Dressed to Impress
The Dong Tribe of China
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Everywhere you go among the Dong people of China you see evidence of their textile and jewellery skills. Girls learn, at an early age, to weave and dye fabrics and to embroider traditional colourful designs.
By the time a girl is ready to find a husband she will have worked for years to create a wonderful festive costume to wear at courting festivals, where men choose a wife - the better her textile skills, the greater her chances of finding a man.
Dong women also wear stunning jewellery, made by village silversmiths - the richer the family, the more elaborate the hairclips, combs and necklaces adorning its daughters. Home for the Don people of China is a remote mountainous region at the borders of Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. It is a land of trees, and timber is one of their major sources of income. When a child is born the parents plant some fir saplings for their baby.
When the child reaches the age of 18 and is expected to marry, the fir trees that have matured too, are felled and used to build houses for the bride and groom. Fir trees are thus called "18-year-trees" among the Dong.
On the mountains, ancient spiritual beliefs still hold sway. There are holy trees that cannot be cut, special land that cannot be dug and stones that must not be broken. The Dong people believe that disaster will come if these rules are broken. They live close to nature, and have many rituals which aim to placate bad spirits and ensure a good harvest for their crops of rice, wheat, millet, maize and sweet potatoes, cotton, tobacco, rape and soybean.
You do not have to spend long with the Dong people to realise how creative their culture is. Textile arts and music are both highly prized. Many Dong are singers and a Dong proverb says that: "songs nourish the soul as food nourishes the body." The lack of a written language meant that stories and knowledge was handed on from one generation to another in song, and seems to have led to an explosion of music, painting and textile art.
There are many different types of music, but the "Grand Song" is best known, and a form of opera has grown up based on these intricate melodies. The operas are based on their rich history of folk stories, and often include clowns who wear black masks or paint white lines on their faces. The singing is often accompanied by a lusheng, a pipe wind instrument more than 3,000 years ago. A dance, known as the lusheng dance originated as a religious rite to pray for a good harvest. But during the rice-plating season the lusheng must not be played, as it is thought to bring bad luck. Then the village’s instruments are taken to a central point and their holes blocked up, so they cannot be played.
Dong Choruses often imitate sounds from nature - the noises of the birds and insects of the forest. And song birds are popular pets - and often trained to become even finer singers.
Singing competitions were often the places where girls chose their husbands, although in recent years arranged marriages have become more common. Village elders send their unmarried young men to neighbouring villages to invite the young girls there to the festival.
On the day itself the youths go to fetch the women, playing pipes and drums as they parade to their village. They stand in parallel rows, and sing to each-other.
Eventually, they start to pair off - all the time singing songs of love and beauty.
When a couple become engaged the boy’s family brings gifts to the girl’s family - they could be gold and silver, or ducks and fish. In return they receive cloth and embroidery.
Wedding ceremonies go on for days - often involving separate feasts for the two families. And the couple will not live together at first, only moving into their new home when the wife becomes pregnant.
For the girl, her preparation for the whole ritual of courtship and marriage starts at the age of seven or eight when she starts to learn the textile arts for which the Dong are rightly famed. She learns to weave patterned cloth, to dye it bright colours and to decorate it with elaborate embroidery. Her skill is judged at the singing competitions, and she will have made several sets of festive clothing by the time she is ready to be married.
From 13 the girls learn to use hand looms for weaving cloth and colourful brocade, patterned with camellias, animals and geometric patterns. The dyes are made from indigo, blood and egg white.
A woman’s outfit is not complete without elaborate heavy silver jewellery - necklaces, belts, bracelets and hair ornaments. Some groups also wear a weight that hangs down the woman’s back, holding her apron in place - others have an entire back-plate which can be heavy and hot to wear. The jewellery is a sign of family wealth and is worn all the time - even when working in the fields or at a loom.
Most Don villages are dominated by a 20-metre drum tower - a multi-layered pagoda made entirely without nails. Each house a giant drum used to warn against danger. The Drum tower resembles a fir tree, the Dong’s holiest tree. Again the creative skills of the people are in evidence in the tower, which is decorated with scenes from folk tales. It is as if the lack of a written language has allowed all other forms of expression to flourish. Carvings of tigers, dragons, snakes, geese - and even aeroplanes – decorate the roofs.
Modern life is impinging on the Dong people, and video cameras and other modern technology are not unusual sights. Some communities are losing their skills and buying in factory-produced clothes and embroidery.
Others are turning away from the courtship rituals, and instead arranging marriages for their children.
But such a rich and creative culture is hard to eliminate. The traditions of the Dong people have survived hundreds of years, and look set to adapt to modern-day China.