DONG ETHNIC GROUP (Guizhou and Guangxi provinces)
The Dong are related to Thais and Lao and live primarily in the hills along the border of Hunan,Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. A 1990 census counted 2,514,000 Dong in China. They have their own language, Kam, a Sino-Tibetan tongue, and had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949. [Source: Amy Tan, National Geographic, May 2008]
According to Dong old timers the Dong began as a people who wore no clothes, who were driven to where they live now by invaders.The Gaomiao site occupied by the Dong at Qianyangg on the middle of the Yiuanjiang River was the home of a paddy rice culture that flourished 7,000 years ago. Pottery pieces found here contain images of suns, birds, flowers and trees.
The Dong grow rice, wheat, maize and sweet potatoes for consumption and cultivate cotton, tobacco, soybeans and rapeseed as cash crops. They also sell timber and other forest products.
Most Dong live among the green, rain-soaked mountains of Guizhou. One Dong saying goes” Not three feet of flat land, not three days without ran, not a family without three silver coins.”
Sources on Individual Ethnic Minorities in China: (click the ethnic group you want) Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ethnic-china.com ; Cultural China (site with nice photos) cultural-china.com ; China Travel chinatravel.com ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; OMF international (a Christian group) omf.org ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source)e56.com.cn ; Paul Noll site` paulnoll.com ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights
Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Minority Travel: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map nytimes.com ; Ethnic Groups in China (Chinese government site) chinaethnicgroups.com
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The Dong believe in spirits, ghosts and supernatural being such as the ganjin, a gremlin-like creature that has backward feet and lives in the mountains and is blamed for causing illnesses and trouble. When a child gets sick offerings of rice, chicken eggs, wine and anyu fish paste are made to ganjin to leave the sick child’s body.
Coffins are carved from trees selected for their future owners when they are born and cut down and carved when they reach old age. Amy Tan wrote that the coffins look like decorative cabinets resting on their sides.
Major feasts and festivals are held on holidays and to commemorate births, weddings and funerals and the raising of the central beam in new houses. They usually feature slaughtered pigs and ceremonies with anyu fish paste.
Dong Feng Shi Masters
Ceremonies and healing rites are often conducted by village feng shui masters, who have learned their trade from a senior family members and serve as herbalists and village doctors. Feng shui masters often receive patients in their kitchen may see a half dozen to a dozen people an hour.
Describing a feng shui master at work in the village of Dimen, Amy Tan wrote in National Geographic, “One woman reported that her grandson had developed sudden pains in the head and stomach. The herbalist burned paper and floated ash in water with rice grains. He said an incantation counted on his fingers the names of gods who might have answers—God of Kitchen, God of Bridges, God of Injury, The diagnosis came back, The boy had seen the ghost of his great-grandmother. As a remedy the woman should make the great-grandmother a feast of rice wine and anyu, then invite her to eat week before the journey to the world of Yin, the underworld.”
“Another patient woke up with a stabbing pain in her throat,” Tan wrote. “The herbalist told her she was inhabited by the ghost of a man who had been hanged. A woman whose body hurt all over was inhabited but an ancestor who was unhappy that he never had a tombstone these past 200 years.’Prepare the anyu and bow. I’ll come tonight, and the ghost will be gone.’ For a baby with diarrhea caused by drinking unboiled water he headed to a hillock, where he picked various leaves and long grasses to make a potion.
“He charged nothing for his healing services. But his grateful patients gave small gifts, an egg, some rice. He argued with one woman, who tried to give him two kwai, about 2 cents, for a rice fortune that would tell her future.” Most of the feng master’s patients are old people. A singing teacher in her 20s told Tan, “It’s superstition. It’s just old people who believe in ghosts.”
Patients that go to clinics are inevitably given IV drips for whatever is wrong, whether it be a hacking cough, a stomach ache. If that doesn’t worker they visit the feng shui master.
Dong Marriage and Families
Dong picking tea Young male and female Dong tribes are permitted to enjoy a "golden period of life" in which premarital sex is allowed and even encouraged. After a woman gets married she continues to live with her parents and only visits her husband on special occasions. She doesn’t live with her husband full time until their first child is born. Each birth is celebrated with the planting of an “18-year tree,” with the idea that tree will be ready to harvest for timber to build a house when the child reaches marriageable age.
Dong marriage proposals are delivered in the mail. The answer is delivered in a rice ball. If yes, there is a flower in the middle. If no there are hot chilies.
Much of the child rearing is done by elderly women called za. They raise their grandchildren from birth and carry them on their backs all day while they do chores and their own children are working. Lessons about manners, chores and evil things like greed and laziness are conveyed with songs.
Baby parties for infants about 20 days old are often bigger events than weddings, with 500 people or more showing up, some coming from considerable distances away.
