DONG CULTURE AND ART
Dong women have produced have fine brocades for more than a thousand years. Songs and dances are important aspects of Dong community life. Dong sing lively and cheerful songs and are famous for the hand-in-hand circle dance in which boys and girls holding hands in a circle sing while dancing. Musician-dancers blows lüshen (reed-pipe wind instruments) while going through various dance movements. The Lion Dance and the Dragon Dance are performed on the Spring Festival. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]
Dong crafts include embroidery, cross-stitching, rattan artifacts, bamboo articles, silver ornaments, brocade, and Dong garments. The Miao and Dong people are well-known for using ox-horns in their carvings and their embroidery. Commonly-used embroidery and sewing techniques include cross stitching, braid couching embroidery, simple couching embroidery, and overlap embroidery.
Wrestling is a favorite sport among the youth, while top tops is a popular game with children. Some movies have been dubbed into the Dong language. Recreation for young people revolves around dating and singing.. Singing is one of the favorite pastimes in Dong areas. Singers take much pleasure in performing. It is said the elders teach songs, the youth sing songs, and the children learn songs. ++
Websites and Sources: Book Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China ethnic-china.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China Books: Ethnic Groups in China, Du Roufu and Vincent F. Yip, Science Press, Beijing, 1993; An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, Olson, James, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998; “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984
The Dong area has been called the “land of poems and sea of songs." Many popular legends and poems, covering a wide spectrum of themes, have been handed down by the Dongs from generation to generation. While their song lyrics are often very enthusiastic, their narrative poems are subtle and indirect, allusive and profound. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “The rhyme scheme of their poems is rather loose. The Dong Song is a chanted rhymed poem, marked by an abundance of striking metaphors. The content includes themes of creation, flood, the origin of human beings, the migration of the Dong, customary law, as well as the exploits and the loves of heroes. Chinese stories also appear in Dong songs and plays. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]
Dong tower “The rich mythology of Dong has been transmitted orally from one generation to the next without written records. An epic described the achievements of the Goddess Sasui and her offspring including the creation, the flood, and the marriage of the brother and sister. This myth of origins is common (with many variants) to many national minorities of southwest China. According to one legend birds brought corn seed to the Dong. ++
“Another story described four tortoises incubating four eggs. Three eggs went bad. Only one egg hatched a boy. They tried again. This time, also only one egg hatched, giving birth to a girl. The offspring married and gave birth to twelve sons and daughters. Among them were a brother, Jiangliang, and his sister, Jiangmei, who were naughty. The boy cut a tree with a saw, leading to a fire that hurt the Thunder Goddess. She got angry, so it rained continuously for nine months. Fortunately, Jiangliang and Jiangmei hid in a huge melon when the flood came. The Thunder Goddess raised twelve suns to dry up the flood, but they scorched the earth and the trees. Helped by bees, Jiangliang and Jiangmei shot down ten suns out of twelve. They left one sun for the daytime and the other for the night. An eagle tried to persuade them to marry. They rolled two millstones from the mountain top, which laid one on top of the other, a Heaven-given sign that they should marry. They married and their progeny formed various peoples, including the Han, Miao, Yao, and Dong. ++
The Dong have traditionally worn clothes made with home-woven and home-dyed Dong cloth: short jackets, trousers and big headbands for the male; and short jackets, trousers or skirt with lots of ornaments for the females. Finer cloth and silks are used for decoration or for making festival costumes. Many rural Dong still like to use self-made yarn to dye and knit their own clothes, which are typically dark navy, purple, white or blue. s.Machine-woven cloth printed black and purple or blue is becoming more popular.
Men and women wear a long sarongs. Traditional hats are adorned with silver. Many elderly women wear turbans or wraps made of cloth they weave and dye themselves or Vietnamese-style conical hats when they are working to protect their skin from the sun. Men usually wear Western-style clothes or cotton shirts and pants and short jackets with front buttons. In the mountainous localities in the south, they wear collarless skirts and turbans. Dong living in urban areas usually wear the same clothes as Chinese.
