Dong Ethnic Minority Spirituality


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.


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

MIao wedding 01

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


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

dong ethnic minority 01


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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