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The Dong are related to Thais and Lao and live primarily in the hills along the border of Hunan,Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. They have their own language, Kam, a Sino-Tibetan tongue, and had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949. 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.” [Source: Amy Tan, National Geographic, May 2008]

The Dong are one of the larger ethnic minorities in China. They are also known as the Gaem. They refer to themselves as "Kam." About 55 percent of them live in Guizhou Province. About 30 percent of all Dong live in the southern part of Hunan Province. About eight percent make their home in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. A few thousand can be found in Hubei Province. Those that live in Guizhou Province reside mainly along a fringe of flat lands that cross the province from north to south. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The homeland of the Dong is a 1336-meter mountain that defines the boundary between of Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi called "Three-Province Slope". The Dong people have lived here generation after generation. Otherwise the Dong are found mainly in: 1) Yuping and Tongren Counties, Southeast Qian (short for Guizhou) Autonomous Prefecture of Miao and Dong Ethnic Minority Groups in Guizhou Province; 2) Xinshuang, Tongdao, and Zhijiang in Hunan Province; and 3) Sanjiang and Longsheng in Guangxi Province. They live together with some other ethnic groups such as Han, Miao, Zhuang, Yao, Shui, Bouyei and Tujia. [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, ~]

Dong are mainly farmers. They are good at growing rice, raising fish in their rice fields. The area they live in is subtropical and relatively good for agriculture. The Dong generally live near the rivers in valleys or in low hills. They are not regarded as a mountain people. For domestic animals they raise mainly hens and pigs. They live in one of the eight huge forest regions in China. The forests have special spiritual importance for the Dong but also provides with a source of income. The Dong are famous for forest tea-oil and tung oil.

The are divided are into two main groups: the Dong of the North and the Dong of the South. In general those of the north have been influenced more by Han Chinese culture, while those of the south have done a better job keeping alive Dong traditions. Drum Towers, Bridges of Rain and Wind, and the Temples of the Goddess Mother Sama, are all characteristic of the Dong of the South. Numerous Dong villages are situated among the tree-clad hills of the extensive stretch of territory on the Hunan-Guizhou-Guangxi borders. Situated about 300 kilometers north of the Tropic of Cancer, this area has a mild climate and an annual rainfall of 1,200 millimeters.

Dong population in China: in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 0.2161 percent of the total population; 2,879,974 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 2,962,911 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 2,514,014 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

Websites and Sources: Book Chinese Minorities ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities ; Minority Rights ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map ; Ethnic China ;Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide ; (government source) ; People’s Daily (government source) ; Paul Noll site: ; 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

Dong History

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 ancestors of Dong were the Luoyue branch of the Baiyue (a group of people in south China in ancient times). They were called the "Liao" by Han people during the Wei, Jin, South and North Dynasties; "Geling" or "Ling" in the Song Dynasty; and after that "Dongman", "Dongmiao", "Dongren", "Dongjia" or were grouped together with other ethnic groups and called "Miao". Since the founding of the PRC, the group was more rigorously defined and the name was fixed as "Dong".

According to the Chinese government: “At the time of the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220) there lived many tribes in what is present-day Guangdong and Guangxi. The Dong people, descendants of one of these tribes, lived in a slave society at that time. Slavery gradually gave way to a feudal society in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Agriculture developed rapidly during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the Dong areas in southeast Guizhou and southwest Hunan provinces. Rice production went up with improved irrigation facilities. And self-employed artisans made their appearance in Dong towns. Markets came into existence in some bigger towns or county seats, and many big feudal landowners also began to do business. After the Opium War of 1840-42, the Dong people were further impoverished due to exploitation by imperialists, Qing officials, landlords and usurers. [Source: |]

“The Dongs, who had all along fought against their oppressors, started to struggle more actively for their own emancipation after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. They served as guides and supplied grain to the Chinese Red Army when it marched through the area during its Long March in the mid-1930s. In 1949, guerilla units organized by the Dong, Miao, Han, Zhuang and Yao nationalities fought shoulder to shoulder with regular People's Liberation Army forces to liberate the county seat of Longsheng.” |

