ALTERNATE NAMES: Liao; Geling
POPULATION: 2.5 million
LANGUAGE: Dong; Chinese
The Dong are a nationality whose origin can be traced through a branch of the Xiou tribe during the Qin (221–206 BC ) and Han (206 BC – AD 220) dynasties more than 2,000 years ago. They were also called Liao, Geling, and other names in ancient Chinese works. It was said that some of the Dong ancestors went upstream through the Xun River and the Duliu River and arrived in the area now inhabited by the Dong. The Dong have lived in areas surrounded by the Miao, Zhuang, and Yao; these were ruled by the central government of successive Chinese dynasties. The Dong had their own social and administrative organization. The families of a given Dong village all bore the same surname. Public order was maintained by customary laws, which were decided through consultation among the heads of the villages. As a member of the village organization, every adult male participated in the general membership meeting to discuss matters of concern. This organization has been markedly weakened since the 1950s, but some of the customary laws are still effective to a certain extent.
The Dong are mainly concentrated in a mountainous area at the junction of three provinces, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hunan, with warm a climate and abundant rainfall, and criss-crossed by rivers running in all directions. The villages, located at the foot of hills and bordered by streams, are adorned by a drum-tower of exquisite beauty at the center with an ancient banyan tree on the side. Dong population was 2.5 million in 1990.
Dong language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, Zhuang-Dong group, Dong-Shui branch. There are southern and northern dialects, each having three regional idioms. Most of the Dong know the Chinese language, both spoken and written. An alphabetic system of writing based on Latin was created in 1958, and proved very helpful to those who did not know the Chinese language.
The rich mythology of Dong has been transmitted orally from one generation to the next without written records. An epic described the achievements of the Goddess Sasui and her offspring including the creation, the flood, and the marriage of the brother and sister. This myth of origins is common (with many variants) to many national minorities of southwest China.
Another story described four tortoises incubating four eggs. Three eggs went bad. Only one egg hatched a boy. They tried again. This time, also only one egg hatched, giving birth to a girl. The offspring married and gave birth to twelve sons and daughters. Among them were a brother, Jiangliang, and his sister, Jiangmei, who were naughty. The boy cut a tree with a saw, leading to a fire that hurt the Thunder Goddess. She got angry, so it rained continuously for nine months. Fortunately, Jiangliang and Jiangmei hid in a huge melon when the flood came. The Thunder Goddess raised twelve suns to dry up the flood, but they scorched the earth and the trees. Helped by bees, Jiangliang and Jiangmei shot down ten suns out of twelve. They left one sun for the daytime and the other for the night. An eagle tried to persuade them to marry. They rolled two millstones from the mountain top, which laid one on top of the other, a Heaven-given sign that they should marry. They married and their progeny formed various peoples, including the Han, Miao, Yao, and Dong.
The Dong are polytheistic (they worship more than one god). They regard the almighty Goddess Sasui, the most lofty of all gods, as their protector. Each village has a temple in which there is a round altar made of stone, 4 (1.2 meters) feet in height, more than 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter, surrounded by banana trees and brambles. On February 7 or 8 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between February 28 and March 27) the Dong will bring chicken, duck, fish, and a gruel of sweetened fried flour, as offerings to the goddess. They also revere huge stones, large trees, wells, and bridges. Divination by means of chicken, grass, eggs, snails, rice, or divinatory symbols is prevalent among the Dong.
The Spring Festival (lunar New Year; Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20) is the most important holiday of the year. In some districts, however, they choose one day in October or November (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between October 24 and January 18) as the Dong's New Year. Before the feast, every family member will take a bowl of rice gruel symbolizing a watery field to be ploughed in the future.