Za rule the roost and do many of the day to day chores, much of it done bending over, sometimes with a grandchild strapped to their back. When Tan asked one woman if her back hurt she said, “It never stops hurting because the work never stops.” Even so these women can carry huge loads of firewood and tramp quickly up mountain trails.
Cooking and heat are largely provided by wood that is collected in forests around the villages. Hair is washed with sour soup. Many elderly men wear Mao-style hats, play cards and smoke pipes.
Food and eating are popular conversation topics. People often call out from open door and windows for family members to come in for dinner or breakfast. Dong food is notoriously hot and spicy thanks to huajiao, a fiery berry from a prickly bush that is added to all kinds of things.
Fish are raised ponds and rice paddies. Many of them are caught and made into anyu, a spicy, fermented paste flavored with five seasonings including huajiao. Anyu is served at almost every meal and is a part of every major ceremony—births, wedding and funerals.
Dong Villages and Clothes
A typical village is made of 500 households divided into five clans overseen by a council of elders with 11 members.
Houses lie along flagstone paths. Roads often have deep ruts when the weather is dry and deep mud when it is rains. In the center of town is a large courtyard or square where rice is laid to dry in the fall, pigs are slaughtered during festivals and men play cards and children play. The village school often is located nearby.
Men and women wear a long sarongs. Traditional hats are adorned with silver. Many elderly women wear turbans or wraps made f cloth they weave and dye themselves or Vietnamese-style conical hats when they are working to protect their skin from the sun.
The Dong sing lively and cheerful songs and are famous for the hand-in-hand circle dance. Dong women produced have fine brocades for more than a thousand years. According to legend birds brought corn seed to the Dong.
It has been said that you can walk up to any Dong and ask them to a sing a song and they will willingly oblige on the spot without hesitation or reservations. In the absence of a written language, songs have been vital to passing down culture, history and traditions that are over a thousand years old. The history of a typical village is kept alive in an epic song with a hundred or more verses that are sung for hours with a “bluesy, repetitive melody.” Sometimes only a single person, an elderly woman, knows all the verses. When asked about the epic songs, a pair of teenage Dong girls told Tan,“That old song is boring. We’re too busy to learn something we don’t like.”
The Dong have special welcome songs about keeping out invaders, festival songs about feckless lovers and hymns about growing old. They also sing Communist favorites like the The East Is Red.
Amy Tan wrote in National Geographic, “In Dimen people sing nearly every day. In classrooms students sit with perfect posture at their desks. They repeat in perfect a capella pitch what their teacher has just sung. On weekends a troupe of older girls dressed in jeans and pink tops stand before the Singing Teacher and practice fast-paced songs, each taking a solo. Two gravelly voiced elderly women respectfully called za by all, guide the younger children in reciting simpler chorals.”
San Yue San is three day festival celebrated on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (usually late March, Early April) by the Li, Zhuang, Dong, Miao, Yao, She, Mulao and Geleo minorities in China's southern and central provinces. Sometimes called Venus Day, it is a time when boyfriends and girlfriends are chosen and villages celebrate the occasion with singing, dancing, archery, wrestling, playing on swings, tug of wars, pole climbing and other activities.
The Dong and Miao celebrate the first day of the festival by eating and drinking milky white wine. On the second day girls give baskets of shrimp and fish to the boys they fancy. On the third day everyone meets in the town square to participate in "drum treading" and "reed-pipe" dances.
On the night of the third day girls dress up in their most beautiful tribal costumes and go upstairs in their bamboo houses to sing to the boys who are waiting downstairs. Boys then follow the girls to the gate of the bamboo houses and sing their reply.
All of the minorities perform the Money Bell and Double Daggers Dance. In this dance one man holds two daggers in his hand. Another man holds a money bell. The man with the daggers tries to stab the man with the money bell, who in turn tries to run away.
Dong Rocket Festival
The Dong Rocket Festival is celebrated during the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month in late March or early April by the Dong people. The "rocket" is a tea-cup-size iron ring—decorated with colorful silk threads symbolizing happiness—tied to an iron gun that launches the "rocket" into the sky about 30 meters.
Members of village teams, with 10 to 20 players, try to snatch the rocket and take it to a rostrum. The teams should have the same number of players. Sometimes two teams compete against one another. Other times three or more teams compete. Pushing , grabbing, blocking, passing the rocket and interception are all allowed. But hitting, kicking and using weapons is not allowed.
When the rocket is fired in a cloud of choking smoke, the players dash to where they think it might fall. All hell breaks loose. Eventually somebody emerges with the rocket and runs over to the rostrum. The winners of the two out of three series are awarded red stained eggs and glutinous rice cakes. Other activities at this event include Dong operas, bird competitions, shooting games and antiphonal singing.