Women's clothes vary somewhat from place to place but most wear nicely trimmed short tops and multi-pleated skirts. Many use dark navy cotton fabric to wrap their legs from knee to ankle and wear sandals. In some places women wear trousers with beautifully embroidered hems. Women wrap their heads in scarves. They usually comb their hair into a bun with colorful flowers or coil their hair. Some women like to use a floral cotton patch to cover their shoulders. Others wear long shirts going down to the knee and loose pants. Their sleeve openings and the cuffs of pants are all piped and lace-trimmed. They even make dragon and phoenix embroidery on their clothes.
Dong Silver Ornaments
The Dong are very fond of silver ornaments: necklaces, chains, bracelets, earrings and especially their crown-like headdresses worn by Dong women. Some sew large pure silver buttons on their costumes for decoration. It is believed that the more ornaments a female wears, the more beautiful and noble she is. [Source: China.org]
The weight of the ornaments a girl wears ranges from a few dozen grams to a few kilograms. There is a popular folk song in the Dong villages: "A peacock is even more beautiful when it has spread open its tail, so a Dong girl is more beautiful when wearing silver ornaments, as flowers are added to flowers." A with only a few silver ornaments regards herself as not so beautiful, and her parents consider her to be lower of status than other girls. So the parents try whatever they can, even scrimping on their daily food and other necessities, to buy as many silver ornaments for their girls as they can afford. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
Dong women in Tongdao, Sanjiang and Longsheng all wear silver earrings, rings, bracelets, necklaces and silver combs in their daily life. For big events like festivals and weddings, they cover themselves with silver from head to toe: silver flowers in the hair, layers of broad silver rings dangling before their breasts, layers of silver necklaces around their necks, silver armguards and bracelets around the wrists, silver rings around their fingers, and pairs of silver earrings hanging from the ears. It is not unusual for all the silver ornaments together to weigh 3 to 3.5 kilograms. ~
The Dong girls in Congjiang and Gaozeng are regarded as the most gorgeous and beautiful of all Dong girls. They are also known for the copious amounts of silver ornaments they wear. Girls from these areas usually wear long hair in two braids, coiled respectively on their heads, fixed with a wooden comb or silver clasp full of elegant and graceful patterns. The clasps are generally 17 to 20 centimeters long with a rounded end with a flower design and a pointed end that is inserted in the hair bob. Engraved images and decorations include various kinds of silver flowers, dancing phoenixes and coiled dragons. Sometimes the clasps fit on the head like a crown. On the top of the crown, there is often a beautiful silver cock with a long tail. When the girls walks, the cock quivers and shines. ~
Even young Dong children are dressed up with silver ornaments, of which the silver cap is the most exquisite. These are typically decorated with images as the 18 arhats (Buddhist gods), the eight gods crossing the sea (Taoist Gods) and gods of good fortune, good salary, longevity and happiness. Variations of this include the children's dog-head cap, fish-tail cap, tiger-head cap, lion-head cap or windproof cap. Some silver caps are decorated in a particularly creative and distinctive way: on the edge of the cap are the 18 arhats on the upper line. Beneath them 18 are orderly arranged plum flowers, which means "the 18 arhats are protecting the child from any demon or ghost." At the front, between two silver moons, are the patterns of a phoenix flying to the sun, two dragons running for a jewel, Wu Gang (a legend hero) chopping a tree on the moon, or Chang E (a legend fairy) flying to the moon. Around these patterns are colorful clouds and water waves. A pair of lions sit at the bottom.
The Dong not only love wearing silver ornaments, they love giving them as precious gifts. When young people fall in love, silver ornaments are usually given to each other as tokens of love. There is a Dong saying often found in songs that goes: "The girl loves to give silver ornaments to her lover and tell him what is in her heart. The silver ornaments are worn on her lover, and they two will love each other for good." When a Dong young man meets a girl for the first time, and if the young man wants to propose ("begging for a belt" in Dong) and the girl is willing to accept it, she will give him one of the ornaments she wears, to show her acceptance. To seal an engagement, the future groom’s family presents precious silver ornaments as gifts to the future bride’s family.
