Published: May 2008 Guizhou Village
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

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.

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.

The farmers had begun the harvest by draining the rice fields, punching holes into the earthen walls that separated them. Water gushed out, and soon hundreds of fish the size of a man’s hand lay flopping on the muddy bottom. Earlier, in the spring, the farmers had put carp fingerlings into the fields with the planting. The fish grew with the rice, grooming their watery home of weeds, algae, little snails, as well as mosquito larvae. Fallen logs were stained yellow with carp eggs. In the summer the carp fattened up on lovesick moths that had attempted conjugal bliss with their reflections and drowned.

One evening after a sudden storm had knocked out the electricity, I sat on a foot-high stool in a woman’s kitchen, trying to be useful by holding a tiny flashlight as she preserved hundreds of pounds of fish. She stuffed the fish with a paste of five flavors, including huajiao, the fiery berry of the prickly ash that gives much of the food in Guizhou its mala, tongue-numbing notoriety. With mala searing your brain, you forget that the weather is hot. For hours she was bent over her task. The next day she was bent over in her field. I asked if her back ever hurt. “It never stops hurting,” she said, “because the work never stops.”

By the New Year the ripened carp would be deemed anyu, the raw fermented fish that adds zest to any meal and is part of every ceremony: for births, weddings, and funerals, for raising the center beam of a new house, for celebrating the steadfast cows. The power of anyu cannot be overestimated. I ran along a cobblestone path one moonless night, following a Feng Shui Master to a pig shed. There he made an offering of sticky rice, chicken, egg, wine, and anyu. He recited an incantation directed to a ganjin, a gremlin with backward feet who lives in the mountain. The ganjin had entered the body of a boy that afternoon and wracked his body with fever and pain. Three minutes after the ceremony the boy’s mother came running with the news: “He’s already eating!”

The Feng Shui Master had learned the incantations from his uncle, an herbalist, who is also the Chief Feng Shui Master, the most experienced, the one who has a constant stream of patients in his kitchen. In the span of an hour, the herbalist saw ten patients, most of them elderly women dressed in traditional clothes, frayed workaday jackets, and head wraps made of cloth they had woven and dyed themselves.

One woman reported that her grandson had developed sudden pains in the head and stomach. The herbalist burned paper and floated ash in water with rice grains. He said an incantation, counted out on his fingers the names of gods who might have the answers—God of Kitchen, God of Bridges, God of Injury. The diagnosis came back: The boy had seen the ghost of his great-grandmother. As remedy the woman should make the great-grandmother a feast of rice wine and anyu, then invite her to eat well before her journey back to the World of Yin, the underworld.

Another patient woke up with a stabbing pain in her throat. The herbalist told her she was inhabited by the ghost of a man who had been hanged. A woman whose body hurt all over was inhabited by an ancestor who was unhappy that he never had a tombstone these past 200 years. The herbalist soothed his frightened patients. “Prepare the anyu and wine. I’ll come tonight, and the ghost will be gone.” For a baby with diarrhea caused by drinking unboiled water, he headed to a hillock, where he plucked various leaves and long grasses to make a potion.

He charged nothing for his healing services. But his grateful patients gave small gifts, an egg, some rice. He argued with one woman who tried to give him two kwai, about 20 cents, for a rice fortune that would tell her future. “It’s too much,” he said, and pushed the money back.

Suddenly a young man ran in. His mother had grown worse, and the pigs had also stopped eating. As the Chief Feng Shui Master walked calmly to the patient’s home, I ran, struggling to keep up. It was as if he was flying without effort, and I was crawling on stiff knees.

“It’s superstition,” said a Singing Teacher in his 30s. “It’s just the old people who believe in ghosts.”

The old people still exert considerable influence in the Dimen world. The za, or elder women, strap their infant grandchildren to their backs and care for them all day, until the parents return from work. If the parents work in other cities, the za raise them from birth and immerse them in Dong ways. They sing songs to them about table manners and field chores, about the moral good of selflessness, and the moral evil of greed. They wash their hair in sour soup. They take them to the clinic, where they are put on IV antibiotic drips for whatever ails them, be it stomachache or runny nose. And if that doesn’t cure them, the za go to the Feng Shui Master to learn if they are inhabited by ghosts.

