People Profile

— Table of Contents —name | location | population | history | language | society
religion | resources | education | economy | health | trends

Endogenous: Kam (Gam)
Exogenous: Dong (Tung, Tong)
'Kam' (to English speakers, this will be closely represented by 'gam') is this people group's name for themselves. 'Dong' is the Chinese language name for this people group. Dong is the name under which they are classified as an official minority group in China.

The Dong live in Guizhou, Hunan, and Guangxi provinces of China, where the three provinces meet and then north along the Guizhou-Hunan border, in 20 contiguous counties. According to the 2000 Census taken in China, here is a list of those provinces' Dong populations (rounded to nearest 10,000):
  • Guizhou - 1,630,000
  • Hunan - 840,000
  • Guangxi - 300,000

Total Population: 2.96 million (2000 Census)
Between the 1990 and 2000 Census, the Dong population has risen to just under three million, an increase of more than 400,000. Interestingly, though, there is a decrease of 100,000 in the following ten years, up to 2010. Here are the numbers of Dong people reported during census years:
  • 1953 — 712,802
  • 1964 — 836,123
  • 1982 — 1,426,400
  • 1990 — 2,508,624
  • 2000 — 2,960,293 
  • 2010 — 2,879,974
We also strive to find another number, the number of Dong language speakers. Not all Dong can speak Dong, and according to various reports from Dong researchers, here is an approximate number of Dong speakers, broken into the two main dialects.
  • southern dialect speakers — 1.5 million
  • northern dialect speakers — 0.9 million

More than a thousand years ago, the south of China was inhabited by the "Yue" people, who are in no way ethnically related to the Chinese. The decendents of these people speak languages that are now classified as Tai (to English speakers, pronounced Dai) languages. About 1100 A.D. (or before), a large number of the Yue moved south; the southernmost group developed into what is now the Thai people of Thailand. Those who stayed in (modern day) China evolved into what are now several separate but related people groups: Dong, Mulam, Shui, Bouyei, Zhuang, and many others.

Though the exact relation between the ancient Yue language and the modern day Cantonese language is disputed, definite similarities exist [1]. Cantonese is still a Chinese related language, but with Tai language characteristics. The tones are straight from the Tai tonal system, and the sound system is very similar to those existing in several Tai languages.

Like many of the minority languages in China, Dong was given an official orthography (a witten script) for their language by government researchers, but up until just a few years ago, only a small number of researchers could use it. The number of Dong who can use this orthography is still only a few hundred. The Dong language is generally divided into two mutually unintelligible dialects, one in the southern areas and one in the north. Though subdialects or accents exist within both the northern and southern dialects, the language is generally intelligible between speakers from the same dialect (example: two Dong speakers from different subdialects of the southern Dong dialect). On the fringes of the Dong speaking areas, three "dialects" exist (two in the north and one in the south) which are mutually unintelligible with the remainder of the Dong language.

The northern Dong dialect is more prone to use Chinese loan words and, in general, has a higher percentage of bilingual (Chinese-Dong) speakers than does the south. The southern Dong dialect both has a higher number of speakers and a higher percentage of monolingual Dong speakers.
For more information on the Dong language, visit our 2002-2004 Dong Linguistic Survey site for more information.

Under Chinese law, minorities living in the countryside are allowed two children, though families in more remote villages will often have more. The home is comprised of immediate family and often close relatives, usually three or four generations. Dong are known for their architecture; they take great pride in their homes, drum towers, and bridges, all of which are made without nails. Dong drum towers and wind and rain bridges usually house their gods and also function as a general gathering place for community events. The architectural shape highly resembles ancient Buddhist structures, but the meaning has strayed far. The Dong have attributed meanings for these structures, drawn from their own stories and legends, to shapes that would hold a much different meaning in a different context. The most prominent shape on Dong architecture is the gourd shape that usually sets on the peak of most towers and bridges; the gourd was the vessel that saved the Dong from the Great Flood [2], and is commemorated in their architcture.[3]

Dong drum towers are the societal center of a village: it is the town hall, the clubhouse, and retirement home all in one. The elder men often gather at the towers and smoke pipes, play games—cards, Chinese chess, and other chess or checker looking games—or simply watch the world go by.
Dong living conditions are simple and very comparable to surrounding minority groups. Dong houses, like all their architecture, are also built of wood without the use of nails. The tightly interlocked frame can help a well-tended hosue last over one hundred years. The houses are often quite spacious with a ground floor for animals and grain storage, several rooms on the first and second (above ground) floor, and sometimes with an attic like space used to dry grain and vegetables.
Music plays a very important role in Dong life. Formerly, singles would choose mates through a process of singing songs about their lives to one another, but this practice is fading in use today. The Dong still have a thriving number of songs, dances, and variety of instruments. Music is the characteristic, along with architecture, of the Dong that appears in almost any description of the Dong, having been found in records dating back almost 1000 years [4].

