Located in Liuzhou City, Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County is home to 360,000 and Dong people makes up over 57% of it (by 2010). It is one of the places in China that preserves the minority cultures at its best perspective.Colorful and exotic lifestyles and cultures are the biggest reasons for travelers to visit Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County.Also travlers visiting Guilin are often combining Sanjiang in their travel plan.
Sanjiang Climate and Best Travel Time
Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County is situated at at 25°22′- 26°2′ N and1108°53′- 109°52′E, enjoying a mountainside subtropical sub-humid climate featuring four distinct seasons.
The coldest month is January with 7.3 °C (45.2°F) on average and extreme at 5.2℃ (41.4℉); the hottest month is July, the average temperature is 27.3°C (81.2°F) and can go up to 39.5℃ (103.1℉). The relative humidity is above 81%. It snows from now and then up in the high mountains in winter. Rainstorms are often in summer.
Sanjiang suits for traveling all year round and has its best during spring and summer. In spring, you won’t need too much clothes if you don’t plan on overnight camping. The thriving surrounding brings out a lively color as everything comes back to life from a cold winter. Ideal for morning hiking up to the mountain or join the farmers at ploughing and spring-tea-picking.
Also, most of the major celebrations and weddings can be seen during the Chinese Spring Festival. During summer, despite its heat, you will be delightfully surprised to visit the rice terrace fields; swimming, hiking and camping are also suitable activities.
Things you might need: a flashlight for there’s no street lights on the country roads; mosquito repellent, medicine for pollen allergy and flu; a pair of walk shoes or hiking alpenstock for some mountain trails are bumpy and slippery; small gifts, candy or pocket money for the kids or villagers of whom you would like to snap a photo; wide-angle lens for panoramic views from the mountain top; bottled drinking water. Above it all, a heart to appreciate the wonderful people and cultures!
Top Traditional Festivals in Sanjiang
To make sure you go at the right time and understand the meaning of the local life while enjoy their celebrations, here’s a quick guide of the most important traditional festivals celebrated in Sanjiang.
No.1. Chinese New Year Eve and Chinese New Year
Just as important, if not more, as Christmas Eve for westerners, for Chinese people the Chinese New Year Eve (除夕) and Chinese New Year (春节) means more than any other days on the calendar. These two traditional festivals are also celebrated among Dong people in Sanjiang.
Preparations before Chinese New Year
The New Year Eve is the night of 30th in the last month in Chinese lunar calendar. Preparation starts at least 3 days ahead of the New Year Eve, including cleaning, cooking, shopping and family gathering.
On the 27th, festive vibe is widely speared as every household begins their slaughter in the early morning. It is common for a house of more than 5 to have a whole pig killed for dinner and sacrifice. And small families will stick together and pitch in for one. On that night, the youth of a village would set off firecrackers, play Lusheng ( reed-pipe wind instrument) and bang the gongs while going around their own village for 3 times.
The next day, the 28th, pounding glutinous rice and making brown sugar for ancestor-honoring take up the most of daytime while the parade of the youth carries on at night. For 29th, villagers will go catch fish in the rivers and their ancestors will be ¡°offered¡± freshly-cooked fish for that night. Temples of the Mountain God and Earth God, Ancestral Halls and Sa Altar (Sa is also known as the female Bodhidharma among Dong people) are lined up with villagers offering sacrifices.
As the big night comes, not a single soul at the alleys of the village because everybody is at home with their family feasting the biggest dinner and wishing each other a good year to come. Near midnight, countless strings in succession of firecrackers will be set off and you will know it is a night of no sleep.
Nobody knows who starts the first song while the antiphonal singing splits the morning sky of the Chinese New Year. As a prelude of the celebration, antiphonal singing is in Dong language and mostly about love and romance.
It is also a part of Dong people’s Dage (Big Songs) performance. Usually, every village sets seven locations for antiphonal singing, inside the hall of a drum tower, or on the stage of a public square. Two teams of different sexes sit face-to-face, the boy teams are from local village and the girls are from other villages and they are elaborately primped and preened in traditional festival customs. Swapping singers happen a lot between different villagers, which is quite an effective way for young people to meet their future spouses.
