DERUNG TRADITIONAL RELIGION
The Derung retain their traditional spiritual religion, a form of animism that considers all things to be embodied with spirit, including animals, natural phenomena and their ancestors. The Derung believe that wind, rain, lightning, thunder, high mountains, floods, huge rocks and odd trees all have spirits. Derung religion is tightly bound to their daily lives. Normal activities are carried in ways that conform to their spiritual beliefs. Illness and other misfortunes are attributed to demons and ghosts. Shamans, and sometimes the kashan, perform rites to obtain the help of favorable spirits and cast out bad ones. These generally include offerings of wine and the sacrifice of chickens, pigs and cows. There are of two kinds of shaman: Namusa, who preside over sacrifices and divining ceremonies and Duomusa, who specialize in casting out demons. Namusa have higher social status than Duomusa. [Source: Ethnic China *]
The main Derung gods are: 1) Jubolang, god of the mountains; 2) Shenghua, god of the trees; 3) Waqiang Bulang, god of the waters; and 3) the Goddess of the Forests. The Derung believe that each wicked spirit can cause a certain illness. Pomolang is thought to be responsible for pain in the gut, Mulang for pain in the eyes and head and Jibulang for a range of illnesses. The cult of the ancestors is important in their concepts of death, ghosts and avoiding sickness. *\
The Derung consult with the spirits on important matters from time to time using different kinds of divination, such as: 1) Divination by eggs, involves the pressing of an egg when a person asks a question (a broken egg implies a favorable response); 2) Divination with water, interpreting the waves that arise in a bowl of water placed on a plane surface (waves that go towards the fortune-teller are good); 3) Divination by millet grains, to determine whether or not it is auspicious to go out hunting or to erect a house; and 4) divination with the rooster, involves catching a rooster by the neck, suffocating it, and twisting the claws and releasing them (if claws meet that has a good meaning). Other methods of divination are carried out with bamboo sticks, with bamboo tips or with a knife.
In their funeral ceremonies the Derung try to lead the dead to the land of the ancestors, thus preventing their ghosts from bothering the living. A person is generally buried with all their belongings, since they believe that these things also contain spirit power. Sometimes, instead of burying the dead, cremation of the body or a "water funeral" is carried out. For the most part the dead were buried in the ground in hollow logs, except in cases of death from serious disease, when the corpses were cremated or disposed of in the rivers. Funerals were attended by all the relatives, who brought sacrificial offerings of food. [Source: Ethnic China, China.org]
In accordance with a Derung taboo, the dead should not be carried directly through the entrance door, but through a crevice pried in the back wall or the floor of the house. It is said that only by doing this can there be no more dead people. All those who die naturally are buried not far from their own home. The Derung believe that burying family members far away from home is unbearable for them. [Source: Chinatravel.com]
Derung funeral taboos: 1) Before a dying person takes his last breath, his family should transfer the seeds left at home to others' home or another place, or the seeds will not sprout. 2) When holding funeral procession, people should not carry the dead through the gate, but through the crevice in the floor. It is believed that if the funeral procession isn't done in this way, evil spirit will dwell in the room with the result that more families may die and even the whole family may be gone. On the funeral day, the whole village has to cease the production altogether.
Derung New Year and the Bull-Butchering Ceremony
There is only traditional Derung festival: their New Year celebration, which is called "Ka'erjiangwa" (Kaquewa) in the Derung language. Irregular in length with no fixed date, it is held after the autumn harvest, usually from December to the next January. People butcher pigs and oxen, sing and dance to celebrate the New Year.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]
The Derung New Year celebration is usually held on the large family or village level, the date fixed shortly beforehand (See Knots and Time Above). Families invite friends and relatives using oral messages for those nearby, and knotted ropes or carved boards as "invitation" for those living far away. For the woodcut "Invitations", each family and clan chooses an auspicious day and cuts openings in specially made wooden chips. These "invitations" are delivered to villages and relatives to be invited. The day before the festival, wine, meat, rice and "Lada'er" (bamboo with a new flax blanket on it) are prepared. The number of the blankets should coincide with the number of people partaking in the feast. There can be to many blankets, but never too few. In their opinion, more blankets foresee a larger population of family members and cattle, while fewer blankets could mean a death or something else ominous. ~
For the Derung, New Year is both a celebration of the harvest and a ceremony of offering. Three to five days are set aside for the festival. The actual duration depends on the quantity of food prepared. Festival activities include putting up colored gunny cloth, drinking while sitting around the fireplace, exchanging greetings, holding grand hunting ceremony and offering sacrifices the mountain god. On the first day of the festival, every family puts up colored blankets. At night, they drink, conduct divining rituals and pray for a good harvest in the coming year. On the second day, people make mountain gods and animals out with buckwheat. After sacrificial rites, teenage hunters shoot arrows towards the buckwheat beasts and the spectators beat the drum and dance in a circle.
