You are here > Home > Quick Navigation > Chinese Ethnic Group >



There is a popular misconception among the peoples of Western nations that the inhabitants of the PRC are all alike. Having in mind that the country covers some 9,596,960 square km it is clear that this cannot be true. Just like in Europe and continental America, there are many diverse ethnic groups. The largest or majority group in China is the Han, numbering about 990 million. The people who constitute the Dong ethnic group number about 2.5 million.

Geographical Distribution

Descended from the Tuoyue, a branch of the Baiyue tribe, the Dong originally dwelt in what is now Guangxi Province of Southern China, where many live today. However, over the centuries the Dong have moved into the neighbouring Guizhou and Hunan Provinces.


At the time of the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220) there lived many tribes in what is present-day Guangdong and Guangxi. The Dong people, descendants of one of these tribes, lived in a slave society at that time. Slavery gradually gave way to a feudal society in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Agriculture developed rapidly during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the Dong areas in southeast Guizhou and southwest Hunan provinces. Rice production went up with improved irrigation facilities. And self-employed artisans made their appearance in Dong towns. Markets came into existence in some bigger towns or county seats, and many big feudal landowners also began to do business. After the Opium War of 1840-42, the Dong people were further impoverished due to exploitation by imperialists, Qing officials, landlords and usurers.

The Dongs, who had all along fought against their oppressors, started to struggle more actively for their own emancipation after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. They served as guides and supplied grain to the Chinese Red Army when it marched through the area during its Long March in the mid-1930s. In 1949, guerilla units organized by the Dong, Miao, Han, Zhuang and Yao nationalities fought shoulder to shoulder with regular People's Liberation Army forces to liberate the county seat of Longsheng.


This is a largely agrarian community and the farms, which include paddies, produce wheat, millet, maize and sweet potatoes. A special strain of rice is grown, one which has a sticky constituency when cooked. Other important cash crops are cotton, tobacco, rape and soybean. Forestry forms another important aspect of the economy of the region. Situated some 300 km above the Tropic of Cancer, the area enjoys a mild climate with an annual rainfall of some 1,200 mm. This supports a wide range of timber including fir. The Tung Tree (Aleurites fordii) is widely grown for the oil it produces. Tung oil is resistant to both acids and alkalis and can be used in the manufacture of quick drying varnishes (lacquer) and as a waterproofing agent. Other forest products include cardamom husks, cassia twigs, plantain seeds, mangosteen and quinine, all of which are vital to traditional Chinese medicine.

The other important crop is tea. The green tea for which China is famed is produced from the camellia sinensis sometimes called the Thea sinensis, a shrub of the genus Theaceae. The conditions in the south of China are ideal for growing tea and speciality teas are produced.

The high rainfall and the mountainous nature of the landscape give rise to innumerable watercourses. The rivers provide a means of transport and also a goodly supply of fish. Pisciculture or fish farming has become a feature of the region.

Animal husbandry includes water buffalo, used in the paddy fields, sheep and cattle, poultry and ducks. Goats are reared on the hillsides and mountain areas.


The abundance of timber has meant that wood is the predominant material for construction. Living as they do by rivers, the Dong has had the need for bridges to provide links between their farms and communities. Bridge building has become a feature and as a protection from the elements, the bridges are covered, some even having pavilions built upon them. Such bridges are called 'wind and rain' bridges and are beautifully carved with patterns and designs including images of mountains and rivers, animals and flowering plants. These elaborate structures are prime examples of Chinese art and the architectural use of timber. One of the most famous of these bridges is the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge in Guangxi Province.

The traditional centre piece of the Dong village is a drum tower. Built entirely of timber without the aid of metal nails or screws, these towers are in the form of pagodas which may be from three to ten storeys in height. To the front of the tower, there will be an open square which serves as a meeting place for the villagers. Here they will celebrate special occasions, holidays and festivals with singing and dancing. The square is also a place in which the community will gather to discuss affairs which affect the community. To all intents and purposes, the drum tower will be the 'town hall' and focal point of the village.

By comparison with these communal structures, the individual houses are much less elaborate affairs. Built from pine wood they are two, sometimes three storeys high. The upper floors serve as living space for the family while the ground floor will be used to provide shelter for the animals.

