Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Celebrating Dong Valentine’s Day © Zhang Hong

The Coming of Age Ceremony of the Dong Ethnic Group in China

The Dong ethnic group, one of the fifty-six ethnicities in China, is typically a part of inland group. Its residents dwell in the southwestern part of China, around the joint region of Sanshengpo, a mountain worshiped by locals among the provinces of Hunan, Guizhou, and Guangxi (the autonomous area of Zhuang ethnic group). It also has inhabitants scattered in Hubei Province (the autonomous area of Tujia and Miao ethnic groups in Enshi Prefecture).

Dong ethnic people and village © Zhang Hong
The Dong ethnic language, which branches off from the Kam-Tai language group of the Sino-Tibetan language family, is widely used in their daily life. The Dong people primarily engage in agriculture and rice planting. At the same time, they also participate in forestry. In Ming and Qing dynasties, they provided wood to build the Palace Museum. It is commonly believed that the Dong ethnic group developed from the ancient Baiyue ethnic group.

Dong boys and girls have different types of coming-of-age ceremonies. Eighteen-year-old fir tree is a sign of girls growing up, but boys have to roll in a muddy field to declare their adulthood.
The Dong people plant trees and hang ornaments on the trees. It is common to see big old trees in front of the village gate and a flower bridge with ornamental red ribbons tied around for the worship of peace and safety. These old trees are treated sacredly by the locals as their second parents. Owning various kinds of fir trees, Dong areas enjoy the reputation for being the hometown of firs. In Guizhou Province, Dong people plant fir trees for the newly born girls in their family. When the girl is eighteen years old, the fir trees are made into furniture as dowry. In Dong areas, the bride’s family gives a whole set of wooden furniture as dowry, and the bridegroom pays the carpenter. Planting fir trees for eighteen years was commonly for girls’ coming-of-age ceremony. Some other ethnic groups, including the Miao and Tujia groups have the similar rituals, too.

It is also very popular to celebrate the birthdays of Dong ethnic boys by rolling in a muddy field. According to the custom, Dong boys have to roll in muddy fields on three different birthdays. On their fifth birthday, the boys roll in a muddy field for the first time. Boys at this age have to leave their mother’s warm arms and begin to learn laboring with their fathers and take hard training under the guidance of their fathers. Therefore, mothers take the boys to one side of a field, and fathers stand on the other side and take the boys.

Rolling in a muddy field © Yang Shiying
On the tenth birthday, boys are taken to the side of a field and roll in the muddy field again. But this time, they are led by their fathers and received by their grandfathers on the other side. This means starting a good habit of laboring. Boys have to learn from their ancestors and become more trained, perseverant, and patient.

On their fifteenth birthday, boys are sent to the field side and stand by their grandfathers, but nobody will receive them on the other end this time, which is a symbol that the boys are grown up. From this point forward, the boys must deal with the hard times of the future. Rolling in the muddy field on the fifteenth birthday symbolizes the boy becoming an adult and able to shoulder familial and social responsibility. It also means that they are qualified to seek their favorite girls. With the tacit consent from their parents, they can join in the young people’s antiphonal love songs singing party in the evening, date the girls in the mountains, cultivate feelings, and wait for their eighteen-year-old-fir-tree girls to mature enough for marriage.

Dong people’s coming-of-age ceremonies express attachment to the land and emphasize farming and forestry. Dong children draw strength from the earth and achieve individual socialization at critical points in their lives with the help and witness of the group with whom they live.