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, 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.
 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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Spiritually speaking, the Miao people are great believers in animism and shamanism. Animism is the spiritual belief that non-human entities, such as animals, plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena, possess a spiritual essence while shamanism is the belief that certain people, known as shamans, can interact with the spirit world in a meaningful way. Some villages will have shamans whose main purpose is to exorcise evil spirits or recall the soul of a sick person. The Miao also practice ancestor worship and believe in a wide variety of spirits. Animal sacrifice is also widespread throughout many Miao communities.
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Etiquette is incredibly important to the Miao people and certain customs must be adhered to, particularly when it comes to welcoming guests. Guests who have travelled a long way are given what is called “horn spirit”, which is a locally distilled alcoholic spirit that is specifically reserved for special occasions. If you visit any of the larger Miao villages, such as Xijiang, during national holidays or festivals, then you’ll be treated to this ceremony and be invited to try the “horn spirit”. Traditionally Miao people will receive any esteemed guest by slaughtering one of their chickens for the guest to eat. This is followed by a custom known as the poultry ceremony.
In this ceremony, a chicken is killed, cooked and distributed in a specific way. The head is given to the eldest person in attendance and the leg is given to the youngest. The heart is then presented to the guest of honour by a senior member of the host family, who holds it delicately in their chopsticks. The guest must then share the heart with the person who presented it to them. This gesture illustrates how many of the Miao customs have been developed with the aim of bringing Miao communities and clans together. It is important to note that, unlike in Han Chinese culture, it is considered very insulting to overeat in a Miao household if you are a guest. It is better to excuse yourself from eating when you are full, rather than trying to eat too much.
When a married woman returns to her parent’s home to visit or when other family members come to visit, they will carry a chicken, about 2 to 3 litres of glutinous rice, a large piece of salted or fresh meat and a fish. These gifts are often simply referred to as a “mixed bundle”. When the guests arrive, the host family will call upon all of the cousins, paternal family members and members of the village to unwrap the bundle. They will all drink liquor and have dinner together. The dinner will be made up of the delicacies that the guests have brought and the glutinous rice will be shared with all of the members of the village.
On the second day through to the third or fourth day, the families who shared the food that the guests brought should in turn invite the guests to their house to eat. The guests will normally visit between four to five families per day, but will always have dinner at the host’s house. This custom is called “disturbing the village” and has been practised since ancient times. It is an important ritual for improving bonds between distant members of the family.
When the guests leave, the host family and anyone who shared the food they had brought should send gifts to them. After the guests have left, the host family will leave their door open until the guests are long gone, in order to show the guests that they are always welcome to come again. As the guests leave the village, the host will see them off. Traditionally the host must lead them along the main road instead of a smaller path, which symbolically means they are wishing their guests a safe journey home. When a guest of significant importance leaves, all of the paternal family members and villagers will see them off. The women will adorn their shoulders with colourful cloths to express good will and the guest should wear these cloths until they get home out of politeness. The women will then propose toasts to the guest and sing what are called “flying songs”, or seeing off songs, loudly and clearly. The guest will then respond with their own song before departing.
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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.
Yintan 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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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.
This 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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Kaili is often referred to as the “City of Festivals”, but don’t confuse it with Reading or Leeds; you won’t find any of the hottest musical acts here! Every year the villages surrounding the city play host to over 120 festivals, from the Miao people’s romantically charged Sister’s Meal Festival to the blazing Torch Festival of the Yi people. In fact, almost every day there’s a party somewhere in Kaili County!
The city itself is about 190 kilometres from Guizhou’s capital of Guiyang and has a population of only about 500,000 people. An approximate 75% of this population is made up of ethnic minorities, including the Bai, Dai, Dong, Miao, Yi, Zhuang, Naxi, and Hani people. So if you thought that London was culturally diverse, imagine a small city with 48 different ethnic groups!
Kaili is an industrial city and, as such, it represents a bizarre mixture of architecture, from characteristically Chinese homes built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties to the now ubiquitous concrete high-rises. Yet the greatest throwback to ancient culture can be found on Kaili’s small market streets, where Sunday bazaars take place like clockwork every week. This bustling market sprawl offers anything and everything, from locally grown produce and handmade craftworks to discount washing machines and the odd basket of chickens!
Thanks to the plethora of local farming villages that surround Kaili, the cuisine there is incredibly fresh and has been heavily influenced by the resident ethnic minorities. Spicy and sour flavours are employed to give their specialities an added tang and signature dishes include the Miao hotpot known as Sour Soup Fish and a Dong delicacy known as Pickled Fish. From the glorious traditional costumes and tantalising treats to the vibrant festivals and hand-woven crafts, Kaili is a city defined by its ethnic minority population.
The Kaili Folk Museum is entirely dedicated to these ethnic minorities, with exhibitions displaying their costumes, handicrafts, paintings, and architecture, as well as information about their history, culture, customs, and festivals. Like a colourful patchwork quilt, this museum brings together all of the elements that help to make Kaili, and Guizhou, so special.
Kaili’s superlative feature lies in its status as a cultural hub. The city provides easy access to some of the most popular villages and attractions in Guizhou, such as Langdeshang Miao Village, Xijiang Miao Village, and Leigongshan Nature Reserve. If you want to learn more about China’s vibrant ethnic minority culture, or are simply curious about what a pickled fish might taste like, Kaili is the place to be!
