UNESCO has placed 18 Dong villages on the tentative World Heritage site list for China. Of particular interest are the region’s fengyu ('wind and rain'), or covered bridges, and drum towers. Each of these structures is reflective of traditional Dong life.
The Dong have many ancient customs that are practiced in the villages. These customs are based on age-old rituals and beliefs.
Dong tradition is steeped in nature. One of the most interesting customs is the multi-mark. The Dong remove grass or other plants from the ground, bunch them together, secure them with a tie, and place them to signify a mark. The multi-mark can be left in a prominent location or a location that has significant meaning. To the Dong, the multi-mark can signify love, danger, and even disdain. For example, a spray of grass placed near a broken board on a bridge would serve as a warning.
The second day of the second lunar month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar (late February or early March) is an auspicious day in Dong traditions. On this day, according to local folklore, a dragon will rise from the water. This dragon can signify both good and bad luck to the villagers. Chinese calendar month two day two is notable because of the dragon that everyone wants to appease.
To ensure good luck with the year's harvest, the Dong also provide offerings to the Gnome of agriculture who lives under bridges. Offerings to the gnome include tasty foods including rice cakes, delicious meats, egg dishes, and succulent fish. The villagers picnic on the bridge in order to pay homage to the gnome on that day. Visitors can participate in bridge picnicking when visiting the region in during this festival.
Cattle also play an important role in the lunar month two day two celebrations of the Dong. In the local Han tradition, cows represent the dragon who can bestow good luck on the village. To honor the dragon, villagers march cattle through the village. Celebratory music, using local instruments such as drums and flutes, is an essential part of the ceremony. People line the path of the parade, and bow to show respect to the cow (dragon). After the parade of cattle one cow is butchered and all the villagers share in the meat. This meat becomes a part of the bridge picnicking ceremonies.
The Dong celebrate a variety of festivals throughout the year. Several festivals coincide with traditional Han festivals. Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and Qingming, or the Tomb Sweeping Festival, are celebrated by both the Han and the Dong. Festivals unique to the Dong culture include Dong New Year, the New Harvest Eating Festival, the Bullfight Festival, and the Sisters’ Festival.
Dong New Year is celebrated during the eleventh lunar month, from the first day to the eleventh day (in late November or December). This festival is separate from the China’s New Year festival. Dong New Year is traditionally held by the Dong of Guizhou Province, and festival dates may vary from village to village. This celebration marks the end of the autumn harvest, and villagers relax and enjoy the end of a busy season.
Preparations for the festival start days before the celebrations and parties begin. Houses are cleaned, villagers buy new outfits, and a feast – including savory and sweet rice cakes, in addition to pork and beef – is prepared. One traditional Dong New Year treat is their “cold dish”. This dish includes tofu and special hand-made pickles. Once prepared, the bean curd and pickles are cooled outdoors before serving. In the Dong culture this particular dish signifies ancestral sacrifice.
When the first rice, or early rice, is ready for harvesting the Dong celebrate. The New Harvest Eating Festival includes offering a sacrifice of food to the spirit gods. Fish, chicken, and beef are paired with rice and offered to the gods. After the ceremony honoring the spirit gods the villagers enjoy a feast with entertainment that includes singing, dancing, and even bullfighting.
The Sister’s Festival honors the women of the Dong people. Celebrated on the eighth of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (around early May), married Dong women go back to the home where their old family, their mother and unmarried sisters, live. They cook and celebrate this special time together. Married women take home a black glutinous rice cake to their husbands as a sign of respect.
Bullfighting is one of the most popular entertainments for the Dong people. While bullfighting is a welcome addition to any festival, a special time is reserved for honoring the sport. The Bullfighting Festival takes place on Hai Day which usually occurs in August or September in the Western calendar.
The Bullfighting Festival includes much pageantry for the participants and the spectators. The participating teams meet to inspect the bulls and determine the rotation for the bullfights. This often includes exciting one-on-one matches that are not to be missed.
An exciting and exotic culture, the Dong people are welcoming and hospitable. Visitors to the region will enjoy partaking of the local foods, festivals, and experiencing this ancient way of life.