Dong Ethnic Performance

 

From dusk till dawn, the villages of the Dong people are saturated with the harmonious sound of singing. This ethnic group has become famous throughout China for polyphonic folk songs known as “Dage” or Grand Songs. While some of these folk songs are accompanied by the pipa[1], most are sung without any musical accompaniment. The Dong ethnic minority have no written language, so they use folk songs to narrate their daily life, express their feelings, and keep a record of their history. All of Dong culture is preserved in these magnificent folk songs. The more songs a Dong person knows, the better educated they are considered to be. Singing is so important to the Dong people that supposedly, in the past, if a man couldn’t sing then he would struggle to find a wife!

From the age of five, children in the village will be trained by one of the accomplished local singers free of charge. These singing teachers enjoy a special status as highly revered members of the community. In short, people are always singing their praises! Depending on age and gender, villagers are separated into different choirs, and each choir is distinguished by their particular style of singing and the topics of their songs. For example, choirs of young children will sound sweet and lively, while choirs of young girls sound innocent and full of passion, and choirs of men have a depth to their voices that sounds haunting and powerful. Female choirs incorporate sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos, and male choirs are comprised of countertenors, tenors, baritones, and basses.

The most talented singers in any Dong village make up what are called Kam Grand Choirs or Kgal Laox in the native Dong language. The Kam Grand Choir tradition is thought to have originated sometime during the Warring States Period (475BC-221 BC), making it over 2,500 years old! In 2009, it was made a World Class Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. A Kam Grand Choir is a polyphonic choir that sings without the help of a conductor or any accompanying orchestra. Most songs performed by these choirs consist of a prelude, a main body made up of several sections, and an ending.

These songs are designed to imitate the natural world, such as the chirping of insects, the gurgling of streams, the whistling of the wind, and other soothing natural sounds. The singing is meant to spur the soul and originate from the heart, while simultaneously promoting harmony between mankind and nature. The solo singing will be done by the sopranos and the bass section is sung by the rest of the choir. Depending on the style of song, the soprano section will be performed by between one and three individuals.

There are Male Choirs, Female Choirs, and Child Choirs, and each of these is further separated into four main categories based on their styles, melodies, and the content of their songs. In the Dong dialect, these four categories are called Gating, Gama, Gaxiang, and Gaji. Gating or “Choirs of Sound” perform songs that are characterised by an undulating melody and short lyrics, employing the use of several sopranos. This style of song is dedicated almost entirely to imitating the sounds of the natural world, with the famed “Cicada Song” being the finest example. Gama or “Romance Choirs” perform songs revolving around the theme of love and employ slow rhythms and soft voices to heighten their effect.

Gaxiang or “Morality Choirs” perform songs that are designed to educate, advise, or console the audience by praising virtues and condemning inappropriate behaviour. These songs have an even tune in order to draw focus to their lyrics. Finally, Gaji or “Narrative Choirs” perform songs that focus on dialogue and plot, and are characterised by slow, melancholy, or soothing tunes. The Gaji songs are some of the hardest to perform, as they require the performers to remember lengthy lyrics, complicated plots, and various key facial expressions. Usually these songs will be led by only one soprano.

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.

The best time to enjoy the singing of the Dong people is during their New Year festival, which is normally sometime between late October and early November every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The New Year celebrations are resplendent with lively singing competitions, joyous folk dances, and vibrant performances that are truly magnificent to behold.

 

[1] Pipa: A four-stringed plucking instrument that has a pear-shaped wooden body and anywhere from 12 to 26 frets. It is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.

 

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Yintan

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Obscured by misty mountains and dense green forests, Yintan is a gem largely hidden from the rest of the world. This small Dong village just 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of Congjiang City is home to 1,700 people in 354 households and, isolated as it is, has harboured traditional Dong culture for generations. The gate is flanked by ancient Chinese yew trees, which give the village an air of mysticism as you enter. Even the name “Yintan” (银潭), meaning “Small Silver Lake”, has a certain ethereal quality to it.

Since it is so remote and has not yet been geared up for tourism, visitors rarely venture to Yintan and this only adds to its undeniably charm. While in the more popular Dong villages you’ll find yourself regularly rubbing elbows with other tourists, in Yintan the peaceful atmosphere means you can truly relax and enjoy traditional Dong culture.