The Dong are animists with Chinese Buddhist influence. The number of gods or spirits differs from place to place, but the Sa goddess is considered the most traditional Dong deity in areas that retain more traditional Dong culture. Most materials about the Dong only mention Sa, but most Dong areas have not even heard of Sa and have an array of other gods. The Dong belief system (what they believe, as apposed to their religion) also changes from area to area, including animistic beliefs, idol worship, Buddhist idol worship, and ancestral worship. Almost every Dong house will have an ancestor shelf—these are usually directly ahead after walking in the front door of a Dong house—with a drawing or photograph of a deceased family patriarch (sometimes with a matriarch) displayed. Small food and drink sacrifices are given for the ancestor daily, especially before meals. Regardless of the particular gods in an area, the Dong often practice the rituals to these gods in a fairly similar manner. When something has gone wrong, they assume the gods are angry, and will give a sacrifice (normally a chicken) at a nearby alter, which are attached to sacred trees or locations. The most common act of worship, is a sacrifice to spirits before certain meals, often meals including pork or a chicken. These meal sacrifices will often include burning fake money, pouring out a drink offering, and burning incense, as well as eating the chicken and pork boiled without spices.

There is a fear and awe of the gods, derived from the lack of knowledge of how to appease them. A general confusion abounds as to what exactly is believed or how exactly their belief is to be practiced.

Most Dong Christians use Chinese-language Bibles and materials for study and teaching. Those who can understand Chinese will read and communicate in the Dong language what they understand to the non-Chinese speakers. Not only do many Dong people have a limited education, but the Chinese Bible is written in more literary language, making it very difficult to use for minority farmers. Therefore, without Dong-language scriptures, church growth is hindered and Dong Christians are left vulnerable to cults (which are a current problem in many Dong areas). Knowledge of God's truth is needed to establish healthy churches and to contradict the deception of the cults.

The full New Testament in the Dong language was published in early 2006. Reports tell of thousands of Dong-literate people who now have access to the New Testament, and that indeed is a powerful resource. One noteworthy strength of this New Testament is that it is a Dong-Chinese bilingual Bible, which is helpful both for those who are trying to learn to read Dong (using Chinese as a "dictionary" of sorts) and also as an aid to help readers interpret the scriptures (by seeing it in two languages).
Scripture resources in the Dong language are now not limited only to written texts. With hundreds of thousands of Dong still not able to read their language, audio/video Bible materials are also a priority. Some audio/visual materials in the Dong language have now been finished, but are only beginning to be used among the Dong people.

Basic education is provided through the Chinese educational system. Many of the Dong children understand no Chinese when they start school (conducted in Chinese), but must learn quickly to survive. Because of this, the demand and competition for continuing education (high school and college) eliminates all but the very brightest.

Most children attend elementary school, and a rising percentage attend through eighth grade. High school is much more rare for children from the countryside to attend both because the entrance test is too hard and the tuition is too high. The level of education is highly dependent on the economic situation of a particular location. Almost all adults have an elementary education, many have through middle school, but educational opportunities for today's children are slowly improving.

All of that education is in Mandarin, but some opportunities also exist for Dong people to learn to read and write in their own language. In 2000, the East Asia Group of SIL International started the Dong Bilingual Education Pilot School in Rongjiang County (Guizhou). This six year pilot project aims to develop curriculum and a teaching system that will not only enable Dong children to read and write their native Dong language, but after six years, hopes to provide Dong children the opportunity to integrate into the Chinese education system at the same level as native Chinese speakers.
One year after the pilot school was started, the local government and SIL started five more bilingual pre-schools in the same area as the pilot school. If successful, these schools could alter the existing Chinese education system in these areas to improve the education level of Dong children within the Chinese system, and teach them to read and write their own Dong language simultaneously with the standard Chinese education.