The most important event, which usually takes place on the third day, is the butchering a bull and offering it to the god "Gemeng" and other gods. "Gemeng" is the ancestor and creator of human beings in Derung mythology. Derung believe, that by butchering a bull to offer to him, they can get his blessing and protection from disasters and diseases, plus get good the weather for the next year to ensure a good harvest. ~
The bull-butchering ceremony is presided over by a shaman. At the beginning of the ceremony, a bull wrapped in a Derung blanket is brought into the field, and its halter is fastened to a big pole. A young woman hangs bead necklace around the bull’s (ox’s) horns. Pine needle torches are lit. People form circles around the bull, and commence dancing, swinging swords and spears to the sound of a mang luo (a musical instrument). When the other offerings are ready, the shaman—or a young man whose parents are still alive —burns incense and murmurs some words, praying to Gemeng for safety of both people and the cattle, and stabs the bull with a sharp bamboo spear under the bull’s leg, and the bull is killed and butchered. The beef is cooked and everyone eats together. The shaman carries the head of the bull on his back and everyone dances around him as the bull head is offered to the gods. This is the climax of the celebration. People are drinking and eating, singing and dancing. The bank of the Dulong River is filled with joy and laughter. ~
Derung Marriage and Wedding Customs
Marriages have traditionally been arranged by parents. Monogamy was the rule although some polygamy was practiced. Grooms paid a bride price in cattle, iron items or cloth. Men who couldn’t raise the pride price often did a bride service instead. Women usually had high status in their households, overseeing the distribution of goods and participating in economic decisions.
Derung can not marry within their clan and marriages between cousins is forbidden. In the past, there were fixed marriage groups between clans. Betrothal gifts are an important part of the engagement and marriage process. If a wife abandons her husband and has a younger sister who is not married she is expected to marry the abandoned husband as compensation, otherwise the wife’s family has to return all the betrothal gifts. If the husband abandons his wife, the wife can return part of or none of the betrothal gifts. The Derung people used to be forbidden to intermarry with Tibetans. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
When a young man a fancies a girl enough that he wants to marry her, he sends a married man who is good at talking and has prestige as a matchmaker to girl’s village. If the matchmaker accepts the task, he takes a teapot and multi-colored bag with tea, cigarettes and an urn inside from the young man's home to the girl's home. When the matchmaker arrives at the girl's home, no matter whether the girl's family is friendly or not, the matchmaker makes a fire in the fireplace and makes some tea. He then brings out the tea and the urn from the bag and fetches the bowls and prepares tea for everyone present. He pours tea into the bowls and puts the bowls in front of them in the order of father, mother, elder brother, elder sister, younger brother, younger sister and the last one—the girl who is the jubject of the marriage proposal. If the girl's father or mother drink the tea and the others follow the proposal effort is a success. If no one drinks and the tea gets cold, it is a failure. The matchmaker can try the same thing three times and if the tea remains cold the marriage proposal has been firmly rejected and young and the a matchmaker can not try again unitl one year later. \=/
If a young man and young woman fall in love with each other, they give each other presents as tokens of mutual trust for engagement. Generally girls present elaborately knitted Derung blankets or leg wrappings to boys while boys present to girls a hoe or a back-carrying basket woven by themselves.
For the wedding ceremony, parents of both sides introduce their own son or daughter, encourage them to show loving care for each other, to run their home through hard work and thrift and to get along in harmony, advising them never to get divorced even if one of them is disabled or blind. After that, a bowl of rice wine is given to the bride and bridegroom. The couple takes the wine and indicates in front of the guests to their parents that they will comply with their parents’ advise and show respect for each other and take good care of each other for a lifetime. Finally, they take the wine bowl and drink the "wine of one heart" together.
