Dong people

Dong people
Ethic Dong Liping Guizhou China.jpg
Ethnic Dong women and man in holiday dresses. Liping County, Guizhou, China.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Guizhou, Hunan, and Guangxi provinces, China; small pockets in northern Vietnam

Dong, Chinese


Polytheism, Theravada Buddhism

The Dong (Chinese: 侗族; pinyin: Dòngzú; own name in Kam script: Gaeml [kɐ́m]), a Kam–Sui people of southern China, are one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. They are famed for their native-bred Kam Sweet Rice (Chinese: 香禾糯), carpentry skills, and unique architecture, in particular a form of covered bridge known as the "wind and rain bridge" (Chinese: 风雨桥). The Dong people live mostly in eastern Guizhou, western Hunan, and northern Guangxi in China. Small pockets of Dong speakers are also found in northern Vietnam.



The Dong are thought to be the modern-day descendants of the ancient Liáo (僚) peoples who occupied much of southern China (Geary 2003). Dong legends generally maintain that the ancestors of the Dong migrated from the east. According to the migration legends of the Southern Dong people, the ancestors of the Southern Dong came from Guangzhou, Guangdong and Wuzhou, Guangxi. The Northern Dong maintain that their ancestors fled Zhejiang and Fujian because of locust swarms. Many Dong rebellions took place during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but none of them were successful in the long run. Although the Dong and Han Chinese peoples generally get along well today, the history of Guizhou is marked by innumerable tensions and conflicts between the Han Chinese and non-Han minority groups. Today, many Dong are assimilating into mainstream Chinese society as rural Dongs move into urban areas, resulting in intermarriage with the Han Chinese and the loss of the Dong language. However, various attempts to preserve Dong culture and language have been very successful, and improving living conditions in rural Guizhou may entice local Dong villagers to stay rather than move to major urban areas.


The Dong language (autonym: lix Gaeml) is a Tai–Kadai (Zhuang–Dong) language. [1] Ethnologue distinguishes between two Dong dialects, with the codes kmc for the southern dialect and doc for the northern. Sui, Maonan, and Mulao are the Tai–Kadai languages which are most closely related to Dong.

The Dong people sometimes use Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Dong words. A new orthography based on the Latin alphabet was developed in 1958, but it is not used very much due to a lack of printed material and trained teachers.


The Dong or Kam People are internationally renowned for their polyphonic choir singing called Kgal Laox in their own language (Chinese: 侗族大歌), which can be literally translated as Kam Grand Choir in English. The Kam Grand Choir has been enlisted by the UNESCO as a world-class intangible cultural heritage since 2009. Dong choral songs include nature songs, narratives, and children's songs.

One-part songs (as opposed to polyphonic, or many-part, songs) can be sung be one or many people (Geary 2003:246-247). They include:

  • Duo Ye songs
  • Love songs - accompanied by the pipa or niutuiqin
  • Drinking songs
  • Bride's songs
  • Mourning songs
  • Pipa songs

Operas are also highly popular among the Dong, and are performed by local opera troupes (Geary 2003:244). Two famous Dong playwrights are Wu Wencai (1798–1845), author of Mei Liangyu, and Zhang Honggan (1779–1839).

Dong oral literature contains a rich array of legends and folk tales. Many of these popular tales are about the leaders of past uprisings (Geary 2003:218). Celebrated leaders include:

  • Xing Ni - An ancient figure, whose legend dates possibly from the Tang Dynasty (Geary 2003:7).
  • Wu Mian - Leader of a 1378 rebellion during the Ming Dynasty due to drought and famine.
  • Lin Kuan - Led a 1397 rebellion but was later executed. Popular among the Northern Dong and is commemorated by an ancient tree.
  • Wu Jinyin - Wu revolted in the 1740 to resist grain taxes, but was killed in 1741.

Popular folk tales are listed below. They can be found in The Kam People of China by D. Norman Geary.

  • The two orphan brothers
  • The unfriendly eldest brother
  • Ding Lang and the dragon princess
  • Zhu Lang and Niang Mei
  • Shan Lang and E Mei
  • Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai
  • Suo Lao
  • Mei Dao
  • The frog and the swallow (rice agriculture tale)
  • The dog (rice agriculture tale)
  • The singing tree (origin of singing tale)
  • Liang Niangni (origin of singing tale)
  • Lou Niang (drum tower tale)


Dong clans are known as dou, and are further divided into ji, gong, and households (known as "kitchens"), respectively from largest to smallest in size (Geary 2003:68-69). Village elders were traditionally the village leaders, although the government replaced these elders with village heads from 1911-1949. Dong society was also traditionally matriarchal, as can be evidenced by the cult of the female goddess Sa Sui (Geary 2003:88). Before the advent of the Han Chinese, the Dong had no surnames, instead distinguishing each other by their fathers' names.

