Hidden in the remote valleys of southern China are 1,000-year-old villages where time seems to have stood still. These Dong minority communities consist of intricate wooden buildings, host unique festivals, and are home to people who worship nature, don elaborate outfits and favour ancient lifestyles.
Stilted homes and time-worn pagodas line the car-free streets of these villages, which are surrounded by fields that produce the wheat, rice and vegetables that feed its residents, and the tea, cotton and rapeseed they sell.
The Dong are one of 55 ethnic minorities in China, and emerged more than a millennium ago. They do not rely heavily upon tourism revenue, but it does help supplement their income, which otherwise stems mainly from agriculture.
The remarkable minority communities and 20 of their villages are on Unesco’s tentative list to be granted World Heritage Site status. Such recognition by the esteemed governing body of protected sites would have the quiet villages listed alongside famed Chinese attractions such as the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, the Great Wall of China. Whereas foreign tourists swarm those Unesco sites, few venture into the countryside of China’s Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan provinces to explore these villages.
The Dong people also delight in showcasing their unique culture. My most recent encounter with this community was two years ago at the Yunnan Nationalities Village in Kunming, where I met a young woman in traditional Dong garb. She smiled from beneath her large, colourful headdress, which complemented her heavy, metallic neck-piece and handwoven jacket and skirt. Although that sprawling complex in Kunming is interesting, it’s a tourist attraction that offers but a shallow understanding of the 25 ethnic minorities of Yunnan province.
My first experience with Dong culture in 2014 was far more authentic. A bumpy, five-hour bus ride from the popular tourist city of Guilin brought me to Chengyang, a cluster of Dong communities in a far-flung region of Guangxi province. This minority has lived in the picturesque valley for more than 1,000 years. While they’re a minority group in China, a nation of 1.4 billion people, the Dong population is relatively large, at close to three million people.
Their religion centres on the worship of nature, and they speak a dialect more closely related to Thai than to China’s dominant languages of Mandarin and Cantonese.
To the uneducated observer, it could be difficult to discern the Dong people from a few of China’s other ethnic minorities. They are believed to have close genetic links to some of these other groups, and their flamboyant traditional clothing can appear quite similar.
Yet as Unesco notes on its website: "The authenticity of the Dong language, festivals, song and dance, medicine, crafts and other intangible heritages has been well preserved in all the nominated Dong Villages, which makes the Dong village culture distinct from those of the local and surrounding Han, Miao, Zhuang and other nationalities."
Many Dong people, it must be said, do not live in villages or dress in traditional garb. A large number reside in China’s large cities, where work is more easily found. There is a particularly large population of Dong people in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province. This city is now well connected to many Dong villages due to a high-speed rail line that runs between Guiyang and Guilin, through previously isolated farmland.
That bullet train symbolises how China is widely perceived by tourists, despite recent challenges – as a swiftly modernising nation of cutting-edge technology, hulking infrastructure and massive cities.
Chengyang, rather delightfully, confounds this stereotype of contemporary China. Stilted homes built with Chinese fir wood replace skyscrapers, meandering rivers substitute for highways, vegetable patches fill in for supermarkets, and people gather in village squares rather than at shopping centres. Above these squares loom one of the symbols of the Dong people – the drum tower. These majestic wooden structures can stand 30 metres tall and are decorated by up to a dozen layers of eaves, as well as murals or carvings that depict Dong mythology.
Drum towers are the hubs of these communities. Narrow streets and alleys spoke off the village squares that adjoin the towers, and these public spaces are the venues for daily community gatherings and annual festivals. Locals dance to live music provided by lutes and lusheng pipes, in performances that are central to the many Dong festivals. The most famous of these is the annual bullfighting festival, when water buffalo battle each other before cheering crowds.
Even more alluring than the Dong’s drum towers are their extraordinary covered bridges. My long journey to Chengyang would have been worth it just to admire the Wind and Rain Bridge that provides entry to this group of villages. Spanning the Linxi river, this 80-metre-long wood and stone bridge built in 1912 is like a functional work of art. Its five wooden pavilions each boast multi-eaved roofs decorated with delicate carvings of the phoenix.
With staircases positioned at either end, this bridge was designed only for pedestrians, which explains why there are no cars or trucks in the communities of Chengyang. And this may remain the status quo if China’s Dong villages are granted prized Unesco status. In a country that’s surging into the future at a rare pace, these ancient communities offer invaluable insight into China’s past.