Afterwards a wedding banquet is held. Among the foods are fried noodles, buns, rice wine, and foods made by the couple's families and brought by guests. The host of the wedding hands out food, one share for each guest and adds one piece of meat to show respect for them. People of the whole village offer congratulations and join the lively Derung and singing.
Derung Customs, Taboos and Weird Laughs
According to Chinatravel.com: “When the Derung people encounter a stranger on the road, they will always put both hands on their chest, turn their face to the right and gurgle to demonstrate greeting. Then they will enquire in a low voice, "Excuse me, where are you going?" the man being enquired will reply with a smile, "Over there." When a guest from a faraway place enter the Derung house, all the people inside the house will stand up together, bend their waist and give gusts of laughter to show greeting. Then they will greet him gently, "Please take the seat over here." The guest will reply with a smile as well as a bow, "Thank you." When the guest insists on leaving, the master of the house will accompany him to the outside of the village and stand there for a long time, looking after him with a smile as he disappears into the distance. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
Taboos on Childbearing: Women should not give birth in their house because it is believed that their "impure" air will contaminate their crossbows and hurt their hunting success. They must be carried out of the room when bearing children and carried back to the room after giving birth to be cleaned. Men are not allowed to attend women giving birth because the "impure" air will bring bad luck and even blindness to men. If a woman is married, she is not allowed to bear a child with her maiden home, otherwise it will bring bad lack to the descendants of her maiden family. Once it happens, the son-in-law needs to present two bottles of wine and some meat to his father-in- law's family as compensation. \=/
People are not allowed to cut down the trees in sacred woods; otherwise is believed that villagers may die of disease or there may be crop failure. When the master of the houses goes out hunting, guests should not visit him, otherwise the soul of guests will take away the game. The flesh of captured beast and the fish caught should not be fried with balm. If the aforementioned taboos are offended, people will hunt without success. \=/
Derung Clothes and Hairstyles
In the old days both Derung males and females wore wear their hair down to their eyebrows in front and down to their shoulders in back Both sexes used to wrap themselves in a covering of striped linen fastened with straw ropes or bamboo needles. The poorer ones often had no other clothing than a skirt of leaves. A lot time their hair was disheveled and they went barefoot. Now their clothing has greatly changed. Women wear long-sleeve garments similar to those the Lisu minority, and colored bead necklace chains. Men still often carry a crossbow and have a hunting knife on the waist.
The Derung normally wear black and white striped gunny or cotton clothes and a pair of short trousers. They wrap their upper chest with a piece of gunny from the left armpit to the right shoulder, with the left shoulder and the right arm uncovered. The Derung women mostly wear colored oil vine ring on the waist for ornament. Derung males don't wear hats. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]
Derung men used to wrap their back with a cubic meter of blanket from the left armpit to the right armpit, pulling the blanket over the chest and then tying a knot. They wore short trousers which only cover up their buttocks in front and behind. Women wrapped themselves with two cubic meters of rectangular cloth obliquely from the shoulder to the opposite knee and tied a knot in front. They wore rings or refined bamboo tubes on their ears. \=/
Now the Derungs generally wear garments of cloth with striped blanket over that. They love to dye rattans red and make them into bracelets and waist ornaments. Men like bring a machete or knife and a crossbow and when they go out. Women wear printed towels on their heads and beads around their necks. \=/
Derung Blanket: Both Clothes and Quilt
Derung blankets are durable, wearable and convenient to use. They have traditionally been worn as clothes during the day and used quilt a a quilt at night. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the dress of Derung people was very simple. Both men and women wrapped themselves in Derung blankets, woven with flax, about one meter wide and two meters long. Usually a single blanket was worn on the back, one end running over the right shoulder and the other under the left arm, meeting on the right shoulder and leaving left shoulder and right arm naked. Some women used two blankets: both slanting from the shoulders to the knees, overlapping with each other. One was tied tightly at the waist, covering both the front and the back, while the other hung naturally. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities~]