Dong common law is known as kuan and is practiced at four different levels (Geary 2003:62).

  1. Single village
  2. Several villages
  3. Single township / entire local rural area
  4. Multiple townships / large portion of the entire Dong population

Courtship and marriage

Traditional courtship consists of three phases:

  1. Early meeting phase where men and women sing songs and recite poems to one another.
  2. Deepening love phase where the courtship is one-to-one and the songs are more spontaneous.
  3. Exchanging a token phase where a man gives a woman a gift, with the woman expected to make excuses in order to test her suitor. The token is usually a minor gift without much monetary value. However, it is highly important symbolically, as it is the equivalent of an engagement ring in Western cultures (Geary 2003:80).

Weddings last three days and are first held at the bride's family's home. The bride is later sent to the groom's home, where an afternoon reception and all-night feast then ensue. The next day there is a "blocking the horse" ceremony where the hosts block the guests while singing songs. The bride typically resides at her parents' house for a few months or even years. Silver jewelery is also passed onto the bride by her mother.


The birth of a child is complemented by the following events (Geary 2003):

  1. The "stepping-over-the-threshold person," who is the first person to enter the home where the child has been born, will influence the child's future personality and success.
  2. Neighbors are invited and bring food and gifts.
  3. Announcing the birth to the mother's family
  4. Visit from the female relatives on the third day or so, and gifts are brought
  5. Homage expressed to the land god for the birth of a male child (practiced by the Northern Dong)
  6. Building a "bridge" - Three wooden planks are lined up side-by-side in order to express goodwill to passing people.
  7. Wrapping the hands - The child's hands are wrapped to help prevent the child from stealing things later on in life.
  8. First haircut at one month old
  9. First eating of fermented rice at about one month old
  10. First eating of meat dipped in wine at six months old - considered a major milestone


Like those of the Miao people, Dong funerals are highly elaborate. People who died from unnatural causes (i.e., accidents) are cremated, while those who died from natural causes are buried (Geary 2003:102-103). Burials consists of the following phases (Geary 2003):

  1. Receiving the breath - listening for last word's and the person's the last breath
  2. Drinking clear tea - Three spoonfuls of "clear tea" and a small pieces of silver are placed into the recently deceased person's mouth.
  3. Buying water for washing the corpse
  4. "Washing" the corpse - The corpse is covered with wet money paper.
  5. Putting on the graveclothes - Old clothes are taken off.
  6. Arranging the "dream bed" - The suona is played during the vigil.
  7. Starting on the road - A red cock is killed, and the corpse is removed from the dream bed and placed into a coffin. White headcloths are worn by the mourners (also practiced by the Han Chinese).
  8. Digging the "well" (grave)
  9. Holding the memorial ceremony - Presents are distributed.
  10. Going up the mountain - Coffins are usually placed high up on a mountainside.
  11. Placing the coffin into the "well" - A chicken is killed and prayers are said. The chicken is then lowered into the grave, and pulled back out again for later consumption.
  12. Holding the funeral receptions - Lunch and dinner are held.
  13. Returning to the mountain - The sons return to the grave to build a grave-mound. The dead person is called to "go back home" to live at the altar the family's ancestors.
  14. "Transferring the sons" (if the dead is female) - This is a ceremony in which the duties of filial piety are transferred from the deceased mother to her eldest brother or the eldest brother's representative.


An average-sized Dong village has 200-300 homes, although the smallest ones have only 10-20 and the largest ones have more than 1,000 (Geary 2003:43). Dong villages typically have:

  • Ganlan-style wooden houses (stilt houses)
  • Ancient and sacred trees
  • Covered ("Wind-and-rain") bridges
  • Wayside pavilions with wooden or stone benches
  • Bullfighting arenas, which are fields
  • Wells surrounded by stone rims and usually dug near trees
  • Fish-ponds, traditionally communally-owned
  • Racks for drying grain and granaries
  • Village entrances - to protect against intruders, and also are where "blocking the way" ceremonies are located
  • Drum towers - usually found only in southern Dong areas today. Drum towers may be village towers or extended-family towers (Geary 2003:47).
  • Altars to Sa Sui, the main deity of the Dong pantheon

Popular scenic spots in Dong-speaking territories are the Jiudong region, Liudong region, Chengyang village, Pingdeng region, and Yuping region.

