The Dong: Adroit singers, carpenters

Culture, Travel | by James Weir
Posted: November 9th, 2011 | Updated: November 14th, 2011 | Comments

Southern China's Miao ethnic minority

Dong minority architecture With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China constitutes just under 20% of the world's inhabitants. Making up the vast majority of residents (91.59%) are the ubiquitous Han, leaving just a little over 8% to the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the People's Republic. In Minority Report, we explore the colorful characters, customs and cultures of these fascinating peripheral groups. >>> If you were versed in the native Dong tongue, the Dong peoples (Dòngzú, 侗族) of Guangxi, Hunan and Guizhou would have plenty to say. They existed for centuries without a written language (an orthography was assigned to the Dong, like many of the minorities in China, in the mid 20th century; today, it is seldom used, and few can read or write the script created by the Party researchers), and have a vibrant spoken history, with the tales of the villages remembered in song. Amy Tan, in her piece on the village of Dimen in the mountains of Guizhou, tells of a village elder who remembers all 120 verses of the song of the village history, a meandering melody that lasts for hours. But as the elders pass on, there is the risk of losing the village record as the younger generations become in touch with the world through cell phones and modern roads, and lose interest in their own cultural history: "That old song is boring,” two teenage girls later told (Amy Tan). “We’re too busy to learn something we don’t like.” Having lived in roughly the same region for many centuries, the Dong today number slightly less than 3 million, a population divided by a language barrier between the northern and the southern villages. While the separate groups continue to live in similar communities and follow similar traditions, their languages are unintelligible to one another. The Dong descend from tribes that have lived near and around the confluence of the present day Guangxi, Hunan and Guizhou borders since around the time of the unification of China. Dong minority rain and wind bridge If you follow the official Party line of Dong history, they have been enslaved or oppressed by feudal landlords for their entire existence, and it wasn't until the early 20th century and the founding of the Communist Party that they began to have success fighting back against their oppressors (aided, of course, by the Red Army). In 1951, a "momentous event" took place for the Dong with the establishment of the Longsheng Autonomous County of the Dong, Zhuang, Miao and Yao (which was then followed by the establishment of Guangxi's Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, Hunan's Tongdao Dong Autonomous County and Xinhuang Dong Autonomous County, and the Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou). Naturally, these autonomous districts have given the Dong peoples immense freedoms that they have never before experienced, and the oppressed women of traditional Dong society now have opportunities in the political and social sphere provided by the Party. With the elimination of witch doctors and the introduction of new medicine, there is virtually no disease left in the Dong villages that were once riddled with plague and infection. The once warring factions of regional ethnic minorities have entirely ceased engaging in fisticuffs over territorial disputes and have spent the last 60 years living in total harmony. But don't be entirely fooled by my tone. While the Party's account of Dong history rings with suspiciously pro-Party sentiment, it seems that the Dong have indeed always been dealt a pretty lousy hand. Legend has it that the original Dong migrated to the region to avoid locust swarms (yikes!), and had over the years failed in all their challenges to overthrow the yoke of feudalism, living perpetually under the strong arm of one imperial entity or another. The Dong have traditionally warred with other minority tribes in the region and clashed with the Han majority. While it is likely that life has indeed improved for the Dong minority, my guess is that life under the Party brings a new set of struggles, the good hand in hand with the bad. But the Dong persevere. They live today much as they did a thousand years ago, an existence centered around small farming villages that are known for their unique architecture. The Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge (Chéngyáng Fēng Yǔ Qiáo, 程阳风雨桥) is a massive testament to the Dong's skill with wood building. It's a 78 meter architectural feat that spans the Linxi River and was built without a single rivet or nail. Additionally, the Dong peoples build their homes without nails or rivets, and they're often three stories high (with the ground floor semi open and serving as storage for grains and livestock). Properly cared for, the homes can last for decades, barring environmental incidents like mudslides, fires and flooding. Each village has at least one traditional Dong Drum Tower, which serves as a spiritual and social meeting place for villagers of all ages. The villagers continue to subsist on the land they till and the animals they raise. They are particularly adept at cultivating glutinous rice, and along with local fruits, vegetables and the meat of their animals, they eat well. Dong minority history and culture The recent economic boom in China has effected the Dong tourist industry significantly. As tourism has exploded on the continent, crowds have begun to flock to the countryside to catch a glimpse of the elusive, strange minorities. Planned ethnic villages (that appear more like vaguely racist theme parks than cultural destinations) have sprung up across the country in a bid to preserve the minority cultures, and to educate the masses about the exotic peoples who still live much as they did many centuries ago. Sadly, these attempts fall flat, and such undertakings often oversimplify the people in question and put them on display for the 'civilized Han' and the 'cultured Westerner' much like animals in a zoo. A quick Google search of any of the minorities often yields as many racist generalizations by travel guides and tourism companies as it does any actual facts about the groups and their thousands of years of history and culture. And so the Dong villages of today live on. Some, like the village of Zhaoxing (Zhàoxìng, 肇兴), have embraced the tourists, and restaurants carry English language menus and the villagers converse more and more in Mandarin, welcoming the influx of money. Other more isolated villages carry on largely unaffected, and can be reached by the more resilient traveler, like Tang'an (Táng'ān, 堂安), Jitang (Jītáng, 基塘) and Yutouzhai (Yùtouzhài, 芋头寨). But wherever you go you will certainly be greeted with gorgeous hillsides and the faces of a resilient, unique people.
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