It was a blurry black and white picture that I saw in a cheap book about China’s ancient and ethnic villages that pushed me to hop on a long and uncomfortable bus ride from Yangshuo (阳朔) to Sanjiang (三江), a small town located in north Guangxi province (now you can take the high-speed train from Guilin 桂林).
Sanjiang is the gateway to the Land of the Dong (侗族), an ethnic minority whose territory spans across southeast Guizhou, north Guangxi and southwest Hunan. The Dong people have traditionally built covered wooden bridges known as the ‘Wind and Rain Bridges’ (风雨桥) and drum towers (鼓楼) which are the remnants of their old traditional ways.
The Dong ethnic minority live in a relatively remote region of southwest China, however, with China’s ever expanding network of highways and high-speed rails, the once quiet villages are undoubtedly going to see change and tourism is undoubtedly going to be a major factor of transformation.
Ethnic Architecture in Guangxi, Hunan and Guizhou
Near Sanjiang in north Guangxi province, the cluster of Dong hamlets of Chengyang (程阳) is home to the century-old Yongji Bridge. Celebrated by the author and poet Guo Moruo (郭沫若), the Yongji Wind and Rain Bridge was built in 1912. Except for the three stone piers, the combination of reclined eaves, corridors lined with benches, verandas and Chinese pavilion, the entire structure is made of wood and all the beams are carefully dove-tailed.
Much like the Wind and Rain bridges, the Dong drum towers, which throne in the middle of every village are the visible manifestation of the Dong carpentry skills. These impressive pagoda-like wooden structures, also entirely dove-tailed, topped with a diamond-shape roof always have an odd number of stories, a sign of good fortune, and are supported by sixteen pillars. The four central pillars represent the four seasons and the twelve other the twelve months of the year.
Beyond their symbolism, they have important social functions. In each village, each clan built its own drum tower. As the drum tower embodies the clan’s power and wealth, the higher and the more elaborated the drum tower is, the richer and more powerful the clan who built it is.
Drum towers are the projection of social power and customary laws. In the past, a council of elder gathered in the drum tower and discussed the affairs of the village. When rules were broken, the council would decide of punishment according to customary law. The elders would beat the drum and villagers would gather to hear the council out. Today, the drum towers are still a place of social gathering, usually for the village’s older men, where they play cards, drink tea, smoke, watch TV or chat around the fire.
The Dong ethnic minority village paradigm
Dong villages are usually nestled in valleys surrounded by forested hills. Valleys provide the soil for rice cultivation, while forests provide villagers with non-timber food products and the wooden beams needed for the construction of their mesmerizing bridges and drum towers.
Like most other ethnic minorities societies in China, the Dong society is a deeply rural and agricultural one. Wind and Rain bridges where built to provide access to agricultural fields, the pillars of the drum tower symbolizes the rhythm of months and seasons. In the Dong calendar, the end of October / early November usually coincides with cow fights and harvest festivals which draw crowds and an increasing amount of curious outsiders armed with cameras.
Geographic and architectural features constitute the basis for a stereotypical Dong village. While travelling across the Land of the Dong, from a village to another in search of more Wind and Rain bridges and drum towers, all of the Dong villages looked similar, but what set them apart from one another was the pace of tourism development and various level of poverty.
CuEthnic Tourism and Dong villages
In north Guangxi province, tourists can access the cluster of Dong hamlets of Chengyang (程阳) only after paying a fee of 60 RMB. In southeastern Guizhou, the Dong village of Zhaoxing (肇兴) was entirely renovated in 2013, linked via highway to the provincial capital of Guiyang and non-locals have to pay a 100 RMB fee.
In both villages, visitors can find basic accommodations, souvenir shops and organized performances to entertain busloads of tourists. Tourism provides the Dong with alternative sources of revenue (although none from the entrance fee) and a chance to display their culture.
Beyond change itself, for local people, tourism appears as a force of empowerment and a chance to be part of China’s new modernity. The way locals people are involved and control development of tourism varies from a village to another.
South of Zhaoxing, near the town of Congjiang (从江), the Dong villages are still ‘free’, but who knows what will happen to them when tourists will be looking for more ‘authentic’ ethnic villages to visit. This observation is also valid for the region of Tongdao in southwestern Hunan province where dozens of Dong villages with their characteristic drum towers and Wind and Rain Bridges dot the landscape.
The cultural corridor of the Dong was once a remote region. Travellers needed to go on long bus rides to reach these places whereas the expansion of the high-speed rail, highway and airport network contributes to dramatically cutting travel time to these ethnic villages to just a couple of hours from major urban centres and provincial capitals.
Conjiang and Sanjiang are connected to the high-speed rail network, Zhaoxing is a mere 45 minutes drive from Liping (黎平) airport and the region of Tongdao is now integrated into the network of highways, a four hour drive from western Hunan most famous ancient town of Fenghuang (凤凰).
While visiting the territory of the Dong, I felt that villages which were officially open to tourism (in the sense I had to pay an entrance fee) were better off that the others villages untouched by tourism but still seemingly poor.
Beyond these considerations, the cultural corridor of the Dong in southwest China is now easier to access than ever before. The Wind and Rain bridges as well as the drum towers are not only characteristic architectural features of the Dong village, the manifestation of carpentry skills, and remnants of their traditional society, they are also assets to be taken advantage of in this era of ethnic tourism development.
China’s “Land of the Dong” | Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan
#2. In south-east Guizhou 贵州, the villages of Gaozeng 高增, Xiaohuang 小黄 and Zhaoxing 肇兴 are just a few among dozens of Dong ethnic minority places to explore in the region near the border with Guangxi and Hunan.
#4. Some parts of south-west Hunan 湖南 are restricted to foreign visitors, although the region was overall opened to tourists recently.
#5. The high-speed train line, will get you moving fast across these three provinces.