There will be one certain leader in each team. While the girl team asks a question by singing the boys are supposed to answer it also by singing. One song after another, under the lead of a particular experienced singer these talented Dong people can really sing it through for couple of hours without any conductors, instruments or pre-written lyrics. In addition to the antiphonal singing, Lusheng and drums will also be played to shake up the jolly vibe.
Another big thing is the wedding-related events. The first three days of the first month in Chinese Lunar Calendar are usually the wedding days for Dong people. In secret, the groom will bring the bride back to his own house ahead of time, usually on the 28th. After 3 days, they will announce their marriage by offering their neighbors with oil tea and a meal. And the next day, some family members of the groom’s house will send the new wife back to her own house, without the groom.
Along with them, there will be presents such as huge baskets of rice, sour fish, sour pork, sour ducks, noodles and rice wine. They will have 3 big meals at the bride’s parents’ house and the bride will stay overnight. The 4th day, she will get back to her husband and fetch water from a well or spring, ending her days as someone’s daughter and embrace a new identity as somebody’s wife.
If lucky enough to witness a Dong-style wedding, travelers will be surprised to see an army-like bride-sending-off group marching through the villages and mountains with carrying poles on their shoulders and laughter on their faces.
Time: Chinese New Year Eve and Chinese New Year (normally during the late January or early February in the Gregorian Calendar) Celebrating Places: Every village in Sanjiang County
No.2 Sanyuesan Festival/Huapao Festival
The traditional festival, Sanyuesan Festival (三月三),meaning the 3rd of the 3rd month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, is also known as Firework Festival (花炮节), Seed-Sowing Festival. It is celebrated by the Dong people as well as Han and Zhuang peoples, and falls in early April in the Gregorian Calendar.
Among the Dong people, it is the Firework Festival (or Huapao in Chinese) better known and has more versions of the legend.
One legend goes as this: once upon a time, a young Dong girl saved a small stripped fish from a water snake. The next morning, she was doing laundry by the river and saw a pretty lady rising up from the water, who claimed herself as the daughter of the Dragon King and she is grateful for the Dong girl’s help.
The two girls soon became good friends and the Dragon Princess would come out to the earthy world and strewed flowers by the river until one day her father put an abrupt end to the happy days and locked her down the river bed. From then on, the Dongs would come by the river and set of fireworks to reminisce the joy that she once brought upon the earth. In time, this folklore has become today’s Huapao Festival.
Another version, which is officially traceable by governmental records, gives credit to Chu Keh Liang, a famous strategist back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). When Chu came to the Southern, he brought along gunpowder and other techniques to help with local agriculture.
To bring all the isolated tribes together, he challenged the Dong people with a contest: three fireworks that are hooked with iron rings at each binding will be set off and it will shoot right up to the sky. As the iron rings fall back down, all the contestants will go and fetch them in the shortest time by all possible means.
The only rule is one shall not wound others. Whoever wins the contest is believed to bring back to his tribe with luck, fortune and population growth, which are the symbols of the three fireworks. And this has sharpened up to be today’s festival highlight that is known as Qianghuapao (抢花炮,Scramble for the Firework).
Every Sanyuesan, you can be a part of the biggest celebration in Fulu Country of Sanjiang.
Besides Qianghuapao, there are Thousand-People-Antiphonal-Singing-and-Dancing (千人多耶歌舞), Officer-Carrying (抬官人), Huge-Wood-Pulling-Mountains (大木拉山) and village fair. Such a carnival draws numerous people, including the Han, Melao, Yao, Miao, Zhuang and foreigners to this laid-back town, the Dong tribes from Guizhou Province and Hunan Province wouldn’t miss such a big day either.
Time: the 3rd of the third month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar (usually in early April in the Gregorian calendar) Celebrating Places: Every village in Sanjiang County, the biggest celebration in Fulu Country (富禄镇)
No.3 Tomb-Sweeping Day / Qingming Festival
As a special day to pay honor to the ancestors, Chinese people, regardless of the nationality, put great stock in the Tomb-Sweeping Day (清明节).
It is the ritual to pay honor that distinguishes Dong’s Qingming from that in the Han people. The day is also called Guaqin (挂亲), literally meaning hanging up something for the family, it is an essential ritual. Parts of the ritual include tomb-sweeping, sacrifice-offering, dinner at the tombs and firework-setting-off.
