The Dong from Guizhou, southern China

The Dong (endonym: Gaeml or Kam), the Chinese name for this ethnic group, are Kam-Sui people resident in the southern Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Hainan and Guangxi. The Kam are thought to have descended from the ancient Liào who inhabited these regions already 2000 years ago, where the Kam still live today.

The Dong men are exquisite carpenters, whose unique buildings are constructed without using nails, including the drum towers, wind and rain bridges, many-storied wooden houses and intricate village facilities. Dong villages are so picturesque that, despite their remote location, the Chinese tourist industry has been keen to bring tour groups here for a number of years already. The women’s weaving and embroidery skills are as sophisticated and advanced as the men’s architectural abilities. They are also famous for their indigo-dyeing techniques, achieving various colour gradations and shiny surfaces, which are characteristic features of their traditional garments. Moreover, the Kam people are renowned for their polyphonic music, the Kam Grand Choir having been listed by the UNESCO as a world-class intangible cultural heritage. Even today their singing, music and dances, in addition to their buildings and textiles, are a central element of their culture and are passed on from generation to generation.

About 3 million Dong, comprising around 30 subgroups who all speak their own dialects, live in China. Their language is called Dong, which belongs to the Tai–Kadai (also known as Kra–Dai) language family and is distantly related to Zhuan and Thai. Dong villages are frequently built near rivers and springs, and consist of about 20 to 30 households in general, although some villages have up to 700 households, such as Zhaoxing and Gaoding. In Guizhou, the neighbouring ethnic minority are the Miao, who live in more secluded, mountainous terrain. Many villages can only be reached via covered »wind and rain bridges«, which form a nexus between this inner and the outer world. Inside these bridges, benches seam each side, providing village inhabitants with somewhere to sit comfortably and meet up. It is also customary to hang vegetables from the ceiling rafters to dry, before they are preserved and pickled. The drum towers tend to be found in the centre of the village, each one belonging to a different village clan. They are the centre of the village’s social events, so to speak, and thus – how else could it be – the more wealthy a clan, the bigger and more magnificent their drum tower will be. Here too the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) clearly left its mark, as hardly any of the old drum towers survived, and the ones we see today have mostly been built from scratch.

The long arm of the law is also present in rural China, but the country is too vast and the arm not nearly long enough to monitor everything that goes on. Beijing’s one-child policy is not enforced upon ethnic minorities, who are allowed to have two children, or may have even more if they live in more remote areas. A Dong marriage is deemed to have been consummated once the first child has been born. Only then does the wife move into the joint household, which until then she had only been allowed to visit in the holidays and on festive days. Like the Miao, the Dong are animists, who believe in gods of nature and spirits and, hence, in the divine power of creation. When a child is born, a spruce is planted. When the child turns 18, the tree is felled and used to build a house for this child; the Dong call these trees 18-year trees.

The Dong mainly cultivate maize, wheat, rapeseed and sweet potatoes. They live in houses they built themselves, and are largely completely self-sufficient – at least the Dong living outside market towns such as Zhaoxing, which is considered the largest Dong village.

It is here that the Chinese have been planning to develop a second Lijiang, i.e. village for mass tourism. The highway leading straight to Dong territory is almost finished and a high-speed rail line now also runs regularly to this region. The new railway station outside Zhaoxing has a parking lot that looks as if it had been designed for an American mega-mall… After all, in China they don’t like doing things in half measures. A new, pompous village entrance has been erected, and the village expanded to the point where it almost resembles a theme park (Thus giving the tourists more room to photograph!) New houses made of stone have been disguised with traditional wooden facades. A modern pedestrian zone has been established in the centre by simply covering the old, traditional stone and clay paths throughout with stone mosaic paving, like a carpet. Add a few trees and several dustbins, and voilà: a finished urban village, ready to receive the masses. Certainly, tourism might provide this economically feeble region with an immense boost. However, in its current state, Zhaoxing, the main village, hardly seems to be doing so to the Dong’s advantage: old men still sit under the bell tower playing mahjong, and the women sit separate from the men, and continue doing their handicrafts together. Festivities – for which the Dong are renowned – are held at long tables, pigs slaughtered, firecrackers set off and alcohol imbibed, the usual things that happen in a village. Apparently petitions to bring more revenue to the region were initiated by the local population before the investors arrived, but they didn’t gain enough traction to make a difference.

Since Chinese tourism is focused on catering to the masses, and the Chinese like doing the same thing as everyone else, one can only hope that any changes affecting minorities living outside this main tourist area will be less brutal, and that »modernity« arrives in these more remote regions gently and respectfully with regard to the existing, traditional culture. Places like Gaoding, the second largest Dong village, still exist, which can only be reached on foot or via a very narrow road. A broader road would certainly make things easier for its residents and would probably attract more visitors, which would lead to more jobs, giving the inhabitants work and an incentive to stay in the village. An increase in tourism would also mean more exposure, which would help the women who dye and make the textiles to find more buyers and people interested in their craft, which would allow them to continue their trade – which means that their cultural heritage would be preserved. The Dong will only know if the price they have paid for these future perspectives is too high, once hordes of Han Chinese have visited their village, and they have experienced being extras in the new theme village »Zhaoxing, bucolic romanticism with a theme park flair«.

Read more about the Dong costumes. 

Pictures left side, from top to bottom

1. Men, hanging around inside a drum tower. Chatting and playing Majong next to the warm fireplace.

2. Village scene near Zhaoxing

3. Typical long table party/bankett  in Zhaoxing

4. Weeding in Zhaoxing 

5. View on Zhaoxing, the biggest dong village in Guizhou. 

6. Investors checking it out. Zhaoxing 2011. 4 years later everything has changed for the tourists…

7. Similarities between a tree and a Dong drum tower.

8. Fun in the temple…

9. Scaffold of a typical wooden Dong house. Zhaoxing 2015