Major area of distribution: Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Guangdong
The 709,592 Shes are scattered in Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces. They live in villages of several dozen households or live along with Hans. Most reside in hilly country 500 to 1,500 meters high. Rivers have carved out their valleys. The climate is mild and humid, the frost season brief, and the land fertile. Agricultural products abound: rice, sweet potatoes, wheat, rape, beans, tobacco and potatoes are just a few.
Timber and bamboo are important commercial commodities for the Shes; other native produce include tea, oil tea, dried and cured bamboo shoots, peanuts, ramie, mushroom, camphor and medicinal herbs. Mineral resources include coal, iron, gold, copper, alum, graphite, sulfur, talcum, mica and many other non-ferrous metals.
The She language is very close to the Hakka dialect of the Hans, and most Shes speak Chinese instead of their ethnic tongue; a few Guangdong Shes speak a language similar to the Miao.
How the Shes live
Shes like to sing. They sing in the fields as well as on special festival occasions, and every year Shes participate in several singing festivals. Shes like to sing duets, but they sing alone as well.
Women wear clothes with flowers, birds and geometric embroidery. Often they wear bright-colored sashes or bamboo hats, decorated with pearls and trimmed with white or red silk lace. Lace is also used to trim clothing.
In some areas, women wear shorts year-round. When they do so, they wrap their legs and wear colorful waist sashes and jackets with lace. They coil their hair on top of the heads and tie it with red wool thread. On her wedding day, a She bride will wear a phoenix coronet held in place by silver hairpins.
The She families are organized by "ancestral temples" together with people of the same surname or clan. Each such temple has a chief responsible for settling internal disputes, administering public affairs and presiding over sacrificial ceremonies. Within each temple are the "fangs," under which blood-related groups live together.
The basic living and production unit remains the patriarchal family, led by the eldest man. Still, She women enjoy a higher status than their Han sisters. In fact, She men often live with their wives' families and adopt their surnames.
Today, She marital customs are much like those of the Hans. But under pre-1949 feudal conditions, parent-arranged marriages were common, as were outright sales of daughters. Brides' dowries usually included farm tools, bamboo hats and rain capes. The wedding ceremony was simple. The groom would go to the home of the bride's family for a feast. Finding the table empty, he would sing out what he wanted, calling for chopsticks, wine and traditional wedding food. At the end of the banquet, he would sing again, this time ordering the dishes to be removed. The cook, in turn, would return his songs with melodies of his own. The newlyweds would say prayers to their ancestors and bid farewell to the bride's relatives. With the groom in front, they would walk to his family's home, each holding an umbrella and singing in echo. The groom's parents would welcome them at the front door, completing the wedding ceremony.
As the feudal landlord system evolved, parents and matchmakers became more important in making "correct" marriages; bride prices became exorbitant, and the poorest peasants were unable to afford marriage. Because of so many pre-arranged, loveless marriages, folk singing gatherings became a means for people to spend time with their lovers – in defiance of the feudal marriage system.
Centuries ago, Shes cremated their dead, but by the 1940s earth burial was common.
Like Hans, Shes celebrate the Spring Festival, Lantern Festival, Pure Brightness Festival (in memory of the dead), Dragon Boat-Racing Festival, Moon Festival and the Double-Ninth Festival. In addition, the third day of the third lunar month is a holiday on which no work is done. Ancestor worship is the center of another festival on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. Sacrifices are offered to the "Duobei King" in October, and people have a day off on the 19th of the second lunar month to mark the Buddha's attainment of Nirvana.
Traditionally, every clan was symbolized by a dragon-headed stick, a sign of the Shes' totemic beliefs. Moreover, Shes used to trace their ancestry to a legendary "Panhu," who helped an emperor put down a rebellion and won the love of his princess. Legend has it that Panhu and the princess had three sons and a daughter, who became the ancestors of the Shes. Shes used to worship a painting of their legendary ancestors and make sacrificial offerings to them every three years.
Until education became widespread after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Shes believed in hosts and spirits. Superstition used to hamper people's minds and production. Among the old and the uneducated, it still does.
Scholars disagree about the true origins of the Shes. Are they descendants of the ancient Yues? Do they share common ancestry with the Yaos? Most believe that the Shes' ancestors originally lived in the Phoenix Mountains in Chaozhou, Guangdong Province. They left their native place to escape the oppression of their feudal rulers. That's why they called themselves "guests from the mountains."
In their new homes, the Shes were ruled by the central government for the first time in the 7th century, when the Tang court organized prefectures in Zhangzhou and Tingzhou in Fujian Province. Feudal patterns among the Shes were well established by the Song Dynasty (960-1279). At that time, the Shes were planters of rice, tea, sugar cane and ramie.
By the 14th century, many Shes had migrated into the mountain areas in eastern Fujian, southern Zhejiang and northeastern Jiangxi. Although they worked hard alongside Hans, many were impoverished by feudal lords who seized large tracts of land. Others had to work as hired laborers, or fled to find a living. The situation improved under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Some prosperous Shes were picked to govern the rest in the interests of the Ming court.
Throughout history, the Shes struggled against exploitation and oppression imposed by their rulers. During the First Revolutionary Civil War (1924-27), She peasants in eastern Guangdong organized to fight landlords, and similar uprisings sprang up in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. Revolutionary activities exploded in eastern Fujian during the Agrarian Revolution (1927-37), and most of the She areas were under the worker-peasant democratic power. The Shes made great contributions to the Anti-Japanese struggle (1937-45) and in the struggle against the Kuomintang. Most She areas were revolutionary bases during the war for China's liberation in 1949.
(China.org.cn June 21, 2005)