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, from 1951 to early 1960s, the central government distributed and transported large amounts of cotton clothes to the Derung people every year. Afterwards, along with the rapid development of economy, culture, transportation and other enterprises, various types of clothes have been imported to the Derung region. However, whatever they wear, many Derung people still love wearing Derung blankets as decoration and a mark of their identity. Today they are often worn over modern clothes like a poncho. ~
Derung blankets are woven on the manual loom. They used to be made of flax only. Today they are also made with cotton and wool. Derung women like weaving soft-textured blankets with cotton, wool and flax of different colors, making graceful and beautiful stripe patterns. ~
Derung Face Tattoos
In the old days, Derung girls tattooed their faces at the onset of puberty, with the patterns varying according to the clan. According to the custom, usually called "Hua Lian" (painting the face) or "Wen Mian" (tattooing the face), a girl was tattooed at the age of twelve or thirteen as a symbol of her being grown up. When it was done, an experienced old woman first drew a pattern on the girl’s face with a bamboo stick and a mixture of soot and water. Then, using a hard thorn, a needle or a sharpened wood stick, the old woman stabbed the skin according to the pattern, and then put some soot or grass juice into the wound, which became a blue tattoo after it healed. The pattern was mainly divided into two styles. In the upper and middle reaches of the Dulong River: 1) five to six connecting diamonds were tattooed between the brows down to the bridge of the nose; 2) a square of joined small diamonds was made with the mouth as the center, from the nose to the chin; 3) vertical stripes were made within the square; and 4) spots were made between the square and the eyes, intended to look like a butterfly spreading its wings, ready to take off. In the lower reaches of the river, the patterns were considerably simpler, usually only several stripes on the chin. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]
The People’s daily reported: “Derung facial tattoos often took the form of butterflies, in accordance with their belief that the souls of the dead turn into butterflies. The tattoos were etched onto the faces of the girls using bamboo needles and an ink made out of ashes from the bottoms of cooking pans. The process lasted seven or eight hours, and the girls were not allowed to wash their faces for at least five days after the ordeal in order to keep the pattern intact.[Source: Hu Hongjiang, Yang Wenming, Editor: Leo Yin, womenofchina.cn, People’s Daily December 6, 2013 ^^]
“The exact history of facial tattoos in the Derung ethnic group is still open to debate, with many scholars saying that the minority was recorded as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). As for the reasons for the facial tattoos, there are various explanations. Some experts have posited that the tattoos were to make the women less attractive, lest they be taken as slaves or raped by enemies during conflicts between the Derung and other ethnic tribes. Some say that it marked a girl's transition to womanhood, while still others believe that it was a sign to differentiate various clans or families. Others hold that the Derung people regarded tattooing as a beauty enhancer and a way to exorcise evil spirits.” ^^
Some sources say the custom of female face tattooing was done in the past as form of identification to thwart Lisu and Tibetan slave traders by making Derung women look attractive to Derung eyes but ugly to their Tibetan and Lisu captors. According to the Chinese government: Two or three centuries ago,Tibetan and Lisu landlords expanding their influence into the Derung region and cruelly exploited and oppressed the Derung people. The Tibetan landlord Chawalong demanded by force various tributes and taxes from the Derung people every year, even including tax on mouth, ears, nose and hair. If the Derung could not pay the tax, their women were taken away to Tibet as slaves. Young and beautiful women were especially of high risk of being taken away. In this peculiar social and historical environment, in order to avoid being captured as slaves, the Derung had no other choice but to adopt a passive resistance method: to blacken the cheeks with soot, or even carve and dye the face into black and blue patterns, which cannot be washed away for ever. Therefore they looked like ghosts rather than human beings, and people were too scared to get close. By and by it came to be a custom of face tattoo, until after founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Therefore, face tattoo is a passive style of struggle of the Derung women, against oppression from other minority groups.” ~
Last Remaining Derung Women with Face Tattoos
As of the 2010s, there were only 28 living Derung women with facial tattoos and experts say when these women die so too will the facial tattoo custom. Many face-tattooed women do not remember when, or why, they had their faces tattooed. "It was very painful and my face was swollen after it was tattooed," Bing Xiufang, a Derung woman in her 80s and one of the few remaining Derung women with facial tattoos, told the People’s Daily. "Both my mother and older sister had their faces tattooed, so I did as well." [Source: Hu Hongjiang, Yang Wenming, Editor: Leo Yin, womenofchina.cn, People’s Daily December 6, 2013 ^^]