Dying, Weaving and Crafting Dong Cloth
About 4 million Dong live in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou. They are famous for their lustrous traditional cloth. According to Chinese Pictorial: A common sight in the Dong villages of Congjiang County are the deep indigo blue cloths, woven and dyed by Dong women, hanging to dry. The women have long been renowned for their skills in weaving and dyeing. Not too long ago, the Dong wore only clothes and accessories made of Dong cloth. According to historical records, Dong cloth dates back to the reign of Emperor Hongzhi (1486-1505) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and their style of brocade became well-known during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Poems of that period reference the cloth, praising it for its delicacy, and the finished material was often carried to the royal palace as tribute. [Source: China Pictorial, June 10, 2009]
“The process of creating the cloth is painstaking and exacting. The raw cotton is harvested from Dong farmland, cleaned, and woven into cloth. The Dong women mix indigo plants with lime water to make dyestuff. The cloth is dyed, then washed. After the cloth dries, it is again dyed and washed. This process may be repeated three or four times before the color is deemed to be perfect. Then persimmon peels and chestnut shells are pounded into liquid and Ardisia crenata is added to the juice, again the cloth is dyed, and a deep blue with radiant rosy accents is achieved. After again drying, the cloth will be folded, coated with egg white and intermittently beaten with a mallet over the course of two weeks until the cloth shines. The final step is to starch the cloth with glue made from cattle skin so that the fabric is made durable and the color made fade-resistant. The brightness of the cloth will vary, depending upon the duration of crafting and beating. The more it shines, the more precious the cloth is deemed to be.
“Weaving is a serious process for Dong women. They have restrictions on speech during the weaving. For instance, they cannot use terms such as ‘broken' and ‘disorder', which they believe may cause the weaving to fail. Dong people respect the dyeing barrel, and never place any impure materials inside, otherwise, they believe, the cloth will not be successfully dyed. In this region, the 19th day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar is considered to be the anniversary of the Queen Mother of the West's death. On that day, the Dong hold, the Queen Mother of the West will come down to Earth and carry out evil deeds. To prevent the Queen Mother of the West from tampering with their dyeing barrels, pumpkin vines are tied about the vessels. Later, they choose a good day to begin their dyeing work, and that work will continue until the last lunar month of the year.
“Dong women tailor the cloth in particular ways. Crafting a Dong girl's skirt, with its accordion pleats, is especially time consuming. From the weaving of the cloth to completing the dress requires almost six months and dozens of procedures. Today, due to the complicated and arduous process, Dong girls are not so inclined to make their own clothes. Many girls have completely dropped the practice, and wear casual clothes purchased downtown. Only at grand festivals will they dress up in Dong ethnic clothes made by their female elders. It is also a common practice to boil the dress in pots with sweet potato chips to make the clothes softer and of a brighter red.
Dong women often do farmland in the daytime and do their housework at night. In the farming off season, they spin, weave and fashion clothing. It takes them about six months and dozens of procedures to transform cotton into finished garments. So Dong clothing is considered to be very precious; to be worn on special occasions, and to be given to honored guests as gifts.
Dong Music and Dance
The Pipa Song is a good example of the Dong musical tradition. The pipa is a plucked string instrument with a fretted fingerboard. The song is accompanied by the instrument. Dong opera developed in the last century from a kind of popular entertainment consisting of talking and thinking. The movements are simple, but the music and the vocalizations are quite complex. The actors wear traditional Dong clothes but refrain from using facial makeup. Songs are accompanied by huqin (a two-stringed bowed instrument). ++
The Dong Lusheng dance, also known as ‘Cai Tang’ and ‘Cai Sheng Tang’ was said to have originated from the ceremonies before the spring ploughing, to pray for favorable weather and a bumper harvest of all grains. It was also an ancestral memorial celebration. Nowadays it has become the main recreational activity of the Dong people. It is featured once every two years at the the Lusheng Fair. Male Dong people wear Lusheng costume when they play Lusheng (musical instrument) and dance in the festival. The decorated motifs may be related to the snake totem worship of the Baiyue people, the ancestors of Dong nationality. [Source: Shanghai Museum]
Mu Qian wrote in the China Daily, “Music has a special place in the Dong people's lives. Without a traditional written language of their own, the Dong people have recorded much of their history and culture in their songs. The "big song" (da ge in Chinese, ga lao in Dong language) of the Dong people was one of the most special forms of folk music that I have ever heard. It is a kind of a cappella in different parts, sung by a group of singers in bright voices that have been shaped by the unique environment of the area.[Source: Mu Qianm China Daily, September 6, 2007]
In 1986, a Dong chorus gave performances at the famous Sharles Palace Theatre in Paris during an arts festival. The chorus consisted of nine girls from the Dong country of Southeast Qian Autonomous Prefecture of Miao and Dong Ethnic Minority Groups in Guizhou Province. They sang an elegant but simple Dong grand song. The President of the Art Festival—a former culture minister of France— praised the Dong song as "music shining as the clean fountain, which is quite rare in the world." In 1988, the same chorus was played at the World Folk Art and Culture Conference, in which 90 countries took part, and performed in 40 cities in Italy and seven other West European countries.