The village is home to numerous Diaojiaolou, or wooden houses suspended on stilts, which climb up the mountain and mingle seamlessly with the natural scenery. These stilted dwellings are punctuated by three magnificent drum towers, which were all built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but are of different styles. Though their paint may have faded and their wood may be chipped, watching the sun set behind these towering edifices on a balmy summer’s evening is still just as breath-taking.

yintanYintan has also managed to maintain a few ancient opera stages, where performances of all kinds take place. From hearty dancing to piercing opera, the village locals really know how to enjoy the simple things in life! Unlike many other Dong communities, where youths only don their traditional outfits on festival occasions, almost all of the villagers in Yintan regularly wear their characteristic indigo-coloured clothes all year round. These clothes are handmade using the ancient tradition of cloth weaving and dyeing, which was passed on to them by their ancestors.

Almost every household in the village has a barrel for preparing indigo dye and almost every piece of clothing worn by the locals will have been made entirely by them. If you happen to be passing through Yintan on a hot summer’s day, you may even notice the freshly dyed clothes hanging from the balconies. Just don’t stand under them, or you’ll end up with indigo hair!

 

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Sanbao Dong Village

sanbao

Long ago, it is said that there was once a huge lake in Rongjiang County, with three rivers running into it. In each river there lived a dragon and, every so often, the dragons would gather in the lake to play. One year, there was a thunderous monsoon that rained for nine days and nine nights, raising the water level of the rivers and disturbing the three dragons. The thunder became louder and louder, until eventually one deafening crash scared the three dragons so much that they all swam into the South China Sea, leaving behind only three precious treasures. When the Dong people’s ancestors arrived, they found each of the treasures and settled three villages there, as it seemed like an auspicious location. The three villages then came to be known collectively as “Sanbao” or “The Three Treasures”.

Magical though this story may seem, there are actually about 19 small villages that make up Sanbao, with three main villages, known as Shangbao, Zhongbao, and Xiabao, being acknowledged as the treasures. When you live in a place called “The Three Treasures” and your village isn’t one of them, I can’t imagine it does much for your confidence! Overall Sanbao boasts about 2,500 households and a population of over 13,000 people, making it the largest Dong village in China. So, unless you’ve seen any Dong villages sprouting up near you lately, this means it’s probably the largest Dong village in the world.

Duliu River SanbaoThis cluster of villages is just 5 kilometres from Rongjiang City and lies along the banks of the Duliu River. Sanbao is flanked by stunning banyan trees, many of them over 300 years old, which stretch for over a kilometre along the river’s banks. Most of them were planted during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and, after hundreds of years of uninterrupted growth, their roots and branches have intertwined lovingly. A cobbled path winds its way around these banyan trees, dubbed “Flower Street” by the locals, and at the end stands a statue of a man named Zhu Feng and a woman named Lang Mei, the veritable Romeo and Juliet of Dong folklore. When even the trees are embracing, you know that love is in the air!

Aside from these marvellous natural wonders, Sanbao is resplendent with stunning architecture, including a series of drum towers that have earned it accolade over the years. The magnificent Chezhai Drum Tower was built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and it has remained undamaged for over 130 years, in spite of having been built without the use of nails or rivets. It towers in at 15 metres (50 ft.) in height but is tragically no match for the village’s local behemoth! The Sanbao Drum Tower, which was built in 2001, is over 36 metres (118 ft.) tall and holds the Guinness World Record for largest drum tower in the world. Though it’s not physically as large, this makes it taller than Buckingham Palace!

Alongside these spectacular architectural achievements, the village also boasts nine temples dedicated to the goddess Sa Sui. She is one of the most important deities in the Dong canon and her temples serve as perfect examples of the elegance and decorative quality of Dong architecture. In a place this scenic, you’ll soon realise why they named it “The Three Treasures”. Let’s just hope the dragons don’t decide to come back!

 

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Sanjiang

Sanjiang

With the stunning Rong River, Xun River and Miao River winding their way through its mountainous expanse, the name Sanjiang or “Three Rivers” is particularly befitting to this county. Located in the north of Guangxi, Sanjiang refers to both the county and county-level city, which lie on the border between Guizhou to the northwest and Hunan to the northeast. The city acts as a central hub between these three regions and is constantly alive with the hustle and bustle of travellers making their way across southern China. It is the capital of the Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County and thus over half of its population is made up of ethnically Dong people.

The city was established in 1105 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and is itself relatively unremarkable, as it is made up primarily of concrete high-rises and modern shopping districts. However, this modernity is punctuated by several Dong-style buildings, including the city’s very own drum tower. Though most of these structures were built relatively recently and were artificially aged, they are none-the-less beautiful and provide a stark contrast to the contemporary new builds. In most places, it’s “out with the old, in with the new”, but in Sanjiang it seems to be “out with the new, in with the old-looking”!