Dong and Yue Folk

Modern-day Dong people are considered a sub-group among the Yue folk who, it is believed, were the original ancestors of the Han Chinese people, though there are competing theories regarding the origin of the Han Chinese. David of wrote: “Scholars believe that early man's migration out of Africa, part of which migration pushed eastward beyond the Indian subcontinent, saw a trail of migrants who expanded northward into China (another trail of migrants had, possibly earlier, expanded southward), the Yue folk. A subgroup of the northward-expanding Yue group, the Dong-yi ("Eastern" yi, "Yi" being a variant of "Yue"), entered into present-day China either via Yunnan or Sichuan Province, eventually settling in the present-day Sichuan-Gansu-Shaanxi-Shanxi area and becoming the forebears of the Han Chinese. [Source: \=/]

“The group of Yue folk who had headed southward into Southeast Asia, forebears of the Dai (alternatively, Tai) folk who in turn are the ancestors of the the present-day Tai people of Thailand, eventually reached the bottom of the Southeast Asian cul-de-sac, as it were, and ended up heading north again along the coast, eventually reaching present-day China, where they settled in the Guizhou-Hunan-Guangxi area of China, thus becoming the forebears of the present-day Dong people of China (there are also large numbers of Dong people in present-day Vietnam). \=/

“Returning again to the main theme, during the Qin ( B.C. 221-207) and the Han ( B.C. 206 – A.D. 220) Dynasties, the forebears of the present-day Chinese Dong people lived in the Lingnan area and were known as the "Bai Yue" ("Hundred Yue") folk, a branch of the Luo Yue folk. A branch of the Bai Yue folk emerged during the Southern and Northern ( 420-588) Dynasties period calling itself the "Liao" folk. The Liao subdivided further during the Tang (618-907) and Song ( 960-1279) Dynasties, and thus the small, present-day Chinese ethnic minority officially referred to as the Dong people (present-day members of this ethnic group usually call themselves "Kam" (pronounced slightly like "Gam") is believed to stem from Liao ancestors, and – going even farther back – from the Yue folk who are believed to be the earliest ancestors of the Han Chinese.” \=/

Dong Language

The Dong language belongs to Dong and Shui subgroup of the Zhuang and Dong branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of language. There are south and north Dong dialects, each having three branches. Speakers of the northern and southern dialects have difficulty understanding each other The Dong traditionally had no written language. Not only are the primary dialects mutually incomprehensible, so are many of the local dialects within each of these two primary dialects. [Source: Ethnic China *\; \=/]

The spoken language of the Dong is in the same phonetic family as that of the Tai/ Dai language (as is Cantonese, according to the experts). The Dong have not traditionally had a written language, which probably explains how Dong dialects can diverge so significantly from locality to locality. A new script for the Dong Language was one was created in Pinyin (the system for transcribing Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet) in 1958 but it was never been widely used. Before 1958, the Dong used Chinese characters adapted to their own language. Now Many Dong can read and speak Chinese. *\ \=/

Dong Religion and Funerals

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.

Dong funeral rituals are similar to those of the Hans, but in Congjiang the deceased is put in a coffin which is put outdoors unburied. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, funeral ceremonies were very elaborate and wasteful. They have been much simplified since 1949. The Dongs believe in ancestor worship and revere many gods and spirits. They have special reverence for a "saint mother" for whom altars and temples have been erected in the villages. [Source: |]

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.