Every Dong Can Sing
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.”
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.”
The Dong are good at singing and dancing and dong songs are known for their rhymes, graceful melodies and beautiful lyrics with profound meaning. Dong villages have the reputation of being "a hometown of poetry and an ocean of songs." The Dong poetry has strict rhythm and a wide range of themes and can easily be adapted to songs. The essence of their traditional culture is Dongzu Dage (great songs), with multiple voice parts and no instrumental accompaniment. These are valued both as literature and music. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]
Types of Dong Songs
Dong songs are divided into many categories according to content and situation. 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”. There are etiquette-and-custom songs, hall-treading songs, wine songs, and love songs. Way-blocking songs, hall-treading songs and wine songs are free in rhythm, frank and hearty in singing. Sometimes they are passionate and powerful; other times they are light and gentle.
1) Etiquette-and-custom songs, like way-breaking songs and way-blocking songs, are usually sung in public. The generally led by a solo singer, accompanied by a female chorus single double tones. Lyrics can be traditional or improvised. 2) Hall-treading songs—such as hall-entering songs, Sasui songs, amusing songs, parent songs, elopement songs — are mainly sung at festivals. At festivals and feasts, the host and the guests often sing wine songs antiphonally. First is an opening song sung in a question-and-answer manner; then girls sing toast songs. In the middle of the dinner, the two groups ask and answer in songs, and those who cannot answer have to take a drink. After the dinner, guests sing thanks songs. 3) Love songs are mostly sung by young single men and women. When young people gather in the "moon hall" or work on the hillsides, they sing love songs to exchange feelings and get to know each other. Love songs are rich in content, free in rhythm, and bold and unstrained in the expression of sensations. These songs are often short, sweet, harmonious, graceful and melodious.
4) Grand songs, known as "Galao" in the Dong language, are perhaps most representative and characteristic of Dong songs. Public chorus songs, they are associated most with Dong people from Liping, Rongjiang, Congjiang of Guizhou Province and Sanjiang in Guangxi Province. Grand songs come in various types, mainly: A) the narrative style, with story plots and dialogues; B) the lyric style, mainly about love between the young men and women; C) the morality style, mainly about religious and morality expostulations; and D) the vocal style, mainly showing off the beauty of musical melody and the voices of the singers. There are and also the etiquette-and-custom grand song, the drum-tower grand song and the local opera grand song.
There are male voice grand songs, female voice grand songs and child's voice grand songs. A traditional chorus is made up of one family. The formal performing place of grand songs is the drum-tower and there is a formal etiquette process precedes a performance. Usually a host group invites visiting guests to sing in the antiphonal style. The singing has to be done between groups of different genders. Song groups of the same gender cannot invite each other to sing. The singing style of grand songs includes solo and chorus parts. The chorus is made up of multiple voice parts: alto, tenor and bass or only alto and bass. Bass is the main component. While performing, the bass lasts for a long time, lingering like the murmuring of a brook. An alto soloist is free to express itself, imitating hundreds of birds twittering at the same time. Grand songs are harmonious, with graceful melodies and free quick or slow rhythms. Sometimes, they are calm and fluent, full of sentiments. Sometimes they are smart and bold, full of heroism and grandiosity. Other times they are sweet and clear, echoing and attractive.
