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UNESCO has placed 18 Dong villages on a tentative list of World Heritage sites in China. Of particular interest are the villages’ fengyuqiao (‘wind and rain bridges’) or covered bridges, and drum towers. Each of these structures is reflective of traditional Dong life.
Many ancient customs are practiced in Dong 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.
This multi-mark can be left in any location of significance. 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 (late February or early March) is an auspicious day in Dong tradition. On this day, according to local folklore, a dragon will rise from the water. The dragon can bring either good or bad luck to villagers, and everyone is eager to appease it.
To ensure good luck with the year's harvest, the Dong also present offerings to the gnome of agriculture who lives under bridges, on the second day of the second month. Offerings to the gnome include tasty food such as rice cakes, delicious meat, egg dishes, and succulent fish.
Villagers picnic on the bridge in order to pay homage to the gnome on that day. Visitors can participate in the bridge picnics if they visit the region during this festival.
Cattle also play an important role in the Dong second day of the second month celebrations. In local Han tradition, cows represent the dragon, who can bestow good luck. 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 cows (dragon). After the parade of cattle one cow is butchered and all the villagers share in the meat, which becomes part of the bridge picnic.
The Dong celebrate a variety of festivals throughout the year. Several correspond to 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 Han and Dong.
Dong New Year is celebrated during the eleventh lunar month, from the first day to the eleventh day (in late November or December). It is distinct from Chinese New Year.
Dong New Year is traditionally convened by the Dong of Guizhou Province, and festival dates may vary from village to village. The 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 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 the “cold dish”. This 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 represents sacrifice to the ancestors.
The Dong celebrate when the first rice, or early rice, is ready for harvesting. The Eating New Rice Festival includes offering a sacrifice to ancestors. Fish, chicken, and beef are paired with rice and presented as offerings.
After the ceremony, villagers traditionally enjoy a feast with entertainment that includes singing, and sometimes even bullfighting.
The Sister’s Festival honors the Dong women. On the eighth day 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.
The women cook and celebrate this special time together. Married women bring home a black glutinous rice cake to their husbands as a sign of respect.
Bullfighting was traditionally one of the most popular entertainments for 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 days, usually occurs in August or September, or March or April.
The festival involves much pageantry for both participants and spectators. The competing 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.
The culture of the Dong is exciting and exotic, and the people are welcoming and hospitable. Visitors to the region will enjoy observing the traditional Dong way of life, with its tasty local foods and interesting festivals.