Sama—the Dong Goddess Mother

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One of the main deities of the Dong is Sama or Shasui, whose name could be translated as the "great mother" or the "great ancestress." There several theories that attempt to explain her origin. Some authors think she is a relic from a time when Dong society was matriarchal and point to the high place women given female legendary figures such as Xingni, a heroine of the 10th century who led the Dong in fights against their enemies. According to these legends, she jumped from a cliff and disappeared to avoid being captures. Others consider the goddess Sama to be only heroine's deification. Using Xingni again, they argue that because her legends are filled with historical details such as the name of her parents and the village where she lived, and the fact nothing was written about her before the 10th century she had to have once been a real person. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Sama is arguably the most important deity for the Dong. In each village there is a temple honoring her, which strangers are not allowed to enter. Sama is worshipped twice a month, on the first and fifteen day. During the year there are three occasions when special ceremonies honoring her are carried out, the seventh or third day of the first lunar month, the seventh day of the second lunar month and the seventh day of the eighth lunar month. On those days an elder in a community pays homage to the goddess in her temple. Sometimes a woman is in charge of the ceremony, at other times a man (sometimes disguised as a woman) is. Villagers, in a festive atmosphere, meet at the drum tower or at the gate of the temple. They recite poems about the creation and sing songs related to the goddess. In some areas the young men leave the village and return, reenacting how the goddess led the ancient Dong into battle. In some areas, only women are allowed to participate in this festival; men are forbidden from join in.

In summer time, when the agricultural activity is less intense, the biggest festival dedicated to Sama takes place. Many pigs, chickens and ducks are sacrificed in her honor; offering of incense and tea are presented to her. Often an old person is dressed up to represents Sama. All the inhabitants of the village and the neighboring villages join the festival. They drink the tea of Sama and place bundles of flowers in their hair. Villagers sing and dance in honor of Sama. Often bull fighting or cock fighting competitions are held and winners are received by the old person that represents Sama. At the end Dong villagers enjoy a great banquet on a long table, sometimes with several thousand people can sitting down and husbands and daughters serving married women. At night there is a great party. Young people sing and dance until dawn and look for a boyfriend or girlfriend, if they don’t already have one.

In the old days, but no so much today, the festival had a large martial component. Young men, portraying members of Xingni’s army, armed themselves with muskets, bows, arrows, swords and lances. At the sound of a gunshot, they rushed towards the altar of Sama. Each young man offered a cup of tea to the goddess, sang her a song. At the sound of another shot the “soldiers” rushed out the village. When they arrived as some far away place, they staged a mock battle, shooting muskets and arrows. This went on for some time. Before they returned to their village, each soldier used his sword, knife or musket bayonet to cut some blades of rice grass, representing the heads their enemy. Intoxicated with victory the soldiers return to their village. When they return to the village, representing the battle was over and peace time had arrived, they sang and danced around the drum tower in the center of the village.

Dong Shaman

Dong shamans, or wu, use several kinds of musical instruments while performing their religious ceremonies. Among them, the most important are maybe the drums. Shaman drums come on a variety of sizes and decoration, all them are made of wood with a ox skin as cover. Usually they can be beaten only on one side, with that side usually ranging from 20 to 25 centimeters in width. The ox skin is kept fit by iron rings on its outer edge. These drums are beaten by the wu shamans at the nuo ceremonies. Those with flowery decorations in their surface are known as flowery lateral drum. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Song shaman also use cymbals, chimes, bells and horns. There are two kind of cymbals: one is called a "flat cymbal" and the other "bronze cymbal", though both are made of bronze and not all that different. The bronze chimes of the Dong shaman usually are built with a Buddhist-style alms bowl made of bronze and a hammer made of iron. During the rituals the hammer is beaten on the inner side of the bowl, creating its characteristic sound. A bronze bell is also ritually used by Dong shaman. Images of Dong shaman depict them holding a small bell, a knife and a cow horn to expel the evil spirits while singing and dancing. Horn are used to exorcize evil spirits. Usually made with a single horn of a water buffalo, with some decorations in the mouth. they are blown by the shaman to expel the evil spirits.

Dong Feng Shi MastersCeremonies 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

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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.