Agriculture and economy

The Dong people cultivate dozens of varieties of glutinous rice (known locally as "Kam" or "good" rice). The Han Chinese cultivate non-glutinous rice, which is called "Han (Chinese) rice" by the Dong (Geary 2003:114). Supplementary foods inclusive maize, millet, various vegetables, plums, peaches, pears, mushrooms, mandarin oranges, pomelos, and watermelons. Cotton is also cultivated for textile production. Generally the Dong occupy lower-lying land than the Miao, and are thus wealthier than them.

Animals frequently raised by the Dong people include (Geary 2003):

  • Water buffaloes: 1-3 per household
  • Pigs: 1-3 per household
  • Dog: not very popular, but sometimes used to clean up excrement and rubbish. In some areas, however, hunting dogs are raised.
  • Chickens: 2-20 per household. Hens raised by the Dong generally lay around 100 eggs per year.
  • Ducks: 2-4 per household (about half of all households). Ducks tend to destroy rice seedlings, and are thus less preferable than chickens.
  • Geese: 2-4 per household (about one-tenth of all households). They are recent introductions from the Han Chinese.
  • Fish: raised in fish-ponds, and sometimes hunted

The "four pillars" of Dong cuisine are glutinous rice, sour (pickled) food, hot pepper, and rice wine (Geary 2003). Other popular local dishes and condiments include barbecued fish, intestines sauce, purple blood pork, chicken-blood sauce, oil tea, gongguo (glutinous rice snack sweetened with liana) and bianmi (another glutinous rice snack). Also, the giant salamander is a rare local specialty. Two hot meals (breakfast and dinner) and one cold meal (lunch) are served everyday.

The Dong-speaking area is famous for its fir wood. Fir wood from the Dong area has been used to build the ships of 15th-century explorer Zheng He and the Great Hall of the People. Major economic activities include carpentry and the manufacture of silverwork and wickerwork. Baskets and other wickerwork are usually made by men. Baskets can be made from five types of plant materials, namely glutinous rice straw, cogongrass, Guangxi grass, bamboo, and rattan (Geary 2003:146-147).

In recent years, tourism has also become a major source of income for the Dong people (Geary 2003).


Below is a list of traditional Dong festivals (Geary 2003:184-213).

Two new year festivals

One-day long work-related festivals, where chicken, fish, and glutinous rice are eaten.

  • Sowing seeds
  • Planting cotton
  • Washing water buffaloes
  • Eating new rice

There are a total of four different harvest festivals which last 1–3 days.

Singing festivals

  • Commemoration of lovers killed by lightning
  • Gaoba Singing Festival

Remembrance festivals

  • Girls' Day
  • King Lin's Day - commemorates Lin Kuan, a northern Dong hero of the 1300s
  • A Dianlong Day
  • Jiaxu Day
  • Best Weather Day - Jiang Yingfang, the "Robin Hood" of the Dong people who led a rebellion in the 1800s, is celebrated on this day.

Miscellaneous festivals

  • Tidying the graves (tomb sweeping)
  • Sweet rice cakes festival
  • Fireworks Day
  • Dragon Boat Festival
  • Zongba Festival (Zongba is a type of dumpling made from glutinous rice.)
  • Bull intestines eating festival

Bullfighting is also historically popular among the Dong people (Geary 2003:199).


The Dong people are traditionally polytheistic with many elements of animism (Geary 2003). Totems include turtles, snakes, and dragons, and worshipped ancestors include the mythical figures of Song Sang, Song En, Zhang Liang, and Zhang Mei (Geary 2003:149-151). The Dong people also use rice grains, bamboo roots, snails, and chicken bone, eyes, blood, and eggs for divination. Today, Taoism, Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Christianity are also practiced by the Dong people.

Spirits and deities

Some deities and sacred natural phenomena are also listed below (Geary 2003:155-164).

  • Sa Ma Qing Sui, or Sa Sui, is the most important deity in Dong mythology. Sa Sui is a female deity who may have originally been a land goddess.
  • Village enrtrance goddess
  • Bridge goddess
  • Land gods and goddesses
  • Three family prosperity gods
  • A love deity actually consisting of five male gods
  • Banishing-evil god
  • Spirit of the sky and earth
  • Sun and moon worship (derived from Chinese religion)
  • Thunder and lightning
  • Mountains
  • Rivers and streams
  • Wells
  • Two fire spirits: one good and one evil
  • Large stones and boulders
  • "Wind-and-water trees" (i.e., trees with magic qualities) and ancient evergreen trees
  • Water buffalo spirits
  • Rice seedling spirits
  • Fruit tree spirits

Snakes are also highly revered, and are often thought to have been the progenitors of the ancient Baiyue peoples, which included the Dong (Geary 2003:149). The original two founders of the Dong people, Zhang Liang and Zhang Mei, are often called upon to help with illnesses and disasters.