Not least amongst crafts is the production of home spun cloth which is also hand dyed in popular shades of green, blue and purple.


For the women, the home spun cloth will be made into tight trousers and high shouldered blouses with large silver or pearly buttons. Knee length blouses with buttoned fronts and narrow sleeves worn with an apron are also popular. Other styles include short pleated skirts with waistbands worn over leggings and side buttoned, loose sleeved blouses with a skirt to below the knee, again worn with an apron. White as well as the green, blue and purple already mention is favorite colors for women's clothes. On important occasions the women will wear many stranded chokers, necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings as well as silver ornaments of finely decorated designs. They will also wrap their heads and legs in scarves and wear their hair wound up into coils.

The men favor short jackets which are buttoned in front. In the mountain regions to the south, they wear collar less shirts and turbans.


The majority of Dong people will have three meals a day but some will take four. The staple diet includes rice, corn, wheat and sweet potatoes which will be supplemented with meat, poultry and fish. A national speciality is oil-tea. When entertaining guests, the host will always offer oil-tea and it is considered insulting if the guest consumes less than three bowls. When the guest has had sufficient tea this is signified by the placing of the chop sticks across the bowl. Failure to do this will mean the oil-tea bowl will be refilled ad infinitum!

There is no western name for this concoction as it is very much a local dish. To prepare oil-tea, the host will fry a quantity of leaf tea and then add water and boil it into a thick salty soup adding puffed rice, soybeans, fried peanuts, chopped green onions (i.e. shallots or scallions) and a quantity of lean meat. The resultant gruel satisfies both hunger and thirst.


Since ancient times, the Dong have worshipped both Gods and Ghosts. Especial reverence is given to their female ancestor goddess "sama", their Grandma Goddess. Under the influence of the Han culture a ethnic group of the Dong have converted to Buddhism.

Social Life

The Dong are accomplished singers and believe that "songs nourish the soul as food nourishes the body." Music and song has been an important means by which these people have been able to express themselves. The lack of a written language has meant that stories and knowledge has been handed on from one generation to another in song.

The songs can be divided into several kinds of which "Grand Song" is the most famous. The form covers a wide range of subjects and is performed by both male and female trained singers. In performance, the singers join in multi part harmony. The lead singer will be either a tenor or soprano with a chorus providing a harmonious backing, weaving the various parts of the song together. Dong opera is based on Grand Song and is enriched by the various melodies which are drawn from the different areas in which the people live. The style has survived with great popularity since it was created during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) by the leading Dong artist Wu Wuweica.

The favorite instrument is the Lusheng. This is a pipe wind instrument into which a reed has been introduced and originated during the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago. The principal of the sheng reed has been adopted in Western musical instruments such as the pipe organ, accordion and harmonica. The Lusheng has been developed into a fairly sophisticated form by several generations of Dong musicians. The Lusheng dance originated as a religious rite held prior to spring ploughing and in which prayers were offered up for fine weather and a good harvest. This has since developed into a popular entertainment in which up to a hundred performers will dance to the music they play on the instrument.

Another social past time is watching bullfights. The Gai days, which are celebrated during the February and August of the traditional Chinese calendar, are times when bullfighting festivals are held. Special celebrations are also held during the Spring Festival, Ox Worship Festival, New Harvest Festival, Pure Brightness Festival, Huapao Festival, Tasting the New Grain Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival as well as on a number of other minor holidays.

Customs and Habits

The Dongs live in villages of 20-30 households located near streams. There are also large villages of 700 households. Their houses, built of fir wood, are usually two or three stories high. Those located on steep slopes or riverbanks stand on stilts; people live on the upper floors, and the ground floor is reserved for domestic animals and firewood. In the old days, landlords and rich peasants dwelled in big houses with engraved beams and painted columns. Paths inside a village are paved with gravel, and there are fishponds in most villages. One lavish feature of Dong villages are the drum towers. Meetings and celebrations are held in front of these towers, and the Dong people gather there to dance and make merry on New Year's Day. The drum tower of Gaozhen Village in Guizhou Province is especially elaborate. Standing 13 stories high, it is decorated with carved dragons, phoenixes, flowers and birds.