Eleven Village Elders, men over the age of 60, apply reason and reasonability in overseeing social welfare and civil order according to the Dong code of conduct. The oldest of the elders has seen radical changes over the years: from when the communists first came to Guizhou through the period of the Cultural Revolution when the educated youth came to be reeducated as farmers. Seven years ago the first television with a choice of 20 channels made its debut. In other villages satellite dishes sprouted on rooftops like spores after rain. The Village Elders in Dimen found a more sophisticated solution: one large dish shared by a network.

The changes seem to come faster each month. In 2006 mobile phones began working in remote areas, and by early 2007 nearly everyone had them. Now you could be plowing your field in the mountains, miles from the village, and receive a call from your wife asking you to pick some wild greens for dinner on your way home. Young men working in other provinces send text messages to their hometown sweethearts. Out of Dimen’s official population of 2,372, about 1,200 work and live elsewhere. There are some success stories; many can earn more than $200 a month. Those who wind up in factories might earn less than half that, still far more than they could earn at home. But they miss the life of Dimen that is sung in songs, the crying cicadas, the fruits of spring, the quiet beauty of the mountains.

In Dimen people sing nearly every day. In classrooms students sit with perfect posture at their desks. They repeat in perfect a cappella pitch what their teacher has just sung. On weekends a troupe of older girls dressed in jeans and pink tops stand before the Singing Teacher and practice fast-paced songs, each taking a solo. Two gravelly voiced elderly women, respectfully called za by all, guide the younger children in reciting simpler chorals.

One of the za has blue-tinged eyes. At first I thought this was a genetic remnant of outsiders who had come through the region—perhaps foreign traders diverted from the Silk Road. Dimen has had many invaders, the blue-eyed za told me. “In 1920 a Chinese warlord kidnapped my mother’s 16-year-old aunt to make her his ninth concubine. No one heard from her again.” In those days, the blue-eyed za said, people who came stole our things and killed people. Each time, she and her family put sticky rice in their baskets and ran into the mountains to hide.

When the za asked me for eyedrops, complaining that her eyes were cloudy, I realized the blue in her eyes was cataracts. Several people had already told me she was the only one who knew all 120 verses of the epic song of Dimen’s history, hours of a bluesy repetitive melody. According to this anthem, the original Dong ancestors of Dimen began as a people who wore no clothes. Invaders had driven their descendants to Dimen. “That old song is boring,” two teenage girls later told me. “We’re too busy to learn something we don’t like.”

The blue-eyed za was 74, but she could lift twice as much kindling as I. She could scamper over uneven rock. She could stride up the mountain, leaving me breathless behind. But what would happen to the epic song after she was gone? What is an unwritten Dong song if there is no one left to remember it? How many other traditions of Dong life would soon be lost?

Some losses happen overnight.

In the early hours of a cold April morning, a bedridden old man dropped his quilt onto the copper basin of burning charcoal that kept him warm. People heard his screams: “It hurts!” The wind was strong that night, and the fire moved in whatever direction the wind pushed it. People fled their homes “without even a pair of shoes,” and from the wind-rain bridges they watched their homes burn. The fire brigade from the township below was summoned by a mobile phone call. But when the firefighters attached their hose to a spigot next to the Drum Tower, no water ran out of the broken pipe. The Drum Tower itself was a bonfire.

By sunrise the Drum Tower and 60 homes were smoldering heaps. Forty-four other homes bore scars, from blackened sides to missing boards, or had been torn down to create a firebreak, which ultimately saved the rest of the village. The old man was the only one who died. Only part of his torso remained, his neighbor reported. For days the air smelled of charred wood, burned grain, and roasted pigs.

“I was going to give my silver to my granddaughter,” one za told me, as she sat across the road from the ruins of her former home. “But it’s all gone.” She threw her arms up in the air, as if the fire were rising before us with a whoosh. “I cried for four days, without stopping, without eating. When government officials arrived, they came to me first, because I was bawling the loudest. I cried to them, I am the widow of a party secretary, and only my coffin wasn’t burned.”

The farmers tallied their losses: homes, pigs, farm tools, grain sheds, and the woven clothes and silver heirlooms of grandmothers and mothers. It would cost them each 20,000 to 40,000 yuan ($2,500 to $5,000) to repair or rebuild, a lifetime of debt. The sons of the fire starter were blamed for leaving their father alone while they were outside drinking with relatives from out of town. “When guests come, you have to offer them wine,” said a carpenter in a village four miles downriver. “It was an accident.”