According to the Chinese government: “Prior to 1949, the feudal patriarchal family was the basic social unit. Women were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and they were even forbidden to touch sacrificial objects. Girls lived separately on the upper floors allowing no men to visit them. After marriage, women were given a little share of "female land" for private farming. Monogamy was and is practiced. Childless couples were allowed to adopt sons, and only men were entitled to inherit family property. A newlywed woman continued to live with her own parents. She went to her husband's home only on holidays and on special occasions. She would go to live with her husband permanently after giving birth to her first child. [Source: |]

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.

Dong Life

left”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.

Reporting from Liping County in the heart of the Dong region of Guzhou Province, Mu Qian wrote in the China Daily, “Unlike some places where everything has been made to cater to tourists, it seems that in Zhaoxing the local culture lives harmoniously with tourism. On one side of the town are hostels and bars packed with tourists, while on the other side is a river where local Dong people wash their rice and clothes, as well as themselves and their cattle. You will learn much about the Dong culture by watching local people's activities, as long as you can stand the sight of ducks being slaughtered in the street and dogs' heads sold along with pork at the market. [Source: Mu Qianm China Daily, September 6, 2007]

Like all Dong villages, Zhaoxing is surrounded by mountains, terraces and forests. A river runs through the town. The Dongs are very community-minded. Every Dong community has a drum tower (gu lou), a wind-and-rain bridge (fengyu qiao) and an opera stage (xi tai). The drum tower is a place where people meet to discuss community affairs and sing folk songs. The wind-and-rain bridge is for people to rest and the opera stage is where the Dong operas are put on, usually during festivals.

The town of Zhaoxing was formed on the basis of five clans, which developed into five communities named Ren (benevolence), Yi (justice), Li (propriety), Zhi (wisdom) and Xin (faith). As a result, there are five drum towers, five wind-and-rain bridges and five opera stages in Zhaoxing, making the town richest in traditional Dong architecture.

Dong Customs

The Dong have the custom of marking—pulling up or knotting grass or plants in a particular place— to serve as a sign of love or as a warning for things like dangerous, slippery cliffside trail or the presence of hunting traps. A multi-mark site may suggest some kind of back and forth communication. Different marks convey different meanings, often depending on where the marks is placed. The multi-mark may signify a form of punishment. [Source: \=/]

According to Dong folklore, the dragon—regarded as a messenger of good luck— raises its head on the 2nd day of the second lunar month. Villagers bring foods such as meat, eggs, fish, and rice cakes to their local bridge and offer them to spirits of agriculture to ensure a good harvest and then enjoy a feast with the same food. Villagers propose a toast to the agriculture spirits and indirectly pay homage to the dragon. In Dong culture, cattle and water buffalo, can also represent dragons. Thus on the same day as the bridge picnic, villagers line up to pay homage to the cattle as they are led through the village. The villagers play pipes and drums, and bow respectfully to the cattle. Afterwards, one of the cattle is slaughtered and the meat shared among the villagers, and a feast is held, with drinking and a singing toast to the dragon in the form of the "Dragon-return-to-us" song. Afterwards the butchered cattle's horns are buried the livestock area in the center of the village, symbolizing the return of the dragon and hope for a year free of disasters,

Dong Villages

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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.

The Dongs typically live in villages of 20-30 households located near streams. But there are also large villages of 700 households or more. Their houses, built of fir wood, are usually two or three stories high. Those located on steep slopes or riverbanks stand on stilts; people live on the upper floors, and the ground floor is reserved for domestic animals and firewood. In the old days, landlords and rich peasants dwelled in big houses with engraved beams and painted columns. Paths inside a village are paved with gravel, and there are fishponds in most villages. One lavish feature of Dong villages are the drum towers. Meetings and celebrations are held in front of these towers, and the Dong people gather there to dance and make merry on New Year's Day. The drum tower of Gaozhen Village in Guizhou Province is especially elaborate. Standing 13 stories high, it is decorated with carved dragons, phoenixes, flowers and birds. [Source: |]

