Ethnic architecture : the Dong Drum Towers of Southwest China

A drum tower in the middl of Baba village in Guizhou

A drum tower in the middl of Baba village in Guizhou


Much like the  Wind and Rain bridges (风雨桥), that we find in Miao and Dong ethnic villages, the Dong drum towers (鼓楼) are distinctive architectural features of Dong villages. They are not only examples of ethnic minority architecture in China, they are also a manifestation of the Dong people (侗族) carpentry skills and a centre of village’s social activity.

Travellers heading to north Guangxi (Sanjiang 三江 and Longsheng 龙胜), southeast Guizhou (particularly the region of, but not limited to, Congjiang 从江 and Liping 黎平 ) and southwest Hunan (the regions of Tongdao 通道 and Zhijiang 芷江) will have the occasion to see these iconic structures in every Dong village.

The Dong People (侗族)

Performance by Dong people in Chengyang, Guangxi

Performance by Dong people in Chengyang, Guangxi

The Dong ethnic minority (侗族) live in the forested hills of Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou and Hubei. They cultivate rice in lowlands and log timber to build houses on stilt, Wind and Rain bridges and their villages’ drum towers.

The Dong people speak a Chinese-Tibetan language which is divided into several dialects. The Dong language does not have a written form and tradition has been transmitted orally. In the late 1950s a Dong alphabet was created, but it is rarely used.

They worship the goddess Sa Sui (萨岁), dubbed the ‘Heavenly Immortals and Great Grandmother’ (天仙大祖母). Each village has a main altar usually made of cobblestone and multiple shrines dedicated to the Sa Sui.  Ceremonies are performed yearly to the goddess Sa Sui as well as during key periods of the calendars like the New Year and at the end of harvest.

Carpentry skills & architecture

In the village of Zhaoxing

In the village of Zhaoxing

Drum towers are impressive pagoda-like wooden structures topped with a diamond-shape roof. Although the shape of the base is always square, the drum tower can be either square or octagonal.

They always have an odd number of stories (a sign of good fortune) and there are miniature scenes painted on each level. Usually, the first level is the most elaborated (although some are more basic than others) and features two carved painted dragons facing each others.

The Dong drum towers are built without any nails. The entire structure is dove-tailed and supported by sixteen wooden beams or pillars. The four central pillars are called the “Golden Pillars” and represent the four seasons, while the twelve others represent the twelve months of the year.

Some drum towers have elaborate gates, others don’t. They all have a fire pit surrounded by benches where villagers, mostly elders gather. Therefore, drum towers are also the center of the village’ social activity.

Drum Towers and their social function

Elderly in a drum tower of Gaozeng, Guizhou

Elderly in a drum tower of Gaozeng, Guizhou


In each village, each clan built its own drum tower. The drum tower embodies a particular clans’ power and wealth. The higher, the more elaborated the drum tower is, the richer and more powerful is the clan who built it.

In the past, the council of elder gathered in the drum tower. They discussed the affairs of the village. When the rules of the village was violated, they would decide on punishment according to customary law. The elder would beat the drum (I found that many drums in the drum towers are gone) and the villagers would gather to hear what the council had to say.

The Dong drum towers are not places where customary law is enforced anymore. They still have a social function. In most of the Dong villages I went to, village elders spend time around the fire talking, watching cow fight on TV or practice singing. Villagers drop by on their way back home and listen to what the elders have to say.

Detail of the base of one of Zhaoxing's drum tower.

Detail of the base of one of Zhaoxing’s drum tower.

 Where to see Drum Towers

Drum tower look-up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou

Drum tower look-up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou

Anyone who travel in the countryside of the regions mentioned above will see drum towers.  Here are a break-down by provinces :

Guangxi province

  • Chengyang (程阳), a cluster of Dong villages 3 hours north of Guilin, 1.5 hours north of Longsheng rice terraces is a popular spot. The Yongji Wind and Wind bridge is also a popular attraction. There is a 60 RMB entry fee to enter Chengyang, and basic accommodation on the spot.

Guizhou province

  • Around Congjiang (从江) on the border between Guizhou and Guangxi, 2 hours by bus west of Chengyang and 5 to 6 hours from Kaili and Guiyang, there are a lot of Dong villages that dot the countryside. Gaozeng (高增), Baba (扒岜) and Xiaohuang (小黄) are just but a few of them. No entrance fees and accommodation available only in Congjiang.
  • Zhaoxing (肇兴), just 1.5 hours northeast of Congjiang is a cluster of several Dong villages that has been designated by the government as a hot-spot for the development of mass-tourism. There is a 100 RMB entree fee, basic accommodation available in the village. There are 5 drum towers in the village itself and more if you decide to hike to the nearby village of Tang’an (堂安), 8 km from Zhaoxing.

Hunan province

  • Near Tongdao, there are a few Dong villages, Yudouzhai (芋头寨) has a 40 RMB entrance fee, but the nearby village of Huangdu (皇都寨) is free and its stunning Wind and Rain bridge built during the Qing dynasty, the Puxiu Bridge (普修风雨桥) is really worth a visit if you travel in western Hunan.
  • The villages of Pingtan (平坦) and the town of Longcheng (陇城), south of Tongdao have several Wind and Rain bridge as well as drum towers that may be worth visiting.

 

Find more pictures about drum towers and other Dong ethnic minority villages in the ‘Land of the Dong’ photo gallery

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There are 2 comments

  1. pbrasser

    Hi Gaetan, did you stay in Conjiang, and made day trips to the Zhaoxing and Tang’an?
    If not, any experience with staying overnight in that area?
    Never realised that the towers we’re build without the use of nails, I have to study them more closely when we are there this summer!

    1. Gaetan

      Zhaoxing is not suitable for a day trip from Congjiang or Liping. There are just a few buses (3 or 4 daily from Congjiang) and the last bus leaves Zhaoxing around 11:30 AM.
      Concerning Zhaoxing : the entrance ticket is high (100 RMB) and some parts of the village were still under construction when I passed there in March 2013. It is a large village with multiple drum towers and lots of guesthouses to spend the night.
      Zhaoxing is interesting, but the entrance fee is too high for what it is.
      I suggest you visit Gaozeng and Xiaohuang near Congjiang instead. This part of Guizhou is home to the Dong people and there are plenty of Dong villages scattered throughout the countryside without having to pay to see one that has been renovated.

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