Dong Oral Literature

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Dong people are renowned for their singing, particularly for the formation of what are known as Kam Grand Choirs, which are called Kgal Laox in their own language. Operas are also particularly popular among the Dong people.

Many folktales are preserved in Dong oral literature, usually in the form of songs. The focus of many popular tales re-count the leaders of past uprisings, such as Wu Mian, who led the 1378 rebellion against the Ming Dynasty during drought and famine, and Wu Jinyin, who revolted in 1740 because of a rise in grain taxes. Non-historical folktales include the two orphan brothers, Ding Lang and the dragon princess, the frog and the swallow, the dog, and the singing tree.

 

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Miao Agriculture and Craftworks

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The cultivation of rice and maize are the chief means of subsistence for the Miao people. Rice, maize, millet and sweet potatoes are their staple foods, although in more northern areas they eat maize, buckwheat, potatoes and oats. Miao food typically employs sour and peppery flavours to enhance their dishes. Although the Miao diet is relatively simple, Miao dishes such as Fish in Sour Soup and snacks such as La Rou (a kind of cured, smoked bacon) are popular throughout Guizhou for their rich, flavoursome taste.

miao02The craftwork of the Miao people is particularly magnificent. Miao men are accomplished at silverwork and all of the silver adornments worn by the Miao women will have been made by Miao silversmiths. The artistry of the Miao traditional dress is in part thanks to these silversmiths and in part thanks to the Miao women’s aptitude for embroidery. Their skill at embroidery is renowned throughout China and the Miao women embroider all of their own clothes. The main colours used in Miao embroidery are red and green, although colours will vary between different subgroups of Miao people. The patterns and figures embroidered on clothing are based partly on the natural world but also partly on the artists’ imagination. This is why dragons and phoenixes also feature in many designs and why certain animals, such as fish and birds, and plants will look different compared to how they appear in real life. Miao embroidery is famed for its delicacy, imaginative designs and use of vibrant colour.

苗族银饰The Miao women are also famed for their skill at the art of batik and their technique dates back over 1,000 years. First, the women use a knife that has been dipped in hot wax to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth. These batik cloths are incredibly colourful and, although the method seems crude, the patterns on the cloth can be wonderfully elaborate.

The craftworks of the Miao people are beyond compare and look even more beautiful when worn during festivals or daily life. If you’re travelling through Guizhou during festival time, we strongly recommend you visit any of the Miao villages and marvel at the stunning traditional dress of the Miao people.

 

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Miao Traditional Dress

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The daily clothing worn by Miao people will differ from place to place and many of the Miao subgroups are designated by the colour of their clothes, such as the Hmub Miao of southeast Guizhou who are often referred to as the Black Miao because of their characteristically indigo coloured clothing. In northwest Guizhou and northeast Yunnan, the Miao men will typically wear linen jackets that are colourfully embroidered and woollen blankets draped over their shoulders that are decorated in geometric patterns. In other areas, the men will wear short jackets that are buttoned down the front or to the left, long trousers with wide belts and long black scarves. In west Hunan and northeast Guizhou, the women wear jackets buttoned on the right and trousers that have delicately embroidered collars, sleeves and trouser legs. In other areas, the women wear high-collared short jackets and pleated skirts of varying length. These pleated skirts can have hundreds or even thousands of vertical pleats.

miao01The pleated skirts worn by many young Miao women are culturally significant and wonderful legends abound as to how they came to be. The legend called “the Origin of the Pleated Skirts” states that, in order to differentiate themselves from other ethnic minorities, a mother and daughter set about sewing a unique skirt for the Miao people. They thought long and hard about what the skirt should look like but to no avail. Later, as they were walking through the countryside, they came across a kind of local fungus. The shape of this fungus inspired them and they set about sewing a skirt that would imitate the pleats of the fungus. Once it was complete, they wore the skirt to the flower site to thread flowers onto it. Other Miao women saw the skirt and all immediately praised it. Eventually, these pleated skirts spread throughout the Miao villages and even women from different branches of the Miao people began to wear pleated skirts of different lengths.

These pleated skirts can be divided into three lengths: long, mid-length and short. Long skirts reach near the ankle, mid-length skirts are below the knee and short skirts are above the knee. The length of the skirt can be used to distinguish different subgroups of Miao. For example, in Leishan there are a group of Miao women referred to as “short skirt Miao” because their skirts are only about 20 centimetres long. The legend behind this short skirt goes that a long time ago, in ancient times, there was a very brave and handsome Miao hunter. One day he caught a beautiful golden pheasant and sent it to his beloved, a girl called Abang. To express her gratitude, Abang wove cloth by hand and then stitched and embroidered it to imitate the feathers of the golden pheasant. When the hunter returned, she wore the beautifully decorated short skirt and looked as magnificent as the golden pheasant. Thereafter, this style of richly coloured and delicately embroidered short skirt became popular in Leishan.

