The Dong people are one of China’s 55 recognized ethnic minorities. While the majority of people in China are Han Chinese, eight percent of the population is made up of other cultures. The minorities are given their status by the government according to their culture, rather than race.
The Dong people
The population of Dong people, also known as Kam, was three million in 2000. Most of these people live in rural areas in southwest China and work on the land, but many have moved into urban centers for work. While many traditions remain, there is now TV and even Wi-Fi in some villages.
Since 1368 classic Chinese literature called this minority Dong-Man (meaning Dong barbarian), Dong-Miao (mountain dwellers) and Dong-Jia (Dong people). The word ‘Dong’ also refers to geographical mountain-valley areas, so it also relates to the physical characteristics of typical Dong villages.
The official classification ‘Dong’ is accepted by some of the people themselves; however, they call themselves ‘Kam’ which means ‘hidden people.’
Most of the Dong people live in southeastern Guizhou and the border regions between Guangxi and Hunan. Their villages are usually on hillsides, and the villagers have created terraces for rice and cotton growing on the slopes. These are their two main crops.
Women are generally in charge of cotton planting, harvesting and spinning. Men are in charge of the rice fields and house building.
Most of their year is spent farming and forestry (generally Chinese fir trees). The Dong diet consists mainly of sticky and long grain rice, combined with farmed fish and a few vegetables such as yams. Sour foods and pickles are also popular in Dong cuisine.
The Dong people are strong believers in the idea that the natural world is full of spirits. Some are also Buddhists and a few Christians, but animism remains a substantial part of Dong culture.
Shamans take care of the community’s physical, emotional, social, cultural and spiritual well-being. One study of a Dong Village – Shan – found that that around ten village people consulted the shaman every day.
One example of a shaman’s work is with disputes. One shaman will accompany each person to the temple where they will give their names and their version of the story. The shamans would say that the one who had done wrong would have no heirs, just like the rooster. Two roosters would then be killed, and blood would be put on the fingers of each party. If later, an heir failed to be born or a son died, this was proof of wrongdoing.
Dong people also believe in evil spirits that can live in wells or the hearth. In their houses, the hearth of the fire is where ancestral spirits stay. If an ancestor is somehow causing grief, then the shaman’s will come and exorcise the spirit for that household. He will then perform some rites at the door of this story of the house and go on to expel the spirit from the nearest door at the village boundary.
Shamans use music and musical instruments such as cymbals, bells, and buffalo horn to dispel evil spirits.
A drum tower is an iconic landmark in Dong villages. It is the communal and geographical center of the village. This is where village business is conducted. Festivals take place, and the famous Kam opera is performed on New Year. Ancestor worship, chicken divination, and exorcism also take place here. Around the tower are a temple, stage, and a public singing space. The goddess Sax is worshiped in the temple, but it is usually closed. Dong people believe that the drum tower and altar of Sax protect the spiritual well-being of villagers.
Most Dong villages are constructed in the same way – moving from the central drum tower outwards. It is considered auspicious to live near the center and because of this some village centers have become very overcrowded.
The houses circle the drum tower. They are commonly wooden houses on stilts with two or three stories. Livestock lives on the lower level. Around these houses are fishponds, barns, and poles for drying rice. On the outskirts, the village is surrounded by walls with doors that secure the village from invasion and theft. A fortune bridge is often constructed to protect wealth in the village.
During my research, I read that “No snails were used in the construction of the bridges!” Okay so they meant nails, but that means they are masters of construction.
The Dong people were not subjected to China’s one-child policy. Despite this government policy, Dong people themselves limited their families to one child of each sex. They used traditional herbs to create the sex of each child in the womb. Or so the story goes. Research has shown that infanticide and home abortions take place for sex selection and population control. The government often promoted the Dong people as skilled population controllers thanks to traditional wisdom.
Infanticide is common in the cases of weak babies or having a baby of the wrong sex. Childbirth takes place in the home with the father present, and he is the one who commits infanticide straight after the birth. Sometimes the babies are simply left to die on the mountainsides.
Having one child of each sex is ideal for Dong families. A son is charged with looking after his parents when they age, and the daughter moves to her husband’s home when she marries. So she becomes the carer for that family.
For the Dong people, having a child increases a couple’s social status. When a first child is born both parents lose their birth names, and their names become the child’s. So, the newborn is called Yu; the parents become Father Yu and Mother Yu and their parents Grandmother Yu and Grandfather Yu.
Single people keep the names they were given when they were young. This marks them in a negative social light as everyone can tell they have had no children.
Dong people are very well known for their incredible polyphonic choir and opera, which is also known as ‘Kam big song singing.’ Polyphonic means there are two or more lines of melody happening at the same time instead of just one (which is monophony). The traditional Dong songs are inspired by nature and are sung to younger generations to pass down their unique heritage, culture, and customs. The Kam language is primarily oral, and so this is their preferred way of preserving culture.
Traditionally, young Dong people use song to declare their love. In each village, there are houses where young people meet each night. Girls as young as 12 or 13 go to the homes dressed in new clothes in the evening and chat and spin cotton or sew. Then they start singing to attract the boys – some from neighboring villages.
The boys reply, singing to ask if they can come in. Once they are in, they sing to each other off and on until dawn. If a couple is to be lovers, the other people there leave so they can have time together often involving sex.
The songs are learned separately by each sex and the same-sex choirs perform at New Year celebrations. In earlier times, only young women who had not yet given birth to their first child, and young men who were unmarried or relatively recently married, were allowed to perform a big song in public.
The songs can be about wine, relationships, the origins of the Dong people, death, rice and everything in between.
The Dong people are one of the living examples of rich Chinese tradition. Continuing their ancient customs makes them a part of a continuing Chinese history.