Published: May 2008

Guizhou Village

Rice Field Girl

Village on the Edge of Time

For a thousand years the lives of the Dong people have resounded with song. Their distinctive culture endures—but for how long?

By Amy Tan
Photograph by Lynn Johnson

The sun was already low and the air still hot when I arrived at the tall ceremonial gate that led into the village. From the top of the dirt road, my eyes took in a valley in mid-harvest: a patchwork of pale green fields brushed with gold, broken by dark waves of upswept roofs. Against the mountainsides, rice fields were stacked like mossy pancakes.

Without warning, two ten-year-old girls ran up and locked elbows with mine, singing their welcome in staccato rhythm as they escorted me over a flagstone path through a maze of three-storied homes made of wood. Turbaned grannies watched from their porches. Three grizzled men wearing old-style Mao caps looked up from their pipes. A huddle of children followed. The girls led me past grain sheds, which stood on stilts over pens of fleshy pigs and ponds of ducks. Under a few sheds I saw what looked like three or four decorative cabinets lying on their sides. They were vessels to the underworld, made-to-order coffins, carved from trees that had been selected when their future owners were born.

I had arrived in Dimen, home to five clans and 528 households of the Dong minority, an enclave nestled in the luxuriant mountains of Guizhou. The province is poor and remote. Proof of the latter was hammered into my spine during an eight-hour bus ride over a winding road, some of it washed out by mud slides. A severe drought two years before had been followed by flash floods. This year the long harvest days were oppressively hot. One of my new Dong friends quoted a Guizhou saying: “Not three feet of flat land, not three days without rain, not a family with three silver coins.” I imagined that was often muttered by Mao’s followers when the Long March in 1935 took them up into the wild slopes and damp creases of Guizhou.

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