Miao01On top of their beautifully embroidered clothes, Miao women are also famed for the glittering silver adornments that they wear during festival time. The Miao people regard silver as a symbol of wealth and so have a particular fondness for it. They also believe silver symbolises light and good health, so wearing silver will ward off evil spirits, stave off natural disasters and bring good fortune. When it comes to the ornamental silver worn by the Miao women, the heavier the better, so some festival outfits can weigh upwards of 20 to 30 jin (about 10 to 15 kg).

A typical festival outfit worn by a Miao woman will include a hat or crown, horns, a comb, earrings or ear pendants, a neckband, a necklace, a collar, bracelets, and rings, all made of silver. Most of these will have been handmade by Miao silversmiths. The decorations are typically in four styles: symmetrical style, balanced style, connected style and radiating style. They usually feature patterns involving dragons, phoenixes, flowers and birds.

The most striking of these adornments is the silver hat or crown. Common motifs for the silver hats are a magpie stepping on plum, a golden pheasant calling out, a peacock spreading its tail, and a male and female phoenix perched together. These motifs can vary in appearance from region to region. For example, the phoenix hat of the Huangping region features hundreds of silver flowers, four birds and one phoenix. The silver pieces at the back of this hat are meant to imitate the phoenix’s tail feathers.

In some Miao villages, such as the ones near Kaili, Leishan, Danzhai and Taijiang, the silver horns are the most important adornment. They vary in thickness and are meant to look like the horns of a bull. The horns are each typically 50 to 70 centimetres long. They normally have patterns hammered into them, such as phoenixes or dragons holding pearls, and are sometimes decorated with feathers or tassels. The collar is another indispensable silver adornment for Miao women and is sometimes called a “moon plate” because it is shaped like a crescent moon. Miao women will also wear either 3 to 5 bracelets or 7 to 8 bracelets on each wrist. These bracelets come in several different styles and can even be made to look like dragons.

The Chinese often refer to Miao women as “fairies” because of the ethereal appearance that their festival clothes give them. They are considered so beautiful and majestic in their traditional dress that they appear almost otherworldly. If you plan on visiting any of the Miao villages, we strongly recommend that you aim to arrive during festival time and catch these fairies flitting about the villages, singing and dancing in their glittering splendour.

 

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Dong Agriculture and Craftwork

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Dong people are well-known for cultivating dozens of varieties of glutinous rice, which are called “Kam rice” or “good rice”. They also typically grow maize, millet and mushrooms, and a variety of fruit, such as plums, peaches, pears, and watermelons, to supplement their diet. Dong people raise pigs, chickens, ducks, geese and fish for food, water buffalo for ploughing and for food, and dogs for protection and companionship. The “four pillars” of Dong cuisine are glutinous rice, pickled vegetables, red chillies and rice wine. Other popular local food includes barbecued fish, oil tea, and glutinous rice snacks. The Dong people also occasionally eat giant salamander, which is considered a rare local specialty. They will normally have two hot meals (breakfast and dinner) and one cold meal (lunch) every day.

dong life02Cotton is locally grown and weaved into cloth that is used to make clothes. Silks and finer cloths are exclusively used to make festival clothing. Dong men will normally wear short jackets with buttons down the middle, although in the south they wear collarless shirts and turbans. Dong women wear skirts or trousers that have beautifully embroidered hems. They wear their hair in a coil and wrap their legs and heads in decorative scarves.

Most regions where Dong villages are found are also famous for their fir trees. Dong people use the wood from these trees to build their houses and other structures in the village. They are skilful carpenters, and are also accomplished at silverwork and wickerwork. Wickerwork is usually done by the men, who use materials such as glutinous rice straw and bamboo to make baskets and other wicker furnishings.

 

 

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The Performance of Miao Ethnic Minority

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Performances in Miao villages will always be set to music and, when it comes to the Miao people, the lusheng[1] is the instrument of choice, although other instruments like the suona[2] and the copper drum are also popular. During many festivals, the lusheng dance will be the focal attraction. It is a traditional dance performed by the Miao people in southeast Guizhou. This style of dance can be divided into two types: lined dance and stepping dance. In the lined dance, the performers will hold their lusheng, stand in a line and dance while turning around, with the performer playing the largest lusheng as their axis. In the stepping dance, two performers will play lusheng of the same size and act as the leaders of the dance. The other performers will circle around them and follow their movements.