If the festival falls into the second month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, the ritual will be held the 3rd day after the Tomb-Sweeping Day; if falls into the third month, it will be held 3 days ahead. Unlike the Han people, the Dongs offer sacrifices to other families’ ancestors.
The legend for this distinction goes back to the time when a tribe Dong girl became the emperor’s concubine and they paid offerings to the imperial family. People back in her tribe were strongly disturbed and afraid that their ancestors can hardly receive any blessing from the King of Hell because the imperial ancestors outpowered and took precedence.
From then on, the Dongs insist the ritual offset with other natalities. Even in present time, hanging up paper flowers and burning up paper money ahead to other peoples, is believed to insecure and bless the Dong tribes not only by the gone ancestors by also various gods.
No matter when the ritual is held, preparation work begins at least 2 days ahead and the major burden falls onto Bula (补拉), a family-run organization that handles internal fairs and is made up of family members sharing the same paternal line.
Every house is obligated to pitch in for shopping and be a part of the preparation. Shopping for incense, paper money, fire crackers, food and wine in bulk, cleaning and cooking as well as other processes are well planned and fairly assigned to each household by Bula.
Home-cooked dishes will be gathered for that night’s big dinner. Among these dishes, one thing cannot be missed: Qingming Cake. It is made of freshly-picked mugwort, sticky rice, garlic sprout, smoked pork and salt.
After the ritual
After the whole ritual, Bula will convene a meeting, at which contribution, misbehaviors, future planning and assignment for each member will be discussed. The traditions of Bula demonstrate the strong bonding and unity that is handed down by generations.
Time: Tomb-Sweeping Day is the 5rd of the fourth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar and the ritual is either 3 days ahead or after (on 5th April in the Gregorian Calendar) Celebrating Places: Every village in Sanjiang County
No. 4 Siyueba / Bull-Honoring Festival
Siyueba (四月八) , falling on the 8th of the 4th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, is an important agricultural festival shared by the Dong, Miao, Yi, Tujia, Yao, Buyi, Qilao and Zhuang people in northern Guangxi, Hunan Province and Guizhou Province. It is usually a week after the Beginning of summer (the 7th solar term), falling in late April or early May.
The name Bull-Honoring (敬牛) is quite self-explanatory: On this day in every house of the Dongs, honor and gratitude will be made to the bulls for their hard work over the years. For bulls, it is a priceless holiday to relax, especially before the coming season of spring ploughings.
Housewives cook rice with eggs as a special meal for their oxen, kids wash and groom them smoothly while the fathers will pet the bull’s head and express his gratefulness in words or songs. If it is a sunny day, which is believably a good sign for spring ploughings, people will congratulate each other for a promising harvest.
As the festival spirit is passed down in time, the Dongs invite new events for the celebration that is the widely-known Pohui (坡会). The biggest one is in Tongle Country. There are 4 highlights of Tongle Pohui: match-making for young boys and girls from different places; traditional Dong-style embroidery demonstration, Gagou (嘠勾, meaning baggers in Dong language) blessing and ox parade.
Interesting story for the Gagou blessing part: Weiyuan the Great General in the Song Dynasty was a Dong and a bagger at his early years. When he fought his way to the great general, he commemorated his struggling days and sent people to beg for food on this specific day. The masqueraded baggers got food from door to door and every house will bring them blacken sticky rice, rice wine and sour pork. The householders consider themselves blessed to do such a good deed.
Time: The 8th of the 4th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar (in late April or early May in the Gregorian calendar) Celebrating Places: Every village in Sanjiang County, biggest celebration in Tongle Country (同乐乡)
No.5 Wuyuewu / Chinese Dragon Boat Festival
The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) is a special day to remember the great poet and patriot Qu Yuan, but things are somehow different for the Dong people.
Legend has it that one villager found a little stripped snake hiding in his kitchen eating sticky rice. Instead of killing it, the kind-hearted villager fed it with more sticky rice dumplings. To everybody’s surprise, a grand harvest fell on his village that year despite the harsh weather. It must be the God of Snakes’rewarding, people believe. Such belief forms the tradition to make rice-dumplings and offer to the Snake God. Thus, this festival is also called Rice-Dumpling Festival. Rice dumplings are made of sticky rice, pork, mung beans, and chestnuts and wrapped up and steamed.
