Major area of distribution: Yunnan
The number of De'ang people in China totals 17,935. Small as their population is, the people of this ethnic group are quite widely distributed over Yunnan Province. Most of them dwell in Santai Township in Luxi County of the Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture and in Junnong Township in Zhenkang County of the Lincang Prefecture. The others live in Yingjiang, Ruili, Longchuan, Baoshan, Lianghe and Gengma counties. Some De'angs live together with the Jingpos, Hans, Lisus and Vas in the mountainous areas. And a small number of them have their homes in villages on flatland peopled by the Dais.
The De'ang language belongs to the South Asian family of languages. The De'angs have no written script of their own, and many of them have learned to speak the Dai, Han or Jingpo languages, and some can read and write in the Dai language. An increasing number of them have picked up the Han language in years after the mid-20th century.
In the mountainous areas of Gaoligong and Nushan ranges in western Yunnan Province, the De'ang people have been living there for generations. The climate here is subtropical, and there is fertile soil, abundant rainfall, rich mineral resources and dense forests. The dragon bamboo here grows very long and has a stem with a diameter of 10 cm to 13 cm. The Zhenkang area has been famed for this kind of bamboo for the past 2,000 years. It is used to build houses and make household utensils and farm implements. Bamboo shoots are a famed delicacy.
The De'angs, who took to farming since very ancient times, grow both wet and upland rice, corn, buckwheat and tuber crops as well as walnut and jute. And they have learned to cultivate tea, cotton, coffee, and rubber after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
The De'angs have been great tea drinkers since very early times, and now every family has tea bushes growing among vegetables, banana, mango, jack fruit, papaya, pear and pomegranate trees in a garden around the house.
De'ang was a name given to this ethnic group in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Before that time the De'angs along with the Blang and Va ethnic minorities speaking a south Asian language inside Yunnan Province were called "Pu people," according to historical records. In those bygone times the "Pu people" were distributed mainly in the southwestern part of Yunnan Province, which was called Yongchang Prefecture in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Their forefathers settled on the banks of the Nujiang River (upper reaches of the Salween that flows across Burma) long before the arrival of the Achang and Jingpo ethnic minorities.
Development of De'ang society has been uneven. Since the De'angs have lived in widely scattered localities together with the Han, Dai, Jingpo, Va and other ethnic groups, who are at different stages of development, they have been influenced by these ethnic groups politically, economically and culturally. Dai influence is particularly strong since the De'angs had for a long period lived in servitude under Dai headmen in feudal times. However, some traces of the ancient clan and village commune of the De'ang ethnic minority are still to be found in the Zhenkang area.
The production unit of the De'ang ethnic group is the family, and there is marked division of labor according to sex and age. The farm tools used are bought from Han and Dai regions. Generally speaking, the De'angs practice intensive farming on flatland and on farms near the Han and Dai regions or in paddy fields. Dry land is not cultivated meticulously.
Like most people in the sub-tropical regions, the De'angs live in houses made of bamboo. While some dwell in large communal houses, those in the Dehong area have a two-story house to every family. The upper floor serves as living quarters, kitchen and storeroom, and beneath it is a stable for animals and poultry. There are also outhouses in which are stored firewood and foot-pedaled mortars used in husking rice.
People dress in traditional costumes studded with silver ornaments. Men wear turbans. Boys look handsome with their silver necklaces. Most women wear dark dresses lined with extra large silver buttons at the front, and skirts with red and black flower patterns. Rattan waistbands and silver earrings add grace and harm. Nowadays, De'ang boys have the same hairstyle as the Hans and do not like to burden their bodies with heavy ornaments. Men have the custom of tattooing their bodies with designs of tiger, deer, bird and flower.
Monogamy is practiced. People of the same clan do not marry with one another. Intermarriage is rare with people of other ethnic groups.
Young people have the freedom to choose their own partners, and courtship lasts for a long time. When a girl hears a love song under her window, she either ignores it or responds. If she likes the boy singer, she tosses a small blanket down to him. Then she opens the door and lets him in. The boy covers his face with the blanket, enters her room, and meets the girl by the side of the fire. The parents are happy and do not interfere.
The lovers often meet and chat until midnight or dawn. After a few dates, the boy gives her a necklace or waistband as a token of his love. The more waistbands a girl gets, the more honored she is. To show his devotion, the boy wears earrings. The number she gives him is a mark of her love.
If the courtship goes well, the boy would offer gifts to the girl's family and send people to propose marriage. Even if the girl's parents disagree, the girl can decide for herself and go to live in the boy's house.
A De'ang wedding party is gay and interesting. Each guest is sent two packages, one containing tea and the other cigarettes. This is an invitation. They bring gifts and firecrackers to the bride and groom.
The new couple first enter the kitchen and put some money in a wooden rice tub. This means they have been nurtured by the cereal, and now show their gratitude. Water-drum dancing is an important part of the wedding ceremony. The drums are made of hollowed trunks into which water is poured to wet the skin and center to determine its tone. Water-drum dancing has a legend behind it. In ancient times a young De'ang man's beautiful fiancee was snatched away by a crab monster. He fought the crab, vanquished it, ate it, and made a drum of its shell. At today's wedding ceremonies, water-drum dancing symbolizes true love.
The De'angs bury their dead in public cemeteries but those who die of long illness or difficult labor are cremated.
The De'angs are Hinayana Buddhists. Most villages have a temple. The monks live on the offerings of their followers. Their daily needs are provided by the villagers in turn. Formerly the De'angs did not raise pigs or chickens. A rooster was kept in each village to herald the break of day. Today this old custom has died, and chickens are raised. People do not work during religious holidays or sacrificial days. Being Buddhists, the De'angs in some localities do not kill living creatures. This has its minus side -- wild boars that come to devour their crops are left unmolested. This at times results in quite serious crop losses.
(China.org.cn June 21, 2005)