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The Bouyei Ethnic Group

Population: 2,971,460

Major area of distribution: Guizhou

Language: Bouyei

Religion: Polytheism



Most of China's 2,971,460 Bouyei people live in several Bouyei-Miao autonomous counties in Xingyi and Anshun prefectures and Qiannan Bouyei-Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou Province. Others are distributed in counties in the Qiandongnan Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture or near Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou.


The Bouyei region is on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, which slopes from an altitude of 1,000 meters in the north to 400 meters in the south. The Miaoling Mountains stretch across the plateau, forming part of its striking landscape.


The famous Huangguoshu Falls cascade down more than 60 meters near the Yunnan-Guizhou highway in Zhenning Bouyei-Miao Autonomous County. The thunder of water can be heard several kilometers away, and mists from the falls contribute to a magnificent view.


The Bouyeis are blessed with fertile land and a mild climate. The average annual temperature is 16 degrees Centigrade, and an essentially tropical environment, receiving between 100 and 140 centimeters of rain a year, is ideal for farming. Local crops include paddy rice, wheat, maize, dry rice, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, potatoes and beans. Farmers also grow cotton, ramie, tobacco, sugar cane, tung oil, tea and oil-tea camellia as profitable cash crops.


As the Red River valley is low-lying and tropical, paddy rice yields two harvests annually. Silk, hemp, bamboo shoots and bananas complement the local economy, and coffee and cocoa have also been planted there recently.


The valley is also rich in trees, yielding a variety of timber, which is good for construction, such as pines and China firs. The remote, heavily-forested mountain and river areas provide a habitat for tigers, leopards, bears, musk deer, foxes, golden pheasants and others. Medicinal herbs are abundant in the woods, and the area is also rich in mineral resources, such as coal, iron, zinc, antimony, copper, petroleum, asbestos and mercury.


The Bouyei language is of the Zhuang-Dai branch of the Zhuang-Dong group belonging to the Chinese-Tibetan family of languages. In the past, the Bouyeis had no written language of their own, and used Han characters instead. After 1949, the government helped formulate a Bouyei writing system based on Latin letters.


This ethnic group possesses a rich folk literature, which includes fairy tales, fables, folk songs, proverbs and poems. During weddings, scores of young men and women are invited to join in antiphonal singing of a rich ethnic quality. In the Biandan Mountain area of Zhenning County, old women are invited to sing songs of blessing by firesides. They can sing day and night for up to a week without repeating the words of their ballads. Popular musical instruments of the Bouyeis include the suona horn, yueqin, dongxiao, short xiao, and sister xiao (all vertical bamboo flutes) and a copper drum. Their favorite dances include the weaving dance and the lion dance.


The Bouyeis are skilled in arts and crafts. Their colorful and beautifully-patterned batik dates far back to ancient times. In 1953, a batik factory was built in the city of Anshun with the help of the local authorities, and traditional technology was improved. Now, batik has become one of their best-selling handicrafts, popular both on domestic and foreign markets. In addition, their colorful embroidery, exquisite summer sleeping mats and bamboo hats are not only durable and attractive, but also highly artistic.


They live mostly on plains or in river valleys in villages composed of families from several different clans, in two-storied houses, bungalows or a combination of the two. Often people live on an upper floor, and keep livestock on the lower.


Young Bouyei males generally wear short buttoned jackets and long trousers, with scarves on their heads. Women wear jackets buttoned on the right (although some young women prefer lace-trimmed jackets buttoning down the middle), and long trousers or pleated skirts. They also wear scarves and a variety of silver jewelry.


They are monogamous, but young people of opposite sexes mix freely. When they go to fairs or other festivities, unmarried young men and women get together to sing songs. If a woman is attracted to a man, she will throw him a ball made of silk strips which she has embroidered herself. If the man is agreeable, they then make a date at which they will sing love songs to each other. After several dates, they may announce their engagement. Under the feudal system of the past, however, most marriages were arranged by parents.


In the past, the Bouyeis believed in spirits and worshipped ancestors, although many living near missionary outposts were converted to Christianity. In general, they observe the same festivals as the Hans. On June 6 and April 8, however, they celebrate their own festivals in commemoration of the leaders of ancient uprisings and their ancestors. On "Ox King Festival," April 8, special cakes and glutinous rice dyed in five different colors are made and offered to ancestors. After the ceremony, half of these offerings are given to their cattle, which are also granted a day of rest as a reward for their hard work.


Studies of the language, names and geographical distribution of the Bouyeis indicate that they have a common ancestry with the Zhuangs. The ancient Yue people, who were widely distributed, were composed of such ethnic groups as the Xiou and Louyue in Guangdong and Guizhou provinces and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The similarity between the modern Zhuang and Bouyei languages and the ancient Louyue tongue is a strong indication of the origin of the Bouyeis. In addition, many habits and customs of the Yues still prevail among the Bouyeis.


For several centuries before the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), both the Zhuang and Bouyei peoples were referred to as "the alien barbarians," but long separation eventually led to development of different cultures and lifestyles. After AD 900, they became recognized as separate minority groups.


(China.org.cn June 21, 2005)


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