Specific rules must be followed while wrapping up the rice dumplings: it is the eldest in the family who does all the work without any help; nobody shall touch or taste the rice dumplings until they are offered to the Snake God and ancestors. Only in this way, can the family stay wealthy and blessed in the following half year.
Guyi Town in Sanjiang is famous for its Wuyuewu Fair. The fair intrigues visitors with big rice dumplings sale, cattle market and occasionally bull-fighting. For ordinary families, it is the traditions to eat rice dumplings hang up calamus leaves as a charm against evil and bathe in mugwort water.
Time: The 5th of the 5th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar (in early June the Gregorian Calendar) Celebrating Places: Every village in Sanjiang County, fair event in Guyi Town (古宜镇)
No.6 Middle Autumn Festival
In Chinese culture, the Middle Autumn Festival (中秋节) symbolizes the unity. It means more beyond that for the Dong people; it is a romantic season during autumn, especially for the young boys and girls.
In the morning, young boys carry baskets full of moon cakes and get together at a pre-arranged location where the girls have been waiting for them. Then guys take out the cakes and line them up in even numbers while singing to the girls asking them to taste. The girls return the favor also in singing and show affection by choose cakes from certain boys. This occasion will last till the evening.
During that night, a girl would sneak into the garden that belongs to the very boy she has a crush on. She would steal some fruits or veggies as a special way for the moon celestial to bond her with the boy. She will know that boy is soon to be her husband if she steals something with two roots or stems. Interestingly, whatever she steals shall not be brought back home but eaten up in secrecy.
In most villages of Sanjiang, the night of the Middle Autumn Festival is celebrated in passion and songs. On the squares of the drum towers, Dong people in festive customs assembly up with drums and Lusheng and there comes a thunderous carnival. The group dancing and singing soon becomes one-on-one interaction. Couples of new lovers would leave the ground and go somewhere only they know before the night ends. The remaining single boys or girls would have to go home alone, wishing the moon celestial stands on his/her side next year.
No matter how the night ends, in singing or stealing, it is vividly evident that female holds the initiative in marriage. For outsiders, the songfest is just fascinating enough.
Time: The 15th of the 8th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar (usually in late September or early October in the Gregorian calendar) Celebrating Places: Every village in Sanjiang County
Sanjiang Customs and Traditions
As the old saying goes, do in at Rome as the Romans do. It is necessary to learn and understand the traditional cultures before you travel to Sanjiang. The special customs and fascinating traditions are the most impressive distinctness.
When you are in Sanjiang, you will see a lot of people in ordinary clothes just like you, a T-shirt or top with a pair of jeans. The Dongs put on their finest at festivals or some special occasions. Clothes for male is usually double-breasted, collar-less and sleeveless vest, straight-legged paliform pants and hooded scarfs on the head. Black and dark blue are the most-used colors.
Girls’ wardrobe is more stylish, despite the same color theme. There are three types of Dong girl’s wear: tight dress suite, loose dress suite and paint suite, styles varying in different regions. Girls in Sanjiang know exactly how to dress themselves up with simply a skirt suite. They wear long sleeve, double-breasted frock with buttons undone; underearth it is a hand-embroidered Dudou (肚兜), a cloth band that is worn around the chest and waist as the underwear.
Flowers, fruits, birds and clouds, as symbols of good luck and happiness are delicately embroidered at the edges, collar and wristbands of the frock, bringing out a certain elegance. Dark-colored pleated skirts are cut down to the knees. Their black leggings are also embroidered and quite practical during freezing winter in Sanjiang. For accessories, silver hairpins,siver earings, decorative combs and flowers are their favorite. For aged women, they usually wrap up a piece of black scarf, just as the men do. A huge silver phoenix coronet weighing up to 5km is considered as a valuable dowry for new brides.
Cyan blue, black, purple, white and blue are important parts of most of locals’ clothes. Cyan blue and black are usually for spring, autumn and winter clothes; while the summer wear is lighter and breezier mainly in white. On festivals and special occasions, you will see most of people wear purple as it is a solemn yet auspicious color in their culture.