Taboos and superstitions

Traditional Dong religion also makes use of many taboos, omens, and fetishes. The fetishes are usually plant parts such as tree branches, reeds, leaves, and roots. Some of the taboos and superstitions are listed below (Geary 2003:174-178).

  • Not marrying on the Chinese Year of the Tiger, since tigers must wait around nine years before giving birth to their first cubs
  • Pregnant women cannot participate in marriage ceremonies or arrangements, visit sick acquaintances, or sacrifice to gods.
  • Women cannot give birth in their mothers' home. There are also many other childbirth-related taboos and superstitions.
  • Children cannot have haircuts before the age of one month old. The locks of hair from the first haircut must also be stored away and not be disposed of.
  • Coffins cannot have any metal objects inside them, since departed souls fear metal objects, especially copper.
  • Corpses should not be placed inside coffins during rainy weather. Names are also not to be called out when a corpse is being carried to its grave.
  • Chopsticks should not be tapped on bowls, as this is reminiscent of beggars' behavior.
  • The meat of crows or dead wild animals with unknown causes of death bring bad luck and should not be eaten.
  • Unmarried men should not eat pig feet, since pigs have split hooves.
  • New houses should not be built if a neighbor has recently died.
  • Pregnant women should not watch new houses being built.
  • Wood struck by lightning cannot be used for building houses.
  • Main entrances of two houses should not directly face each other, or this will cause severe quarreling.
  • It is best to move into new houses at night when the village is already asleep.
  • Nothing should be bought on the first day of the Chinese New Year, as this might cause materials to diminish for the new year. On this day, floors should not be swept, rubbish should not be thrown out, friends should not be visited, arguments should be avoided, and knives should not be used to cut food.
  • The lusheng should not be played between the sowing and transplanting of rice seedlings, since it could attract plagues of insects.
  • Meeting a pregnant woman while hunting is considered bad luck.
  • While hunting, the names of animals should not be shouted so that the mountain god would not be aroused to protect the animals.
  • Fish swimming upstream are protected by the gods, and catching one of them will result in bad luck.
  • Leaving home on the 7th, 17th, or 27th day of the month is unlucky. This custom is also practiced by the Chinese.
  • A recently deceased person will rise up if a cat jumps over him. Therefore all domesticated animals must be kept away from them.

Magic and shamanism

Rituals involving supernatural elements include dragon dances, spring buffalo dances, and fire prevention ceremonies where ash is placed in boats and sent downstream. Sorcery can be performed in private. There are many purposes of sorcery, such as repelling evil spirits, recovering the soul of a disturbed child, exacting revenge on enemies, and inducing love. Voodoo dolls, borrowed from the Chinese, are made so that pins can be stuck onto them, with the person's name and birth date also written on them. The doll is then buried underground after being inserted into a clay pot (Geary 2003:172). White cocks can also be used for revenge sorcery.

Shamanism is practiced by the Dong and bears many parallels with Miao (Hmong) shamanism. One major duty of shamans is to recover the souls of sick people (Geary 2003:169).

Notable Dongs


Drum tower in Zhaoxing, Guizhou  
Autumn festival in Chengyangqiao, Guangxi, China  
Dong covered bridge in Guangxi, China  


  • D. Norman Geary, Ruth B. Geary, Ou Chaoquan, Long Yaohong, Jiang Daren, Wang Jiying (2003). The Kam People of China: Turning Nineteen. (London / New York, RoutledgeCurzon 2003). ISBN 0-7007-1501-0. (The two main authors are affiliated with the linguistic organization SIL International.)
  • Long, Yaohong and Zheng, Guoqiao (1998). Language in Guizhou Province, China. Dallas: SIL International and the University of Texas at Arlington Publications in Linguistics 126. ISBN 1-55671-051-8. (Translated from Chinese by D. Norman Geary.) [2]
  • Ōu Hēngyuán 欧亨元 (2004). Cic deenx Gaeml Gax / Dòng-Hàn cídiǎn 侗汉词典 (Dong–Chinese dictionary. Běijīng 北京, Mínzú chūbǎnshè 民族出版社). ISBN 7-105-06287-8.
  • ethnic minority [3]

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