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© 2001 Cooper Strange

CROSS-CULTURAL TRAINING CENTER
CHIANGMAI, THAILAND

CONTEMPORARY VIEWS OF DONG ARCHITECTURAL MEANING

Dr. Hermann Janzen
Susanne Hohnecker
Dr. Mary Cooke

Tools for Cross-Cultural Communication, Course 1

by
Cooper Strange
14 May 2001


TITLE PAGE
INTRODUCTION
CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT
   Extra-Cultural Environment
   Inner-Cultural Environment
COMMEMORATIVE EFFECT
   Dragon Bridge Story
   The Flood Account
CONCLUSION
FOOTNOTES


INTRODUCTION

The Dong people of Southwest China have one unique characteristic clearly setting them apart from the volume of China's minorities: architecture. The Dong have taken a characteristically Chinese structure and developed the details within their own cultural context. The decoration narrates Dong stories and history, painting a vivid image of Dong identity.

Dong architecture is a stunning reflection of the culture itself. Both the architecture and the culture have thousands of years mixing Thai roots with hundreds of Chinese cultures. The result is a unique linguistic, religious, cultural mixture eluding those who seek to understand the background. The most fruitful pursuit is to learn the present Dong culture, as it is. Therefore, this is a presentation of Dong architecture from the perspective of the modern Dong farmer, shopkeeper, and architect.

Without a written language, architecture and oral tradition together act as the scribes of history and culture. The architecture reinforces the oral stories by preserving the main characters in a more permanent form. Along with themes from oral stories, the environment in which they live also has affected the Dong people and their architecture through centuries of exposure; Han Chinese culture, Chinese imperial rule, post-imperial governments, Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, modern development, and numerous minority groups are the largest contributors. Through the blur of time, the true origin and meaning of Dong architecture is difficult to ascertain. What follows are the two predominant themes used by Dong people to explain the meaning of the uniquely Dong architectural decoration: cultural environment and commemorative effect.

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CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT

The cultural environment in which the Dong people live is the first of these two themes of explanation. The cultural environment impresses styles, shapes, and images upon the Dong people. These impressions find a place in Dong architecture in the form of decoration and ornamentation. Cultural effects come both from within the Dong culture and from the Chinese culture around them. These separate sources are divided into extra-cultural (non-Dong origin) and inner-cultural (Dong origin).

Extra-Cultural Environment

The Dong people are located in the middle of one of the oldest cultures on earth, and have borrowed, with or without knowing, from centuries of exposure to Chinese culture. China's governments and religions, past and present, have made their mark on Dong architecture.

Pingzhai Drum Tower stands among modern Dong architecture as steam-powered cars do among the cars of today. The structure of Pingzhai Drum tower is similar to other towers of its age, but the distinguishing feature is the carved themes inside the tower. The carved fighting scenes are distinctly Chinese and do not derive from the Dong culture. When this drum tower was originally built in 1882{1} , the Dong people were under the rule of the Qing Dynasty, and the carvings reflect the stories and beliefs of the Chinese environment around them at that time.{2} Only the original carver knows if that reflection was purposeful or accidental. One thing is known: in Pingzhai Drum Tower, Dong and non-Dong themes are carved beside each other.

More than a century later, the Pingxia Drum Tower also mixed Dong and Chinese culture. Since this tower was finished in late 1999, the themes' origins are easier to trace. Carved together on a single beam of wood are the Taoist yinyang, the Dong Hulu gourd (a prominent object in Dong culture), and fish that resemble those used in Taoism and Buddhism in China. The people of this village have no specific attachment to Taoism or Buddhism, but have used what they feel attractive to decorate the architecture. The architect of Pingshang Drum Tower, in the same village, did not attribute any specific reason for the usage of non-Dong symbols. Attractive symbols are acceptable because they are attractive, regardless of the meaning these symbols have in the outside culture.{3}

Whether the emperor sent out an edict to show compliance to the ruling culture and thus scenes gloating famous warriors were carved, or if the Dong people simply find some objects attractive, extra-cultural characteristics are on many works of Dong architecture. The extra-cultural characteristics hold little meaning to most Dong people besides good luck or prosperity.

Inner-Cultural Environment

The majority of the objects found in Dong architecture can be traced to the immediate surroundings of the Dong people. The majority of the populace and architects explain their decoration and ornamentation with one of two reasons. One, these objects are a part of everyday life and the builders feel the objects are attractive additions to the architecture. Two, Dong architecture holds to patterns set by earlier architects by placing the same ornaments and using the same decorations. Both explanations originate from within the Dong culture without outside influence.