In the western part of the city, locals still hold vibrant markets where traders offer anything from fresh vegetables and handmade clothing to live chickens and discount microwaves! These markets are an organised chaos of food stalls, clothes merchants, haberdashers, fortune tellers, and the occasional street dentist. So if you need your tooth pulling out and have a loose heel on your shoe, but don’t have time to go to two places, the Sanjiang market is the place for you!

duliu river SanjiangSanjiang County encompasses several Dong villages and plays host to over 60 ancient theatrical stages, 120 wind-rain bridges, 200 drum towers, and 500 historical sites. The magnificent Wind-Rain Bridge in Chengyang, just 18 kilometres from Sanjiang City, is considered the most well-preserved of its kind, while the Mapang Drum Tower in Mapang Village, about 28 kilometres from the city, is a true masterpiece of Dong architecture that dates back to the Qing Dynasty. Yet perhaps one of Sanjiang’s greatest claims to fame is its newly built Bird’s Nest, which was designed to ape the strange beauty of its Beijing counterpart.

This architectural monolith was completed in 2010 and can be found in Guyi Town, just outside of Sanjiang City. Towering in at 27 metres (89 ft.) in height, with a diameter of 80 metres (262 ft.), this colossal stadium was built by local Dong people in their own architectural style and, like their drum towers and wind-rain bridges, was miraculously constructed without the use of nails or rivets. Dove-tailed joints are all that keep this arena together and each of its corners is bedecked with a beautiful carving of a bird; a symbol of luck in Dong culture.

Though this building may appear ancient, it seamlessly combines contemporary and traditional features in its performances. Numerous singing and dancing performances take place within its walls and are accompanied by modern lighting and sound. On the third floor, there are 66 exhibition rooms with displays about Dong folklore, customs, festive outfits, and works of art. One painting in particular, which was made by 20 local farmers and took two months to accomplish, is over 125 metres (410 ft.) long and is considered the largest of its kind in the world. After all, when it comes to art, sometimes size does matter!

 

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Chengyang

Chengyang is a wonderful little cluster of villages just 18 kilometres away from the city of Sanjiang. The eight villages, known separately as Ma’an, Pingzhai, Yanzhai, Chengyang-Dazhai, Pingpu, Pingtan, Jichang and Guandong, are predominantly inhabited by the Dong ethnic minority. From lofty Drum Towers to elegant Wind-Rain Bridges, their vibrant culture shines amongst Guangxi’s karst mountains. This farming community is punctuated by fields ripe with tea bushes, bubbling brooks winding past misty mountains, and wooden structures of all shapes and sizes. With eight magical places vying for your attention, you’ll be spoilt for choice!

Yet the main draw to this scenic area is Chengyang Wind-Rain Bridge, which was built in 1912 and is now over 100 years old. Though there are hundreds of wind-rain bridges in the area, this one is considered the most magnificent. It is also known as Yongji or Panlong Bridge and is made up of 2 platforms, 3 piers, 5 pavilions, 19 verandas, and 3 floors, giving it the appearance more of a palace than a bridge! It spans nearly 65 metres (211 ft.) in length and was miraculously built without the use of nails or rivets. The local Dong carpenters simply used dove-tailed joints to hold this amazing structure together and managed to accomplish the whole project without the use of blueprints!

In true Dong style, the villagers of Ma’an also hold performances twice every day. The Dong ethnic minority are well-known for their harmonious grand choirs and watching one of these performances represents both an audible and visual feast, from the soulful folk songs of the town elders to the dazzling festive outfits of the local girls. If you happen to be hiking through this cluster of villages, you may even come upon an impromptu performance in a local drum tower. Just be sure to give the villagers a small tip, otherwise the next song they sing might end up being “The Foreign Cheapskate”!

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Dong Oil Tea

dong oil tea 01

Oil tea is the traditional drink of the Dong ethnic minority. In Chinese it is referred to as yaucha or youcha (油茶), which literally means “oil tea”. It is consumed on a daily basis by Dong people, usually as part of their breakfast, but also plays a focal role in festivals and ceremonies, particularly the guest welcoming ceremony. It is perhaps better described as a “tea soup”, since it is thicker than normal tea and contains solid ingredients, such as peanuts. Oil tea comes in many different varieties, including lima-bean tea, red pea tea and white pea tea, although the basic components of the tea remain relatively unchanged.

