Land of the Dong Mi­nor­ity

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text and photographs by Gae­tan Re­use

Asim­ple blurry black and white pic­ture in a cheap book about China’s an­cient and eth­nic vil­lages was my in­spi­ra­tion to hop on a long and bumpy ride from Guilin to San­jiang, a small town in north­ern Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion.

San­jiang is the gate­way to the land of the Dong, an eth­nic mi­nor­ity with ter­ri­tory across south­east­ern Guizhou, north­ern Guangxi and south­west­ern Hu­nan. Like the Miao, the Dong build roofed wooden bridges known as ‘Wind and Rain Bridges’ (风雨桥). Un­like the Miao, the Dong also build drum tow­ers (鼓楼), iconic of their tra­di­tional cul­ture.

The Dong live in a rel­a­tively re­mote re­gion of south­west China, but thanks to China’s grand plan to ex­pand high­ways and the high-speed rail net­work, many once quiet vil­lages will un­doubt­edly see a ma­jor bump in tourism.

Eth­nic Ar­chi­tec­ture

Near San­jiang, the Dong ham­let clus­ter of Chengyang is home to the cen­tury-old Yongji Wind and Rain Bridge. After con­struc­tion in 1912, the bridge was im­mor­tal­ized by au­thor and poet Guo Moruo. Aside from three stone piers, ev­ery­thing is made of wood: re­clined eaves, cor­ri­dors lined with benches, ve­ran­das, a Chi­nese pavil­ion, and care­fully dove-tailed beams. Yongji Bridge is one of the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive wind-and-rain bridges and, like the drum tow­ers, an in­te­gral piece of the Dong vil­lage land­scape.

Much like wind-and-rain bridges, Dong drum tow­ers, found in ev­ery vil­lage, are vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tions of Dong car­pen­try skills. These im­pres­sive pagoda-like wooden struc­tures, also en­tirely dove-tailed and topped with a di­a­mond-shape roof, al­ways fea­ture an odd num­ber of sto­ries, a sym­bol of good for­tune, and are sup­ported by six­teen pil­lars. The four cen­tral pil­lars rep­re­sent the four sea­sons and the twelve oth­ers the twelve months of the year.

Be­yond the sym­bol­ism, the drum tow­ers also fa­cil­i­tate im­por­tant so­cial func­tions. In each vil­lage, clans built their own such struc­ture. Be­cause a drum tower em­bod­ies a par­tic­u­lar clan’s power and wealth, the higher and the more elab­o­rate the drum tower, the richer and more pow­er­ful the clan is per­ceived. In the past, a

coun­cil of el­ders gath­ered in the drum tower to dis­cuss vil­lage af­fairs. When rules were bro­ken, they would de­ter­mine sen­tences ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tional law. After an el­der beat a drum, vil­lagers would gather to hear the coun­cil. To­day, drum tow­ers still serve as a so­cial meet­ing place, usu­ally where the vil­lage’s el­ders play cards, drink tea, smoke, watch TV or chat around the fire.

Dong Fea­tures

Dong vil­lages are usu­ally nes­tled in val­leys sur­rounded by forested hills. Val­leys pro­vide rich soil for rice cul­ti­va­tion, while forests pro­vide vil­lagers with var­i­ous food prod­ucts and tim­ber to con­struct stun­ning bridges and drum tow­ers.

Like most eth­nic mi­nor­ity so­ci­eties in China, the Dong group is deeply ru­ral and agri­cul­tural. Wind-and-rain bridges were built to pro­vide ac­cess to agri­cul­tural fields while the pil­lars of the drum tower sym­bol­ize months and sea­sons. On the Dong cal­en­dar, the 10th and 11th months bring cow fights and har­vest fes­ti­vals, which draw lo­cal crowds as well as in­creas­ing num­bers of cu­ri­ous out­siders armed with cam­eras.

Ge­o­graphic and ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures char­ac­ter­ize a stan­dard Dong vil­lage. Trav­el­ers who hop from one Dong vil­lage to an­other will find many sim­i­lar­i­ties. They are set apart by pace of tourism de­vel­op­ment and level of poverty.

Eth­nic Tourism

In north­ern Guangxi, tourists can ac­cess the clus­ter of Dong ham­lets of Chengyang only by pay­ing a fee of 60 yuan. In south­east­ern Guizhou, the Dong vil­lage of Zhaox­ing was en­tirely ren­o­vated and linked to the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal by a high­way, and non-lo­cals must pay an ad­mis­sion fee of 100 yuan. In both vil­lages, tourists can find ba­sic ac­com­mo­da­tions, sou­venir shops and or­ga­nized per­for­mances to en­ter­tain bus­loads of tourists. Tourism pro­vides the Dong with new sources of rev­enue as well as more chances to pro­mote their cul­ture.

South of Zhaox­ing, near the town of Congjiang, Dong vil­lages are still ‘free’ to visit, but that may not last if tourists start de­mand­ing more ‘au­then­tic’ eth­nic vil­lages. Also un­der pres­sure would be the re­gion of Tong­dao in south­west­ern Hu­nan Prov­ince, where dozens of Dong vil­lages with iconic drum tow­ers and wind-and-rain bridges dot the land­scape.

The cul­tural cor­ri­dor of the Dong was once a re­mote re­gion. Trav­el­ers had to en­dure long bus rides to reach places only a cou­ple hours out­side ma­jor ur­ban cen­ters, which are now ser­viced by ex­pan­sions of high-speed rail, high­way and air­port net­works. Con­jiang and San­jiang are con­nected to the high-speed rail net­work; Zhaox­ing is a mere 45-minute drive from Lip­ing air­port, and the re­gion of Tong­dao is now in­te­grated into high­way net­works.

While I was vis­it­ing the Dong re­gion, I felt that the vil­lages of­fi­cially open to tourism (those charg­ing ad­mis­sion) were bet­ter off than those un­touched by tourism, which still bat­tled poverty.

Be­yond these con­sid­er­a­tions, the Dong cul­tural cor­ri­dor in south­west China is now eas­ier to ac­cess than ever be­fore. Win­dand-rain bridges as well as the drum tow­ers are not only iconic ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures of Dong vil­lages, pro­found man­i­fes­ta­tions of sub­lime car­pen­try skills, and rem­nants of tra­di­tional so­ci­ety – they are also as­sets that can be cap­i­tal­ized in the glob­al­ized era of eth­nic tourism de­vel­op­ment.

The vil­lage of Baba near Congjiang (Guizhou). Puxiu Wind and Rain Bridge near Tong­dao (Hu­nan).

Women at work in Xiao­huang Vil­lage (Guizhou).

Wind and Rain Bridge of Yongji, in Chenyang (Guangxi). Drum tower looks up in Zhaox­ing (Guizhou).

A mu­si­cian per­forms for tourists in Chengyang (Guangxi).

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