A wonderful place-Chengyang Dong Ethnic Village

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 22, 2016
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Women in dyed blue shirts wearing silver metal hoops around their necks advanced towards us. Four surrounded me and pushed paper cups into my face. Chinese students chanted, "Drink! Drink! Drink!"

I was standing at a long table outside a wooden drum tower in Chengyang village, where the ethnic Dong people were holding a ceremonial welcome feast. The women poured one cup after another of locally-produced rice liquor into my mouth. After four cups, I tried to pull away, but the women clung to my arms – so hospitable.

Nestled between the tea plantations on the hills along the Linxi River in Sanjiang County of Guangxi, Chengyang is home to about 10,000 Dong people and possesses some of the most characteristic and well-preserved Dong architecture. Ornately carved drum towers painted with depictions of village life rise over the roofs, visible from various parts of the valley.

Covered bridges cross the river and streams, providing a comfortable place to shelter from the sun or rain. The scenery is so beautiful that arts students come from all over southern China to practice their painting skills.

When I visited in May, it was at the peak of the early summer rains. Some days, the hills were shrouded in clouds, and the main road was muddy and bumpy due to mudslides. Still, the gray mist added a poetic quality, almost like a Chinese ink wash painting.

Chengyang provides a good base for visiting the eight villages nearby, admiring the architecture and watching Dong cultural performances. On arrival, the first thing you'll see is the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge, the oldest and longest traditional Dong bridge in the world. It was completed in the first year of 1912, and stretches 64.4 m across Linxi River. The bridge has five support beams with pagoda-like structure over the top. Inside, locals sell apparel with rustic embroidery patterns in multiple colors. Famous writer Guo Moruo was so infatuated with Chengyang that he wrote the calligraphy for the "Chengyang Bridge" nameplate.

Some of the eight villages have multiple drum towers. A new drum tower was built near Yan Zhai village in 2014, close to the stage where the daily cultural performances in the morning and afternoon. Traditionally, Dong men court women by gathering outside the homes of the objects of their desires and sing their hearts out.

The Dong men play four-stringed instruments, and the women play three-stringed instruments, while singing in Dong language. In Chengyang city, there is a large-scale performance inside the Bird's Nest Theatre about a Dong marriage.

Unfortunately, many locals do not know how to sing the local songs anymore. Yang Longdi, a young man who sells tea by the river, is a typical example. He went off to Guangzhou to work at a warehouse for a few years before returning to open his shop. Now, many Chengyang locals are interested in economic development.

The main industries in Chengyang village are agriculture—especially growing tea—and tourism. Close to two million tourists visit each year. Foreign tour groups are led by guides along stone roads between the villages as people working in the wet rice paddies.

All around, the visitors are surrounded by hills and mountains where tea is grown. A trail leads up to the top of one of the hills across from Chengyang Bridge, where there is a viewing platform. There are many such hiking trails that can take from half an hour to a few hours to cover. Bikes can be rented from some of the guesthouses in Ma'an Village.

Chengyang is also home to tasty food. Dong cuisine is unique for sourness. That comes from pickling. Sour fish, sour duck and sour chicken were some of the delicious foods my host cooked. A traditional Dong breakfast food is oil tea (you cha - 油茶), a cereal dish with rice fried with tea leaves and then served with peanuts and rice cakes and other ingredients.

One of the most interesting meals was the nighttime Dong feast in the courtyard near the drum tower. Four long tables were lined up with wooden benches. Upon each table were placed many dishes in bamboo baskets. Before the meal started, the Dong women came through the crowd with trays of locally-produced rice wine, which they made everyone drink.

As I was eating with art students, they were all very happy when the Dong hosts forced their professor to drink cup after cup. The lively spectators stood up and snapped pictures and cheered and laughed. The food itself was not all Dong cuisine, however. In fact, much of it was ordinary Chinese food, tasty and varied.

After dinner the festivities continued. The tables were cleared, and, as it was now dark, the hosts built a big fire in the middle of the square and started dancing and playing instruments. It wasn't long before they started calling on the students to join them. They had a microphone, and they told the students to sing. As most people were too shy to go up, I went to the front and sang "The Moon Represents My Heart". Seeing a foreigner sing, others were honor-bound to sing!

Finally, the Dong hosts showed us a game played with bamboo poles. They began lifting and moving the poles a few inches off the ground. Then, a line of people formed in front of the moving bamboo and had to jump over each pole without getting hit.

Chengyang is a wonderful place, with beautiful landscape and special customs. If you visit, you'll be intoxicated by the scenery as much as the drink.

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


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