Grand Song of the Dong Recognized by UNESCO
The Grand Song of Dong is a women's chorus unaccompanied by musical instruments, which, under the leadership of a woman, has developed a unique style, free in tempo and full of power and grandeur. It is regarded a great cultural accomplishments of the Dong and was inscribed in 2009 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,
According to UNESCO: A popular saying among the Dong people in Guizhou Province in southern China has it that ‘rice nourishes the body and songs nourish the soul’. Their tradition of passing on culture and knowledge in music is exemplified in the Grand Song of the Dong ethnic group, multi-part singing performed without instrumental accompaniment or a leader. The repertoire includes a range of genres such as ballads, children’s songs, songs of greeting and imitative songs that test performers’ virtuosity at mimicking the sounds of animals. [Source: UNESCO]
Taught by masters to choirs of disciples, Grand Songs are performed formally in the drum-tower, the landmark venue for rituals, entertainment and meetings in a Dong village, or more spontaneously in homes or public places. They constitute a Dong encyclopaedia, narrating the people’s history, extolling their belief in the unity of humans and nature, preserving scientific knowledge, expressing feelings of romantic love, and promoting moral values such as respect for one’s elders and neighbours. Grand Song is performed widely today, with each village boasting various choirs divided by age and sometimes gender. In addition to disseminating their lifestyle and wisdom, it remains a crucial symbol of Dong ethnic identity and cultural heritage.
Dong Dage Singers
According to the China Daily: “For generations, Dong folk singers have developed a unique style of chorus called "dage" in which a group of mostly young men and women sing without any instrumental accompaniment.Known as the birthplace of dage, Yandong Town, located 28 kilometers from Liping County, has cultivated generations of well-known folk singers such as Wu Peixin. In 1957, Wu dazzled a Western audience with her wonderful singing in Moscow. It was not until then that Dong folk singing was known to the world. In October 1986, when the dage Chorus of Dong Ethnic Group participated in the Paris Art Festival, the beautiful and pure human voice emulating the sound of cicada enthralled Western audiences and musicians. [Source: China Daily, October 10, 2003]
“Some researchers of Dong ethnic history believe dage came into being during one of the prime times of the group's history, because without such an era of prosperity it's difficult to explain how an ethnic minority with a population of only 1 million could retain such mature and harmonious music. For the Dong people, singing has always been an indispensable part of their lives. They like to sing after a day's hard work, at festivals, weddings and funerals, and to communicate happiness and wishes. The songs are about anything they see and hear, or anything they feel and think.
“Most Dongs begin to study singing in their early childhood - generally with their mothers as their first teachers. By the age of 6 or 7 they join a singing group, which is formed by several clan members or relatives, and become apprentices of a well-known master singer in the village. They start their study from the basic singing techniques to the traditional folk songs. Teenage singers start to take part in singing gatherings, where they are able to further their studies, without the guidance of their parents. Within a few years most are able to sing several traditional folk songs, and they start to participate in formal singing competitions. From then on, they will step into the golden time of their singing career. On the sixth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, the local Dong people dress in their best festival attire and gather at the Yandong Town to watch bull fighting, local Dong Opera and demonstrate their singing skills in friendly competition.
Liping County: Ground Zero for Dong Singing
Dong folk music at its finest is showcased at a festival during the National Day holiday in Guizhou’s Liping County, which is home to 320,000 Dongs Folk singers of the Dong and Miao ethnic groups from Guizhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Hunan Province take part in the three-day festival. In addition to this Lipining County host regular concerts.
Mu Qian wrote in the China Daily, “Zhaoxing, a small town located at the joint area of Guizhou Province, Hunan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and a subordinate township of the Liping County of Guizhou, is a long way from any major city. I had spent nine hours on a bus from Guizhou's capital city Guiyang to Liping, and then another two hours in a car to Zhaoxing. Though hard to get to, the joint area of Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi, occupied mostly by the Dong ethnic group, has preserved some of the most original natural beauty and cultural traditions in China. [Source: Mu Qianm China Daily, September 6, 2007 ]
“Luckily for me, a troupe from the Tongdao Dong Autonomous County of Hunan Province was visiting Zhaoxing, and there was a joint performance by them and a local troupe at an outdoor stage that evening. When we got there, the small square before the stage was already packed with people. We had to squeeze into the crowd. My local friends explained the lyrics to me. Some were about nature, while the antiphonal songs were mostly about courtship. Most impressive was the Cicada Song, in which the singers imitated the flickering of cicadas' wings with quick sextuplets.