This accident had its causes. One bad thing leads to another. The family of the fire starter had been troubled for a long time. People used to hear the Eldest Son and father argue at least four times a week. It ended each time with the son beating up the father. A crowd witnessed such a beating in front of the Drum Tower during Spring Festival. “For a son to do such a thing to a father,” said the Singing Teacher, “that is very wrong.” The family’s volatile temper was a curse on the village.

Big fires, however, are not unheard of in Dong villages. On average a village suffers one every 30 years. And the most frequent cause? A sleepy old man whose quilt falls into a basin of fire. It was exactly what had devastated two Dong villages in the prior two years. And one year after Dimen’s fire, a slipped quilt left a poor village downriver much more impoverished.

The Village Elders took into account the suffering of the victims and the morals of those responsible. They assessed a penalty based on the Dong code of conduct: The sons were to be banished for three or four years. They had to live across the river no closer than three li, about a mile, from town. In addition they had to pay 10,000 yuan for a ceremony to the God of Land, as well as provide a chicken dinner for the entire village. By then the two younger sons had run off, and so the eldest had to suffer all the consequences. He and his family went to live in a cowshed on one of his higher fields.

The code allowed the Village Elders to assess a longer banishment and to a farther distance. But they had been lenient because of the Eldest Son’s younger children. The boy and girl attended primary school in the village. The distance was not as forbidding as the condition of the pathway in bad weather. The final hundred yards to the cowshed was over a hip-wide footpath, actually the top of a semicircular wall between rice fields. One slip, and you would fall three feet in one direction or twenty in the other. In a strange way the home of the banished man had one of the most beautiful vistas I had ever seen. It was a panorama of mountain, field, and sky, and nothing else. “Nothing else” was their punishment. Before this happened, the banished man said, he had always gotten along with his father. Now he hated him. They had lost everything they owned and were in debt. Their 15-year-old son could not deal with the shame of exile and had fled to Guangzhou, where he worked in a factory making clothes hangers. Their reputation would be stained for generations to come. But they would not leave Dimen. They would live in the cowshed until they could return and build another house.

Down in the village, neighbors, family, friends, and even people from other villages hauled lumber, set beams in posts, and planks across beams, to build a traditional Dong home three stories high, with a roof of mud-clay tiles, all without nails. One house was only a skeletal frame, but an old woman, the Widow of the Party Secretary, had laid two planks across two beams, and that was where she slept, under open skies and ten feet above the ground level. By winter all families would be in their new homes.

The ghost of the old man, however, was not happy, according to the neighbors. After the fire, the Eldest Son stuffed his father’s torso into an old rice bag. Several people saw him carrying the sack into the mountains, and when he returned, he was empty-handed. The son never cut down his father’s coffin tree to have it made into a coffin. He chopped it down for lumber he could sell. No wonder the old man’s ghost was wandering: The closest neighbor heard his footsteps behind her four times, and when she spun around, nothing was there. Even the wife of the Singing Teacher, who lived near the Drum Tower, said she had heard the old man cry out several times. But not every old person believed there were ghosts. The Widow of the Party Secretary said Chairman Mao got rid of them in 1957. She then showed me a charm bracelet of old coins. “The more coins,” she said, “the more you can avoid unclean ghosts.”

But the five Feng Shui Masters and their chief believed the village was suffering from malevolent forces. While the old man and his sons were responsible for causing the fire, other factors must have had an influence. Of all nights, for example, why was the water pipe near the Drum Tower broken? Why did a pig fall off a cliff, and a chicken and duck die for no reason? Why were the roosters crowing before midnight? There had also been an unusual amount of illness, and it struck everyone, old and young. A baby died. And over the past two years, ten young people, between the ages of 20 and 40, had been killed. One man perished in a typhoon. Another was a newly married young man. He bought a motorcycle and went to a store to buy a helmet, but they were out of stock. The next day he flew headfirst into a post in the road. His bride received a mobile phone call, telling her the news.

