The epic songs of the Dong people

Society & Culture

The Dong people of Southwest China have been singing epic songs for millennia. That intangible heritage is fading — but one villager is fighting to keep it alive.

Locals in Huanggang village, Liping County, Guizhou Province. Photo by Diane Audras.

“We have a popular saying amongst the Dong people,” Wú Chénglóng 吴成龙 said to us. “Rice nourishes the body and songs nourish the soul.” Wu is the leader of a village I was in, and it is his responsibility to teach the “great songs” of his people to the next generation.

“Everyone from the Dong ethnicity knows how to sing,” he continued. “The more songs a person knows, the better educated he or she is. Singing is so important to us that, in the past, it was said that if a man couldn’t sing, then he would struggle to find a wife. I can tell you, from my own experience, that it couldn’t be more true.”

“Great songs” (大歌 dà gē) are folk songs from the Dong ethnic minority that imitate the natural world, such as the babbling of a brook, the whooshing of the wind or the chirping of birds. Coming from the heart, they foster harmony between humankind and nature. The Dong don’t have a written language, so they have sung for over 2,500 years to impart their cultural heritage. Da Ge songs are a direct expression of this culture — they narrate daily life, convey feelings, and promote moral values.

I first learned about this tradition during a recent trip to Guizhou’s Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, home to 1.2 million Dong people. In China, there are about 2.5 million Dong in total, located mostly in the southwestern provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, and Guangxi. That places them eleventh among the major ethnic groups, but they still represent a minute proportion of China’s population, which is 92% Han.

The Dong are famous for their delicate wooden houses, as well as their covered bridges, known as “flower bridges” or “wind-rain bridges.” Every village also has one or more drum towers, the landmark venue for rituals, entertainment, and meetings. These are pyramid-shaped buildings made of wood that embody the architectural skills of the Dong. UNESCO has placed 18 Dong villages on a tentative list of World Heritage sites in China.

One of the five drum towers in Huanggang village, Liping County, Guizhou Province. Photo by Diane Audras.

I stayed in Huanggang, a village with more than 800 years of history that is the birthplace of Dong folk music. The village boasts five well-preserved drum towers, each home to two lifelike dragon statues.  

Born and raised in Huanggang, the aforementioned Wu Chenglong, 46, is a village leader. Although he did  not graduate from high school, Wu is one of the most respected villagers because of his mastery of Da Ge songs. When he was a teenager, he was recruited to join the army, where he served briefly before being discharged. Although there are more economic opportunities outside Guizhou, he eventually came back to Huanggang after realizing he missed his hometown.

Wu Chenglong teaching Da Ge songs to the younger generations. Photo by Diane Audras.

“I was 22 at the time,” he told me. “And I was still single. When I returned, I was met by anxious family members and friends, who worried that I would never get married. In Dong culture, men who are over 20 and unmarried are considered ‘left-over men’. I understood their concerns, but what could I do! I still hadn’t found the right one. Then I remembered what our elders said: ‘If a man couldn’t sing, then he would struggle to find a wife.’ So I started learning to sing more diligently.”

Wu admits that he didn’t have any particular fondness for Da Ge songs until then. But the more he sang, the more his passion grew. “The songs nourished my soul,” he added, “and eventually my heart.”

Wu was later appointed captain of the village militia — in charge of training the youth to defend their homes. One of the families that he visited during the course of his duties had an eleven-year-old daughter, Wú Chūxiāng 吴出相, ten years his junior. Some years later, while Wu was singing at a nearby drum tower one night, he realized he was falling in love with her. In Dong custom it is not uncommon for matches to be made when the bride is very young, with many women marrying by eighteen and having their first child before twenty. Wu found a matchmaker to speak with Chuxiang’s parents and made arrangements for the wedding.

When Chuxiang turned sixteen, they got married, and she moved into her husband’s home. In March 2004, the first of their two sons was born, who is now studying Traditional Chinese Medicine in Tianjin — one of the few children of the village to have been admitted to university.

Wu Chenglong and Wu Chuxiang in their home, with their sons’ certificates of achievement behind them. Photo by Xinxin Yixiang.

Over the years, Wu Chenglong’s skill and love for singing elevated him to the rank of Master of Da Ge. He teaches these traditional songs to primary school students in Huanggang, as well as writing new ones, all the while engaging in routine farm work like every other villager. He has also performed in Beijing and many other cities in China.

Dong music has crossed national borders, too. In 1986, nine members of Qiandongnan Dong Nationality Song Choir were invited to perform at the 15th Paris Autumn Art Festival in France, marking the first time that Da Ge songs have appeared on the world stage. 

From lyrical ballads to spirited drinking chants, sober moral teachings to melancholic narratives, Da Ge songs express every aspect of the Dong people’s lives, keeping a record of their history. They are classified into several categories, depending on the situation and context, ranging from welcome hymns about protecting the hamlet from invaders, to festival songs recounting a passionate love story. The history of each village is passed down in one epic song that goes on for hours, its hundred-plus verses repeatedly sung in a monotonic melody. In 2009, Da Ge songs were promoted to World Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO World Heritage Commission.

Yet being an “intangible” form of art, Da Ge songs are also more easily neglected by the local government, which prioritizes funding for tangible projects such as infrastructure. Ensuring the inheritance of Da Ge songs requires money, time, and effort, and that is not the primary concern of villagers whose first need is to feed their families. Keeping an up-to-date repertoire of these songs through recording and referencing is a gargantuan task, contingent on the mobilization of both elder singers and the youth.

The international success that Da Ge songs have enjoyed is paradoxically the main threat that they are exposed to today. With prosperity comes modernity, greater economic opportunities, and new gadgetry. These advancements weaken the relevance of Da Ge in Dong culture, especially as the youth have more exposure to the lives of their Chinese peers outside the region.

“Please tell our descendants not to forget our homeland,” go the lyrics from “Ancestors’ Arrival,” a Da Ge song performed every Spring Festival. “Here flows the ancestors’ blood and tears,” it continues. “Do not leave, even if everything is ruined. Follow our steps, and look for a brighter future.”