The Dong tend to live in two-story wooden houses with railings and people living in the top, and animals in the bottom, in small villages with 20 or 30 households. These villages have traditionally been surrounded by stockades.
Dong are famous for their distinctive drum towers and wind and rain covered bridges. The drum towers can be up to 13 stories high. Meetings and celebrations are held there and clan affairs were discussed and decided upon
Dong villages are usually set beside a river with a covered bridge being the focal point of the village. It is customary to hold large banquets inside them. The rain bridges have stone arches and are covered with tile roofs. They have to logs piled on one another in such as way that act like a spring to absorb the shock of people and animals walking across them.
Traditional houses are made of wood and usually have two or three stories sitting under an upswept roof made up mud-clay tiles. Construction involves setting beams in posts, placing planks across the beams, and notching and tying them together so nails are not needed. Grain sheds sit on stilts above pens with pigs and ponds for ducks. Many families would prefer to use brick of stone to make their homes as they are warmer and easier to maintain but are encouraged to use wood and traditional construction methods by government subsidies.
Covered bridges are known as “flower bridges” and “wind-rain bridges.” They have benches running along both sides and characteristics that make them distinctive from one another and include features covered in the bridge’s name. The bridges are made of stone, tile and wood and serve as places to escape the rain, socialize, play and do chores when the weather is bad.
The covered bridges are often used to connect parts of a villages occupied by different clans and often look improbably decorative for the simple villages they are found in. Describing one in Dimen, Amy Tan wrote in National Geographic, “The bridge was as formidable as a dragon, with a scaley roof for its body and cupolas for its head and spine.”
Drum towers are five-story pagodas serve as places where village leaders meet, announce news and address grievances.
Fires and the Dong
Fires are big problem in Dong villages. The village that Tan visited suffered a devastating fire in 2006 that destroyed more than 60 homes and a drum tower and damaged 44 more homes. The fire began when an old man dropped his quilt on burning charcoal in a copper basin that kept him warm and was pushed to other buildings by strong winds. People were forced to flee with nothing but the the clothes on their backs to the nearest wind-rain bridge. Efforts to fight the fire were futile as broken pump prevented water from entering the fire hoses. The only thing that saves the rest of the village was tearing down houses to make fire breaks. Rebuilding costs were estimated at be between $2,500 and $5,000 per person.
Such fire occur in Dong villages at a rate of about one every 30 years and their cause is often an old man and a charcoal burner. All the villagers, and some from other villages pitched in to help build new homes for those that lost theirs. Some people slept in their homes while they were being constructed. By winter everyone had a roof over their head.
Dong tower The elderly man who started the fire was only one who died. His son was blamed for starting the fire because he left his father alone while he went out drinking with out-of-town relatives. The son had a bad reputation anyway. He had been accused of quarreling with and beating his father, once beating him in front of the Drum Tower during the Spring Festival. The son’s behavior was blamed for putting a curse on the town as well as starting the fire.
The son’s punishment: according to the Dong code of conduct he was banished from the village for three or four for years, He could come no closer than three li (about a mile) to the village and had to pay 10,000 yuan for a ceremony to the God of Land to lift the curse and provide a chicken dinner for the entire village. The son and his family moved into a cow shed near one of his higher fields, their shame expected to last for generations. The son’s two brothers and his son fled the village to escape the punishment and shame.
The ghost of the old man who died was not happy. Villagers said they heard him crying and rustling around. Even villagers who said they didn’t believe in ghosts were scared. Neighbors said they saw the son place the old man’s torso—all that was left him after the fire—into a rice sack and carry it into the mountains, returning empty-handed. Even worse the son never cut down the father’s coffin tree and made it into a coffin. For this the spirit of the old man would have to be placated with a special ceremony or he might inflict more pain and punishment on the village.
Many people thought the fire was an accident or blamed it on the old man’s son. Some however blamed it on malevolent forces, citing over strange happenings such roosters crowing before midnight and a pig falling off a cliff for no reason. In addition, there had been an unusual number of strange illnesses and deaths, including that of a man who died in a typhoon. In 1979, similar unexplained things began occurred such as chickens laying eggs with double yokes were coupled with poor crop yields and all this was blamed on a family who buried their ancestors in places with less than optimal feng shui, depriving the village of positive forces. The villages elders ordered the burial removed. After that 11 members of the guilty family died. This same illegal burial was blamed for the devastating fire and is was decided something had to done.
Dong Fire Ritual
A divination ritual called Guo In—“Pass into the World Yin”—that was held in 1979 was conducted again to restore harmony after the fire. Describing it Tan wrote in National Geographic, “In the dim light of an assembly hall, 11 blindfolded men sat on black benches. The Chief Feng Shu Master called out incantations from the Book of Shadows. As fragrant rattan burned under the benches, an assistant gave the men a rope of twisted straw to hold. More incantations were murmured, two bells rang, bowls of wine were stirred, and the 11 men slapped their bouncing knees, as if goading a horse to move forward.”
