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Old Ways, New Path

On a wooden platform in the middle of the village, dozens of young women gather, dressed in intricately embroidered aprons and jackets—the traditional costume of the Dong, one of the many ethnic minority groups of southwestern China. Nearby, a large group of villagers huddles around a bonfire. Everyone in Dimen, this tiny town about 400 miles northwest of Hong Kong, is preparing to celebrate the inscription of the Grand Song of the Dong onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

The singers join hands and launch into an excerpt from a Dong opera.

The Dong people sing love songs, drinking songs, and work songs; “gate-barring songs” to greet visitors while assessing their intentions; and Grand Songs, epic historical ballads passed down orally from song masters to young disciples. In other respects as well, the people of Dimen, one of 15 Dong villages in Guizhou province, still practice a way of life that dates back to the 13th century. They build their houses and bridges with wooden pegs and posts. They use ancient, integrated farming methods, raising rice and carp together in thousands of terraced ponds cut into the mountainside. The women weave and dye their own cloth, including a glossy black fabric they buff with boiled cow skin and egg whites.

But Dimen isn’t completely stopped in time. Its tiny commercial center consists of a bus station, an elementary school, a grocery store—and a cell phone shop. And even though Guizhou is one of the poorest provinces in China, televisions, washing machines, and other trappings of modern life increasingly crop up in Dong households, largely because the government offers subsidies on surplus consumer goods.

China is rocketing into the future—lacing itself up with superhighways, swallowing rural towns, and spitting out gleaming cities. In Dimen, nearly half of the village’s 2,340 residents work in nearby towns and cities, forgoing the rice fields for better-paying jobs in construction and manufacturing. But in the past decade, privately administered conservation projects have encouraged the people of Dimen to reestablish a self-sustaining local economy and, even while engaging with the outside world, preserve many of their traditional ways. The Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop, founded by Hong Kong professor and entrepreneur Wai Kit Lee, strives to bolster indigenous Dong culture without turning Dimen into a tourist trap that puts villagers on display.

The Research Workshop collaborated with residents to rebuild the Dimen drum tower, which burned down in 2006. The restoration of this symbol of village unity set the precedent of a rural community empowered to safeguard its heritage.

One of the Grand Songs of the Dong, which takes more than an hour to sing, is titled “Village Elder Tang Gong.” According to local legend, Tang founded Dimen 800 years ago. This traditional red pagoda was built as a memorial to him and restored in the 1980s.

The Dong people of Dimen live much the way their ancestors did. But a few modern amenities have appeared in recent years, as in the home of Niangqian Wu and her husband, a rice farmer and carpenter who helped construct the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop. They live in a house built into a hillside, its front half hanging precariously over the slope. In the living room, which is heated by a coal fire, the ceiling is low and the thin wooden walls are plastered with peeling sheets of newspaper. Asked how her life has changed over the past decade, Wu nods in the direction of the single bare lightbulb overhead. “Better wiring, piped water, better roads,” she says through a translator. “Fire hydrants.” Indoor plumbing is now standard.

A glossy white refrigerator sits in the corner of the room. It is empty, its interior still coated with protective plastic film and the manufacturer’s labels. In the dim light it glows like an alien. “She says the fridge is for decoration, to make them look like a modern family,” the translator says. “On TV, they see that city people have refrigerators. But she says her family has no use for it. When it is time to eat, they kill chickens. They catch fish. They pick vegetables from their garden.” Wu giggles, covering her mouth. “She thinks it’s very funny,” explains the translator, “that the fridge is empty.”

Distinguished by its stone arches and tiered tiled roofs, a covered “flower bridge” is an architectural highlight of most Dong villages. It provides shelter from the rain and a year- round place to rest, socialize, and play games.

A narrow pebbly river bisects Dimen’s dense patchwork of wooden houses. Spanning the water stand five exuberantly ornamented “flower bridges,” also known as “wind-and-rain bridges” for their utility in a storm. Just outside the village, terraced rice paddies and fields of vegetables and tea plants provide residents with their main livelihood and sources of food.

In the spring of 2010, Wai Kit Lee and fellow researcher Leon Ren helped launch an experimental pilot project, inspired by the Community Supported Agriculture movement. They paired approximately 150 rice-farming families in Dimen with families in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen. The city dwellers pay the farmers directly, and fairly, for their organic rice. The hope, Ren explains, is to foster personal connections and spark “interactive tourism and cultural exchange.” He envisions urban families visting Dimen to see where their rice comes from, getting to know the farmers, and learning more about ethnic-minority culture and rural life.

SIDEBAR: Lifestyles in the Balance

In 2003, Wai Kit Lee arrived in Guizhou with a team of musicologists. A Hong Kong businessman, publisher, and professor of ethnic-minority culture at universities in Beijing and Guiyang, Lee planned to record the music of the Dong, Miao, Yao, and Shui people and release it on a series of CDs. But when he witnessed the penetration of commercial activities in the region and saw villagers leaving their homes to work in nearby factories and cities, he took on a considerably larger project. With his own money, he funded the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop, which opened on the eastern outskirts of Dimen in 2005. Its goals include the documentation of ethnic music, crafts, and rituals, and the development of locally controlled economic projects that improve the quality of life without throwing the culture out of balance.

Resembling a rambling wooden tree house, the workshop’s complex was built using traditional Dong techniques, without a formal blueprint or a single nail. The village feng shui master sacrificed a chicken to ensure that construction proceeded smoothly. Gently rising staircases connect the center to the lodge, which accommodates up to 60 visiting scholars and researchers.

The research center aims to reverse a trend that has taken hold in rural China: Business interests lease entire century-old villages and turn them into ethnic-minority “theme parks.” They charge admission fees for daily shows of formerly sacred rituals. Villagers get paid nominal amounts to perform them and to host tourists in their “traditional-looking” homes. “They use heritage to develop a brand and incite tourism, to attract eyeballs and money,” says Lee. “People who go to those theme parks are curious about ‘exotic’ lifestyles, but they do not visit them with the intention to understand more about the culture.” Guesthouses and souvenir shops might thrive, but eventually, he says, “the soul of the town is gone, only the skeleton remains.”

“We’re trying to find opportunities for the Dong to improve their livelihood without completely altering their way of life,” Lee explains. “I want to show that a village can be rich in other ways—in community, in self-reliance, in lack of anxiety.”


For more images of Dimen, see here.