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The stepping dance in Rongshui County, Guangxi, is considered particularly magnificent as dozens of lusheng are played and hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of people will join in the dance. It is a true spectacle of joy and a wonderful opportunity to hear the folk music played on the lusheng. In western Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan the Miao people have become particularly famous for their special, acrobatic lusheng dance. Normally it involves one, two, four or eight performers. For example, in Yuanyang, Yunnan, a performer will climb up a decorated wooden pole that is several metres high whilst still playing the lusheng. While continuing to play, they will pick an object off of the top of the pole and climb down. Finally, when they are one or two metres from the ground, they will somersault off of the pole while still playing their lusheng. Other acrobatic tricks include playing the lusheng upside down, playing it whilst performing rolls, and playing it whilst jumping over objects.

 

[1] Lusheng: A wind instrument made of multiple bamboo pipes, each fitted with a free reed, that are all in turn fitted into a large, hardwood pipe. Normally there are five or six bamboo pipes that are each of a different pitch. Air is blown into the hardwood pipe to create sound. They vary in size from small, handheld ones to ones that are several metres in length.

[2] Suona: A Chinese wind instrument. It is made up of a horn with a double reed that makes a distinctively loud and high-pitched sound. It comes in several sizes and the size of the horn affects the sound it makes. It is used throughout China in ritual music and folk music.

 

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Dong Marriage Customs

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In Dong culture, courtship traditionally takes place in three stages. The first stage, known as the early meeting phase, is when the man and the woman will sing songs and recite poems to one another as part of a group. The second stage, known as the deepening love phase, is when the man and woman single one another out so their interaction is on a one-to-one basis and the songs are more spontaneous. The final phase, known as the exchange of a token phase, is when the man offers the women a token of his affection and the woman is expected to make excuses to test the persistence of her suitor. This token is usually a small gift that has little monetary value but it is incredibly symbolically important, as it is the Dong equivalent of offering the woman an engagement ring.

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Dong weddings normally last three days and begin in the bride’s family home. After the ceremony in the bride’s home, the bride is transported to the groom’s home, where the groom’s family will host an afternoon reception and an all-night feast. The following day, the guests take part in the “block the horse” ceremony, where the hosts block the village gate whilst singing songs. In Liping region, traditionally the bride continues to live at her parents’ home until she gives birth to her first child. Thereafter she will live with her husband permanently. In some Dong communities, the bride will living with her family after the wedding for a couple of years, since many Dong women get married when they are still very young. The family’s silver jewellery will usually be passed onto the bride by the mother after she is married.

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Dong people were going for a wedding, with their gifts.

 

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Dong Ethnic Minority Spirituality

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The Dong people are polytheistic and most of their religious beliefs revolve around animism. Animism is the spiritual belief that non-human entities, such as animals, plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena, possess a spiritual essence. The Dong people also worship their ancestors and a few mythical shared ancestor figures such as Song Sang, Song En, Zhang Liang, and Zhang Mei.

Dong deities tend to be based around buildings, natural elements or sacred natural phenomena, such as the two fire spirits, one of which is good and one of which is evil, the spirits of the sky and the earth, the bridge goddess, and the spirits of thunder and lightning. The most important deity in Dong mythology is known as Sa Sui and she is thought to be one of the original land goddesses. Other deities associated with more abstract concepts include the god who banishes evil, the love god, who consists of five male gods, and the family prosperity gods. Snakes are particularly important in Dong religion as they are believed to be the progenitors of their ancient ancestors.

Dong people believe in religious totems, usually in the form of turtles, dragons or snakes, and in divination, using rice grains, bamboo roots, snails, and chicken bones for this purpose. Other spiritual practices include: rituals, such as dragon dances and fire prevention ceremonies; sorcery, which is used to repel evil spirits, recover the soul of a disturbed child, exact revenge on enemies or induce someone to fall in love; and shamanism, which plays a predominantly holistic medicinal role.

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There are also many cultural taboos in Dong culture, many of which relate to pregnant women. For example, pregnant women should not participate in marriage ceremonies or arrangements, visit sick acquaintances, sacrifice to gods, or watch new houses being built. Unmarried Dong men should not eat pigs’ feet, as they have cleft hooves, metal should not be placed in coffins, as departed souls fear metal objects, and the lusheng[1] should not be played between the sowing and transplanting of rice seedlings, as it may attract a plague of insects. These are but a few of many taboos that the Dong people adhere to.