“Soon they were galloping in a frenzy, and the oldest of them, a 73-year-old man, whining like a spooked horse, shot up , and leaped backward onto the bench,” Tan wrote. “He had mounted a ghost horse and was racing toward the World of Yin. Assistants kept the frenzied rider from falling. Soon more riders mounted their ghost horses. The Chief Feng Shui Master sprayed water from his mouth to light the way. With more incantations he ghost-horse riders could go to deeper levels. At each level they could see more.”
“In 1979 the riders had gone to the 19th level, where they saw their dead mother and fathers. Stay with us, their parents urged. If the Feng Shui Master provided the wrong incantation, the riders would not return. This time, the master would take them no further than the 13th level. It was still possible for them to find the illegal burials. At that level they could also see the backs of maidens, the Seven Sisters, as beautiful fairies. Chase them, the Chief Feng Shui Master said, to urge them to go farther into the underworld.”
The riders discovered where the illegal burial that was located. It lie in a wall at the top of a hill. After the ceremony participants climbed the hill and found a ball, filled with ashes, imbedded in the wall in such a way that ball received good feng shui but disrupted the feng shui of other graves in the area. Feng shui masters surmised the ball had place there by people from another village. They broke it open, removing the ashes and mixing them with rice wine, human and pig feces and tung oil and threw the mixture down a public latrine.
Floods and the Dong
In June 2007, the same village was hit by devastating heavy rains and floods Tan wrote: “A small amount of flooding was not unusual in summer...But this rain did not stop. People could hear its splattering on their roofs all night long. The Chief Village Elder, who lived in the flat valley, saw the river rising but was not concerned at first. He went to the mountains at 5:00am to feed his horse. When he returned the river had spilled over its ten-foot-high banks. His family was gone, they had already carried the he television and their valuables to the top floor. The neighbors were in the midst of securing coffins and sacred pigs. He watched from the closest bridge.”
“On the other side of the bridge, water rushed into the ground levels homes, “ Tan wrote. “A frightened young woman strapped her baby to her back and she and her in-laws took what they could to the upper level. Other belongings floated away; buckets and stools, pails of anyu and bamboo holsters for scythes. One neighbor’s front door ripped off and became a raft. The narrow road was now part of the river, a dark channel of mud, rocks, debris and logs. Waves slapped on the sides of the shortest bridge, and water gushed through rail slats and covered the benches. It looked like a boat about to leave it mooring. Submerged fields broadened the river, and hundreds of carp rushed downstream. Some landed in fields. People stood on bridge trying to net the rest.
“At 9 a.m. the rain subsided. At 11 a.m. the water began to recede....According to the chief it was the worst flood in 80 to 100 years. Fields were lost. Homes were damaged, roads were washed out, but luckily no one was killed.” The devastation was widespread. All of Guizhou and Hunan Provinces had been affected. Many wondered if the illegal grave curse was still active. Were more illegal burials to be found? A certain sense of releif was achived when the Feng Shui Master announced that the floods were “a natural disaster, not a supernatural one.”
Modern Life and the Dong
These days many villagers have televisions and most have cell phones. The first cell phones showed up in the early 2000s. By the late 2000s everybody had them. Family members call other family members working in the fields and tell them things like fetch extra firewood or look in forest for mushrooms. Young men who live out of town send text messages to their sweethearts stuck at home.
The village elder council is made up of men over 60. They oversea social welfare and maintain civil order using the Dong code of conduct and their own common sense and reason. These days they decide things like how to set up a large satellite dish that everyone can hook up to rather than getting a bunch of individual dishes.
Dong Economic Life
Most villages are made up of rice farmers who earn less than $100 a year. During the day there are always people working in the fields: harvesting, planting, plowing or tending vegetables grown in the off season.
Fish are raised in the rice paddies In the spring carp fingerlings are released into the field during planting, At harvest time the paddies are drained before the harvest by punching holes in the walls that separate them. As the water flows out hundred of hand-size fish are left flopping in the muddy bottom and they are collected. As fish grow they help the rice by eating weeds, algae and pests such as snails and mosquito larvae and get fattened up eating masses of moths that drown in the paddies during the mating season.
Many young adults have gone off to the cities seeking jobs and opportunities, leaving behind children to be raised by grandparents. It is not unusual for half the village residents—and nearly all the young adults—to live outside the village, often earning $200 a month compared to the $200 a year they would earn in their village.
Many rice fields are in terraces situated on the flanks of hills and mountains.
Women, many of them elderly, do the majority of the daily farming chores. Sometimes they walk several kilometers on steep paths to get to the fields that they work.
Image Sources: Wiki Commons
Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010