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Dong Nationality

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There is a popular misconception among the peoples of Western nations that the inhabitants of the PRC are all alike. Having in mind that the country covers some 9,596,960 square km it is clear that this cannot be true. Just like in Europe and continental America, there are many diverse ethnic groups. The largest or majority group in China is the Han, numbering about 990 million. The people who constitute the Dong ethnic group number about 2.5 million.

 Geographical Distribution
Descended from the Tuoyue, a branch of the Baiyue tribe, the Dong originally dwelt in what is now Guangxi Province of Southern China, where many live today. However, over the centuries the Dong have moved into the neighboring Guizhou and Hunan Provinces.

Ancient historical sources dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC) provide evidence for the existence of the Tuoye and Baiyue people in the Guangxi region. They have a distinct culture and a language which belongs to the Zhuang-Dong Austronesian branch of the Sino-Tibetan Phylum. This language had no written form until 1958 when the central government arranged for linguistic experts to create a vocabulary using the Latin alphabet. It should be noted, however, that the Dong people do widely use Chinese.

This is a largely agrarian community and the farms, which include paddies, produce wheat, millet, maize and sweet potatoes. A special strain of rice is grown, one which has a sticky constituency when cooked. Other important cash crops are cotton, tobacco, cole and soybean. Forestry forms another important aspect of the economy of the region. Situated some 300 km above the Tropic of Cancer, the area enjoys a mild climate with an annual rainfall of some 1,200 mm. This supports a wide range of timber including fir. The Tung Tree (Aleurites fordii) is widely grown for the oil it produces. Tung oil is resistant to both acids and alkalis and can be used in the manufacture of quick drying varnishes (lacquer) and as a waterproofing agent. Other forest products include cardamom husks, cassia twigs, plantain seeds, mangosteen and quinine, all of which are vital to traditional Chinese medicine.

The other important crop is tea. The green tea for which China is famed is produced from the camellia sinensis sometimes called the Thea sinensis, a shrub of the genus Theaceae. The conditions in the south of China are ideal for growing tea and speciality teas are produced.

The high rainfall and the mountainous nature of the landscape give rise to innumerable watercourses. The rivers provide a means of transport and also a goodly supply of fish. Pisciculture or fish farming has become a feature of the region.

Animal husbandry includes water buffalo, used in the paddy fields, sheep and cattle, poultry and ducks. Goats are reared on the hillsides and mountain areas.


Wind and Rain Bridge of Dong Minority
Wind and Rain Bridge of Dong Minority

The abundance of timber has meant that wood is the predominant material for construction. Living as they do by rivers, the Dong has had the need for bridges to provide links between their farms and communities. Bridge building has become a feature and as a protection from the elements, the bridges are covered, some even having pavilions built upon them. Such bridges are called 'wind and rain' bridges and are beautifully carved with patterns and designs including images of mountains and rivers, animals and flowering plants. These elaborate structures are prime examples of Chinese art and the architectural use of timber. One of the most famous of these bridges is the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge in Guangxi Province.

The traditional centre piece of the Dong village is a drum tower. Built entirely of timber without the aid of metal nails or screws, these towers are in the form of pagodas which may be from three to ten storeys in height. To the front of the tower, there will be an open square which serves as a meeting place for the villagers. Here they will celebrate special occasions, holidays and festivals with singing and dancing. The square is also a place in which the community will gather to discuss affairs which affect the community. To all intents and purposes, the drum tower will be the 'town hall' and focal point of the village.

By comparison with these communal structures, the individual houses are much less elaborate affairs. Built from pine wood they are two, sometimes three storeys high. The upper floors serve as living space for the family while the ground floor will be used to provide shelter for the animals.

Not least amongst crafts is the production of home spun cloth which is also hand dyed in popular shades of green, blue and purple.

For the women, the home spun cloth will be made into tight trousers and high shouldered blouses with large silver or pearly buttons. Knee length blouses with buttoned fronts and narrow sleeves worn with an apron are also popular. Other styles include short pleated skirts with waistbands worn over leggings and side buttoned, loose sleeved blouses with a skirt to below the knee, again worn with an apron. White as well as the green, blue and purple already mention is favorite colors for women's clothes. On important occasions the women will wear many stranded chokers, necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings as well as silver ornaments of finely decorated designs. They will also wrap their heads and legs in scarves and wear their hair wound up into coils.

The men favor short jackets which are buttoned in front. In the mountain regions to the south, they wear collar less shirts and turbans.

The majority of Dong people will have three meals a day but some will take four. The staple diet includes rice, corn, wheat and sweet potatoes which will be supplemented with meat, poultry and fish. A national speciality is oil-tea. When entertaining guests, the host will always offer oil-tea and it is considered insulting if the guest consumes less than three bowls. When the guest has had sufficient tea this is signified by the placing of the chop sticks across the bowl. Failure to do this will mean the oil-tea bowl will be refilled ad infinitum!

There is no western name for this concoction as it is very much a local dish. To prepare oil-tea, the host will fry a quantity of leaf tea and then add water and boil it into a thick salty soup adding puffed rice, soybeans, fried peanuts, chopped green onions (i.e. shallots or scallions) and a quantity of lean meat. The resultant gruel satisfies both hunger and thirst.

Since ancient times, the Dong have worshipped both Gods and Ghosts. Especial reverence is given to their female ancestor goddess 'sama', their Grandma Goddess. Under the influence of the Han culture an ethnic group of the Dong have converted to Buddhism.

 Social Life
The Dong are accomplished singers and believe that 'songs nourish the soul as food nourishes the body.' Music and song has been an important means by which these people have been able to express themselves. The lack of a written language has meant that stories and knowledge has been handed on from one generation to another in song.

The songs can be divided into several kinds of which 'Grand Song' is the most famous. The form covers a wide range of subjects and is performed by both male and female trained singers. In performance, the singers join in multi part harmony. The lead singer will be either a tenor or soprano with a chorus providing a harmonious backing, weaving the various parts of the song together. Dong opera is based on Grand Song and is enriched by the various melodies which are drawn from the different areas in which the people live. The style has survived with great popularity since it was created during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) by the leading Dong artist Wu Wuweica.

The favorite instrument is the Lusheng. This is a pipe wind instrument into which a reed has been introduced and originated during the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th Century BC) more than 3,000 years ago. The principal of the sheng reed has been adopted in Western musical instruments such as the pipe organ, accordion and harmonica. The Lusheng has been developed into a fairly sophisticated form by several generations of Dong musicians. The Lusheng dance originated as a religious rite held prior to spring ploughing and in which prayers were offered up for fine weather and a good harvest. This has since developed into a popular entertainment in which up to a hundred performers will dance to the music they play on the instrument.

Another social past time is watching bullfights. The Gai days, which are celebrated during the February and August of the traditional Chinese calendar, are times when bullfighting festivals are held. Special celebrations are also held during the Spring Festival, Ox Worship Festival, New Harvest Festival, Pure Brightness Festival, Huapao Festival, Tasting the New Grain Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival as well as on a number of other minor holidays.

 More ethnic minorities of China:          Dongxiang           Dulong          Ewenki         Gelao 

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