 

[1] Lusheng: A wind instrument made of multiple bamboo pipes, each fitted with a free reed, that are all in turn fitted into a large, hardwood pipe. Normally there are five or six bamboo pipes that are each of a different pitch. Air is blown into the hardwood pipe to create sound. They vary in size from small, handheld ones to ones that are several metres in length.

 

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Miao Marriage Customs

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On top of social bonding, Miao customs become particularly complex and significant during courtship. Nowadays Miao men and women are free to mingle and premarital sex is tolerated within the community. Men and women can select their own husbands and wives, although certain customs are still adhered to. During the Miao New Year, groups of girls and boys from different villages will pass a ball to one another as part of the festivities. This act is designed to introduce them to one another from an early age and help deepen their affections for one another.

By the time they are older, they will take part in a courtship ritual that is made up of two main stages. The first stage, known as the “walking around” stage or sometimes the “visiting villages”, “meeting girls” or “stepping the moon” stage, is when men from surrounding villages will travel to one village to meet the women. This usually takes place during major festivals and will be held on a designated site near the village. The second stage takes place directly after the first and it is when the men sing antiphonal love songs to the women.

Sister’s Meal FestivalAlthough they are not as well-known for their singing as the Dong ethnic minority, the Miao people are very fond of singing and dancing. Their songs do not rhyme, are easy to understand and can vary in length from a few lines to more than 15,000. Through this antiphonal singing, women and men can get to know each other’s backgrounds better. Once a man likes and a woman and it is established that she returns his affections, they will secrete themselves from the designated site and sing or talk privately. After they have gotten to know each other over a period of time, they will exchange love tokens called “diubabin” and decide to get married. When a man and woman fall in love, people in the village will all prepare and eat glutinous rice cakes. These glutinous rice cakes are also given out during the Sister’s Meal Festival, a Miao festival similar to that of Valentine’s Day, and are regularly exchanged between boys and girls as a token of affection.

 

MIao crying weddingDuring weddings, special glutinous rice cakes with patterns of a dragon and a phoenix will be eaten and established couples will drink from what is called the “nuptial cup”. This is where partners pour the liquor into each other’s mouth or link arms and then drink from their own cup. Toasts like these are usually proposed by women. Normally the first toast is made to the host, followed by toasts to the guests. In some cases, the first toast is made to the eldest person attending the feast. Traditionally two cups of horn spirit must be drunk as part of a toast. The Miao believe this is a fitting number, as people walk with two feet so they can drink two cups of horn spirit.

 

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Miao Ethnic Minority

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The Miao are one of the 55 ethnic minority groups found in China and it is estimated that over 9 million Miao people live in China today. Yet the term “Miao” can sometimes be a little misleading as it actually encompasses a number of ethnic groups that are only loosely related by language. Although their languages all come from the Miao-Yao language family, their dialects are often mutually unintelligible and their customs can be vastly different. Roughly speaking, within the Miao ethnic minority there are 6 different languages and an estimated 35 different dialects. Yet many Miao groups agree that they share a common ancestry and celebrate many of the same festivals.

The Miao can be further subdivided into the Hmong, Hmub, Xong (Qo-Xiong), and A-Hmao. These subgroups have been divided based on the general colouring of the women’s clothes within that subgroup. Hmong Miao have settled throughout south and east Yunnan, south Sichuan and west Guizhou and are often referred to as White Miao, Green/Blue Miao, or Small Flowery Miao. Hmub Miao are concentrated primarily in southeast Guizhou and are designated as Black Miao. Xong (Qo-Xiong) Miao are located in west Hunan and are called Red Miao. Finally, A-Hmao Miao, or Big Flowery Miao, can be found in west Guizhou and northeast Yunnan. Of these four subgroups, the Hmong Miao are the only group to have immigrated out of China and small pockets of Hmong Miao can be found in America, France, Australia and a few other western countries.

Though these subgroups have distinct differences, they all agree on a common ancestry. According to legend, the Miao descended from the ancient Jiuli tribe, which was led by the quasi-mythical warrior Chiyou[1]. In 2500 B.C. the Jiuli struggled against the Huaxia, who were the ancient ancestors of the Han Chinese, over supremacy of the Yellow River valley. Not long after this struggle, the Jiuli tribe were forced further south by the Huaxia until they eventually separated into the Li and Miao tribes. As there is no historical record or DNA evidence that supports this claim, no one really knows which tribe triumphed or if the legend is necessarily true. Nowadays it really depends on who you ask!

