Of the fifty-five minority nationality groups recognized by the government of the People’s Republic of China, the Zhuang are the most numerous with a nationwide population of nearly 17 million at the time of the 2010 national census. Within Yunnan Province, the Zhuang are the fifth most numerous minority nationality, with a population of 1.2 million in 2010, one of six minority nationalities in Yunnan with more than one million members. Historically, the ethnolinguistic identities now grouped within the Zhuang nationality had different dialects, cultures and ethnonyms, though all their languages and dialects are now classified by linguists within the Tai-Kadai (also known as Zhuang-Dong or Kam-Tai) language group.

Within Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (hereafter: Wenshan Prefecture) around two-thirds of the Zhuang nationality people speak Southern Zhuang dialects, known to linguists as belonging to the Central Taic branch of the Tai-Kadai group. The largest of these is the Nong Zhuang dialect, also known as the Yan-Guang sub-dialect of Southern Zhuang.

In terms of worldview and religion, most Zhuang cultures are oriented around Animistic Polytheism and ancestor worship, that is, focused on the appeasement of the spirits of natural bodies and deceased ancestors. Zhuang culture emphasizes harmonious interpersonal, social and environmental relations, with traditions focused on maintaining good relations between people and deities. The Zhuang traditional “Mo” religion worships gods of natural elements, ancestral gods and heroes. Taboos, animal sacrifices, and fortune-telling are important parts of the Zhuang people’s traditional religious system.

The Zhuang historically have been dependent upon rizi-culture and animal husbandry, specifically relying upon the labor of the water buffalo and the meat of pigs, chickens, ducks, and, in some areas, goats. The Zhuang of Wenshan Prefecture are usually concentrated in relatively small villages located near rivers and streams in close proximity to their rice paddies (naz in Zhuang), built in the valley bottoms and lower slopes, dry fields (raeh in Zhuang), located higher up on the mountain ranges, where the soil is drier and irrigation is not possible. Proximity to the forest (ndoang in Zhuang) is essential as well, as the traditional Zhuang lifestyle depends upon many forest products, not least of which is lumber for construction and firewood for cooking, as well as many forest ferns, mushrooms, spices, and other wild products.

The village, the rice paddies, the dry fields, and the forest make up the spheres of traditional Zhuang life, together with the market day—the main social gathering in the Zhuang week—traditionally organized twice in the Zhuang twelve day week. In addition to the regular market day, weddings, holidays, funerals and naming ceremonies are other occasions for interaction among members of the extended clan and among different villages. These realms of Zhuang life—paddies, fields, forests, villages, markets, weddings, festivals, funerals—are the settings for the Zhuang folktales and were once the entirety of the Zhuang universe.

In modern China, the Zhuang live in frequent contact with members of other Chinese groups, most importantly the Han Chinese, but also, within Wenshan Prefecture, are often in contact with members of the Yi, Miao, Yao and Hui nationality groups. Even in the most remote villages, Zhuang life is rapidly changing, impacted by nation’s transition to a market economy. The introduction of electricity, motorized vehicles, formal widespread elementary education, government and police presence, certain cash crops such as tobacco, wage labor opportunities in near and distant cities are significantly affecting the Zhuang traditional way of life.

The Romanized transcription of the Nong Zhuang makes use of the Zhuang orthography approved by the national government of China. Spellings of Nong Zhuang dialect words are according to the two volume primer entitled Sw Doakgoanq Nenhjih Daih’aet Doag approved by the Yunnan Province Middle and Elementary School Curriculum Approval Committee (published by the Yunnan Nationalities Press in 2006.) The Zhuang transcription and the International Phonetic Alphabet phonemic transcriptions provided in this dictionary are based upon the Nong dialect or “Yan-Guang Vernacular” of the Southern Zhuang language. The phonemes we are here representing with /c/ and /cʰ/ are often pronounced as [tɕ] and tɕʰ], respectively. Although the pronunciations [tʂ] and [tʂʰ] may occur, in the Nong dialect of Southern Zhuang, there is not a phonemic contrast between retroflex and palatal (or alveo-palatal) consonants. So we here use the IPA /c/ and /cʰ/ to represent the palatal stop (or alveo-palatal affricate), as William Gedney did in his transcriptions of “Western Nung,” Gedney’s term for the Yan-Guang Southern Zhuang (Nong Zhuang) of Maguan County, Yunnan Province. The phonemes here represented by /s/ and /ð/ are often pronounced as [s] and [ʑ], respectively, by certain speakers or in certain contexts. Likewise the palatal-nasal phoneme here represented with /ɲ/ may be pronounced as [ȵ], the oral fricative /h/ may be pronounced as [x], and the mid-central or back-unrounded vowel phoneme /ɤ/ maybe pronounced as [ə]. The phonemic contrast between /o/ and /ɔ/ often, though not always, reflects an historic phonemic vowel-length contrast (/oː/ and /o/), so it is possible that there remain some Nong dialect areas that still maintain this vowel length contrast and do not have the /ɔ/ phoneme. But because we are analyzing the language synchronically rather than from an exclusively diachronic perspective and spelling according to the spelling scheme of Sw Doakgoanq Nenhjih Daih’aet Doag we will use the representation{o} for /o/ and {oa} for /ɔ/, and not use the spelling {oe}.

This lexicon is a work we began informally back in 2005 as my wife and first began to study the Nong Zhuang language and culture and have continued on and off since then, with invaluable input from many Nong Zhuang speakers. We are grateful to the Zhuang Studies Association of Wenshan Prefecture, Wenshan University, and the Education Department of Guangnan County for partnership on various projects and to Mr. Wang Mingfu, Mr. Huang Changli, Mr. Wang Qingze, Mr. Zhang Tinghui, Mr. He Jingdao, Mr. Ma Huaizhong and too many other Zhuang friends to count for their patience and insights. All mistakes are our own, and we are grateful for corrections and suggestions.

Eric C. Johnson

Wenshan, 2018