“Choirs of big songs have won many awards at national competitions and have participated in international arts festivals. More and more tourists who come to Zhaoxing want to see them perform, and now travel agencies and hotels in Zhaoxing can arrange concerts. The performance I saw was good, but I regretted not coming here last spring. They told me that during Spring Festivals, those who went out to work returned home, and married women in their home villages. The Dong people then gathered to sing songs for days, not to perform, but to enjoy themselves.”
Love and Singing Among the Dong
In each Dong village there are public houses where young people meet each night, particularly during times when there is not so much farm work to do. The girls usually arrive at those houses in the evening where, they chat and embroider clothes while waiting for the boys. The boys are usually from a different village. They organize themselves into a group and walk to the neighboring villages to seek out the girls. [Source: Ethnic China]
"Xingge Zuoyue" — traveling to sing and sitting in the moon — is the name used to describe the social and entertainment activities of young men and women in the south Dong areas. In different places different names are used. Some call it "Zouzhai" —travelling among villages (for the young men), and "Zuoye" — sitting in the evening (for the girls) or "Zuogetang" — sitting in the singing hall. According to tradition, they are mentioned together as "Xingge Zuoyue" or "Xingge Zuoye". The young men often carry self-made musical instruments like a Niutui qin (a stringed instrument) or a lute when they travel among local villages looking for available girls. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
The boys and girls often sing to each other rather than talk. When the boys arrive in the village, the boys and girls sit around the fire pool, exchanging love songs, or the boys play their musical instruments while the girls sing. Songs with different contents are sung in different seasons. In the question-and-answer singing, those who are are modest but possess the most knowledge are favored. The gatherings can be large or small, and partners are not fixed. Boys often get to know many girls and visit many villages and singing halls. ~
The girls often begin singing first and the boys reply. While boys and girls sing a series of antiphonal songs with romantic themes the boys try to gain access to the house where the girls are. Once inside the doors, the courting continues among them, always with the help of songs. Here the boys sing first and the women follow them. Little by little, couples break off from the group, with the singing often continuing until dawn. Through these songs the boys aims to win the trust of the girl and become more intimate with her. In some areas the couples sing in shifts, showing their friends that love has been born. Love is consolidated slowly through the exchange of small gifts, signs of commitment. The lovers sometimes meet in the forest, but only during the day. At night they say they are afraid of wild animals. *\
Once the man has won the woman's heart, it is still necessary obtain the permission of her parents to marry. To accomplish this, the boy usually requests a relative to speak with the girl's parents and make arrangements for the wedding. Although the parents have the last word regarding the wedding, numerous legends of unhappy loves due to the intervention of the parents prevent them from insisting too much in their preferences. Lovers that go against the wishes of their parents can marry secretly, and ask their relatives to forgive them afterwards. *\
Bullfighting is one of the favorite activities of the Dong people, and particularly popular in Liping, Rongjiang, Congjiang and Jinping. There, every village raises "fighting bulls" (water buffaloes) exclusively for bullfighting, with the yop one representing the village known as the "buffalo kings". The pen of the "bull king" is usually built near the drum-tower, which is sometimes called "the palace of the bull". The bull king does not do farm work. Certain persons are especially assigned to taking care of it. They perform chores such as mowing special grass, carrying water and mixing the animal feed, which often includes lard, honey and rice wine. A Bull king is usually big and strong, with bulky and sharp horns, and a strong-sounding name, such as "fierce tiger king", "thunderbolt king", "spring thunder king". [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences]
The Bullfight Festival is on the 18th day of the second and eight lunar month every year. Before the festival, young people, playing lusheng (musical instruments with multiple bamboo pipes) travel to another village to "send the invitation" for a bullfight. After "sending the invitation", they come back to the "palace of the bull" and play lusheng music and worship the bull respectfully for three days. This is done to "foster the spirit" of the bull. The bullfight field is usually located in a valley or a plain surrounded by hills. Often more than ten thousand people show up to watch. Sometimes the fight takes place in a special "bullfight pool". Spectators and supporters gather around the field, cheering, singing, waving colorful flying flags and banging drums and gongs.