Fabrics used for tailoring are home-woven and home-dyed, known as the Dong Clothing (侗布). Weaving and dyeing her own wedding dress is a required course during every Dong girl’s youth. What’s interesting is, usually the wedding dress, the pleated skirt to be specific, is so starched that the bride has to keep standing for the whole time.
It is almost impossible to write down a full list of various traditions for the Dong people. The old yet lively ethnic group places extreme value on their traditions and insist carrying them on no matter how the world changes.
Dong people never build a village without mountains and rivers around. A wind and rain bridge is constructed over the river, providing a shelter for emergencies and the village’s own gathering place. Drum towers are built up by different family names and there are usually old trees of over 100 years stretching out canopies in every village. Houses are built on silts, upstairs live the people and downstairs keep the cattle and firewood. The whole construction style of a Dong village underlines the importance of self-defense and self-providing and very practical in their agricultural work and daily life.
The elders of a family always come first in a Dong family. Families under the same family name establish a very close relationship and form up an organization named Bula (补拉) that organizes and decides important matters for the whole gens. Within a family, the fathers are always the decision maker while women also have considerable rights when it comes to education and field working. Outside the small families, an alliance of military defensive character between villages are framed and known as Kuan (款).
Hospitality is the signature of the Dongs. Guests are welcome at any time at any household and they will feast you with special sour pork, sour fish and rice wine.It seems like there is no such thing as overstaying your welcome at a Dong family.
Dong boys and girls walk into their marriage built on a loving relationship. Their match-making possibly starts at their first antiphonal singing or village fair and a go-between completes the job by proposing.
In the past, marriage within the same family name is forbidden while cousins on the mother’s side are allowed to get married. Oftentimes, they arrange the weddings at the 1st month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, together with the Chinese New Year.
When the bride is on the way to her husband’s house, she shall not speak; parents and relatives of the husband’s family shall not see her face or talk to her as she steps into the doorstep. Every basket, suitcase, barrel or bag in the dowry must be filled fully with rice, noddles or other stuff, as a betoken sign for their fulfilling life.
One of the most interesting marriage traditions is Stealing the Bride (偷亲). As the routine goes, during nighttime the groom secretly brings home his wife without letting the girl’s parents know. After their marriage is made public, the wife will return home for 3 days without her husband, which is known as Homecoming Bride (送新娘).
Births and Funerals
Neighbors and relatives congratulate a mother who recently has her first child by Sanzhaojiu (三朝酒). They will come by the family on two odd-numbered days within 10 days after the baby was born, such as the 1st and 3rd days, or 5th and 7th days.
The same as the Han people, the Dongs prefer inhumation. In a few regions, there is Tingzang (停葬), the coffin will be put outside the village and buried with every same aged family members after their death. Funerals are held the second day after the death with chicken, fish and pork as offerings and Taoist priests chanting.
Sticky rice, sour pork/fish/duck, Oil Tea and rice wine make up a typical Dong meal. They usually have two meals and two tea times a day. Oddly, sour and bitter are their favorite flavors. Annually, people preserve fresh fish, pork and ducks with sticky rice. While dining at a Dong family, the householder pick up the head and claws of a chicken or duck for the guests, and the guests are supposed to accept and give them away to the elders, which is a polite gesture.
Polytheism is practiced throughout Sanjiang. People worship mountains, old trees, giant rocks, water wells and bridges. Fortune-tellers predicate future by chicken hopping, grass, eggs, river snails and rice.
Sasui or Sama (萨岁, 萨玛), a goddess original from a heroine named Biben, is believed to be the god overpowering other gods and her shrines can be found at almost every village in Sanjiang.
when you are invited to a Dong village or family, there are some taboos to look out: don’t eat sitting at the porch or threshold; don’t watch other people eat or drink; outsiders are not allowed to enter the village during religious sacrifices; digging near a well or river is forbidden; don’t step on the threshold; don’t put knives, guns, firework or lighter at the family shrine.
Solo Adventure Tips:
Take a bus at Guilin Qintan Coach Station from Guilin City to Sanjiang County.
How to Get There?
Take a bus at Guilin Qintan Coach Station from Guilin City to Sanjiang County.
The bus fare is about 70 Yuan.
Two or three days will be enough to visit Sanjiang attractions and experience local culture.