A similar string of unusual coincidences had occurred in 1979. Many came down with an eye disease. Livestock died. People noticed that their chickens wandered over to a certain household. That family’s chickens hatched double-yolked eggs. Their crops had better yields. What had they done to create so much luck, while others had more troubles? Through divination rituals, the Feng Shui Masters learned that the family had secretly buried their ancestors in areas of the village with the best feng shui and had thus cut the village off from this source. After the Feng Shui Masters removed the illegal burials, 11 members of the guilty family died.

During Spring Festival, and for the first time since 1979, the village would be cleansed again by the same ceremony, Guo Yin—“Pass into the World of Yin.” In the dim light of an assembly hall, 11 blindfolded men sat on black benches. The Chief Feng Shui Master called out incantations from the Book of Shadows. As fragrant rattan burned under the benches, assistants gave the men a rope of twisted straw to hold at both ends. More incantations were murmured, two bells rang, bowls of wine were stirred, and the 11 men slapped their bouncing knees, as if goading a horse to move forward. Soon they were galloping in a frenzy, and the oldest of them, a 73-year-old man, whinnied like a spooked horse, shot up, and leaped backward onto the bench. He had mounted a ghost horse and was racing toward the World of Yin. Assistants kept the frenzied rider from falling. Soon more riders mounted their ghost horses. The Chief Feng Shui Master sprayed water from his mouth to light the way. With more incantations the ghost-horse riders could go to deeper levels. At each level they could see more.

In 1979 the riders had gone to the 19th level, where they saw their dead mothers and fathers. Stay with us, their parents urged. If a Feng Shui Master provided the wrong incantation, the riders would not return. This time, the master would take them no further than the 13th level. It was still possible for them to find the illegal burials. At that level they could also see the backs of maidens, the Seven Sisters, as beautiful as fairies. Chase them, the Chief Feng Shui Master said, to urge them to go farther into the underworld.

That day the riders discovered where the illegal burial lay. After the ceremony they left the hall and walked to a slope that was shaped like the back of a comfortable sofa. At the top of the sofa was a small rice field, and buried several feet into its wall was a large ball with a thick crust. Unlike the Eldest Son of the fire starter, someone had placed the happiness of ancestors above that of the village. It must have been the doings of a greedy family from another village. The Chief Feng Shui Master broke the ball open, removed the ashes, and mixed them with rice wine, pig and human feces, and tung oil. The mess was thrown into the public latrine, and those ancestors who had once occupied the best place were now stuck forever in the worst.

Harmony between the world above and world below had been restored. Or had it? In late June, four months after the Guo Yin ceremony, sudden heavy rain began to pour late at night. A small amount of flooding was not unusual in summer. The previous year a two-hour storm had transformed footpaths into ankle-deep streams and the schoolyard into a pool, where children gleefully splashed.

But this rain did not stop. People could hear it spattering on their roofs all night long. The Chief Village Elder, who lived in the flat valley, saw the river rising but was not concerned at first. He went into the mountains at 5 a.m. to feed his horse. When he returned, the river had spilled over its ten-foot-high banks. His family was gone; they had already carried the television and other valuables up the steep ladder-stairs to the top floor. His neighbors were in the midst of securing coffins and scared pigs. He watched from the closest bridge.

On the other side of the bridge, water rushed into the ground level of homes. A frightened young woman strapped her baby to her back, and she and her in-laws took what they could to the upper level. Other belongings floated away: buckets and stools, the pails for anyu and bamboo holsters for scythes. Her neighbor’s front door ripped off and became a raft. The narrow road was now part of the river, a dark channel of mud, rocks, debris, and logs. Waves slapped the sides of the shortest bridge, and water gushed through the rail slats and covered the benches. It looked like a boat about to break from its moorings. Submerged fields broadened the river, and hundreds of carp rushed downstream. Some landed in fields. People stood on bridges trying to net the rest.

At 9 a.m. the rain subsided. At 11 a.m. the water began to recede. The wife of the Chief Village Elder caught up with him. “Where were you?” she demanded to know. According to the chief it was the worst flood in 80 to 100 years. Fields were lost, homes were damaged, roads were washed out, but luckily no one was killed.

Was the curse still active? Were there more illegal burials to be found? The Chief Feng Shui Master was not perturbed. All of Guizhou and Hunan Provinces had been affected. This was a natural disaster, he said, not a supernatural one. It was simply bad weather, and they could handle that. They just had to clean up the mess.