Another avenue the Dong people are finding to learn to read the Dong language is through government-sponsored workshops. These workshops are only a week or two long, but even in that short period of time, a person who is a native speaker of the Dong language can often learn the basics to be able to read and write slowly in the Dong language. Dong is based on a romanized alphabet, and especially people who have experience with the Chinese romanized system (Pinyin) from school, can quickly pick up Dong.

With a few people, scattered around the Dong world, who can now read Dong, the need for Dong language reading materials is rising. SIL now prints small readers with Dong songs, poems, and stories to help in this area. Some of the county governments also have Dong reading materials with similar content. SIL has plans to produce small Dong language books on some helpful topics like agriculture and community health.

The Dong are predominately local area subsistence farmers. Several small crops are grown and sold, but usually not further than the local market level. They also raise water buffalo, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, and fish for eating, working, or sale. In some areas the lumber industry is active, but most trees are small, fast-growing China fir, providing a low quality, light wood. In light of the booming but low quality lumber industry, the government is establishing more forestry preserves to protect the degraded lumber resources for future use. The Dong, like other minority groups in these areas (Miao, Shui, Bouyei, Yao, Mulao, and others), build their own homes and live on what they can grow. Little "economy" exists beyond the village level. The county seat will be the center for all needed supplies and possibly a market to sell goods.

A foreign-owned company, New Frontier Consulting, has located in Sanjiang county seat with a focus on developing the natural resources of the Chinese countryside. New Frontier Consulting's marketing is one of the few opportunities local exportable goods have to be able to sell beyond a county level.

The majority of Dong villages have little access to health care because of money. Health problems are usually treated by the "village doctor"—village doctors have training in basic health needs, but have no degree or specialized training—first, and maybe last. District (the division between village and county) and county hospitals do exist, but few Dong from a village have the financial resources to go except in the worst cases. Even then, they are forced to borrow money from relatives for the treatment. Several Dong counties have benefited from foreign health care as well. Individual doctors, nurses, and medical teams have worked in the Dong areas both on a short term and long term basis, but the embarrassment from lack of quality health care often creates a lack of enthusiasm for medical work on the part of the government.

The Dong, like all minority groups in China, are facing a growing interaction with the majority Han Chinese culture. Transportation is better; communication is more widespread; televisions with Chinese programing are in most homes. The Dong cultural identity is handling the interaction well. There seems to be a genuine importance placed on their culture, which will enable them to carry on with the Han culture around them and maintain their own cultural identity as well.  

Better transportation and communication have fueled the economy. Market towns are growing, have more money, and thus have more products for the market. However, most Dong products do not leave the local markets. They are still at the bottom of the Chinese economic ladder, but require little for their lifestyle.

Universities, organizations, and professionals from outside of China are entering Dong areas to help in the development of the Dong people through business, agriculture, medical, and educational opportunities.

Little is changing for the Dong. Policies in Beijing take a while to trickle down to the level of practical application for people like the Dong. They have little political involvement above the provincial level. However, Guangxi and Guizhou tend to be quite proud of their minority peoples and give them sufficient political freedom.

Also, the Communist Party of China has begun a new emphasis on improving the economic status of the countryside in a plan to build, what they call, a "new socialist countryside." The government's plan is to address basic concerns, such as the inequality of income between city and countryside, the lack of educational opportunities, and public health.

The Dong people are split into two camps: those with an unabashed desire for money and things and those who live a quiet life in the village holding to the traditional belief system of their ancestors. Overall, there is a spiritual opening which seems to open up quite easily when the truth is presented, and when they meet a god who actually cares for them.

[1] Ni DaBai. DongTai Yu Gailun "An Introduction to KamTai Languages". China Central Minorities University Press: Beijing, 1990.
[2] Geary, D. Norman, Ruth B. Geary, Ou ChaoQuan, Long YaoHong, Jiang DaRen, Wang JiYing. The Kam People of China: Turning Nineteen?. RutledgeCurzon: 2002.
[3] Strange, Cooper L. "Contemporary View of Dong Architectural Meaning." Paper prepared for Cross-Cultural Training Center: Chiangmai, 2000.
[4] Zhang Min quoted in: Long Yaohong & Zheng Guoqiao, translated from Chinese by D. Norman Geary. The Dong Language in Guizhou Province, China. SIL and University of Texas in Arlington: Dallas, 1998.

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