Bendi Stories: Teaching Dong Music in Huanggang Village, Guizhou  

WildChina > Destinations > Guizhou > Bendi Stories: Teaching Dong Music in Huanggang Village, Guizhou  

Deep in the forested hills of southeastern Guizhou rests the remote Huanggang village, where stilted wood buildings, characteristic of the Dong minority, line the valley, and five peaked drum towers punctuate the village’s roofline.

Teaching Music is Huanggang Village, Guizhou
Huanggang village, Guizhou

Inside the village, a traditional Dong lifestyle, one that dates back over 800 years, is still upheld. Water buffalo bathe in the streams, freshly harvested crops lay on woven baskets to dry in the sun, and local men and women go about their daily chores. On Sundays, residents trek to another nearby village to trade goods at a local market. On other days, they can be found in the surrounding rice paddies cultivating their traditional rice-fish-duck organic farming system – an edible green infrastructure of the Dong people that is so unique, it is now being studied by scientists to see if it can be reapplied to modern society as a way to live and farm more sustainably. 

Huanggang Village school where Wu Xianliang teaches Dong music
Huanggang village school

From one building in the village, a chorus of young voices and eagerly strummed notes emanates out into the street. This is the local school, where music teacher, Wu Xianliang, spends her days sharing the art of Dong pipa playing and singing with younger generations.

Dong singing is still very much an oral tradition, primarily passed down by the Dong elders to the rest of the village. However, as the preservation of intangible cultural heritage like this becomes more and more important, the work of teachers like Wu Xianliang, who have devoted their lives to keeping Dong culture alive for future generations, is critical. Without them, the Dong songs and their cultural importance, could easily, and quickly, die out.  

Bendi Stories: Teaching Dong Music in Huanggang Village, Guizhou  
Wu Xianliang teaching Dong pipa and singing at Huanggang village school

Dong music is particularly interesting in that it has multi-part folk songs. For a long time, it was assumed that Chinese folk songs, like many other folk songs around the world, were monophonic (meaning there is only one line of music, sung by one or more people, together). However, it was then found that many of China’s minority groups, the Dong included, in fact have polyphonic music (where two or more lines of music are sung simultaneously). The Dong call these songs dage, which translates to “grand songs”.

One of Wu Xianliang's students playing the Dong pipa
One of Wu Xianliang’s students playing the Dong pipa

Dong songs aren’t always accompanied by an instrument, but when they are, it is often a Dong pipa – a four-stringed instrument which is strung or plucked. The Dong pipa is distinct from the Chinese pipa in that it is played horizontally instead of vertically, and is traditionally made from the wood of a “firetree” and strings of water buffalo tendon. Other Dong instruments also include the niutuiqing (a two-stringed instrument) and the lusheng (a reeded wind instrument, which traditionally, is only played by men).

A local Dong festival in Huanggang village
A local Dong festival in Huanggang village

Wu Xianliang explains that many Dong songs are about love, including the one she is teaching to her students today. While the students learn the lyrics and the accompanying instrumentals, Wu Xianliang feels it is important to let them understand the songs in their own way.

Outside the classroom, Dong musical performances are reserved for special occasions such as Dong festivals and courting ceremonies. Today, the two biggest festivals in Huanggang village are Hang Tian Festival and Taiguanren Festival, when the pipa is played from inside one of the villages five drum towers throughout the celebrations.

Words by Kendra Tombolato

Video produced by WildChina碧山

Cinematography and editing by Charles Zhu

Subtitles by Oreo Zeng, Kendra Tombolato & Elena Shlykova

A special thanks to:

The teacher, Ms Huang Xianliang

Our local guide, Fangfang

Our local partner, Jacky

And all the Dong Singers in Huanggang village

Location: Huanggang Village, Liping County, Qiandongnan Miao and DongAutonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province, China

For more stories from Guizhou, visit our travelogue. Or, if you’re interested in visiting Huanggang village yourself, get in touch to start planning!