Dong Ethnic Minority

Written by Matteo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

The Dong people, a Chinese ethnic minority who number about 2,514,000 individuals according to the 1990 Chinese state census, are found mainly in the provinces of Guizhou and Hunan, as well as in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Modern-day Dong people are considered a sub-group among the Yue folk who, it is believed, were the original ancestors of the Han Chinese people, though there are competing theories regarding the origin of the Han Chinese. If the reader will suffer the following short aside – which is part fact, part speculation – we will return to the main theme presently.

Scholars believe that early man's migration out of Africa, part of which migration pushed eastward beyond the Indian subcontinent, saw a trail of migrants who expanded northward into China (another trail of migrants had, possibly earlier, expanded southward), the Yue folk. A subgroup of the northward-expanding Yue group, the Dong-yi ("Eastern" yi, "Yi" being a variant of "Yue"), entered into present-day China either via Yunnan or Sichuan Province, eventually settling in the present-day Sichuan-Gansu-Shaanxi-Shanxi area and becoming the forebears of the Han Chinese.

The group of Yue folk who had headed southward into Southeast Asia, forebears of the Dai (alternatively, Tai) folk who in turn are the ancestors of the the present-day Tai people of Thailand, eventually reached the bottom of the Southeast Asian cul-de-sac, as it were, and ended up heading north again along the coast, eventually reaching present-day China, where they settled in the Guizhou-Hunan-Guangxi area of China, thus becoming the forebears of the present-day Dong people of China (there are also large numbers of Dong people in present-day Vietnam).

Returning again to the main theme, during the Qin (BCE 221-207) and the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasties, the forebears of the present-day Chinese Dong people lived in the Lingnan area and were known as the "Bai Yue" ("Hundred Yue") folk, a branch of the Luo Yue folk. A branch of the Bai Yue folk emerged during the Southern and Northern (CE 420-588) Dynasties period calling itself the "Liao" folk. The Liao subdivided further during the Tang (CE 618-907) and Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasties, and thus the small, present-day Chinese ethnic minority officially referred to as the Dong people (present-day members of this ethnic group usually call themselves "Kam" (pronounced slightly like "Gam") is believed to stem from Liao ancestors, and – going even farther back – from the Yue folk who are believed to be the earliest ancestors of the Han Chinese.

Present-day Chinese Dong communities are to be found in 20 contiguous counties in southern China, spanning the three provinces mentioned immediately above (note that Guangxi is not a Chinese province per se, but an autonomous region, namely the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region).


In spite of being a relatively small ethnic minority, the Dong speak a variety of local dialects. Their language is divided into two main, mutually incomprehensible dialects, a southern and a northern dialect. Not only are the primary dialects mutually incomprehensible, so are many of the local dialects within each of these two primary dialects. The spoken language of the Dong is in the same phonetic family as that of the Tai/ Dai language (as is Cantonese, according to the experts). The Dong have not traditionally had a written language, which probably explains how Dong dialects can diverge so significantly from locality to locality. A written language with an orthography based on the Latin alphabet was developed for the Dong in 1958 by government researchers, but it has unfortunately never achieved widespread popularity, though that will hopefully change as young people become increasingly aware of the necessity of education as the key to personal achievement, and - as paradoxical as it may seem - as the key to maintaining one's cultural identity in an ever-changing world (a spoken-only language may die out, while a written one retains the potential to survive, as the Latin language itself bears witness to).


The Dong have a signalling custom, called, for reasons which will become obvious in the following, a "multi-mark". Marking is often done with grass or other plants which are pulled up and knotted, then placed in a conspicuous place (alternatively, in a particularly relevant location) in order to serve as a sign of love (alternatively, as a sign of warning). As the multi-mark name suggests, marking can convey any of several different meanings, generally depending on where the multi-mark is placed. Besides signalling love, the multi-mark may signify danger such as a hazardous spot on a bridge, a slippery precipice, the presence of hunting traps (eg, on a forest path) that have been set, etc. The multi-mark may also signify scorn, and as such is a form of punishment.

Bridge Picnicking

According to Dong folklore, the dragon (who can either bring luck by showering its attention on  the villagers or leave the villagers to their own fate by ignoring them), raises its head on February 2nd. On this day family members, together with relatives, bring delicious foods such as meat, eggs, fish, and rice cake to be be eaten as a sacrificial picnic on the bridge in expectation of an abundant harvest in the coming season. In accordance with Dong folklore, the Gnome (a deity) in charge of agriculture is offered a sacrifice on the bridgehead on the 2nd of February, so people come to the bridge on this day to share their best food with the Gnome - and to drink him a toast - in the hope of being rewarded with a bumper crop during the upcoming harvest. While bridge picknicking is a custom specifically designed to pay homage to the Gnome in charge of agriculture, the act of observing the custom on the 2nd of February indirectly pays homage to the dragon.

