Dong Villages: Home of Poetry and a Sea of Music

Culture

Home of Poetry and a Sea of Music

by Live in Guizhou


PUBLISHED Nov 16, 2021 • 4MIN READ

Located in Liping County, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China’s Guizhou Province is the Zhao-xing Town, one of the largest ethnic Dong villages in China. The Dong people have resided in this region for centuries and have preserved their native language in both its oral and written form. Their culture has three unique treasures: drum towers, wind and rain bridges, and their own brand of polyphonic music. The region home to the Dong people has been hailed as the “home of poetry and sea of music.”

Time Reflected in Music

Singing is an integral part of Dong culture. As soon as young children pick up the ability to speak, they are able to sing. Even when people are struggling to make ends meet to satisfy their basic daily necessities, they can still be heard singing, and when young men propose to their beloved, it is always done through songs. They have honed the ability to sing in multi-part harmony without instrumental accompaniment or a leader. Their repertoire includes imitative songs that test performers’ virtuosity at mimicking the sounds from nature, like the chirping of birds and insects, and the burbling of flowing water down the majestic mountains. In the music can be heard the sound of budding flowers and winds blowing through the valleys. This multi-part singing style of the Dong ethnic group is known as the Grand Song, and has a long history, dating back as far as the rhymed Song of the Yue Boatman written in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). It has evolved amid the changes of dynasties, and was inscribed in 2009 on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In contrast with the Grand Song performed in groups in large open spaces, the Song and Moon love ballads of the Dong people are romantic and personal, charming, and graceful. In the past, young Dong girls around the age of 15 to 16 began to meet in groups of 3-5 to sew, do embroidery, make shoe soles, and do other group activities, waiting for young men of their same age to come visit them. Young Dong men, on the other hand, also formed groups of their own and took instruments like the pipa, niutuiqin (a special bowed or plucked lute of the Dong ethnic people), or Dong flutes which they fashioned by hand themselves and went to where the young ladies gathered and did what can be translated as “teasing the young ladies” (meaning singing love songs in the hope of initiating a romantic relationship).

The location where the young men serenaded the young ladies was often the home of one of the ladies, which was usually large and spacious, and housed a large kindhearted and hospitable family. The young lady of the family usually invited her close friends over to chat and share notes about their romantic dreams while doing needlework. After the young men arrived, they all mingled socially, had fun together, and expressed their feelings for each other, most of which was done through playing musical instruments and singing love songs in antiphonal style.

Quiet nights in a Dong village were often filled with people singing romantic love songs. While they sang, melodies played on the Dong flute flowed like a bubbling stream right into the young ladies’ hearts. Such parties often lasted until dawn. In addition to young ladies’ spacious homes, another location often used for this activity was a building referred to by locals as the “Moon Hall.” Some villages even opened up their special drum towers to young people for them to conduct their activities revolving around courtship. (Source:China Today)