The Dong ethnic minority
Population: 2.5 million
Major area of distribution: Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi
Nestling among the tree-clad hills dotting an extensive stretch of territory on the Hunan-Guizhou-Guangxi borders are innumerable villages in which dwell the Dong people.
The population of this ethnic group in China is 2.5 million. Situated no more than 300 km north of the Tropic of Cancer, the area peopled by the Dongs has a mild climate and an annual rainfall of 1,200 mm. The Dong people grow enormous numbers of timber trees which are logged and sent to markets. Tong-oil and lacquer and oil-tea camellia trees are also grown for their edible oil and varnish.
The most favorite tree of the people of this ethnic group is fir, which is grown very extensively. Whenever a child is born, the parents begin to plant some fir saplings for their baby. When the child reaches the age of 18 and marries, the fir trees, that have matured too, are felled and used to build houses for the bride and groom. For this reason, such fir trees are called "18-year-trees." With the introduction of scientific cultivation methods, a fir sapling can now mature in only eight or 10 years, but the term "18-year-trees" is still current among the Dong people.
Farming is another major occupation of the Dongs, who grow rice, wheat, millet, maize and sweet potatoes. Their most important cash crops are cotton, tobacco, rape and soybean.
With no written script of their own before 1949, many Dongs learned to read and write in Chinese. Philologists sent by the central government helped work out a Dong written language on the basis of Latin alphabet in 1958.
Customs and Habits
The Dongs live in villages of 20-30 households located near streams. There are also large villages of 700 households. Their houses, built of fir wood, are usually two or three stories high. Those located on steep slopes or riverbanks stand on stilts; people live on the upper floors, and the ground floor is reserved for domestic animals and firewood. In the old days, landlords and rich peasants dwelled in big houses with engraved beams and painted columns. Paths inside a village are paved with gravel, and there are fishponds in most villages. One lavish feature of Dong villages are the drum towers. Meetings and celebrations are held in front of these towers, and the Dong people gather there to dance and make merry on New Year's Day. The drum tower of Gaozhen Village in Guizhou Province is especially elaborate. Standing 13 stories high, it is decorated with carved dragons, phoenixes, flowers and birds.
Equally spectacular is folk architecture that goes into the construction of bridges. Wood, stone arches, stone slabs and bamboo are all used in erecting bridges. The roofed bridges which the Dongs have dubbed "wind and rain" bridges are best-known for their unique architectural style. The Chengyang "Wind and Rain" Bridge in Sanjiang is 165 meters long, 10 meters across and 10 to 20 meters above the water. Roofed with tiles engraved with flowers, it has on its sides five large pagoda-like, multi-tier pavilions beautifully decorated with carvings. It is a covered walkway with railings and benches for people to sit on and enjoy the scenes around.
A typical Dong diet consists mainly of rice. In the mountainous areas, glutinous rice is eaten with peppers and pickled vegetables. Home-woven cloth is used to make traditional Dong clothing; finer cloth and silks are used for decoration or for making festival costumes. Machine-woven cloth printed black and purple or blue is becoming more popular.
Men usually wear short jackets with front buttons. In the mountainous localities in the south, they wear collarless skirts and turbans. The females are dressed in skirts or trousers with beautifully embroidered hems. Women wrap their legs and heads in scarves, and wear their hair in a coil.
Many popular legends and poems, covering a wide spectrum of themes, have been handed down by the Dongs from generation to generation. Their lyrics tend to be very enthusiastic, while narrative poems are subtle and indirect, allusive and profound. Songs and dances are important aspects of Dong community life. Adults teach traditional songs to children, and young men sing them.
Prior to 1949, the feudal patriarchal family was the basic social unit. Women were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and they were even forbidden to touch sacrificial objects. Girls lived separately on the upper floors allowing no men to visit them. After marriage, women were given a little share of "female land" for private farming. Monogamy was and is practiced. Childless couples were allowed to adopt sons, and only men were entitled to inherit family property.
A newlywed woman continued to live with her own parents. She went to her husband's home only on holidays and on special occasions. She would go to live with her husband permanently after giving birth to her first child.
Dong funeral rituals are similar to those of the Hans, but in Congjiang the deceased is put in a coffin which is put outdoors unburied. Before the founding of the People¡¯s Republic of China, funeral ceremonies were very elaborate and wasteful. They have been much simplified since 1949. The Dongs believe in ancestor worship and revere many gods and spirits. They have special reverence for a "saint mother" for whom altars and temples have been erected in the villages.
The Dongs have many festivals -- Spring Festival, Worshipping Ox Festival, New Harvest Festival, Pure Brightness Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.
At the time of the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220) there lived many tribes in what is present-day Guangdong and Guangxi. The Dong people, descendants of one of these tribes, lived in a slave society at that time. Slavery gradually gave way to a feudal society in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Agriculture developed rapidly during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the Dong areas in southeast Guizhou and southwest Hunan provinces. Rice production went up with improved irrigation facilities. And self-employed artisans made their appearance in Dong towns. Markets came into existence in some bigger towns or county seats, and many big feudal landowners also began to do business. After the Opium War of 1840-42, the Dong people were further impoverished due to exploitation by imperialists, Qing officials, landlords and usurers.
The Dongs, who had all along fought against their oppressors, started to struggle more actively for their own emancipation after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. They served as guides and supplied grain to the Chinese Red Army when it marched through the area during its Long March in the mid-1930s. In 1949, guerilla units organized by the Dong, Miao, Han, Zhuang and Yao nationalities fought shoulder to shoulder with regular People's Liberation Army forces to liberate the county seat of Longsheng.
Post-mid-20th Century Period
A momentous event in Dong history took place on August 19, 1951 when the Longsheng Autonomous County of the Dong, Zhuang, Miao and Yao peoples was founded. This was followed by the setting up of the Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County in Guangxi, the Tongdao Dong Autonomous County in Hunan, the Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Guizhou, and the Xinhuang Dong Autonomous County in Hunan.
The establishment of autonomous counties enhanced relations between various ethnic groups and eliminated misunderstanding, mistrust and discord sowed by the ruling class between the Dongs and other ethnic minorities. In Congjiang County, Guizhou, the Dongs n one village once warred against the Miaos in another for the possession of a brook. The people of the two villages remained hostile to each other for over a century until the dispute was resolved through negotiations after the setting up of the Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture. They have been living in harmony since.
Another eventful change in Dong life is the carrying out of the agrarian reform, which put an end to feudal oppression under which members of this ethnic group had been groaning for centuries.
The Dongs who were ruled and never ruled have their own people holding posts in the governments of the autonomous counties. Dong cadres in Guangxi number 2,950, and those in Hunan 3,040. Many Dong women, who had no political status formerly, now hold responsible government posts at the county or prefectural levels.
Achievements have also been made in many other fields in the post-1949 period. With the opening of schools, all children between 7 and 10 in Longping village, for example, are attending classes. Malaria and other diseases, which used to take a heavy toll of lives, have by and large been eliminated, thanks to improved health care and the disappearance of witch doctors. There was no industry in the Dong areas formerly. Today, small factories are turning out farm implements, chemical fertilizer, cement, paper and other products. Electricity generated by small power installations drives irrigation pumps and light homes in many Dong villages.