On the first of January (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20), right after the first cockcrow appears, girls will scramble to draw water from the well. The luckiest sign is to draw a bucket of water with white bubbles. Festival activities include buffalo fighting, mountain climbing, and bronze drum percussions. April 8 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between May 1 and May 30) is the Festival of the Birth of the Buffalo God. Every household will clean the buffalo pen, feed it with black glutinous rice, give the animal a day off, and kill a chicken or duck as a sacrificial offering. In addition, this is also the day when a heroine boldly delivered a meal of black glutinous rice to her brother (imprisoned for having led an insurrectionary army to occupy Liuzhou City) and rescued him from jail. Commemorating that day, married women gather to sing and dance, and to make black glutinous rice cakes that are carried to their parents' homes and offered as gifts to their relatives.
Three days (or one week) after childbirth, relatives bring glutinous rice, eggs, and chickens, as well as a hat, for congratulations. Gifts also include 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) of yellow cloth for the baby's clothing. According to Dong custom, one is not allowed to make baby clothes before childbirth. The infant should be draped with used pieces of cloth right after birth. The new clothing should be made of the yellow cloth given by relatives. The maternal grandmother chooses a name for the baby while sewing the baby's clothes. Girls gather to sing blessing songs until late in the evening. When the baby is one month old, the mother paints the baby's brow with a little tang oil and soot from the bottom of a pan. Accompanied by her mother-in-law, the new mother will bring gifts to her own mother's house, where she will be received warmly. The next day, her mother will send a large glutinous rice cake to her house, indicating that the mother is allowed to call on relatives to present the baby.
The Dong bury the dead underground after shaving the hair and washing the body. It is taboo to have any copper or iron touch the body.
The Dong are hospitable. Bowls of gruel of sweetened fried flour will be repeatedly offered to the guest. Each bowl is offered with different refreshments. This ritual usually takes one hour or more. The wine before meal is sweet, but bitter wine is offered during the meal. All dishes taste sour: pork, fish, chicken, duck, cucumber, and hot pepper; it is a "sour feast." There is a Dong custom in Guizhou to receive a guest from each family. A man, representing his family, will bring his family's dishes to the dinner party. Thus, a great variety of dishes will be offered to the guests. A grand occasion of Dong celebration is when all the members of a village call on a neighboring village, usually after autumn harvest: there is a deafening sound of gongs and drums, reinforced by songs and reed-pipe wind music. Dating is common, lasting often late into the night.
Most Dong houses have two or three stories, sometimes more, made of wood. The roof is covered with tiles or bark of China fir. Houses occupied by branches of the same family are sometimes connected by verandas and open into each other. Buildings at the foot of a hill or beside a river are built on stilts, sometimes 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) high. The family lives upstairs. Firewood and livestock are placed on the ground. A shrine for idols or ancestral tablets is set up in the central room. The "wind-swept rooms" on both sides are used as bedrooms and firepools. A Dong village is usually made up of row upon row of wooden houses. The pathways are paved with flagstones or crushed stones. The Dong live on self-sufficient agriculture. City dwellers have a standard of living similar to that of other residents.
Dong families are patrilineal. The position of women is much lower than that of men. They are not allowed to touch the bronze drum or to go upstairs if the men stay downstairs. They have a limited right of succession from their parents ("girl's field") only after their marriage—while the man inherits the property. Women participate in heavy labor in the fields and bear the responsibility of all household chores.
The Dong are monogamous. They have freedom to choose their spouse. Arranged marriages are very rare. The bride, holding an umbrella, accompanied by six women, walks directly to the bridegroom's house. They are received by boys of the bride-groom's branch, who see the bride to her family's door right after the wedding ceremony. She will return to live with her husband, for a few days only, during festivals or after the busy season.
If she gets pregnant, she will then move to her husband's house. If she does not get pregnant, she is expected to move three to five years after the wedding.