Equally spectacular is folk architecture that goes into the construction of bridges. Wood, stone arches, stone slabs and bamboo are all used in erecting bridges. The roofed bridges which the Dongs have dubbed "wind and rain" bridges are best-known for their unique architectural style. The Chengyang "Wind and Rain" Bridge in Sanjiang is 165 meters long, 10 meters across and 10 to 20 meters above the water. Roofed with tiles engraved with flowers, it has on its sides five large pagoda-like, multi-tier pavilions beautifully decorated with carvings. It is a covered walkway with railings and benches for people to sit on and enjoy the scenes around.

See Architecture Under Dong Culture

Dong Food

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.

The Dong staple food is rice. The Dong love sticky rice and acidic food. In the mountainous areas, glutinous rice is eaten with peppers and pickled vegetables. Some Dong eat dog meat. Reporting from Liping County in the heart of the Dong region of Guzhou Province, Mu Qian wrote in the China Daily, “You will learn much about the Dong culture by watching local people's activities, as long as you can stand the sight of ducks being slaughtered in the street and dogs' heads sold along with pork at the market... For dinner, my local friend Xiao Li invited me to a restaurant with "race taste". At the restaurant, I found that we would have a hotpot with niubie. I had heard about niubie when I was in Liping. From my understanding, it is the digested grass in a cow's stomach. "No, that's not the real niubie," said the chef of the restaurant, who allowed me in the kitchen to watch the way he cooked. "The real niubie is taken from the cow's intestine, just before it's too late to eat it." [Source: Mu Qianm China Daily, September 6, 2007]

“After putting some garlic and chili into the hot oil, he took out a Coca Cola bottle of niubie from the refrigerator, which he said was from a cow killed that morning, and poured it into his pot. It was a kind of green thick liquid. Then he added some water and a kind of local herb. Soon, the hotpot was ready and we began to dip all kinds of meat and vegetables in the soup. A lady at our table refused to eat it, for she believed that only niubie served in the morning was fresh. I tasted the soup, and it wasn't bad. A little bitter, but the aftertaste was nice. Probably, it would have been even better if I didn't know where it came from. Li said that niubie is very good for the stomach and intestine, and that we could also have yangbie, the equivalent of niubie from a sheep, but I told him that the niubie hotpot was enough for me for the night. The Dong people have a saying that, "Foods feed the body, while songs feed the soul". When my stomach was full, I felt like having some music.

Fragrant and Sweet Dong Oil Tea

Oil-tea is a traditional food of the Dong people, particularly popular in the Dong areas of Guizhou and Guangxi Provinces. It is both a daily food and festival food, made from tea, tea oil, parched rice and peanuts. Oil-tea is sweet and fragrant. Not only refreshing, the Dong say, it is also good for health. Whenever guests come, as an act of hospitable, Dong welcome them warmly with oil-tea.

To make Dong oil tea: 1) Fry cooked and dried sticky rice in tea oil (edible oil pressed from tea seeds) into fried rice; 2) Stir-fry in condiments and ingredients such as peanuts and soybeans; 3) parch some sticky rice until it is a little burnt and, adding some tea leaves, repeating the process a few times; and 4) pour in warm water and heat the mixture until it boils. ing. Here we have oil-tea water. 5) When the dinner is served, put some chipped shallots, crown daisy, and spinach into a bowl; 6) pour in the oil-tea water, also adding fried rice, peanuts, soybeans, meat, pig liver, and pig large intestines. Some Dong boil round dumplings with sticky rice powder in the oil-tea. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

There are many kinds of Dong oil-tea, such as lima-bean tea, red pea tea, white pea tea. When drinking it the host and guests all sit around a table or the caldron or stove. The hostess prepares it and people often drink it in a bowl rather than a cup. The first bowl of oil-tea is given to the eldest person or most honored guest, to show reverence and guests are generally served before family members. After one receives he or she must not rush to drink it but rather should wait until the host says "Please", or makes a toast, when all present raise their bowls at the same time and then drink. Only one chopstick is needed—to occasionally stir the mixture—and every guest should drink at least three bowls, otherwise he or she might be considered ungrateful. If you want no more after three bowls, you have to put your chopstick on you bowl, as a sign of enough. Otherwise, the hostess will keep filling or topping off your bowl.