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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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From the thundering waters of the Huangguoshu Waterfall to the sparkling stalactites of the Dragon Palace Cave, the Bouyei people’s ancestors were wise enough to settle the fertile plains of Guizhou over 2,000 years ago! There are currently nearly 3 million Bouyei people living in China, making them the 11th most populous of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities. Though they predominantly live in Guizhou province, small communities can be found in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan and the country of Vietnam.
The Bouyei language is of Tai origin and is very closely related to that of the standard Zhuang language. It was originally accompanied by a writing system that incorporated and adapted Chinese characters. Tragically this writing system has since been lost, but a new writing system was developed in 1985 that uses the Latin alphabet. So even if you don’t understand the Bouyei words, at least you’ll recognise the letters!
The Zhuang and Bouyei both trace their ancestry back to the ancient Luoyue people and their language, behaviour and customs are very similar to that of the Luoyue. Before the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Zhuang and Bouyei were classed together under the term “alien barbarians” and appeared to be the same ethnic group. However, over time they migrated to different parts of China, developed their own unique cultures and, by the year 900 AD, they were recognised as separate ethnic groups.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the Bouyei and several other ethnic minorities suffered greatly under a landownership system that gave power and wealth to landlords but deprived the working class. Eventually this led to the Nanlong Rebellion in 1797, which resulted in many Bouyei people immigrating to Vietnam.
Nowadays Bouyei people traditionally live in settlements near mountains and rivers. As a rule, most villages will have no more than 100 households and the village entrance is usually flanked by a banyan or camphor tree, as they are considered to be sacred. The Bouyei believe that these trees protect the village and bring the villagers good fortune. So next time you’re a bit down on your luck, you may want to consider planting a tree!
In many Bouyei communities the people live in a style of wooden building known as a Diaojiaolou. These are two-storey dwellings that are suspended on stilts, with the ground floor being used for storage and the upper floors being used as living spaces. However, the Bouyei villages near the Huangguoshu Waterfall, particularly Chengguan Town in Zhenning County, are particularly famous for an ingenious style of stone house.
These stone dwellings are made without using cement and are built by simply layering specially cut flagstones in such a way that they create a natural, stable framework. In some cases even the roof will be made out of carefully placed stone sheets! Only the rafters will be made from wood and oftentimes-even furnishings, such as tables, stools, bowls, and cisterns, will be carved from stone. So you could say the Bouyei never made it out of the Stone Age!
The variety of flavours used in Guizhou cuisine means that, no matter what you fancy, there’ll be a local snack to satisfy your craving. Whilst the snacks in other provinces may strike us as far too large to simply be called snacks, the ones in Guizhou have been perfectly portioned to pack a big punch in a small package. The key to the potency of these snacks is in their liberal use of seasoning, which adds layers of flavour that one wouldn’t expect from such a small dish. We’ve included here just a few of the tastiest morsels that you might encounter on your travels in Guizhou.
These crispy bean curd balls are a beloved local snack throughout Guizhou province. Tiny balls of tofu are rolled up and fried until they are golden brown on the outside and tender on the inside. Sometimes pork mince and green onions are chopped up and stuffed into the bean curd balls to add extra flavour. Traditionally bean curd balls are served with a sauce made from crushed chilli powder, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, pepper and chopped green onions.
Changwang Noodles (肠旺面)
Changwang noodles are the breakfast of choice for most Guizhou locals. The noodles themselves are made from eggs, and are gently boiled in water before being scooped up and delicately ladled into a bowl of steaming chicken broth. The noodles are then garnished with cooked pork offal, blood curd, crispy diced pork, green onions and chilli oil. The crispy slices of pork, the soft blood curd and the aromatic soup all come together to make a dish that is frankly far too delicious to just have for breakfast.
Lovers Tofu (恋爱豆腐果)
The name “Lovers Tofu” was adopted during World War II. This snack was frequently used to stave off hunger when locals were waiting for the all-clear after an air raid siren sounded. Supposedly, since these moments also allowed local men and women to mingle freely and frequently resulted in the development of romantic partnerships, the tofu was aptly dubbed “Lovers Tofu”. The recipe for Lovers Tofu varies from vendor to vendor, but traditionally it consists of a square of tofu, about the size of your palm, that is gently grilled until it is golden brown on the outside but still soft on the inside. The vendor then slices open the centre of the square and fills it with finely chopped zhe ergen and a sauce made from red chillies, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, garlic and ginger.
The name Siwawa literally means “silk doll” in Chinese and is derived from the appearance of this snack, which supposedly looks like an infant swaddled in cloth. First you take a thin rice-flour pancake and liberally fill it with shreds of vegetables like seaweed, radishes, bean sprouts, cucumber, zhe ergen, and fried soybeans. Chilli paste is added last and the pancake is then rolled up. The vendor will usually add some sauce to the pancake to taste. This snack is an explosion of flavours, spicy and sour, crispy and wonderfully refreshing.
La Rou is a kind of bacon that originated from the Miao ethnic minority. The local Miao people allow their pigs to roam freely because they believe this will keep them fat and happy. They cure and smoke the bacon in their own homes, which gives the bacon its distinctively salty, succulent and smoky flavour.
 Blood curd: A gelatinous curd, like tofu, made from the blood of an animal, usually a pig. Its flavour resembles that of British black pudding, but its texture is much softer.
 Zhe ergen: An edible root that is usually found growing near rice fields. It’s said to have a fresh, peppery flavour and a satisfyingly woody crunch, although some people describe its flavour as medicinal and bitter.