The Shui Ethnic Minority has a population of about 350,000 (calculated in 1990), most of which dwell in the Sandu Shui People Autonomous County, Buyi and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in the southern part of Guizhou Province. The rest are scattered throughout nearby counties, such as Libo, Rongjiang, Duyun, Dushan, Majiang, Liping, Kaili, etc. The residences of the Shui People are located along the upper stream of Duliu and Longjiang Rivers in the south of the Miaoling Mountains in the Yungui (Yunnan-Guizhou) Plateau. It is named the "the land flowing with milk and honey" because its dense forests and picturesque landscapes make it suitable for agriculture and forestry. The Shui People make a living from agriculture. They mainly grow paddy rice, and produce a traditional wine called "Qiuqiansa."
The ancestors of the Shui people came from one branch of the Luoyue people and one branch of the Lingnan "Baiyue" people-- The ancient Baiyue tribes are believed to be the ancestors for a couple of Chinese ethnic groups now living in Guangdong and Guangxi, including Zhuang, Shui, Miao, Yao, Yi and Dong ethnic minorities. Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Shui people have dwelt in the upper stream of Longjiang and Duliu Rivers, which was called "Fushui Prefecture" at that time. Due to war and unbearable oppression from the rulers, some people relocated from Red River to the middle stream of the Yellow River in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.
These people eventually became the Shui Ethnic Minority during the Tang and Song (960-1279) dynasties . During the Yuan (1206-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, a large number of Han People from Huguang Province --Huguang was a province of China during the Ming Dynasty. It was partitioned in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911) to become the provinces of Hubei and Hunan-- immigrated to or guarded this area, stayed there and intermarried with Shui People. Because of their close proximity, these two groups melded together. The Chinese "shui"means "water" therefore, "Shui People" refers to people living along the waterside. The "Shui People" gained this name because they mainly dwell along the rivers and streams; their living customs, worship, and folklores, all revolve around water. In 1956, they were formally named "Shui Ethnic Minority".
The process of getting married has four stages；inquiring, offer, engagement, and getting married. The matchmaker will carry out the inquiring and offer. Once the two are satisfied with each other, they will choose one day for an "engagement ceremony".
Family conventions: Shui people have a clan based hierarchy. An elder of seniority will hold a conference to discuss family affairs concerning moral and domestic disputes. Whenever one family holds a wedding or funeral ceremony, support will be provided by other members of the clan. The clan can possess its own cemetery, mountain forest, grass, water source, fish pond and river. The labor division in the family is traditional; men work in the field while women tend to the house. Men mainly plough and harrow the field, feed the cows, horses, transport the farmyard manure, and harvest grain; women are in charge of rice seedlings, short time planting, field care and vegetable garden care. Shui people particularly pay attention to family image. Families with the same surname live together as a clan, whose members obey the clan rules.
The two main festivals of the Shui people are the Dragon Memorial Ceremony on March 3rd and the Mountain and Forest Memorial Ceremony on June the 6th and 24th. During the festivals, Shui People dance to music of the bronze drum and Chinese wind pipe and entertain guests with a 5-color meal. They enjoy drinking distilled spirit and rum.
According to the record of "Shui Letter", a year is divided into twelve months and four seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter), with the ninth lunar month as the beginning of the year，and the eighth lunar month as the end of the year. They have their own traditional festivals such as the "Duan" Festival and "Mao" Festival, with "Duan" Festival as the grandest festival, which is equivalent to the Han people's Spring Festival. Before the festivals, you can hear rataplan, the bang of the drum, all over the villages.
Shui people have their own language, which is derived from Sino-Tibetan, Zhuang-Dong language branch. They posses their own ancient writing system called "Shui Letter" with various word-formations. It's rare for a ethnic group with such a small population to posses their own writing system. With just 400 words, it's obviously not suitable for daily communication, but it can be used to record the date, orientation, and fortunetelling. They now use Chinese.
The Shui People worship a variety of gods and deities. Their prayers focus around nature, their ancestors, and totems. Evil spirits hold are highly revered and distinguished during ancestral worship. Even now, there are more than 300 named evil spirits and more than 400 that have lost their names.
The traditional houses of the Shui people are of "pile dwelling" architecture constructed from fir and pine wood and covered by fir bark or tiles. There are usually two or three stories, with fowls sheltered under the house and people living upstairs. The number of the rooms is one, three, five, or seven; it's considered taboo to have even numbers.
The elders of the Shui people usually call the younger people "Xiaomei", or little beauty, no matter their gender. When you communicate with them, you cannot use "mud brain" which has an insulting meaning-"idiot". When you are invited to a person's home you cannot cross your legs. Women and children in the family cannot eat until the guests and householders finish eating. If a bride's party encounters another on the way to their fiancés home they must detour to another path. Divorced women cannot return to their mother's village for a month after the divorce and a widow cannot go back to the ex-husband's home if they remarry.