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 Justice

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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.

Dong Medicine

A study by Liu Heng and Long Chun-lin of Dong medicine in Hunan province lists more than 1420 recipes and 686 medicines from 517 kinds of plants, animals and minerals. According to the researchers, the Dong "use different forms of medicine for different persons and diseases." Among those that are considerably different from traditional Chinese medicine are:[Source: Ethnic China *]

1) Fish is used as medicine after it is fed water or food enriched with some medicine. For example a common carp fed with Japanese iris is used to cure stomach ache. 2) Clothing is also used as medicine. First a cloth is steamed with medicine and allowed to in a shady place. Clothes steamed with Japanese thistle and Chinese date can is used for treating intestinal parasites in children and infant malnutrition caused by digestive problems.

3) Some medicines are worn by patients sort of like a patch. Dong people think that children suffering from malnutrition can be cured wearing seven pieces of vitex plant. 4) Live animals are placed on infected parts of the patient's body. 5) The Dong extract the essence of some medicines by burning freshly-picked branches of a medicinal plant near cool ironware so that the vapor from burned medicinal plant condenses as a liquid in the ironware.

Study: Liu Yuheng and Long Chun-liu, “Studies on Dong Nationality medicine in Hunan, China.” published in Pei Shengji, Su Yong-ge, Long Chun-lin, Ken Marr and Darrell A. Posey. The Challenges of Ethnobiology in the 21st Century. Yunnan Science and Technology Press. Kunming, 1996

Floods and Fires 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.”

In January 2014, a fire in an ancient Dong village in Guizhou Province destroyed nearly 300 homes, and affected the lives of over 1000 people. The blaze started on the evening of January 25 and according to preliminary reports more than 1000 buildings were ruined before it could be put out. It is still unclear how the fire started. The village is more than 300 years old, and one of the last remaining villages in China with occupants solely from the Dong minority group. [Source:, January 28, 2014]

The fire broke out at 11:30 p.m. in Baojing Dong Village of Zhenyuan County. It was put out at around 3:50 a.m. on Sunday, local officials said. Baojing Dong Village, built 300 years ago, is the biggest Dong village in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou. It was one of China's most complete such settlements, known for well-preserved ancient Dong-style dwellings. It holds 470 households and nearly 2,000 inhabitants. No casualties have been reported and the cause of the fire is being investigated. [Source:]

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.

A 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 Agriculture and Economic Life

Farming is a major occupation of the Dongs, who grow rice, wheat, millet, maize and sweet potatoes. Their most important cash crops are cotton, tobacco, rape and soybean. The Dong people grow enormous numbers of timber trees which are logged and sent to markets. Tong-oil and lacquer and oil-tea camellia trees are also grown for their edible oil and varnish. The most favorite tree of the people of this ethnic group is fir, which is grown very extensively. Whenever a child is born, the parents begin to plant some fir saplings for their baby. When the child reaches the age of 18 and marries, the fir trees, that have matured too, are felled and used to build houses for the bride and groom. For this reason, such fir trees are called "18-year-trees." With the introduction of scientific cultivation methods, a fir sapling can now mature in only eight or 10 years, but the term "18-year-trees" is still current among the Dong people. [Source: |]

Most villages are made up of rice farmers who earn less than $500 a year. During the day there are always people working in the fields: harvesting, planting, plowing or tending vegetables grown in the off season. 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.

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.