Rural people make the yarn, dye it, and then knit their traditional clothes. Colors are dark navy, purple, white, and blue. Men wear cotton shirts and pants and always wrap their heads. Most women wear short tops and pleated skirts. They use dark navy cotton fabric to wrap their legs from knee to ankle and wear sandals. They usually wear their hair in a bun, decorated with colorful flowers. Some women like to use a floral cotton scarf to cover their shoulders, and sew large silver buttons on their costumes for decoration. Others wear knee-length shirts and loose pants, with the cuffs of the sleeves and pants trimmed with piping and lace. Some embroider dragons on their clothes.
Dong people living in urban areas usually wear the same basic clothes as the Chinese.
The staple food is rice. The Dong like hot and sour dishes. One of their traditional meals is salted fish or meat. Raw fish or meat is salted for three days, seasoned with spicy pepper powder, ginger, and glutinous rice, and then put in hermetically sealed pots or wooden barrels. The preparation may be served after three months, but only reaches full flavor after many years. The salted fish or meat can be steamed, but the Dong prefer to eat it raw. A gruel of sweetened, fried flour is a favorite dish. Rice is stir-fried with tea leaves, then cooked in water; when it is done, the tea leaves are discarded. To serve, one puts fried glutinous rice, peanuts, walnuts, soybeans, sausages, or pork liver selectively in a bowl, then adds the hot gruel, sweetened or salted.
Primary schools have been established in every village, and middle schools in every district. The number of college students is increasing. More and more teachers, engineers, scholars, and medical doctors are being trained.
However, illiteracy (not being able to read and write) is still present in remote mountainous areas, especially among women. Parents support the education of their children, but boys form the majority of middle school and, especially, university students.
The Dong have created the Great Song of Dong, a women's chorus unaccompanied by musical instruments. It is led by a woman, and is known for a unique style, with a free tempo, full of power and grandeur.
The Pipa Song is also typical of the Dong musical tradition. The pipa is a plucked string instrument with a fretted fingerboard. The song borrows the name of the accompanying instrument.
Dong plays were developed in the last century from a genre of popular entertainment consisting of talking and thinking. The gait and movement are rather simple, but the music for voices is manifold. The actors wear Dong dress, but use no makeup. Songs are accompanied by a two-stringed bowed instrument, the huqin.
The Dong practice group dancing in a circle, boys and girls holding hands and singing while dancing. A musician-dancer blows the reed-pipe wind instrument (lüshen) while going through various dance movements.
The Dong area is the "land of poems and sea of songs." The rhyme scheme of their poems is rather loose. The Dong Song is a chanted rhymed poem, marked by an abundance of striking metaphors. The content includes themes of creation, flood, the origin of human beings, the migration of the Dong, customary law, as well as the exploits and the loves of heroes. Chinese stories also appear in Dong songs and plays.
In addition to farming, men are adept at carpentry and in building Dong-style wooden structures. Today there is a trend among young people to move to coastal areas and to engage in trade.
Wrestling is a favorite sport among the youth, while spinning tops is a popular game with children. Other sports widely practiced are basketball, table tennis, volleyball, and chess.
Some movies have been dubbed into the Dong language. Many Dong families now have black-and-white television. Recreation for youngsters is almost always related to dating. Singing is one of the favorite pastimes in Dong areas; the aged teach songs, the youth sing songs, and the children learn songs. Singers take much pleasure in performing. The Lion Dance and the Dragon Dance are performed on the Spring Festival.
Dong crafts include embroidery, cross-stitching, rattan artifacts, bamboo articles, silver ornaments, brocade, and Dong garments. The Dong's wooden buildings are renowned for their exquisite architecture. The Drum Tower (interconnecting wood) is held together by tenon and mortise, without a single iron nail; numbering three to fifteen stories, it may reach 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 meters) in height. It is the symbol of the family branch and a place of rally. The magnificent "Wind and Rain Bridge" is a wooden bridge built on stone piers, with pavilions raised on top of the piers.
Poverty and slow development are still the most important social problems. Changes are slow and the way to modernization and wealth is long and difficult.
Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.
Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.
Lebar, Frank, et al. Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.
Miller, Lucien, ed. South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.
Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.