The People’s daily reported: “Born in 1953, Dong Chunlian is the youngest Derung woman with facial tattoos. Unlike most of her fellow Derung people, she has traveled around to raise the profile of the Derung people. She attended the Ethnic Expo held in Taiwan in 2000, and once visited Japan. The local government now attaches great importance to the health conditions of the remaining women with facial tattoos and has established electronic health archives for each of them. "There are so few written, photo and video materials of the history of these women and the work of recording oral history has not been carried out," said a historian. "Although the living face-tattooed women do not suffer from serious illness, most of them are plagued by various minor illnesses such as rheumatism," said one doctor who regularly attends to the women. "The medical conditions here are not so advanced so we should pay close attention to their health." ^^
"The year before last there were 38 living face-tattooed women, but the number was then reduced to 31," said Li. "This year there are only 28 still alive and I am so sad when the family of the dead come to cancel their residence registration." Local authorities are planning to publish picture books of 66 face-tattooed women. The books are slated for publication in January 2014. Scholars have said that the Derung facial tattoos are a symbol of local tradition and should be respected as part of the Derung customs. The government should improve the living conditions of the Derung people and focus more on their health.” ^^
“Face-Tattooed Women in Nature: The Dulongs” is a booklet put out in 1995 by the Yunnan Publicity Centre for Foreign Countries as part of the a “Women’s Culture series, which focuses on different ethnic groups found in Yunnan province. The soft-cover 100-page booklet contains both color photographs and text describing the life and customs of women. The series is published by the Yunnan Publishing House, 100 Shulin Street, Kunming 65001 China, and distributed by the China International Book Trading Corporation, 35 Chegongzhuang Xilu, Beijing 100044 China (P.O. Box 399, Beijing, China).
Derung Culture, Creation Myths and Literature
The Derung enjoy singing and dancing. They have songs related to production, harvesting, hunting, house building, marriage proposals and festivals. Accompanying musical instruments for dancing include the oral string (a kind of Jew’s harp), gong, flute and leather drum. Women typically play the oral string, sing songs while dancing and drinking wine. Both men and women are apt to suddenly make up impromptu songs or starting a dance on the spot something inspires them. In some dances, dancers dance face to face with men in one row and women in the other row while in a circle. Some dancers swing knives and hold bows while others climb shoulders and join hands. [Source: Chinatravel.com]
Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote in Ethnic China: “The complex spiritual world of the Derung is embodied in a rich oral narrative in which are found the myths that explain virtually every activity sanctioned by Derung tradition. All these myths have evolved out of their original creation myth. This myth tells how the first human beings were created and how the Derung culture developed. It has five sections: 1) The first section depicts how the supreme gods Gamei and Gasha created the first man and woman. 2) The second tells the story of how the ant broke the stairs that allow human beings to ascend to heaven to communicate with the gods. Ever since, man and the gods have been separated. 3) The third part relates how the hunter shot the suns that threatened life on earth. 4) The fourth is about the fight between men and demons. 5) And the fifth depicts the flood that ended with everything on the earth. [Source: Ethnic China]
“The creation of human beings starts with the two gods Gamei and Gasha fashioning out of mud the first human beings: Pu and Mu, the first father and the first mother. Linked with this basic mythological cycle are the stories of Penggenpeng, the hero of the Derung people. Penggenpeng was born inside a large tree. One day he met the God of Heaven, who offered him his daughter to marry. But first he had to accomplish some difficult tasks: To catch a viper without being bitten, to gather honey without suffering the stings of the bees, and to climb a large tree. Penggenpeng was successful in all of these tasks and married the god's daughter. They received all the animals on earth as their dowry, but they disobeyed the god's will and most of the animals escaped. Penggenpeng could only catch some of them.” The animals that were caught became the fathers of domestic animals of the Derung. “If they want to have another animal, they must go to the forest to hunt for it.
“The world of the Derung is populated be many monsters that can harm the people.” The Derung have many tales about the fight between men and giants, ogres, and different kinds of demons and harmful spirits such as "Burning devils", "Pressing the devils" or "Why the people beat the devils?" Derung literature also includes trickster tales, love songs, fables and animal tales.
Image Sources: Nolls China website, People's Daily, Wikimedia 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) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated September 2022