Dong Development Under the Communists

According to the Chinese government: “A momentous event in Dong history took place on August 19, 1951 when the Longsheng Autonomous County of the Dong, Zhuang, Miao and Yao peoples was founded. This was followed by the setting up of the Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County in Guangxi, the Tongdao Dong Autonomous County in Hunan, the Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Guizhou, and the Xinhuang Dong Autonomous County in Hunan. [Source: |]

“The establishment of autonomous counties enhanced relations between various ethnic groups and eliminated misunderstanding, mistrust and discord sowed by the ruling class between the Dongs and other ethnic minorities. In Congjiang County, Guizhou, the Dongs n one village once warred against the Miaos in another for the possession of a brook. The people of the two villages remained hostile to each other for over a century until the dispute was resolved through negotiations after the setting up of the Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture. They have been living in harmony since. |

“Another eventful change in Dong life is the carrying out of the agrarian reform, which put an end to feudal oppression under which members of this ethnic group had been groaning for centuries. The Dongs who were ruled and never ruled have their own people holding posts in the governments of the autonomous counties. Dong cadres in Guangxi number 2,950, and those in Hunan 3,040. Many Dong women, who had no political status formerly, now hold responsible government posts at the county or prefectural levels. |

“Achievements have also been made in many other fields in the post-1949 period. With the opening of schools, all children between 7 and 10 in Longping village, for example, are attending classes. Malaria and other diseases, which used to take a heavy toll of lives, have by and large been eliminated, thanks to improved health care and the disappearance of witch doctors. There was no industry in the Dong areas formerly. Today, small factories are turning out farm implements, chemical fertilizer, cement, paper and other products. Electricity generated by small power installations drives irrigation pumps and light homes in many Dong villages.” |

Nobel-Prize-Winning Economist Visits a Dong Village

On a visit by 2001 Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz to Dimen, a 500-household Dong village 400 kilometers away from Guiyang, Reuters reported: “Keen on the Chinese economy, the former World Bank chief economist scrutinized the Chinese government's 11th five-year plan which described rural development at length and could hardly wait to find out what's going on in China's countryside. Wooden houses, pyramid-like drum towers and sweet polyphonic songs, all these exotic things apparently refreshed the incumbent Columbia University professor and his wife Anya Schiffrin. "It's very peaceful and quiet," said Mrs. Stiglitz, professor and co-director of Columbia University's International Media and Communications program. [Source: Reuters, March 21, 2007]

"The improvement of rural infrastructure is impressive," said Stiglitz, "the road, cell phone towers ... there is very good cell phone signal in the rural area. Even in a very small village, there is Internet." he said with a smile. "The Chinese government's policy of building new socialism countryside is contributing to the improvement of living standard in rural areas," he added. But the increasing gap between rich and poor could trigger more social and economic problems, said the professor who won the prize for his "analyses of markets with asymmetric information".

The photographic enthusiast shot almost everything on his way — the newly-built toilets, farmers, kids, their food and furniture. Boosting the agricultural productivity, creating job opportunities and promoting infrastructure development are important to improve the living standard in rural areas, said Stiglitz. For example, the peasants cannot sell their products to the market without road, and infrastructure development, such as house and road construction can help to create job opportunities, he said, chawing the vegetable grown in the rare cultivable soil of Guizhou. Several years ago, many poor households in the province even had not enough food and clothes for every family member. The local government has therefore promoted emerging industries to help people get rid of poverty. Tourism has been one of those highlighted industries.

Dimen serves as a good example. It has special historical and cultural attractions, such as the Dimen Dong minority village and the Longli ancient town. More attractive are the Big Songs of the Dong minority, a sophisticated polyphonic singing style, as well as the ancient paper-making skill and traditional rituals. People are trying to shake off poverty without undermining these precious heritages, said a local official.

Image Sources: Nolls China website, Dong architecture ( 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, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4), the Chinese government news site |; Amy Tan, National Geographic, May 2008; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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