I had been lured to Dimen by the music. The Dong people have no written form of their language, Kam. Songs are the record of traditions and a mythic history that is a thousand years old, or so the songs themselves suggest. I had heard that you could ask anyone in a Dong village for a song, and he or she would sing without hesitation. I would hear many: a welcome song about keeping out invaders, melodies about growing old, Dong favorites about feckless lovers. And, as reprised by an old woman, the Communist Party hit from the fifties, “The East Is Red.”
At the far edge of the village we reached a covered bridge that was fanciful, outlandishly so for a small village of rice farmers whose income is less than a hundred dollars a year. The bridge was as formidable as a dragon, with a scaly roof for its body and cupolas for its head and spine. I viewed it with the awe of a child who has just seen a fairy-tale place jump out of a book.
The bridge was actually one of five connecting the five clan villages that make up the unified village of Dimen. For their beauty they are called flower bridges, and for their practicality, wind-rain bridges, a handy shelter from the elements. Benches run along both sides of the bridges, making them an ideal resting spot for old comrades, a playground for children, and a work space for carpenters when dark clouds churn.
Over the course of three visits to Dimen, two in the autumn, one in the spring, I crossed those bridges many times and saw the colors and hues of daily life: farmers on the way to their fields, children en route to school, old women coming down the mountain with sacks of kindling on their backs. At the main Drum Tower, an airy, five-storied pavilion, the 11 Village Elders preside when there is good news to announce or grievances to air. In the big courtyard rice is laid out to dry in autumn, pigs are slaughtered for feasts, and men play cards on warm nights. Roads with hard ruts turn quickly to soft mud in rain.
One afternoon a family pushing a heavy cart over that same road nearly dumped its costly load of bottled beer. Five hundred guests, some from distant provinces, were coming to Da San Zhao, a baby party that cost more than a wedding, this one for a girl only 20 days old. “You come too,” they said. People often called out from their doorways: Come to dinner. Come to breakfast. How about lunch? I crossed the flower bridges for many meals. And sometimes I would pause in the middle to face the river straight ahead and look at the mountain that is its source. I always saw people working in the terraced fields, harvesting, planting, plowing, or tending to vegetables grown in the off-season.