With a population of 2,879,974 (2010 census), the Dong people are mainly distributed in the interchange of Guizhou Province, Hunan Province, and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as well as the Enshi Tujia Miao Autonomous Prefecture of Hubei Province. Tens of thousands of Dong people also live in Guangdong and Zhejiang Provinces.
During 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 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.
With no written script of their own before 1949, many Dongs learned to read and write in Chinese. Philologists sent by the central government helped develop a Dong written language base on the Latin alphabet in 1958.
The Dong people grow enormous numbers of timber trees which are logged an sent to markets. Tong-oil, lacquer, and oil-tea camellia trees are also grown for their edible oil and varnish.
The most favorite tree of the Dongs is fir, which is grown very extensively. Whenever a child is born, the parents will plant a fir sapling for their baby. When the children reach the age of 18 and marry, their fir trees are felled and used to build houses for the bride and groom. For this reason, fir trees are called “18 Year Trees.”
Farming is another major occupation of the Dongs, who grow rice, wheat, millet, maize, and sweet potatoes. Their most important cash crops are cotton, tobacco, and soybean.
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 with scarves and wear their hair in a coil.
The Dongs believe in ancestor worship and revere many gods and spirits. They have a special reverence for the “Saint Mother” for whom altars and temples have been erected in the villages.
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.
Like the Han, the Dong celebrates Chinese New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Dragon Boat Festival along with their own, unique festivals:
New Harvest Eating Festival
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 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.