai peoples have the same exonym for the VietnamesekɛɛuA1, from the Chinese commandery of Jiaozhi in northern Vietnam, Jerold A. Edmondson posited that the split between Zhuang and the Southwestern Tai languages happened no earlier than the founding of Jiaozhi in 112 BC. He also argues that the departure of the Thai from southern China must predate the 5th century AD, when the Tai who remained in China began to take family names.


Standard Zhuang (autonymVahcuengh (pre-1982: VaƅcueŋƅSawndip話壯); simplified Chinese壮语traditional Chinese壯語pinyinZhuàngyǔ) is the official standardized form of the Zhuang languages, which are a branch of the Northern Tai languages. Its pronunciation is based on that of the Yongbei Zhuang dialect of Shuangqiao Town in Wuming DistrictGuangxi with some influence from Fuliang, also in Wuming District, while its vocabulary is based mainly on northern dialects. The official standard covers both spoken and written Zhuang. It is the national standard of the Zhuang languages, though in Yunnan a local standard is used.


People and name

The Zhuang (/ˈwæŋˈwɒŋ/) (ChinesepinyinZhuàngzúZhuangBouxcuengh) are a Tai-speaking ethnic group who mostly live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in Southern China. Some also live in the YunnanGuangdongGuizhou and Hunan provinces. They form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. With the BuyiTayNùng and other Northern Tai speakers, they are sometimes known as the Rau or Rao people. Their population, estimated at 18 million people, makes them the largest minority in China, followed by Hui and Manchu.


The Chinese character used for the Zhuang people has changed several times. Their autonym, "Cuengh" in Standard Zhuang, was originally written with the graphic pejorative Zhuàng (or tóng, referring to a variety of wild dog).[3] Chinese characters typically combine a semantic element or radical and a phonetic element. John DeFrancis recorded Zhuàng was previously Tóng, , with "dog radical and tóng phonetic, a slur, but also describes how the People's Republic of China eventually removed it. In 1949, after the Chinese civil war, the logograph  was officially replaced with a different graphic pejorative,  (just tóng, meaning "child; boy servant"), with the "human radicalwith the same phonetic. Later, during the standardization of simplified Chinese characters, Tóng  was changed to a different character Zhuàng (meaning"strong; robust").


The closeness of Zhuang and Thai is borne out by an experience I had in a West Philadelphia Thai restaurant with my late friend, Yin Binyong, the applied linguist and language reformer, who had taught himself Zhuang and Hawaiian, among other far-flung languages.  On that occasion, I listened to Yin hold a conversation with the waitress, he speaking Zhuang and she speaking Thai.  That was a lot of fun!

Selected readings


  1. Hilário de Sousa said,

    January 29, 2022 @ 12:01 pm

    僮, when referring to Zhuang, is pronounced zhuàng in Mandarin. It was Zhou Enlai's idea to change 僮 zhuàng to 壮 zhuàng.

    For over half of the population in Guangxi, these two characters are not homophonous. While the old character is rarely seen these days, many people see the new character and pronounce it with the old pronunciation.

    (e.g.: 僮 Nanning Pinghua tʃʊŋ²², Nanning Cantonese tʃɔŋ²²; 壯 Nanning Pinghua tʃaŋ⁵⁵, Nanning Cantonese tʃɔŋ³³)

  2. jin defang said,

    January 29, 2022 @ 2:20 pm

    The Zhuang were actually a diverse group, cobbled together by the CCP when it began to seem that they couldn't make good on their promise to give each minority nationality its own language,foster its culture,and so forth. Most were quite well assimilated by 1949, it can be argued that the PRC policies pushed them toward a feeling of self-identity. Kate Palmer Kaup's book goes into some detail on this.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    January 29, 2022 @ 3:19 pm

    That was a lot of fun!

    Oh, awesome! :-)

  4. Randy J. LaPolla said,

    January 29, 2022 @ 10:08 pm

    "it can be argued that the PRC policies pushed them toward a feeling of self-identity"
    This actually happened with a number of the current ethnic groups, which were in some cases combined or split more natural groups. See the following article for discussion:
    Poa, Dory & LaPolla, Randy J. 2007. Minority languages of China. In Osahito Miyaoka and Michael E. Krauss (eds.), The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific, 337-354. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    January 30, 2022 @ 8:56 am

    It seems questionable that, given the population of China, their 'largest minority', however defined, would be only 18 million. If so it would seems to speak to remarkably successful assimilation!

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  6. David W said,

    January 31, 2022 @ 3:11 pm

    The stringed instrument that the women are playing looks like a Đàn tính, a traditional Zhuang and Vietnamese instrument.


  7. David Holm said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 10:59 pm

    David W is correct. The instrument the women are playing is indeed a Đàn tính, usually called a 天琴 'heavenly lute' in Chinese-language sources. Among the Zhuang, it is found only among a small 'local' group called the Budai, who live in Jinlongdong the northern part of Longzhou county. They are not actually the same as other Zhuang, but rather Tày people who have migrated across the border from Vietnam. For further details, see my 'The Heavenly Lute of Golden Dragon Valley: Transcending Shamanism' in Shu-li Wang et al., Heritage and Religion in East Asia (Routledge 2020).

  8. KIRINPUTRA said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 8:42 pm

    > It seems questionable that, given the population of China, their 'largest minority', however defined, would be only 18 million. If so it would seems to speak to remarkably successful assimilation!

    Ha, great comment.

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