Equally spectacular is folk architecture that goes into the construction of bridges. Wood, stone arches, stone slabs and bamboo are all used in erecting bridges. The roofed bridges which the Dongs have dubbed "wind and rain" bridges are best-known for their unique architectural style. The Chengyang "Wind and Rain" Bridge in Sanjiang is 165 meters long, 10 meters across and 10 to 20 meters above the water. Roofed with tiles engraved with flowers, it has on its sides five large pagoda-like, multi-tier pavilions beautifully decorated with carvings. It is a covered walkway with railings and benches for people to sit on and enjoy the scenes around.

A typical Dong diet consists mainly of rice. In the mountainous areas, glutinous rice is eaten with peppers and pickled vegetables. Home-woven cloth is used to make traditional Dong clothing; finer cloth and silks are used for decoration or for making festival costumes. Machine-woven cloth printed black and purple or blue is becoming more popular.

Men usually wear short jackets with front buttons. In the mountainous localities in the south, they wear collarless skirts and turbans. The females are dressed in skirts or trousers with beautifully embroidered hems. Women wrap their legs and heads in scarves, and wear their hair in a coil.

Many popular legends and poems, covering a wide spectrum of themes, have been handed down by the Dongs from generation to generation. Their lyrics tend to be very enthusiastic, while narrative poems are subtle and indirect, allusive and profound. Songs and dances are important aspects of Dong community life. Adults teach traditional songs to children, and young men sing them.

Prior to 1949, the feudal patriarchal family was the basic social unit. Women were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and they were even forbidden to touch sacrificial objects. Girls lived separately on the upper floors allowing no men to visit them. After marriage, women were given a little share of "female land" for private farming. Monogamy was and is practiced. Childless couples were allowed to adopt sons, and only men were entitled to inherit family property.

A newlywed woman continued to live with her own parents. She went to her husband's home only on holidays and on special occasions. She would go to live with her husband permanently after giving birth to her first child.

Dong funeral rituals are similar to those of the Hans, but in Congjiang the deceased is put in a coffin which is put outdoors unburied. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, funeral ceremonies were very elaborate and wasteful. They have been much simplified since 1949. The Dongs believe in ancestor worship and revere many gods and spirits. They have special reverence for a "saint mother" for whom altars and temples have been erected in the villages.

The Dongs have many festivals -- Spring Festival, Worshipping Ox Festival, New Harvest Festival, Pure Brightness Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.

Post-mid-20th Century Period

A momentous event in Dong history took place on August 19, 1951 when the Longsheng Autonomous County of the Dong, Zhuang, Miao and Yao peoples was founded. This was followed by the setting up of the Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County in Guangxi, the Tongdao Dong Autonomous County in Hunan, the Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Guizhou, and the Xinhuang Dong Autonomous County in Hunan.

The establishment of autonomous counties enhanced relations between various ethnic groups and eliminated misunderstanding, mistrust and discord sowed by the ruling class between the Dongs and other ethnic minorities. In Congjiang County, Guizhou, the Dongs n one village once warred against the Miaos in another for the possession of a brook. The people of the two villages remained hostile to each other for over a century until the dispute was resolved through negotiations after the setting up of the Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture. They have been living in harmony since.

Another eventful change in Dong life is the carrying out of the agrarian reform, which put an end to feudal oppression under which members of this ethnic group had been groaning for centuries.

The Dongs who were ruled and never ruled have their own people holding posts in the governments of the autonomous counties. Dong cadres in Guangxi number 2,950, and those in Hunan 3,040. Many Dong women, who had no political status formerly, now hold responsible government posts at the county or prefectural levels.

Achievements have also been made in many other fields in the post-1949 period. With the opening of schools, all children between 7 and 10 in Longping village, for example, are attending classes. Malaria and other diseases, which used to take a heavy toll of lives, have by and large been eliminated, thanks to improved health care and the disappearance of witch doctors. There was no industry in the Dong areas formerly. Today, small factories are turning out farm implements, chemical fertilizer, cement, paper and other products. Electricity generated by small power installations drives irrigation pumps and light homes in many Dong villages.

Quick Navigation

New Article