In the later of the two inner-cultural explanations, Dong architects hold to traditional styles of ornamentation and decoration as seen in all the bridges and towers around them. With little deviation from one piece of architecture to another, many architects tend to reproduce the style that is most comfortable. For this reason, variation and creativity of style are rarely used, making Dong architecture highly predictable.

The former inner-cultural explanation originates in the Dong people's work and living environment. In architect Yang Shanren's explanation, every major ornament in Dong architecture is taken from everyday life. The builder uses personal discretion to choose objects he sees in life around him: gourds, horns of cattle, fish, birds, and anything else he finds complementary to his building.{4}

This view begins to explain the presence of certain objects, but provides only a superficial meaning. This lack of meaning is passed from master architect to sons or students. The result is a line of architects who view the intended meaning of their architecture the same. Many of these "schools" of Dong architects hold to the inner-cultural meaning of architecture: architects choose shapes from the environment around them.

Architect Yang Tianlin thus explains the widely used Hulu gourd: the Hulu is a part of everyday Dong life.{5} The Hulu has been a part of everyday life for centuries. Now, people usually use thermoses to collect water where they would have used the Hulu before. The Hulu also served as a medicine bottle not only to the Dong but the Chinese as well. In modern Chinese culture, many small shops selling medicine tea continue to dispense the tea from a Hulu gourd shaped metal container. The Dong have a special attraction to the Hulu. This meaning of the Hulu does not explain why it is the most prominent feature of almost every Dong drum tower and bridge.

The Hulu gourd example is perfect to show the incompleteness of the cultural environment explanation to Dong architectural meaning. Though the origin may derive from the cultural environment, a more complete meaning requires an additional explanation. The environment combined with Dong history and tradition provides a more complete explanation.

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COMMEMORATIVE EFFECT

The commemorative effect is the second of the two main themes to explain the meaning of the decoration and ornamentation of Dong architecture. Dong architecture is the voice to pass down the stories, beliefs, and history of the Dong culture. Dong elders keep the tradition alive to a small number of people, but the architecture is the public record for all to see. The architecture commemorates those responsible for the safety and livelihood of the Dong people and retells their stories.

It is true that the objects placed on architecture are taken from the surrounding environment; it is also true that those objects hold a much deeper meaning to the Dong culture. In author Wu Shancheng's view, when these objects from the Dong history and environment, and their labors, life, loves, and blessings make contact with each other, the result is a distinctly Dong style.{6} Two stories from Dong tradition combine with the environmental explanation to provide a full view of the meaning of Dong architecture.

Dragon Bridge Story

"Long ago, the Dong people did not have today's wind and rain bridges; the people only had tree stumps stuck in the river supporting wooden planks. In the river, there lived a white dragon with a heart of benevolence; he worked many good deeds for the Dong people. There also lived a black dragon with a heart of wickedness; besides stealing and eating Dong livestock, he also loved to snatch their beautiful wives. One day, a young couple was crossing the plank bridge, when suddenly, a terrible wind caused a large wave to surge and sweep away the young wife. Her husband looked everywhere, but accomplished nothing but crying. His crying so disturbed the senses of the white dragon that after the dragon had transformed himself into a Dong person and listened to the husband's sobbing explanation, he determined to defeat the black dragon to rid the people of him. After finding the black dragon, they fought one day and one night. Finally, he conquered the black dragon, saving the young wife. Having received injuries over his entire body and being completely exhausted, he slowly slid into the water's bottom, never to be seen again." {7}  {8}

"When the people were rid of the black dragon, the white dragon saw the need for a permanent bridge for the people. Therefore, he completed a sturdy bridge to protect them from the wind and rain. Since then, the bridges have been called "wind and rain" bridges or "return dragon" bridges." {9}

One of the most dominant themes of decoration and ornamentation is the "double dragon playing with a pearl." This scene is widely used outside of Dong culture and the origin is probably not Dong. Even though the origin is extra-environmental, the Dong have adapted this Chinese image, "double dragon playing with a pearl," to spread their story of the origin of wind a rain bridges.