Firstly, tea seeds are pressed to make what is called tea oil. Although these tea seeds are harvested from tea trees, they do not come from the same species of tea tree as the tea leaves used in the oil tea. Sticky or glutinous rice is cooked so that it is lovely and soft, and then dried out in the sun. After it has dried completely, it is fried in the tea oil until the rice grains puff up like popcorn. Additional ingredients, such as peanuts and soybeans, are then stir-fried. Finally, black or green tea leaves are quickly fried in the hot tea oil until they are crisp. The puffed rice, tea leaves and additional ingredients are added to individual bowls. Before the hot water is poured into the bowl, the host will normally add some extra ingredients to enhance the flavour of the tea, such as pork offal, chopped pork liver, green onions, chopped garlic leaves and salt.

dong oil tea 02The ritual surrounding the oil tea is particularly fascinating. Each guest will be presented with a bowl full of the aforementioned ingredients and one chopstick. It is said that Dong women can eat any snack using just one chopstick without piercing the food itself. In this instance, the chopstick is there primarily to indicate when you are done drinking the tea and not as a tool for drinking it. Hot water is then poured into the bowls and the tea is left to steep. Only women will serve the tea and the first bowl is always served to the oldest member of the family or the guest, following thereafter from oldest to youngest. However, out of politeness you should not start drinking the tea until everyone has been served and the hostess indicates you may begin drinking by saying “please”. As a sign of respect, every guest should drink at least three bowls of tea. The first three to four bowls of tea are usually salty, followed by a sweet tea. Once you have drank your fill, you must place the chopstick across your bowl to indicate that you are finished, otherwise the hostess will continue filling your bowl until you are ready to burst!

Oil tea is traditionally served with an array of snacks, including batter-fried fish, pickled vegetables, nuts, and fried corn. One could even say that the oil tea ceremony in Dong culture is like a Chinese version of afternoon tea in England! If you happen to be traveling through a Dong village, some friendly villager will undoubtedly invite you in for a bowl of oil tea. Although it is vastly different from the black tea that we are accustomed to, it is none-the-less healthy, tantalisingly aromatic and unexpectedly delicious. Once you catch the scent of the crispy tea leaves and the steaming bowls of rich, oily tea, we’re sure you’ll want to have a bowl!

Dong Funerary Customs

Dong funerary

Dong funerals are notoriously complex and consist of many phases. People who suffer accidental or unnatural deaths will be cremated whilst those who died from natural causes will be buried. The first phase is the “receiving of the breath” phase, where the family will listen out for the person’s last words and their last breath. Once the person has perished, three spoonfuls of clear tea and a small piece of silver are placed into their mouth. The corpse is then “washed” with wet paper money and the old clothes are removed and replaced with burial clothes. A “dream bed” is arranged for the corpse, similar to a wake, and the suona[1] is played during the vigil. A red cockerel must be sacrificed before the corpse is moved from the “dream bed” into their coffin. White cloths will be worn on the heads of the mourners, which is also common practice among the Han Chinese.

The grave, which is referred to as the “well”, is then dug high up on a mountainside. A memorial ceremony will be held and gifts will be offered to the deceased as they are lowered into the grave. As prayers are being said, another chicken is sacrificed, lowered into the grave and then pulled back out for later consumption. A funeral reception is held at the deceased’s home. The sons will then build a burial mound near the family home and, once the burial mound is complete, the deceased is “called back home” to live at the altar of the family’s ancestors.

[1] 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 Birth Customs

Dong

The birth of a child is a momentous occasion in a Dong village and requires strict adherence to many conventions. The first is the “stepping-over-the-threshold” convention, which is the belief that the first person to enter the house where the child was born will be the greatest influence on its personality and future success. After this person is established, neighbours are invited to the house to bring gifts. The birth is then announced to the mother’s family and, on the third day, female relatives will visit with more gifts.

Dong CradleAfter the visitations from friends and relatives, a ceremony called “building the bridge” is practised, where three wooden planks are lined up side by side to symbolise a bridge and express goodwill to people passing by the house. The child’s hands are then wrapped in cloth, which the Dong believe will influence the child not to steal things later in life. The child’s first haircut and first taste of fermented rice happens when they are about one month old, and it is considered unlucky if these events happen prior to the one month mark. At six months old, the child will have their first taste of meat dipped in wine, which is considered a major milestone in the child’s life.

 

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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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Dong Agriculture and Craftwork

dong rice

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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