Modern research, however, has given some credence to the legend. New evidence suggests that the Miao may have been among the first people to have settled in China. Researchers found that many words in Chinese related to rice farming were borrowed from the Miao language. This indicates that the Miao were likely among the first rice farmers in China. In the middle Yangtze River region, geneticists have also established a connection between the Miao and the Daxi, whose culture dates back approximately 5,300 to 6,000 years ago. The Daxi have long been credited as being some of the first cultivators of rice in China, meaning the Miao may have at least descended from or perhaps have been among the first settlers in China. If Miao ancestry dates back all the way to the founding of China, it is no wonder that, over time, they have developed into so many subgroups!

The term “Miao”, however, didn’t appear officially until it was first used by the Han Chinese sometime before the Qin dynasty (before 221 B.C.). Thereafter it tended to be applied to what the Han Chinese perceived as “barbarians”, particularly during the Ming and Qing dynasties when the Miao people waged frequent rebellions against imperial rule. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Miao played a focal role in the history of Communist China by providing Mao Zedong with supplies and guides through their territory so that he could escape the Kuomintang during the Long March.

In Miao culture, a village leader would normally be appointed to oversee each village, although nowadays these villages come under government jurisdiction. These village leaders still play important roles in the community, particularly in isolated Miao villages such as Basha. The average Miao village contains 100 to 200 households, although smaller villages have no more than 10 households and the largest villages contain over 1,000. Miaos have a reputation for living in mountainous areas so their villages tend to be perched on mountainsides or hillsides. They live in dwellings known as Diaojiaolou, which are wooden houses that are held up by stilts. These houses are normally two to three-storeys high. The front of the house is held up by pillars but the rear of the house is suspended on wooden poles, making it level with the mountainside. The ground floor, underneath the wooden poles, is used for livestock and firewood while the second floor is a general living space and the third floor is either a bedroom or an extra storage space. The houses are all built by villagers using local fir wood and they are a magnificent example of the craftsmanship exhibited by the Miao people.

The Miao people are one of the oldest ethnic minorities in China and their fascinating customs, elaborate dress and remarkable festivals are a reflection of their enduring legacy. If you’re taking a tour though Guizhou, the Miao villages of Basha and Langde are certainly a must-see.

[1] Chiyou: leader of the ancient Nine Li tribe in Chinese mythology who is most famous for his fight against the Yellow Emperor during the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors era. Although the Han Chinese view him as a tyrant, the Miao people venerate him as a wise and noble king and sometimes worship him as a deity.

Read more about Miao Ethnic Minority:

Miao Spirituality       Traditional Dress       Marriage Customs       Other Customs       Agriculture and Craftwork       Performance

Famous Miao Villages:   Basha       Langde Upper Village       Xijiang

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Dong Ethnic Minority

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The Dong ethnic group are renowned for their musical ability and their skill as carpenters. From the Kam Grand Choirs to the looming Drum Towers, Dong villages are a place of harmony and wonder. The Dong people boast a population of nearly 3 million in China and the vast majority of them are concentrated in eastern Guizhou, western Hunan and northern Guangxi. Legends abound as to how the Dong people came to settle where they are now. Although all Dong people agree that their ancestors migrated from the east, southern Dong people believe their ancestors came from Guangdong and Guangxi, whilst northern Dong people believe their ancestors were forced to flee from Zhejiang and Fujian due to locust swarms. Their culture stretches back hundreds of years and this is evident in their daily life and local festivals.

The average Dong village consists of about 200 to 300 households, although the smallest ones will have only 10 to 20 and the largest can have upwards of 1,000. Villages are traditionally led by a council of elders, who are usually over the age of 60 and who utilise the village Drum Tower to hold meetings and discuss local affairs. There are certain features that are common throughout all Dong villages and these include wooden houses supported by stilts, Wind-Rain bridges, Drum Towers, sacred ancient trees, bullfighting arenas, wells surrounded by stone rims, communal fish-ponds, village gates, and altars to the deity Sa Sui.

The Dong language, known as Kam or Gam, is as complex as their culture. Kam is a tonal language but unlike Chinese, which has only 4 tones, there are a staggering 9 tones in Kam that are all used to denote meaning. Officially no written form of Kam exists, although there is now a Latin Romanisation of their language. The history, folktales and legends of the Dong people have all been passed down through song as part of their oral tradition.

 

Read more about Dong Ethnic Minority:

Dong Spirituality       Marriage Customs       Birth Customs       Funerary Customs

Agriculture and Craftwork       Performance      Oral Literature

Famous Dong Villages:   Chengyang       Sanbao      Xiaohuang       Yintan       Zhaoxing

 

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