The 100 Dong Songs Program
From the sound of children’s voices raised in song, to the joy in their steps as they dance, or the pride in their faces as they show their original artwork to family and friends, the power of the arts and the humanities transcends the boundaries of language and geography. For this reason, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award also highlights the importance of arts and humanities learning across the globe. Each year, we present our International Spotlight Award to one exceptional program from another country. This year, we are proud to recognize The 100 Dong Songs Program, an initiative of the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop. This program is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Dong people of China by teaching hundreds of youth to express themselves through traditional Dong music.
The Dong people are an indigenous ethnic minority group whose population is concentrated in the mountainous village of Dimen, within Guizhou Province, as well as in other villages in southwestern China. Traditionally, the Dong people had no written version of their own language, known as Kam. Instead, they passed down customs and history from generation to generation through songs. The Dong recorded everything—from clan history and legends to societal rites and social duties—in a variety of song types. Even while living in remote villages, the Dong were able to preserve their cultural traditions with remarkable fidelity over extended periods of time: Some of their songs record events that date back 600 years or more.
Like much of rural China, Dimen is succumbing to the effects of globalization and technological change. Television, cell phones, and the Internet are becoming an integral part of village life. While many welcome these advances, such innovations threaten to undermine the unique folk culture and heritage of the Dong people. The 100 Dong Songs Program is helping to preserve these treasures.
We are grateful to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and the Asia Society for their assistance in selecting and supporting this year’s International Spotlight Award winner.
The nonprofit Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop (The Workshop) was established in 2002 to help preserve the unique heritage and invaluable music traditions of the Dong people, the Miao, and several other ethnic minority groups in rural China. More and more Dong youth were leaving their village to seek factory jobs in coastal cities, and an important connection to their past was at risk. The Workshop began recording and filming Dong and Miao music performances in Guizhou Province, and the sessions eventually led to the production of two sets of music CDs.
Because young people are key to perpetuating these cultural traditions, The Workshop places a special emphasis on helping Dong children and youth rediscover their heritage. The Workshop expanded its goals, seeking not only to record these songs, but also to incorporate the cultural preservation of ethnic music traditions into the primary school curriculum. Students would also have the opportunity to form song and opera groups.
The local government accepted this proposal, and in 2005, The Workshop started a pilot version of The 100 Dong Songs Program, first in Dimen Village and, later, in Ladong Village. The Workshop worked with local song masters to select 100 songs—of various styles and forms, for different age groups and occasions—that were popular and that represented rich cultural traditions. The collection of songs is now updated regularly.
In addition, The Workshop helped reintroduce Dong language and cultural studies into the local school curriculum and established a weekend extracurricular program where youth, ages 6 to 16, learn traditional songs and engage in singing competitions.
The Workshop also helped establish the Dimen Dong Cultural Eco-museum and the Community Culture Research Center. Working with Dong elders and university partners, The Workshop documents and preserves the group’s oral tradition and singing culture, folk architecture, agrarian practices, and such crafts as papermaking and other textile arts.
Goals for the future include expanding The 100 Dong Songs Program to the 15 villages covered by the Dimen Dong Cultural Eco-museum and, ultimately, to other Dong and Miao villages.
To expose a wider public to these cultural treasures, the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop has issued several CDs, including Dong Folk Music: People and Nature in Harmony. The Workshop is also working with local governments to help Dimen and other villages generate revenue from cultural tourism.
The Dong people’s music tradition “harkens to a pre-literate society where every aspect of life was expressed in vocal narrative.”