Dong of China
The Dong of Southwest China are a musical people. In courtship, festivals and even as a sign of friendship between neighboring villages, the Dong celebrate with songs, bamboo pipes and stringed instruments.
But there are certain songs this people group of musicians cannot sing - psalms, hymns, Christmas carols and other Christ-centered songs. How can they sing of whom they have not heard?
Population and Location
The Dong people are one of the 55 minority people groups of mainland China. The population as of 2005 was 2.96 million. The Dong have lived in the mountains and river valleys since ancient times. These villages are scattered throughout the mountainous border regions of northern Guangxi, western Hunan and southeastern Guizhou provinces. The villages range in size from about 50 to 600 families. Some Dongs also live in Hubei province. Dong communities living in different areas vary considerably in both customs and traditional clothing styles.
The Dong live in two-story, spacious homes. The ground level serves as a barn. The top floor holds an open fire kitchen and living quarters. An attic is used for storage, drying fruits and vegetables and additional living space. Dong food tends to be tart and peppery.
Linguistically, the Dong belong to the Zhuang-Dong branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. Dongs have their own spoken language, but use the Han characters for writing. There are basically two dialects, northern and southern. The Dong language is monosyllabic and tonal with various unintelligible dialects. Most dialects have a romanized script.
Every Dong village is marked by covered bridges and drum towers. The Dong build entirely out of wood, without any nails. The wood is notched and fitted together and roofs are then covered in gray clay tiles. The drum towers look like round pagodas and have become a symbol of the Dong people and serve as the center of village life. The large drums inside the towers warn against danger and invasion. There's a tower for every surname or family group in the village. Each tower differs in design, but all have an even number of sides and an odd number of levels. The unique architecture is often how outsiders remember the Dong, but insiders identify them by their music.
The Dong have always lived near rivers, and since the 1700s have taken special pride in building covered bridges. Some of the bridges have altar shelves with painted idols, and the rafters are strewn with beaded and embroidered ornaments that bring luck.
Families practice monogamy. The Dong choose their own mate and usually marry in their late teens. The wife will live with her parents and only visits her husband until she actually becomes pregnant.
Livelihood and Economic Situation
The Dong are agriculturalists producing sticky rice, tung oil, lacquer and tea oil. They also grow timber trees, which are logged and sold. There is limited livestock (pigs, water buffalo and cows) and some local craft.
Animistic and superstitious beliefs control many parts of the Dong lifestyle. Their beliefs start with the assumption that everything has at least one soul or spirit. Certain trees, rocks and sites are considered sacred. The Dong are believed to practice Tu, a form of black magic. Traditional Chinese ancestor worship is also practiced in some Dong areas. Most villages have a spirit house or temple.
Openness to Christianity
Less than 400 are said to be involved in Christian practice of any kind. Few Dong have reached an educational level to put them in contact with Christians or professionals in China, and few have literacy skills to benefit from any Scriptures that may be made available to them. The restrictions of Chinese government plus the physical barriers of each scattered village slow evangelistic efforts. The Bible has not been translated into Dong and there are few Dong evangelistic tracts and discipleship materials. Gospel recordings and the Jesus film are currently being produced in the Southern Dong language. Many Northern Dong could now be reached by Chinese language media.
The China Inland Mission began work among the Southern Dong in 1910. In the early 1940s, the Liebenzeller Mission and the Christian and Missionary Alliance worked among the Dong. While there were conversions, there is no evidence that churches were established. Since that time, very little Christian work has been done among the Dong.