The Flood Account

In the time of our grandfathers' fathers, a great rain began on the earth. The rain did not subside and the rivers continued to rise. When the rain forced the Dong to seek shelter on the mountain tops, their hope was almost gone. When the last of the Dong were about to be swept away, the largest Hulu gourd they had ever seen floated near. By cutting an opening at the top as they had many times to make water carriers and medicines bottles, the Dong were able to seek shelter inside of this floating gourd. Though they had found a means of salvation from the great flood, rain continued to pour through the opening and the gourd rolled uncontrollably from side to side.

The phoenix saw their troubles and commanded the smaller birds to fetch small leaves to place over the mouth of the giant gourd. The fish, too, played their part by supporting the bottom of the gourd to prevent it from rolling. Not only were the Dong people saved from the great flood due to the Hulu, but also stay dry and secure.{10}

Few Dong people still know this story. Many have heard of the great flood, but have not been told the significance of the Hulu gourd, phoenix, small birds, and fish. For those familiar the story, the meaning of these objects on architecture portrays a deeper meaning than what looks good or environmental familiarity. They are not simply objects the Dong have compiled from their environment. The ornamentation and decoration using these objects is a memorial to the ones who saved the Dong people from extinction.

The majority of Dong bridges, drum towers, stages, and village gates will have a Hulu gourd prominent on the peak, resembling a bubbled antenna. The phoenix is sometimes perched on the Hulu, but the gourd alone stands upon the majority of architecture. A real Hulu gourd has two large, ball-shaped bumps with a spout either strait or curving. The decorative Hulus range from two, like nature's, to thirteen bumps. If not two, they tend to have an odd number of bumps, and the number either has no significance, or very few people can remember that significance. Dong people will confess to prefer odd numbers (i.e. hulu bumps, levels on a pavilion, number of pavilions on a bridge), but few people have an explanation for this preference, nor are odd numbers a strictly followed rule.{11}

The corners of the eves usually have a pointed object curving back upward. The Dong people either refer to these as "horns" (of cattle), or they do not know what they are. These "horns" sometimes stand alone, and sometimes an animal is placed upon them. The smaller birds and fish are often placed here as decoration, but neither animal holds more importance. The buildings will have the horns, but many variations in style and further animal decoration is entirely left to the discretion of the builder.

Few of the architects build with a Dong cultural story in mind. When they explain the meaning of their work, "it just looks good" is truer than it sounds. Different areas have different styles, and every building is unique, but the basic form of a piece of Dong architecture is already in the mind of the architect. The basic building shape is set within two or three styles, but the ornaments and decorations move around at the discretion of the architect.{12}

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CONCLUSION

The Dong elders who know the stories can explain why certain architectural ornaments are used, but the architects often design out of a cultural pattern. The elders know the stories; the architects know how to build. Many great pieces of architecture, such as St. Paul's Cathedral, hold meaning in the specific shape and placement of every detail. However, the Dong architecture of today is not clear and defined.

Environmental and commemorative are the two basic themes of meaning in Dong architecture. Though most architects build with the environmental meaning in mind, the commemorating Dong stories explain the deeper meaning of the ornaments and why they are engrained in Dong culture. They do not know the meaning of the objects, but they know where and how to place them to make the architecture look Dong. As more architects build without a specific meaning in mind, more assumed meanings rise.

The Dong people know their architecture is distinct and unique, but the meaning of the architecture has faded with centuries of oral history. Dong architecture is not in danger of fading; young and old Dong architects live in every major Dong village. Time will tell how much the Dong people associate their history with their architecture.

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FOOTNOTES

1. Most pieces of architecture were destroyed, or at least disassembled during the Cultural Revolution,
     blurring the distinction of original artwork and post-Cultural Revolutionary renovation.

2. Li Xingyi. Interview. Chengyang Bridge: 5 September 2000.

3. Yang Mingxiu. Interview. Pingshang Village: 2 September 2000.

4. Yang Shanren. Interview. Pingyan Village: 11 September 2000.

5. Yang Tianlin. Interview. Chengyang Village: 5 September 2000.

6. Wu Shancheng, Hu Jiangyao, ed. Dongzu Wenhua Jianlun ("Simple View of Dong Culture"). Rongshui:
     Rongshui County Press, 1999. Page 25.

7. Wu Shancheng, Ibid. Page 28.

8. Liang Jingmei. Qing Zai Shanshui Jian ("Feelings of the Countryside"). Guilin: Li River Publishing
     House, 1996. Page 33.

9. Wu Shancheng, Ibid. Page 28.

10. Li Xingyi. Ibid.

11. Yang Shanren. Ibid.

12. Dudong Drum Tower, Elders of. Interview. Dudong: 10 September 2000.

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