Just before the fight begins, participating bulls go to "tread the field", accompanied by laughter and music. A youth walks proudly at the front, holding a 60 square centimeter "horse board". Behind the youth is a musical group and guardian team with wooden "weapons". The "bull king" is covered with bright iron sheath on his horns and crimson satin on his head. He carries a bull-king tower ("two dragons running for a precious stone") and four flags. Two very long pheasant tail feathers on the tower, make the bull look like an ancient general, holy and inviolable. Bells hang from the buffalo’s neck, tinkling as he moves. When the "treading field" is finished, the bulls withdraw.
Three shots from an iron cannon and music from Lusheng and drums signal the start of the bullfight. The bull keepers throw burning fires in front of the "bull kings" and and let go of the halters in their hands. As the two bulls fight, the spectators cheer loudly. The bulls fight for a designated period of time. The loser typically is the one that backs off and runs away. If no bull is the clear winners after the designated time is up, the bulls are pulled apart and the fight is called a draw. The main purpose of the this activity is not to claim victory, but to receive blessings from the gods for good weather in the coming year, the health of the Dong people, and high reproduction rates among cattle, water buffalo and other livestock.
The Dong are renowned for their exquisite wooden architecture, particularly their traditional houses and their distinctive drum towers and wind and rain covered bridges. The drum towers can be up to 13 stories tall and reach 13 meters in height. They are made of wooden planks and pieces held together by tenon and mortise braces, without a single iron nail. A symbol of a family branch, they serve as places where village leaders meet, announce news and address grievances.Meetings and celebrations are held there and clan affairs are 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.
Covered bridges are known as “flower bridges” and “wind-rain bridges.” They are wood and tile structures built on stone piers, with three to five pavilions raised on top of the piers. Benches running along both sides which allows them to serve as gathering places. Characteristics that make one bridge distinctive from one r and include features mentioned in the bridge’s name. The bridges also 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.”
Dong Drum Towers
A drum-tower is a unique building style of the Dong, widespread in southern Dong areas of Guizhou and Guangxi Provinces. A Dong village or a large family have traditionally joined together to build a one drum-tower as a symbol and gathering place for the village or family. An old Dong folk song goes: "Before the stockade, build Sa Altar and drum-tower first." Whenever a Dong group built a new village, they would build a grand drum-tower first, and then Diaojiaolou Wooden Houses (pile dwellings) around it. In traditional Dong areas there is a grand and eye-catching drum-tower standing in the centre of each Dong village. Large or rich villages may even build four to five drum-towers. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
A typical Dong Drum-tower is a wooden structure with multiple eaves and four, six, eight or more pillars. To make one is complex: Four huge and solid old fir logs are the main supporters up to the very top. Around them are four to twelve secondary pillars, varying from several meters to dozens of meters high. The number of eaves layers varies from five, seven, nine, to eleven, thirteen or fifteen—all odd numbers. The tower is composed of three parts. The ground part, middle part and upper part. The ground part is mostly square although sometimes hexagonal. Around this area are fences, railings, benches and fire pools— the practically used part of the tower. The middle part consists of cascading roofs, growing wider and wider from top down. There are wing like angles on every floor, unique and exquisite, like white cranes spreading wings ready to fly. The upper part is an umbrella-like garret of three types: tetragonal, with eight pillars to the ground; hexagonal, twelve; octagonal, sixteen. ~
The heads of the pillars are engraved and painted with auspicious dragons and colorful phoenixes; on the outer side of the wall are painted pictures of folk stories; on the eaves angles are painted dragons, phoenixes and other birds flying;. The end of the rafters are embedded with small mirrors. An erect mast points up to the sky. There are no floors inside the drum-tower. It is hollow from the ground to the very top. A huge bull-skin drum, three to four meters long, hangs at a high place in the tower. It is a used for sending a signals to the village and gives the tower its name. The main pillars and secondary pillars and crossbeams are all firmly and closely connected with each other by treenails, mortises, instead of iron nails. ~
Meaning of Dong Drum Towers