The Cattle-Welcoming Ceremony

In Dong culture, cattle not only stand for the water buffalo, they also stand for the dragon, which traditionally represents luck and success in Han Chinese culture, and which tradition has been adopted into Dong culture. Therefore, on February 2nd, all of the villagers line up to pay homage to the cattle as they are led through the village. The villagers play pipes and drums, and bow respectfully to the cattle. Afterwards, one of the cattle will be slaughtered and the meat shared among the villagers, who prepare a feast where they invite each other to drink and dine (i.e., the Bridge-Picknicking custom), singing a toast to the dragon in the form of the "Dragon-return-to-us" song. Afterwards they bury the butchered cattle's horns under the livestock pond in the center of the village, thus symbolizing the return of the water buffalo as well as expressing the hope that the village may flourish in the coming year and remain free from calamity.


Some of the Dong people's festivals are the same as those of the Han Chinese people. These include the Spring Festival ("Chinese New Year", or the equivalent of January 1st of the Chinese lunar calendar), the Mid-Autumn Festival (August 15th of the Chinese lunar calendar), the Dragon Boat Festival (May 5th of the Chinese lunar calendar), and the Tomb-Sweeping, or Qingming, Festival (April 4th-6th of the Chinese lunar calendar). The Dong also have some of their own distinctive traditional festivals, such as the Dong Year, the New-Harvest Eating Festival, the Sisters' Festival, and the Bullfight Festival (fights between two water buffalo bulls).

Dong Year (New Year)

Dong Year, or new year (not to be confused with the Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, which is celebrated separately by all of the Dong people of China) is a traditional new year festival for a restricted group of Chinese Dong people, namely, the Dong ethnic people living in southeast Guizhou Province. The date for that occasion varies according to the exact locality, but it commonly falls during the period from the 1st to the 11th day of the eleventh lunar month. However, there are exceptions and in some particular villages, the festival takes place in the tenth month. The reason for beginning the new year at that time is that it is the time after the all-important autumn harvest. In another words, the appropriate time to be rewarded with rest and relaxation - and celebration - is between the end of one year's toil and the commencement of the next year's toil.

The Dong Year celebration is as important an occasion to the Dong people as is the Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year festival) to the Han Chinese people. In the days leading up to their new year, the Dong people make new clothes, clean their houses, make glutinous rice cakes, and slaughter pigs and cattle in readiness for the Dong Year feast. On the eve of the New Year, the Dong usually prepare a dish called "cold dish" that is prepared with bean curd and homemade vinegar. When prepared, the dish is put outside where it can freeze in the wintery air (whence the dish's name). The "cold dish" is a sacrifice to one's ancestors.

Dong Year is celebrated in China in 72 Dong Villages in the area in and around the city of Rongjiang in Guizhou Province. The exact date varies, as indicated, from village to village, but falls during the period late October to early November. Public celebrations include a Lusheng Festival as well as Bullfighting (water buffalo fighting).

New-Harvest Eating Festival

People will choose a day soon after the ripening of the year's early rice to celebrate. The grain is reaped, husked, and then cooked, to be served as a complement to a number of succulent dishes such as fish, chicken, and duck, all as a sacrifice to the spirit gods. After the sacrificial ceremony, the villagers themselves partake of the same range of dishes in a grand feast that culminates in songs, opera performances, and bullfighting.

Sisters' Festival

"Sisters" here refers to young females, either married or unmarried. They celebrate on April 8th of the Chinese lunar calendar, when married women make a ritual return to the homes of their mothers. Together with their sisters and sisters-in-law, they enjoy this day and prepare a special kind of food, black glutinous rice cake. When the married women return to their own homes, they bring with them some of the black glutinous rice cake that has been reserved for this purpose, presenting it as a gift to their spouses. This is a symbolic compensation on the part of the woman for having left her husband to fend for himself for the day.

Bullfighting Festivals

Since the Dong people thoroughly enjoy bullfighting, the raising and training of water buffaloes for the purpose of bullfighting is central to Dong village life. A separate bullfighting festival (bullfighting is a component to many other Dong festivals, including festivals borrowed from the Han Chinese) is held on Hai day of the Chinese lunar calendar (in late August or early September of the Western calendar), which varies from year to year since the Chinese lunar calendar itself varies (the traditional Chinese "lunar" way of designating years, months, days and hours was to use a system of combining one of the 10 Heavenly Stems (Tian Gan) with one of the 12 Earthly Branches (Di Zhi) to form 60 unique pairs in a complete cycle - Hai is the last of the 12 Earthly Branches). Before the bullfighting itself commences, all of the "principals" (the participating teams) get together to inspect the bulls and to arrange the individual contests as well as the sequence in which each bull pair will have a go at it. The potentially best contests are naturally reserved for the climax. The Dong Bullfighting Festival is truly a lively event and an occasion for celebration.

It is believed that the Koreans are descendents of a mix of the Mongolian peoples who had migrated further into Manchuria (the northeastern part of China continguous with the Korean peninsula) and later waves of Yue/ Tai/ Dai folk who had migrated up from Southeast Asia, continuing rapidly (in relative terms) northward, roughly following the coast. It is entirely plausible that the indigenous groups along this route weren't particularly welcoming towards the new waves of migrants, which lack of hospitality probably inspired the new migrants to continue northward until they had found an unoccupied zone that they could claim for themselves. A competing theory among Koreans is that they descend from a group which migrated from Siberia. The Japanese are similarly believed to originate from these later waves of Yue/ Tai/ Dai folk who came up from Southeast Asia and migrated rapidly up along the coast in search of a homeland, as it were.

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