The Drum-tower is a symbol of a Dong village and its culture and serves as the center of the village’s public activities and social functions. Traditionally, important activities have been held at the drum-tower, such as general councils, setting village rules, settling disputes and lawsuits. When there is an important issue, the drum is beaten to gather the villagers. When there is fire, thieves or bandits, it is also beaten to call for help. Often one village strikes their drum, the others respond. From village to village the drumming spreads, with villagers rushing to the source of drumming to see what’s up. At festivals, groups of singers, performers and Lusheng (a flute-like instrument) players gather in the square around the drum-tower, to welcome and see off the guests, and stage performances of dancing, antiphonal singing, Lusheng playing and Dong Opera. Drum-tower plays a very important role in the social life of the Dong people and a place to disseminate information. In the summer young men and girls court each other around the drum tower and Dong of all ages sit around the fire pool, telling stories and singing ancient songs. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]
The term Drum Tower is Chinese in origin. In ancient times each Chinese city had a tower with a drum that marked time and announced the opening and closing times of city gate, or to summon the population. When Chinese saw the Dong towers they thought the towers served the same purpose as Chinese towers. In fact, most of the Drum Towers of the Dong no longer have drums. The towers of the Dong play a very important religious and social role in the life of their villages. These towers are the material representations of the spirit of the community, their most important meeting place, and the single most important cultural element in Dong culture. Some authors refer to Dong culture as the "Culture of the Towers of the Drum". Dong villages are typically named after their drum towers. When a village suffers a disaster such as a fire, the first building to be reconstructed is the Drum Tower. As drum towers have largely disappeared from northern Dong area, it is said their Dong culture has also been lost. [Source: Ethnic China *]
Drum towers play a very important symbolic role in the life of the Dong. They are associated with prosperity but also are considered the dwelling place of deity that can bring good things but also harm people. The Drum Towers represent the soul of the community of the village. Their power, the Dong believe, is greater than that of the people. For that reason, nobody wants to live too close to a tower. Decisions made by assemblies that meet at the tower are regarded as the irrevocable voice of the community. The shape of a tower can be seen as a reflection of the spirit of the community. In a village north of Guangxi, oen story goes, had a majestic tower of nine floors toped by the shape of a pair of bull's horn. The young men of this village used to fight with the young men of nearby villages. It was thought that the drum tower was at least partly responsible for this. To put an end to the fighting, the elders of the village decided to shorten the Tower of the Drum, from nine to five floors and get rid of the horns. The change brought peace to the region. *\
Dong Wind-and-Rain Bridges
The Dong people usually build their villages around rivers and bridges of various kinds serves to link a village together. There are slate bridges, stone arch bridges, bamboo bridges and , wind-and-rain bridges. Among these bridges the wind-and-rain bridge are the most characteristic of the Dong people. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]
A wind-and-rain bridge is a wooden covered corridor bridge, with pavilions and benches. People can rest in the bridge, sitting or even lying on the benches. Since the bridge shields people from wind, rain and sunshine, it is called the wind-and-rain Bridge. Sometimes they are called “flower bridges". For large-sized wind-and-rain bridges, the piers are made of big bluestone, upon which, big logs are spliced together by tenons in the shape an upside down pyramid, serving as the girder of the bridge. Upon these logs is the covering of the girder. On the piers are pavilions, to add to the beauty of the bridge and to equalize the weight on both ends of the beams to increase the stability of the bridge body. Pavilions mostly have five layers of eaves, with a quadrangular or hexagonal roof, with a spire or a long ridge.
In southern Dong areas there are many of wind-and-rain bridges: over 50 in Liping County alone, and more in the Sanjiang area in Guangxi Province. The most representative one is Chengyang Bridge, in Sanjiang. Built in 1916, it is 76 meters long, 10.6 meters high and 3.4 meters wide—with five piers and four openings—and stands like a huge dragon across the Chengyang River. It is regarded as one of the four most famous bridges in China, and an important national cultural relic. Eight fir logs are laid closely on the piers in two layers, above which are five pavilions with different styles of roofs, built together to form the covered corridor bridge floor. The three pavilions in the middle are in a four-layer pagoda style, while the other two are in a five-layer long-ridge style. The five pavilions stand in a row, in a magnificent manner. Carved and painted on the eaves of the corridor and the pavilions are lively and colorful images of mountains, rivers, lakes, flowers, birds, beasts and fish. The beams stick out a considerable distance and the eaves curl upwards like white crane spreading their wings to maintain the balance and leverage of the pavilion eaves.
Image Sources: Nolls China website; Dong architecture (Beifan.com) and Wiki Commons
Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org |; 5) Amy Tan, National Geographic, May 2008, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated October 2022